When Robert Graves learns that he is speaking to T.E. Lawrence at the beginning of The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion, Lawrence invites him to be more familiar: “Oh, do call me Ned, if you like. Lawrence of Arabia is so very tedious, don’t you find?” Ned’s response reflects the ambivalence toward fame that was characteristic of the historical T.E. Lawrence, who was apparently frustrated by his celebrity despite participating in the creation of his own mythic identity.
Ned goes on to mention the major event that led to Lawrence’s fame: “Since that show about him has been selling out in the West-End, he’s received letters from as far away as America, Canada, even Japan, requesting the usual things, to be the godfather to their children, to speak at Universities. Marriage.” Ned’s use of the third person here sets up a distinction between his actual self and the persona of Lawrence of Arabia. (This distinction is reminiscent of another Oxonian and Caffeine Theatre stalwart, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who rejected mail addressed to Lewis Carroll.) The West End show in question was a lecture-demonstration by American journalist Lowell Thomas, who combined film and discussion in what we might now call a multimedia event. A wonderful collaboratively produced online exhibit chronicles Lowell Thomas’s performance, “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia,” and further developments in the legend of Lawrence of Arabia. The exhibit is called “Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia: Making a Legend, Creating History.”
While much of Lawrence’s involvement in this play is drawn from Robert Graves’s perspective in Good-bye to All That, several events can be corroborated in biographical materials on T.E. Lawrence. The following examples are mainly taken from Jeremy Wilson’s book Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence (New York: Atheneum, 1990).
In Massicotte’s play, Lawrence and Curzon discuss their participation in the Paris Peace conference that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles. Lawrence was in Paris from January 9 to the end of May, 1919. According to Wilson, “Long afterward he would describe these months as ‘the worst I have lived through; and they were worse for Feisal. However he learnt the whole art of politics, from them. Perhaps I did, too!’ ” (598).
Wilson also cites an American account of Lawrence that gives a sense of his larger-than-life character: “He has been described as the most interesting Briton alive, a student of medieval history at Magdalen College, where he used to sleep by day and work by night and take his recreation in the deer park at four in the morning—a Shelley-like person, and yet too virile to be a poet” (605). Yet Lawrence’s prose has poetic qualities, and his encounters with young poets such as Robert Graves and Ezra Pound suggest an interest in poetry.
Lawrence’s move to Oxford is explained as follows: “There was nothing to do in Paris and he returned to Oxford. On June 10th he had been elected to a Research Fellowship of All Souls College. He had been approached about this months before, by Geoffrey Dawson of The Times, and had indicated his willingness to accept if a Fellowship was offered. The conditions had been drawn up by the Warden and D.G. Hogarth in as vague a fashion as possible: during his tenure he was to ‘prosecute his researches into the antiquities and ethnology, and the history (ancient and modern) of the Near East.’ The Fellowship was worth £200 a year, a comfortable income for a single person. It would run for seven years, and carried the right to rooms in college” (616). In The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion, Lawrence feels confined in his rooms in Oxford. He and Robert share a sense of imprisonment, trapped by their post-war guilt. Another biographer, Flora Armitage, describes Lawrence’s time at Oxford after the war: “At All Souls where he went into residence he indulged in outbursts of wild, almost undergraduate exuberance, as when he leaned out of the window…and loudly clanged the iron bell taken as booty in his raid on the Tell Shahm station.” (Armitage, The Desert and the Stars, New York: 1955, 160).
In the play Lord Curzon accuses Lawrence of continuing a correspondence with Emir Feisal, his main contact in Arabia. But Lawrence at least intended to sever ties with Feisal, writing in a letter: “My first sign of grace is that I will obey the F.O. [Foreign Office]…and not see Feisal again” (Wilson 620). During one scene, Lawrence has read about events involving Feisal that have upset him: “the ‘General Syrian Congress’ had proclaimed Feisal King of an ‘independent and integral Syria,’ which was supposed to include not only Lebanon, but also northern Mesopotamia and Palestine. The claim to these latter regions caused as much irritation in Britain as it did in France, and was roundly dismissed in San Remo. Both the Foreign Office and the India Office now viewed Damascus as a hotbed of rabid nationalism which threatened to unsettle the whole region” (631). In Stephen Massicotte’s play, Curzon’s ties to the Foreign Office allow for this diplomatic conflict to be portrayed in dramatic fashion as he and Lawrence clash in Lawrence’s rooms in Oxford.
Wilson also mentions the initial meeting with Robert Graves, and Lawrence’s feedback on Robert’s poems: “After a dinner at All Souls…he met Robert Graves, who had become a member of St. John’s College. He showed great interest in Graves’s poetry, and his comments were evidently of some value…” (627). Flora Armitage adds other incidents described in the play: “At Fullers’ Restaurant for tea with Robert Graves, he caused a momentary flurry amid the teacups by clapping his hands, Eastern fashion to summon the waitress; and once he indulged again in his old sport of roof-climbing in order to hang a crimson Hejazi flag from the pinnacle of All Souls” (Armitage 164).
The myth of Lawrence of Arabia as created by Lowell Thomas (and as we know him from Peter O’Toole’s portrayal in David Lean’s film) competes with his efforts to present himself to the other four characters in The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion. For his servant Jack, Lawrence is initially an eccentric charge, but he eventually comes to represent all that is wrong with the British military. For Curzon, Lawrence is a personal nuisance and a political firebomb. For Nancy, Lawrence represents competition for her husband’s time and affection, until she finally meets him and they reconcile. For Robert, Ned is a friend. When Robert invites Ned to “come out of there and be Lawrence of Arabia,” he sparks a powder keg whose explosion has a tremendous impact on the lives of all of these characters, and repercussions beyond the limits of Oxford.