Velona Pilcher: WWI worker, playwright of “female Journey’s End

Later, when the camp was asleep, I knew I should be able to hear the hammering of the barrage . . .
— Velona Pilcher, 1919

Pilcher-Stanford

Velona Pilcher, center, in the Stanford opera In Dutch. Stanford Quad, 1917, p. 110.

The blog on playwright, author, and screenwriter R. C. Sherriff (best known for his World War I play Journey’s End, 1928) discusses Sherriff’s acquaintance with Velona Bissell Pilcher (1894–1952), including a May 1929 letter from Pilcher to Sherriff that comments on Journey’s End and her play, The Searcher (1929), which has been described as a “female Journey’s End” in its depiction of a Red Cross worker assigned to track missing soldiers. The Searcher was produced at Yale University in March 1930 (with set design by future Tony winner Donald Oenslager) and at London’s Grafton Theatre in May 1930 (the Times of London reviewer called it “a pretentiously empty piece of expressionism”). Edmund Rubbra composed incidental music for the play, and Blair Hughes-Stanton created stark wood engravings for the published version of the play. In 2008 The Searcher was staged at London’s Greenwich Theatre.

Bissell

Image of Julia Bissell from the San Francisco Call, 7 Feb. 1892

Pilcher’s mother, Julia Velona Bissell, was born in Ohio, and her lawyer father, William Pilcher, was British; the couple married in San Francisco in November 1892. After her mother died in 1895 and her father in 1900, Pilcher was raised in the United States by her aunt, Elise Robinson Townsend. Her great-uncle, George Ellis Pugh, was a lawyer and US senator from Ohio; her cousin, Ada Chalfant Robinson, was an artist. Pilcher seems to have been a writer of early promise, because this issue of St. Nicholas magazine records her winning a $5 first prize in a writing competition at age 16. During World War I, Pilcher was a member of the Stanford Women’s Relief Unit, working at the AEF hospital facility at Bazeilles-sur-Meuse. The Daily Palo Alto of 3 June 1918 (“Change Necessary” 4) revealed that she had trouble joining the unit because she was not yet 25, despite a recommendation from former president William Howard Taft, and finally went as the only unit member from the British Red Cross (Pilcher was born in England). The excerpt of a letter from author Dorothy Canfield Fisher published in the 28 Jan. 1919 Nebraska State Journal (7) indicated that Fisher hosted Pilcher around Christmas 1918, as Pilcher was the niece of a friend of Fisher’s father (possibly a reference to Elise Robinson Townsend).

Following studies at Mills College, the University of Nebraska, and Columbia University, she graduated from Stanford in 1919 with a degree in English.

Pilcher also wrote frequently about the theater, and this 1927 article in The Mask reported that she was a co-manager of London’s Gate Theatre with Peter Godfrey. This chapter by Charlotte Purkis covers Pilcher’s relationship with famed actress Ellen Terry. The Theatres Trust notes Pilcher’s involvement in establishing an experimental theater club in London’s Watergate Theatre in 1949 that featured two Marc Chagall paintings on the walls (which he donated to the Tate in Pilcher’s memory in 1953).

Further reading:
Velona Pilcher, “A Regular Day at a Red Cross Hut,Stanford Illustrated Review, Mar 1919

Velona Pilcher, “Men Worship Me” (poem about a pine tree), 1917

Charlotte Purkis, “The Mediation of Constructions of Pacifism in Journey’s End and The Searcher, two Contrasting Dramatic Memorials from the Late 1920s,” Journalism Studies 17 (2016), 502–16.

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