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Theater Arts of the Allies in the Great War (March 2013): Cultural and General Histories

By Felicia Hardison Londré

Cultural and General Histories

Many histories of World War I incorporate the arts.  European Culture in the Great War: The Arts, Entertainment, and Propaganda, 1914-1918, edited by Aviel Roshwald and Richard Stites, comprises thirteen contributed essays in which theater figures prominently.  Each essay focuses on a different country, including eastern European cultures in addition to Russia, France, Belgium, and Britain.  Contributed essays in World War I and the Cultures of Modernity, edited by Douglas Mackaman and Michael Mays, cover such topics as song lyrics, music hall, poetry, cartoons, and tourism in French, British, German, and Spanish wartime and postwar cultures.  Robert Wohl’s The Generation of 1914 examines wartime cultural attitudes primarily through literature in France, Germany, England, Spain, and Italy.  Intimate Enemies: English and German Literary Reactions to the Great War 1914-1918, edited by Franz Karl Stanzel and Martin Löschnigg, is devoted largely to poetry and fiction, but the collection includes two pieces on graphic arts.  In the aggregate, these essays are interesting for their analysis of cross-national perceptions embedded in English, Canadian, and German literature, and many of these observations apply also to performing arts practices.  Modris Eksteins’s Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age proceeds from the scandal of Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet in Paris to the manifestation of that modernist spirit through war-influenced culture, particularly from the German perspective.

The English side of the story gets ample coverage in Samuel Hynes’s A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture, which details the radical upheavals in life and thought and the refiguring of English imagination as war narratives hardened into myth.  British Popular Culture and the First World War, edited by Jessica Meyer, ranges from trench culture to the larger culture upheld and represented by women.  More than half of the essays focus on the role of memory and memorializing across the decades since the end of the war.  Two chapters in George Robb’s British Culture and the First World War focus specifically on the arts: “Art and Literature” skillfully surveys the trends while serving up some telling details; “Popular Culture” begins with adventure stories from the popular press, then proceeds to music hall and cinema, sports, pub culture, postcards, posters, songs, propaganda aimed at children, and soldier humor.  J. G. Fuller’s Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies, 1914-1918 weaves references to theatricals—particularly the concert parties that entertained the troops in rest areas—throughout, melding hard data with anecdotes about various aspects of military life.  Lyn Macdonald’s compendium of letters, photographs, and excerpts from a range of documents, 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War, conveys in passing the role of entertainment for the British soldiers’ morale.

France’s parallel reshaping of its cultural identity during and after the Great War—with emphasis on representations of ordinary people—is the subject of Charles Rearick’s The French in Love and War: Popular Culture in the Era of the World Wars.  Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker are among the leading French historians of the Great War, and in their work they have reliably alluded to the cultural context as integral to their analyses.  They join Leonard Smith as authors of France and the Great War, 1914-1918, translated into English by Helen McPhail.  This book begins with an account of the performance of Paul Morand’s Les Cathédrales on November 6, 1915, in which France’s all-time great actress Sarah Bernhardt embodied the Cathedral of Strasbourg awaiting liberation from German control.  That chapter goes on to discuss Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie’s surrealist ballet Parade, which opened in Paris on May 18, 1917.  Other instances of “war culture”—trench art and newspapers, cartoons, novels, poetry—appear throughout the book.  Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker’s earlier work, 14-18: Understanding the Great War (published in French as 14-18, retrouver la Guerre and translated into English by Catherine Temerson) explores the long-term cultural legacy of the war.  The authors note that avant-garde artists notably had looked forward to the cleansing, modernizing effects of a war, yet the aftereffects, “the weight of the dead upon the living” as “the conflict permeated all aspects of the culture” were surprisingly complicated and paradoxical.[1]

American culture too underwent transformation despite the shorter duration of military involvement in a war fought entirely on foreign soil.  Of the many books examining the American experience on the home front, Edward Robb Ellis’s Echoes of Distant Thunder: Life in the United States, 1914-1918 can be singled out as an overview aimed at a general readership.  Other valuable “over here” books include David Kennedy’s Over Here: The First World War and American Society; Allen Churchill’s Over Here!: An Informal Re-creation of the Home Front in World War I; Sean Dennis Cashman’s America in the Age of the Titans: The Progressive Era and World War I; Nancy Gentile Ford’s The Great War and America: Civil-Military Relations during World War I and Americans All!: Foreign-Born Soldiers in World War I; Celia Malone Kingsbury’s For Home and Country: World War I Propaganda on the Home Front; and Christopher Capozzola’s Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen.  George Creel’s descriptively titled How We Advertised America: The First Telling of the Amazing Story of the Committee on Public Information That Carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe documents the author’s many initiatives as director of the Committee of Public Information (also known as the Creel Committee), with considerable attention to the use of motion pictures.  Now a classic, The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917-1918, by Meirion Harries and Susie Harries, encompasses “over there” as well as “over here.”  Byron Farwell’s Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917-1918 incorporates material on performers like Elsie Janis and James Reese Europe (both discussed further on in this essay).  James Reese Europe figures also in Jennifer Keene’s World War I: The American Soldier Experience, which—like her Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America—provides ample cultural context for war coverage.  Whereas most of these works might be classed as sociological studies rather than cultural, artists and art works are integral to their analyses.


[1] These quotes appear on pages 1 and 113.

Works Cited