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Theater Arts of the Allies in the Great War (March 2013): Reference Works

By Felicia Hardison Londré

Reference Works

An important volume in the “Blackwell Companions to World History” series, A Companion to World War I, edited by John Horne, includes essays on the social culture of war and on various arts, although none of the essays focuses specifically on theater.  Christophe Prochasson’s essay, “Intellectuals and Writers,” and Annette Becker’s on “the visual arts” are translated from French essays that appeared in the magisterial Encyclopédie de la Grande Guerre 1914-1918: Histoire et culture, edited by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Jean-Jacques Becker (which is not available in English translation), and somewhat revised for the Companion.  Prochasson shows how prominent thinkers of various nationalities rationalized the war effort, at least at the beginning.  Becker folds the revolutionary aesthetics of modernism into the military mobilization initially hailed by artists who envisioned a war to cleanse society of outdated social hierarchies and restrictive behaviors.  Cubist fragmentation eerily paralleled blown-apart bodies and matériel.  But the disillusionment that set in by 1915 manifested itself in obsessive representations of suffering or in nihilistic decampment like that of the dadaists in neutral Switzerland.  In his contribution to the Companion, “Film and the War,” Pierre Sorlin traces the historical evolution of action footage in silent motion pictures.  Censorship and the physical constraints on filming at the front meant that even some documentary footage was pieced out with fake sequences.  The Companion also offers excellent bibliographic sections on “gender, society, culture” and on specific nations.

Other reference works that at least touch on the role of performing artists in building troop morale include Timothy Dowling’s Personal Perspectives: World War I and American Voices of World War I: Primary Source Documents, 1917-1920, edited by Martin Marix Evans.  The latter offers quoted passages from letters and journals of soldiers, nurses, and others of various nationalities; that these often mention entertainment and entertainers is noteworthy.