Dramatising The Nervous State in our Era of Permacrisis

Julie Gottlieb & Nicola Baldwin | 2 October 2023

Modern History | European History | Public History | University of Sheffield 

Photo from the project's schools event, A History From Below of Appeasement and the Munich Crisis: Performance of "The Nervous State", held at the University of Sheffield 19 April 2023.

Eighty-five years ago, on 30 September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrived back at Heston Aerodrome after having signed the Munich Agreement that removed the imminent threat of war, while acquiescing to Hitler’s demands to annex parts of Czechoslovakia. The agreement proved short lived. Within the year Britain was at war with Germany. 

The Munich Agreement has been a touchstone of how not to conduct negotiations with dictators ever since. Indeed, earlier this month Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an Economist interview: “Those who choose to talk to the man in the Kremlin are ‘tricking themselves’, much like the Western leaders who signed an agreement with Hitler at Munich in 1938 only to watch him invade Czechoslovakia. ‘The mistake is not diplomacy. The mistake is diplomacy with Putin. He negotiates only with himself.’” [1] 

The continued salience of the Munich Crisis has informed Professor Julie V. Gottlieb’s research, especially her current project that aims to provide a “people’s history” of the Munich crisis and its aftermath. As featured in The Times, Julie's work investigates the affective impacts of public crises on the private lives of ordinary people. In this collaborative project, Julie is working alongside history teachers, academic historians and artists to explore these new perspectives and create new sources to be introduced into the school History curriculum. 

The core part of the project is the development of the play The Nervous State, depicting one couple’s psychological conflict in the “War of Nerves”. 

The play, written by renowned playwright Nicola Baldwin – in collaboration with Julie – is a dramatic adaptation of the journal kept and quickly published by Bloomsbury writer and Cambridge classics fellow, F. L. Lucas. Lucas’ Journal Under The Terror 1938 conveys his growing sense of dread at the approach of war, and the impact of the worsening crisis which was to have a devastating effect on his wife Prudey’s mental health.

In this History Matters blog post, Julie and Nicola discuss the creative process and what is next for this exciting project. 

Tell us a little bit about how you came across Journal Under The Terror 1938. 

Julie Gottlieb: My current research looks at a spate of suicides that were apparently triggered by the prospect of war. In the process of trying to contextualise and situate this very sad phenomenon, I was thinking much more about the psychological context - the way that political crisis is internalised at every level of society. I was looking for the kinds of sources that would speak to that. And one thing led to another and I found a reference to Lucas's journal. 

I was immediately struck by how open and honest he feels he can be about himself. 

When I read the way that he described his experience of this period it was clear that it had really moved him and led him to reflect on his own nervous state. What I'm trying to describe in this project, and indeed why Nicola and myself have titled this play The Nervous State, is that in the period from around mid-1938 until May 1940, Britain was experiencing a war of nerves. The war hadn’t actually started on the battlefield. But it had started in the mind. 

Nicola Baldwin: After looking through the journal I was particularly interested in Lucas’s wife, Prudey, or as he refers to her in the rare moments she is mentioned in the journal ‘P’, who herself had a nervous breakdown at the height of the crisis in Autumn 1938. Prudey was a designer and an artist, and throughout the course of the year both she and her husband were working on a production of his play, to be premiered at the Stockport Garrick in November. By the first night, Prudey had been committed to hospital with mental collapse. This sense of the war of nerves coming so close to home was a remarkable narrative twist, which makes Lucas’s Journal a really compelling document.

Despite the centrality of Prudey’s experience in Lucas’s personal life there is very little actually known about her. A lot of what I tried to do with this play was give her some sort of a voice – to listen to her through the words that are already there. 

JG: There is a difficult balance between dramatisation and bringing the nervous state to life, while staying true to the source material. 

Did writing the play at a time of contemporary crisis impact the writing process and how you felt about Lucas and Prudey?

NB: Absolutely! At the time of writing the invasion of Ukraine was just beginning and it was striking to think about what the response would be now if a similar agreement was made with Russia to that of 1938 with Hitler’s Germany. I considered how that might make people feel today and as a result the material started to resonate with me on a different level. 

On top of that, post-pandemic, the idea of a state of anxiety and dread was, again, much more emotionally present and understandable than it had been previously. Prudey making models out of clay just to keep working, for example, was something that I connected to very much as a writer. 

What’s next for the project? 

JG: One of the things that has grown out of our creative collaboration is to create curriculum material for schools across the UK to adopt new ways of teaching appeasement in the classroom. Our main goal is to offer something that is “a people's history” of appeasement rather than the traditional top down perspective of the Munich Crisis. Indeed, it presents a great opportunity to engage students with newer methods like history of emotion, and interdisciplinarity with drama and psychology. 

We want students to be able to access more subjective and personal viewpoints so as to give them an understanding of history from below (and from within) that they wouldn't have by just thinking about Chamberlain and Churchill.

NB: I think it is such a fascinating direction for the project. Certainly the idea of how ordinary people experience “big events” is central to the play. I hope that part of the legacy of this project is also thinking about innovative and creative ways of keeping history alive. 

JG.: The great opportunity of KE is to escape our professional silos. Essentially, as a historian what I do is creative work. When I approach primary material it's like I have a film camera running inside my mind’s eye, and I am dramatising every source I read. So it was an absolute pleasure on this project to be able to work with someone who has helped me actually bring this source to life. 

You can find out more about the Nervous State in our latest film by Kitty Turner, A History From Within: New Approaches to Teaching the History of Appeasement in the Classroom. You can also follow Julie, Nicola and The Nervous State over on X Twitter for updates on the project.

This interview has been edited for History Matters by Jamie Jenkins. Jamie is a final year PhD student at Radboud University researching popular expectations of democracy in postwar Europe. She is also the Project Officer for The Nervous State and Assistant Editor of this blog. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie

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[1] “Staying the Course: An Interview with Volodymr Zelensky,” The Economist, Sept.10-23, 2023, pp. 29-30.

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