To What Red Hell

There are some names that do not seem suited to ring down the ages with literary fame, however worthily their possessors write, and Percy Robinson probably is one of them. But his play, To What Red Hell, first performed in 1926, was successful and twice made into a silent film, one of them with Sibyl Thorndyke in a starring role.

It is a melodrama concerning the death penalty. In the prologue, the body of a woman is found in a boarding house. At first she appears to have gassed herself, but the policemen who are called eventually twig to the fact that she has been strangled. The gas has been left on to mislead people into thinking she has killed herself.

She is what the char-lady calls, in stage Cockney, ‘a painted ’arlot.’ A young Irishman called Tim Nolan who has befriended her and against whom there is a lot of circumstantial evidence is arrested, charged, found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. But the real culprit is Harold Fairfield, a middle class young man who, disappointed in love, takes to drink and prostitutes and strangles the young woman while drunk. In the end he prevents a miscarriage of justice by shooting himself after having written a letter of confession to the Home Secretary, and Nolan is reprieved at the last moment.

Fairfield gives an account of what happened that will be familiar to anyone who has prepared a medical report on the average murder:

I don’t remember much what happened… All the damned drink I’d been taking must have got to me head! I just remember her lighting the gas when we got in. After that, everything seems – hazy. I don’t know whether we quarrelled – or what. Then there’s a sudden blank altogether.

But later, a little while before he shoots himself, Fairfield has the satisfaction of learning that, while he might actually have killed the young woman, he was not morally responsible for having done so. His uncle asks him whether he remembers the fainting fits he had as a child, and then continues:

They weren’t – fainting fits – but – another kind – seizures. We all thought you’d grown out of them, but – you hadn’t! You killed that girl in one… So you needn’t blame yourself as you’re doing, you weren’t responsible for what you did!

Unfortunately this could not be proved in a court of law because the doctor who diagnosed the seizures had died in the meantime. Nor does it explain why he left the gas on to mislead people as to the cause of death.

Harold Fairfield decides that there is no alternative to suicide because, if he strangled one person in the course of an epileptic fit, he might strangle another.

In those days, medical diagnosis was obviously a somewhat inexact affair. In one of the scenes of the play a general practitioner by the name of Barton – whose daughter has refused the hand of Harold Fairfield, thus driving him to drink – is called away from a dinner party (where, incidentally, he hasn’t done so badly for drink himself, despite being on call) to a patient, ‘an infernal woman’ who ‘persistently gives birth to twins,’ thereby getting double value for money for attendance at a confinement, but who luckily turns out to have only ‘a chill on the liver:’ for then Dr Barton can resume his drinking where he left off.

Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels

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