When one thinks of the theatre during the war years (1914-18), what themes ran through the productions? Were the productions mainly light entertainment? such as ‘A Little Bit of Fluff’ a very popular farce which opened in 1915 and ran until 1918 before being turned into a film. Or ‘Chu Chin Chow’, a musical version of the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves which was extremely popular with both civilians and soldiers on leave (not to mention the dance of the slave girls with scantily clad young ladies!). Not so, the initial response in the theatre world was ‘doing one’s duty’ and the theatres responded by productions aimed at raising morale. As the war progressed, the number of new productions tackling the war as a theme increased from 20% to 50% by 1918. The role of women in society, bereavement, conscientious objectors, recruitment and spy hysteria were all covered.
‘In Time of War’ by CW Mill (which opened in September 1914 and toured until the summer of 1916) was a crude attempt to portray patriotism in the face of blackmail and spying. This play involved the heroine travelling to a field hospital in France, and was laced with comic characters and stereotypical Germans.
‘A Call to Arms’ by B Davis which also opened in September 1914 was essentially a sketch of the efforts of a Recruiting Sergeant in a village to persuade hesitant young men to sign up. The ‘tag’ with this play was that there would be a real recruitment officer in the foyer to sign up any member of the audience after the production!
‘England Expects’ by S Hicks, which opened in September 1914, was a further Patriotic Sketch. Running for about an hour and repeated two or three times a day with reduced price for admission, it entertained by having scenes of recruitment, a march on Belgium and work in a trench. It also featured references to German swine and cowardly Huns.
With conscription in 1916, plays involving recruitment fell out of fashion.
‘The Man Who Stayed at Home’, a play by JEH Terry, opened in December 1914) and told the story of a group of German spies in a boarding house on the south coast. The ‘Man Who...’, initially accused of being a coward, is revealed as a secret agent whose presence was to uncover the spies who were using a wireless to broadcast to the enemy.
The topic of atrocities in occupied Belgium was tackled by F Melville’s ‘One Way of War’ (Oct 1914). Here the Germans were portrayed as inhuman – the play is set in a French village and the action included executions and bayoneting played out on stage.
A popular play from 1915 was ‘Glorius Day’ by L Mortimer. Here the action starts in France before the war, includes troops departing from Waterloo and marching to the front line. Scenes in a Belgium village involved wounded soldiers sheltering, and their presence producingexecutions for failure to betray them. To enrich the mixture there are German spies both male and female before the optimism of victory!
Another patriotic play from 1915 was ‘War Mates’ written by H de Hamel. This was set in a munitions factory. The scene is set on the eve of a strike over pay and involved opposition to non-union labour.The arrival of a soldier returning from the front provokes a discussion on the effects of a shortage of ammunition. This play attempts to demonstrate the civilian experience of the war. After patriotic speeches, the strike is called off as the factory workers identify as war mates.
Another civilian based play from November 1916, ‘My Superior Officer’ (written by M Morton) is a dramatic sketch (only one act) which takes a different view of patriotism. Here a wounded soldier, home on leave, preaches to his family the patriotism associated with thrift and war bonds opposed to simply aiming for highly paid munition work.
By 1917 there was an increasing gulf between the soldiers on the front line and civilians in the UK became apparent, essentially a lack of understanding between life in the two locations. This was commented on by the historian and decorated WW1 ex-soldier Charles Carrington in the BBC’s Great War film ‘The Voices behind They Shall Not Grow Old’.
But in 1917, one of the most popular plays of WW1 opened in London, ‘The Better ‘Ole’ written by Bruce Bairnsfather and Arthur Eliot. This was set in the front line and involved jokes, songs, humour and romance. Essentially it expanded on the character ‘old Bill’, the subject of many cartoons drawn by Bairnsfather. It attempted to reproduce the atmosphere and sounds experienced by soldiers in dug-outs and the trenches – artillery fire and machine guns were important sound effects. The entrance to the theatre in London for the opening season was decorated to resemble a dugout with sandbags and corrugated iron. Often the route from the foyer to the auditorium was decorated ina similar fashion. Stage props include rum jars and duckboards. The play ran for over 800 performances before going on tour in 1918. It also transferred to Broadway in New York and was adapted for a film.
Even the Battle of Jutland was portrayed on stage in two plays – ‘Mother’s Sailor Boy’ in September 1916, which premiered in Salford before going on Tour, and ‘Jack Ashore’ by the Jutland Boys which premiered in London before going on tour. Both plays toured until late 1918. ‘Tommy By the Way’ was different again, the plot included a wounded soldier suffering from shell shock, Blighty wounds and life in the trenches. This had a shorter theatre life only being performed in 1917 and early 1918.
The influence of the theatre on the Western Front can be seen in the use of the Robber’s March (from Chu Chin Chow) used a marching tune by the soldiers marching into Germany in 1919, with soldiers joining in singing the chorus as they marched, at the start of the occupation.
Report by Peter Palmer