Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Theatre of War

"The Child He Will Never See/Great Stage Ball" Poster, 1916. © IWM, Item Art.IWM PST 10819
A quick post today as I pause during a busy phase of dissertation writing. I found this interesting poster in the IWM's Collections Database because I am thinking about pageants and/or theatrical productions during the war. In particular, I'm looking for information about productions of Gilbert and Sullivan (one of my favorite composing/writing/comedic duos) that took place either on the homefront or perhaps for (or performed by) troops on the front. Soldiers and even prisoners of war were known to stage theatrical events as morale-boosters. Just a basic search shows that the theatre was deeply important to wartime culture. The below poster, for instance, emphasizes the importance of the theatre's cheering effect:

"Smiles That Do Good," Poster, 1917. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13713)
Air Raid Damage to the Little Theatre, London, 1917. © IWM (HO 67)
Civilians on the homefront became anxious because of German air-raids on Britain, particularly after devastating aircraft attacks during the later stages of the war. The photograph above shows the destruction at London's Little Theatre, which was bombed in 1917. For more about air raids, in particular the Royal family's self-refashioning in reaction to the "Gotha" attacks on London, see Brett Holman's most recent post on his fantastic blog, "Airminded." In the wake of these horrible events, theatre owners seem to have sought to reassure the public:

"A Little Bit of Fluff/This Theatre is Built Entirely Underground," Poster, 1917. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13719)
The above poster balances the rather bubbly title of its featured production, which seems guaranteed to be light-hearted and pleasant, with the firm anchoring language of its notice about the theater housing "A Little Bit of Fluff" being "entirely underground" and thus impervious to air-raids (or so it might be hoped).

After the recent movie theater tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, I have noticed many news articles that ponder, to varying degrees, the horrible irony of a place that we associate with joy, magic, and escapism becoming a site of all-too-real suffering and destruction. There is not a good way to sum up such thoughts or to place them in some kind of critical container that allows us to regard the events and what they seem to mean to us objectively or rationally, really. From a human perspective, this is incomprehensible and frightening. But these documents of another time when the theater existed amidst serious fears and very real tragedy are perhaps especially worthy of contemplation at the present.

© Fiona Robinson

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