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Theater Arts of the Allies in the Great War (March 2013): Theater of the War Years: Britain, France, Russia, and the United States

By Felicia Hardison Londré

Theater of the War Years: Britain, France, Russia, and the United States

In Theatre at War, 1914-18, L. J. Collins shows the war’s impact on London commercial theater as human and material resources were diverted to the cause, and audiences were discouraged by air raids and by elevated ticket prices due to the imposition of an “amusement tax.”  On the other hand, theater made its own contributions: benefit performances, entertainments in hospitals, and concert parties taken to the front.  Collins also examines amateur theatricals by soldiers and war content in plays of the period.  In British Theatre in the Great War: A Revaluation, Gordon Williams keeps the focus on the London theater scene with considerable coverage of musical theater and variety.  While acknowledging the escapist function of the light fare that flourished, Williams shows the war’s stimulation of new developments in British theater: technological advances, innovations in design, expanded form and content for the playwright, and reinvigorated musical theater.  Andrew Horrall’s Popular Culture in London c. 1890-1918: The Transformation of Entertainment devotes the longest of its thirteen chapters (which treat such topics as parades, bicycles, and cricket) to World War I.  Popular songs emanated from both London music halls and soldiers in the trenches with reciprocal influence.  Concert parties, which were pioneered by British actress Lena Ashwell starting in February 1915, proved morale boosting for the troops, who enjoyed the dramatic scenes, musical numbers, and military pantomimes performed for them by amateurs and professionals alike as well as by soldiers themselves.  The success of Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell’s quasi-documentary silent film Battle of the Somme (1916), now available on DVD, drew considerably on expressions of patriotic spirit in the music hall.  Horrall discusses all this and also looks at soldier crazes for Charlie Chaplin, Harry Lauder, and Harry Tate.  Similarly, Stuart Sillars’s Art and Survival in First World War Britain focuses on iconography in graphic arts and film, iconography that may be applied also to other performing arts.  Paul Fussell’s classic work The Great War and Modern Memory touches only peripherally on performance entertainment but is invaluable for the context it provides.

Le Théâtre monte au front, edited by Chantal Meyer-Plantureaux, comprises essays on wartime theatricals along with a selection of performance pieces and scenes from full-length plays.  Though as yet not available in English, this important resource merits mention here.  One hopes an English translation will appear soon.  Helen Solterer’s Medieval Roles for Modern Times: Theater and the Battle for the French Republic includes substantial analysis of the influence of the Great War on the career of the Sorbonne medievalist Gustave Cohen, who created a theater troupe after the war to tour medieval plays in France.

For coverage of Russia, Hubertus Jahn’s Patriotic Culture in Russia during World War I has chapters on graphic arts and movies, flanking a central section on performing arts, here including circus, cabaret song, opera, and legitimate drama.  Though Aaron Cohen’s Imagining the Unimaginable: World War, Modern Art, and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia, 1914-1917 deals with graphic artists, painters, and sculptors, several of those also designed for the theater; among them, Vladimir Mayakovsky (whom Cohen includes) was also a poet and playwright.  In Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900, Richard Stites touches briefly on the war years, largely with reference to motion pictures.  Louise McReynolds devotes the first two chapters of Russia at Play: Leisure Activities at the End of the Tsarist Era to the theater, but she provides scattered allusions to wartime activity throughout in coverage that includes sports, tourism, and nightclubs.  More concentrated treatment of theater can be found in Gary Thurston’s The Popular Theatre Movement in Russia: 1862-1919 (chapter 7 in particular).

Weldon Durham’s Liberty Theatres of the United States Army, 1917-1919 is an exhaustive study of the impetus and bureaucracy behind the hastily created training-camp theaters for American troop cantonments after the United States entered the war in April 1917.  Supplemented by photographs and meticulous documentation, the book details the moral imperatives, financing (including the system known as “Smileage”), organization, and fare at the forty-two theaters created by the U.S. War Department.[1]  A major source for Durham and an invaluable work in many respects is Entertaining the American Army: The American Stage and Lyceum in the World War by James Evans and Captain Gardner Harding; this book is primarily concerned with the units sent to France—many under the auspices of the YMCA—to entertain the troops.

[1] Theater tickets for Liberty Theatre shows were purchased by private citizens to be distributed to soldiers in the camps in the form of «Smileage» coupons.  Theatrical producer Marc Klaw coined the term, reasoning that these vouchers would bring smiles to the faces of the soldiers and would not be confused with commercial theater tickets.

Works Cited