Adapting "Billy Bishop goes to War" for Germany

Seminar Paper 2007 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents

I. Introduction – A Canadian play for a German audience

II. 1 Summary
II.2 Formal structure
II.2.1 Importance of a two-man show
II.2.2 Importance of the letters
II.2.3 Importance of the songs
II.3 What is a Hun?
II.4 Role of the Hun in the play
II.5 Transforming the role of the Hun into a German play

III. Conclusion - Adapting an anti-German film for Germany


I. Introduction – A Canadian play for a German audience

While talking about the play “Billy Bishop goes to war” by John Gray and Eric Peterson that was written in 1976, different points of view play a decisive role. The play deals with a Canadian boy who joins the military because of a lack of possibilities. The action begins in Canada in 1914. That means it is the time of World War I and Canadian forces fight as a part of the Empire against the enemy, namely Germany. The play describes Billy Bishop’s rise from a Canadian boy to a national hero as a fighter ace. Consequently there are different attitudes towards the play, for instance if you are an opponent of war or an advocate of it. Furthermore there is the question of age: if you have fought in a war and have seen how friends die or if you are a young man who is full of bravery, strength and patriotism, you have a different attitude towards such a play. But above all there is the question of nationality. As the play is of Canadian origin and originally played for Canadians, the question is meaningless. But on the one hand the fact that the play received great honor and was performed on Broadway and on the other hand the existence of a German film version opens a completely new kind of adapting the play for Germany.

In the film version there are German actors that play Billy and the piano player and the text is German, too. What these facts mean and how film and play are adapted for Germany is analyzed in the following term paper. Concerning that there is not any kind of secondary literature about this topic that can be accessed by a German Library, the analysis is based upon my own results of analyzing play and film as well as studying the preface of the drama.

The version of the play is the one in the Jerry Wasserman anthology “Modern Canadian Plays” published by Talonbooks, Vancouver[1] and the film version is the one directed by Peter Meincke and Norman McCandlish of the year 1984/1985.

II.1 Summary

The Canadian play “Billy Bishop goes to war” by John Gray and Eric Peterson deals with a young Canadian from Owen Sound, Ontario who becomes a flying-ace and a hero. The play takes place in the year 1914, which means the time of World War I, where recruits from the British colonies were drafted to support the British Empire against the Germans, or as they call it, the Huns. At the age of twenty Billy enters the Royal Military College (R.M.C.) because of a lack of opportunities and the qualification of having good eyes and the ability to ride a horse. Billy has no real passion for fighting and defending the Empire and so he is a bad soldier and is on the best way to fail the R.M.C. just like he failed school. At this specific moment the war breaks out and instead of being expelled Billy enlists and is commissioned as an officer. Until June of 1915 Billy manages not to be sent to England. Nearly a whole year stupid accidents happen to him one after the other, but in 1915 he cannot avoid being shipped to England. Landed in England Billy has to fight in mud, sand and rain. While he has to endure the discomfort of the mud once more he gets the idea of the clean work as a pilot the first time when he sees a completely dry and clean pilot while he himself is lying in the dirt, accompanying the Cavalry. This first idea of fighting above all the mud as a pilot comes again to him, when a drunken Cockney Officer suggests joining the Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C.) as he himself did. Billy takes this advice of the drunken pilot to make an appointment with the War Office. There he is interviewed by an old Officer who is confused by the modern kind of warfare and is ignorant about the new technologies used up above by the pilots. Although Billy passes this interview, he is only commissioned as an observer. This is the person who goes along with the pilot to observe the hostile forces and their movements. On duty, Billy finds out about all the perfidies of fighting in a war and the war itself. There he learns that the life expectancy of new pilots is about eleven days and that you are in deathly danger if you fall down over Germany and either survive or not. By chance another accident happens to Billy. Shortly after he made his first flight experience as an observer, he has a car accident and therefore has to stay in hospital. During his residence in hospital a lady visits Billy. This Lady is Lady St. Helier and is going to save his life. As a poetess, reform alderman and friend of Churchill, Lady St. Helier has a lot of influence. She tells Billy that she knew his father and that this is the reason for her to care for him and his career in the R.F.C. Lady St. Helier shortens Billy’s hospital stay directly and causes him to be made a fighter pilot in 1916. Even though Billy instantly gets in trouble again because he crashes his plane on landing, on the 25th of March 1917 he gets the opportunity to prove his abilities. The evidence of his skills is a few dead Germans. The result however, is a landing in front of the line. Fortunately Billy lands on the right side of the line and meets some Tommies. Billy sleeps next to the Tommies and survives. The morning after his landing Billy finds all of the Tommies dead. He is the only one who survives. Once more he realizes the brutality and inhumanity of a war. The first act ends with this insight.

The second act starts just like the first, the scene is the same, but this time Billy describes his survival. After the encounter with the Tommys he gets the passion for flying and fighting and, of course, surviving. Between acts one and two lie the roots of Billy’s success. While act one describes him as a cowardly hedger, act two makes him a hero. After a short encounter with the Lovely Hélène, Billy is made Captain and meets Albert Ball. Ball, who is Britain’s highest scoring pilot, tells Billy of the plan to attack the Hun by night and to shoot as much of the Huns down as possible. The clue about this plan is that the attack is by night and the Huns are completely unprepared. Both, as well Albert Ball as Billy Bishop are sure, that this brave attack would make the two of them heroes. Before Ball and Billy can perform the attack Ball dies. By this time Billy has become a symbol of Victory for Canada, the Empire and above all for the whole world, because he gets more and more fight and flight practice and scores on. This is also the reason for Billy to fulfill Ball’s plan of the attack. The perilous achievement of the plan makes Billy capable eligible for the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross. As another result the Medals are accompanied by the order of extended Canada leave for Billy with the pleasure, never to have to fight again. Notwithstanding that Billy is glad to receive this honor, he is not happy of the opportunity of never fighting again. He at least wants to tie the score with Ball or even better to make a new high score of deaths. Therefore he takes his last days in the R.F.C. and establishes a new record. These last dead German pilots remind Billy again of the brutality and inhumanity of a war and how senseless it is. The play ends with Billy’s conclusion, that this war was not the last war and that twenty years later a similar war has to be fought. Billy recognizes that this following World War is as senseless as the first, as many innocent lives will be taken and it is still as useless as the first war. He ends the play with the statement that all these fights are quite similar and just about life and death and hunting and hiding of young soldiers.

II.2 formal structure

The play is a two-man show. Billy Bishop is the first person to act on stage; the piano player is the second. But the fact that there are only two people does not mean that there are no more characters. While the piano player functions as a narrator who also plays the piano, Billy Bishop altogether embodies eighteen different roles. Naturally he plays the role of Billy Bishop, but even so the role of everybody else who appears in the play. Either Billy talks and sings to the audience or two characters, both played by Billy, have a dialogue. That is the way the spectators are involved and the play is played.

Through the whole play two characteristic patterns appear over and over again. The probably most important pattern is the emerging of several songs. Those songs are sung by Billy and accompanied by the piano player. The other recurring pattern is the letters Billy addresses to Margaret, his girlfriend in Canada. They always appear in the same way: Billy reads them out loud and is acting as if he is writing a letter. Both, the songs and the letters tell the audience something of Billy’s feelings, impressions and fears that this war entails and therefore have this important role. His attitude towards war, namely that war is a kind of fun and not taken seriously by Billy until he sees to Germans die in front of his very eyes, is mostly expressed through the letters and songs. The play is composed of a mixture of dialogues, monologues, songs and letters and this mixture guarantees the full and correct understanding of the play and its position to war. Namely to honor the (fallen) heroes of a war and to show that killing is not fun as it is human beings that are murdered in a war and not only enemies (which is the position Billy Bishop has).


[1] Gray, John. 1976. “Billy Bishop goes to war.“ In: Wasserman, Jerry, ed. 2000. Modern Canadian Plays. Volume I. 4th Edition. Vancouver: Talon, pp. 299-320.


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ISBN (Book)
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RWTH Aachen University – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Canadian Drama Canadian Theatre Billy Bishop World War I Filmadaption Canada



Title: Adapting "Billy Bishop goes to War" for Germany