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Theater Arts of the Allies in the Great War (March 2013): Drama and Related Literature

By Felicia Hardison Londré

Drama and Related Literature

Treatments of the dramatic literature arising from wartime experience tend to be embedded in broader cultural studies.  Although numerous plays deal with the effects of the Great War, and occasional topical allusions to the war appear in still more plays, few of these works can be regarded as dramatic literature with a shelf life.  Hence the paucity of secondary studies devoted to plays.  The Mobilization of Intellect: French Scholars and Writers during the Great War, Martha Hanna’s often-cited study of noncombatant French scholars and writers who devoted their literary skills to the patriotic cause, does not deal specifically with dramatic literature, yet the book is invaluable as a context for cultural thought and activity.  In Redemption by War: The Intellectuals and 1914, Roland Stromberg focuses tightly on that one year and the buildup to it, but casts a wider net in terms of artistic genre and nationality.  He provides a wealth of examples—mostly literary but also concerning cabaret performance—to show pan-European welcoming of the war; he also acknowledges the existence of some intellectual dissent even at that early phase.

As Heinz Kosok rightly notes in his essay in Intimate Enemies, mentioned above, “The drama of the First World War, in contrast to the fiction and poetry, has received little critical attention.”[1]  Kosok’s The Theatre of War: The First World War in British and Irish Drama goes far to remedy that situation and provides a listing of around two hundred plays.  The accuracy of Kosok’s observation is borne out by Frank Field’s British and French Writers of the First World War: Comparative Studies in Cultural History, in which—apart from a few passing allusions—drama is represented only by Bernard Shaw in four pages devoted to Heartbreak House.  Similarly, Robb’s British Culture and the First World War (mentioned above) folds the drama into three pages of the chapter “Art and Literature,” noting that—in the absence of military-themed new plays—patriotic lines of dialogue found in plays by Shakespeare and others could be emphasized in performance.  Both these books are valuable, despite their relatively scant attention to the drama.  Memory and Memorials, edited by William Kidd and Brian Murdoch, comprises eighteen contributed essays on the mediation of war recollections predominantly through memorials at “sites of memory,” but also includes a contribution by Murdoch on Hans Chlumberg’s important war drama Miracle at Verdun (1930), which became the impetus for American playwright Irwin Shaw’s 1936 play Bury the Dead.[2]  Both plays fantasize that those killed in combat rise from the dead only to encounter a world that no longer has any use for them.  Marion Craig Wentworth’s one-act War Brides reflects the antiwar sentiment of most Americans during the first two years of the distant conflict.  Most renowned of the many American plays that draw on the experience of the Great War is What Price Glory (1924) by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings, which was first published in Three American Plays.[3]  A particularly interesting dramatization of the impact of the war on American postwar life is James Forbes’s The Famous Mrs. Fair, which was published in 1920 in The Famous Mrs. Fair: And Other Plays, a collection that includes an introduction by Walter Prichard Eaton.

In The Lost Voices of World War I: An International Anthology of Writers, Poets, and Playwrights, Tim Cross anthologizes a wealth of texts—some in the original German, French, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Armenian, and other languages, with facing translation—along with introductions, illustrations, and an appendix listing all authors.  Although most of the selections are poetry and essays, dramatic works are included, among them August Stramm’s Awakening, a selection from Reinhard Sorge’s The Beggar, Guillaume Apollinaire’s What Times Does a Train Leave for Paris?, and a monologue extracted from one of Charles Péguy’s dramatic poems on Joan of Arc.[4]  Another important collection is War Plays by Women: An International Anthology, edited by Claire Tylee with Elaine Turner and Agnes Cardinal.  The selections include sketches (two by Gertrude Stein), one-act plays, and full-length plays, mostly from the 1910s and 1920s but some also by contemporary authors like Christina Reid of Northern Ireland and Wendy Lill of Canada; these offer an excellent range of feminist perspectives on Great War topics.  Tylee also edited a solid collection of essays on dramatic literature: Women, the First World War and the Dramatic Imagination: International Essays (1914-1999).

Heading the list of British war-inspired plays is R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, a Play in Three Acts, depicting British officers in the trench; it was revived on the London stage in 2004 and restaged for New York performance in 2007.  Theatre Workshop’s Oh What a Lovely War (with Charles Chilton and Gerry Raffles), originally staged in 1965 by Joan Littlewood, uses song and metatheatrical devices to evoke and satirize the folly of the Great War.  Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985) is a memory play recollected by a survivor of the bloody battle of the Somme (1916).  Nicholas Stafford based his hit play War Horse (2007) on the novel of that title by Michael Morpurgo, which also engendered the 2011 Steven Spielberg film version.

In John Gray’s musical Billy Bishop Goes to War (1981), written with Eric Peterson, an actor and a pianist recount the exploits of the plucky Canadian pilot who tallied seventy-two German planes shot down.  Five other Canadian plays of World War I (plus three of World War II) are anthologized in volume 1 of Canada and the Theatre of War, selected and edited by Donna Coates and Sherrill Grace.  The other five World War I plays are R. H. Thomason’s The Lost Boys, David French’s Soldier’s Heart, Stephen Massicotte’s Mary’s Wedding, Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Dancock’s Dance, and Vern Thiessen’s Vimy.


[1] Heinz Kosok, “Aspects of Presentation, Attitude and Reception in English and Irish Plays about the First World War,” in Intimate Enemies: English and German Reactions to the Great War 1914-1918, ed. Franz Karl Stanzel and Martin Loöschnigg, 343-64 (Heidelberg, Germany: C. Winter, 1993).

[2] Brian Murdoch, “Memory and Prophecy among the War-Graves: Hans Chlumberg’s Drama, Miracle at Verdun,” in Memory and Memorials: The Commemorative Century, ed. William Kidd and Brian Murdoch, 92-104 (Ashgate, 2004).

[3] In addition to What Price Glory, the volume includes First Flight and The BuccaneerWhat Price Glory is also included in Famous Plays of the 1920s, comp. by Kenneth Macgowan, 1959; Dell, 1988.

[4] For Charles Péguy, Joan of Arc was an iconic figure reconciling themes of spirituality and patriotism.  He often returned to her in his writings.  His 1897 play Jeanne d’Arc is unperformably long, as is his 1910 play Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d’Arc.  The latter might be described as a novel-length dramatic poem.  His long poems in which Joan of Arc appears similarly meld genres with their dramatic monologue passages.

Works Cited