How the poppy became our emblem of Remembrance

A new production at The Hawth in Crawley marks the centenary of the very first Inter-Allied Poppy Day.

Wednesday, 10th November 2021, 8:05 am
Ethan Taylor
Ethan Taylor

The Poppy Red will be in the theatre’s Studio from Thursday to Sunday, November 11-14 and tells a remarkable tale.

When writing In Flanders Fields in a shell-beaten dugout at the trenches of Ypres, John McCrae could not have predicted the legacy his poem would inspire.

Thanks to his harrowing and poignant ode to the fallen, and also to the hard work of activists Moina Michael and Anna Guerin, the poppy has remained a symbol of sacrifice for a century now.

The Poppy Red offers a brand-new piece of theatre telling the story of the birth of the scarlet emblem and the story of its enduring legacy and also why it continues to mean so much today.

Building on the success of the venue’s first in-house productions, Treasure Island and Robin Hood, which took place in the Amphitheatre this summer, The Poppy Red is directed Sarah Slator. Taking on the role of Moina Michael is Provence Maydew, with Fanny Dulin as Anna Guerin, Mark Sean-Byrne playing poet and soldier John McCrae with Simon Stallard completing the professional cast.

The piece has been written by Ethan Taylor from This Is My Theatre.

“Writing has always been a bit of a passion project for me, just ticking along in the background,” he says, “and also working with the company I have been able to do some of the adaptations that we have done, the new adaptation of The Snow Queen and also the Jane Eyre that we did. It has always been something that I have enjoyed in the background. I guess I just love the crafting and the interweaving of stories. I love telling stories that should be told in terms of stories that have somehow been a bit too readily bypassed by people, the untold stories that have not been written but which should have been written because they are telling something that we really should know. Writing plays is easily my favourite kind of writing because I love giving the agency of the script to the creative team, the directors, the cast and seeing what they can bring to it and where they can take it.

“As a company we have been talking about creating something that was entirely new alongside our adaptations of other stuff. We were talking about setting something within the First World War, and there is a great array of stories both that we are familiar with and stories that are untold. I ended up looking up the year 2021 to see if there was any special date or significance, and it turned out that it was the centenary of the first Inter-Allied Poppy Day so I went away and did the research of the story behind the development of the poppy. I always wear a poppy in November and I know why I’m wearing it but I realised that I didn’t really know the story behind why it is a poppy that I am wearing. To a degree it was easy to find out. There are definite elements that were broadcast about it, the John McCrae poem for instance, but what was less known and neglected in many ways was the story of these two incredible female characters who had separately campaigned for the poppy, two women who both ended up in America.

“Anna Guerin was a French woman who saw the devastation of her country and the massacre of her menfolk. She wanted to raise money for the orphans who were left behind and so she set about campaigning in America. She gave speeches and when she was in France she had the idea of having orphans create these silk poppies that she would then sell.

“Moina Michael was in America at the time and had read John McCrea is poem and was completely inspired by it. She campaigned for this day of remembrance and to get the poppy installed as the significant flower.”

There were some people that wanted it to be the daisy but she felt that the poppy was the right one and managed to get it adopted. So you had these two women who were acting entirely independently to each other, and when Anna went across to America to sell her poppies she found that there was a ready market there already because the poppy had already been adopted. It is a fascinating story.”