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Theater Arts of the Allies in the Great War (March 2013): First-Person Narratives

By Felicia Hardison Londré

First-Person Narratives

The Great War generated a plethora of memoirs, and many of them include reminiscences about entertainments for or by the doughboys.  Playwright Neith Boyce was in Italy when the war broke out in August 1914; her war diary is published in The Modern World of Neith Boyce, edited by Carol DeBoer-Langworthy.  Mary Roberts Rinehart, the mystery novelist who later coauthored best-selling plays like The Bat, experienced the war early in 1915 as a reporter for The Saturday Evening Post; she included those recollections in My Story.  Mildred Aldrich, a Boston theater critic, purchased a country house in France and settled there in the summer of 1914, only three months before the fighting broke out virtually on her doorstep.  Between 1915 and 1919, she published five volumes of letters about her observations, and the third—On the Edge of the War Zone: From the Battle of the Marne to the Entrance of the Stars and Stripes—includes accounts of French theater artists who traveled from Paris to perform for soldiers, as well as of theatricals performed by the French soldiers popularly called poilus (“hairy ones”).[1]

The lovely actress Eleanor Robson, who retired from the stage when she married philanthropist August Belmont, volunteered as a Red Cross worker and arrived in Europe in September 1917; her recommendations to General Pershing were instrumental in the process of organizing morale-building entertainments for the American doughboys.  Eleanor Robson Belmont’s autobiography, The Fabric of Memory, modestly devotes one of eight parts to her war effort.[2]  Among the many Americans who entertained troops at the front, Elsie Janis—renowned as the Sweetheart of the AEF (American Expeditionary Forces)—is surely at the apex.  She recalled her six months at the front in three memoirs.  The most important of the three is The Big Show: My Six Months with the American Expeditionary Forces; the other two, If I Know What I Mean and So Far, So Good! serve as supplements to The Big Show.  Janis’s writing is as high-spirited as her performances must have been, but some passages now strike one as racially insensitive.[3]  Playwright-actress Margaret Mayo also toured France as a frontline entertainer, as recalled in her Trouping for the Troops: Fun-Making at the Front.  Mary Louise Rochester Roderick entertained as a singer in France under the auspices of the YMCA, and her book A Nightingale in the Trenches is a collection of journal entries from February 1918 to July 1919.  Harry Lauder, the Scottish singer-comedian who performed vaudeville in the United States, devotes his entire memoir A Minstrel in France to his performing for soldiers behind the lines and in hospitals; the book is also an expression of grief and a tribute to his only son, who was killed in France in 1916.

Soldiers’ theatricals behind the lines are vividly described in the letters of American newspaperman (later renowned theater critic) Alexander Woollcott—as published in The Letters of Alexander Woollcott, edited by Beatrice Kaufman and Joseph Hennessey—and also in Samuel Hopkins Adams’s biography of Woollcott, Alexander Woollcott: His Life and His World.  As a sergeant in France, Woolcott contributed also to early issues of the official newspaper of the American Expeditionary Forces, The Stars and Stripes.  Some of those contributions may be readily accessed in “Sergeant” Alexander Woollcott’s The Command Is Forward: Tales of the A. E. F. Battlefields as They Appeared in the Stars and Stripes and in a collection of Stars and Stripes material titled Squads Write!: A Selection of the Best Things in Prose, Verse and Cartoon from the Stars and Stripes, Official Newspaper of the A. E. F., edited by John Winterich (who provides also “not too serious comment”).  Arthur Guy Empey, an American who served with a British machine-gun company in France in the early part of the war, devotes a full chapter of his best-selling war memoir “Over the Top”: Together with Tommy’s Dictionary of the Trenches to a comedy he wrote and staged with about twenty soldiers during their two-month period in rest billets in 1916.[4]

Many American soldiers and civilian volunteers published books about their experiences near the Western front, and many of these include passages about the entertainments sent out to cheer them or the shows they helped create.  Examples of both are found in Marian Baldwin’s Canteening Overseas, 1917-1919.  Baldwin describes hearing James Reese Europe’s wildly popular jazz orchestra, and seeing touring performances by Elsie Janis and by John Craig’s company presenting Margaret Mayo’s farce Baby Mine.  She recounts her experiences joining Yankee soldiers on leave in putting on their own show at the Casino in the Aix les Bains rest area.  William Levere’s My Hut, edited by Jenny Thompson, tells of entertainments Levere oversaw in the various YMCA huts he ran in France.  C. LeRoy Baldridge’s sketchbook “I Was There” with the Yanks: Sketches Made on the Western Front, 1917-1919 (which includes verse by Hilmar R. Baukage) includes a drawing of soldiers listening to a singer in a YMCA hut.  Like many stars of stage and screen, William S. Hart participated in the Liberty Bond drives “over here.”  His war work is the subject of a chapter in his memoir My Life East and West.

[1] In his PhD dissertation, “A Study of the Theatrical Career of Winthrop Ames from 1904 to 1929” (The Ohio State University, 1962 [unpublished manuscript]), David Edward MacArthur covers Ames’s tour of the front lines to assess entertainment needs and feasibility.

[2] The most reliable context for Eleanor Robson Belmont’s memoirs is available in Lee Alan Morrow’s PhD dissertation, “Elsie Janis: A Compensatory Biography” (Northwestern University, 1988 [unpublished manuscript]).

[3] Mildred Aldrich’s other work includes A Hilltop on the Marne (1915), Told in a French Garden: August, 1914 (1916), The Peak of the Load (1918), and When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1919).

[4] The 35-page “Tommy’s Dictionary” at the end of the gripping narrative includes amusing definitions—e.g., “’Après la Guerre.’ ‘After the War.’  Tommy’s definition of Heaven” and “’Cook.’  A soldier detailed to spoil Tommy’s rations.  He is generally picked because he was a blacksmith in civil life.”

Works Cited