Friday, December 7, 2012

Great War Festivities: The Theater

Hello Readers,
December will be a month of festivities here at "Ghosts of 1914." While we will, of course, be looking at December holidays, I wanted to start us off with a brief consideration of some other kinds of festivities. Included in that category are the many, many, theatrical performances and events that were so vividly a part of Great War experience at home and on the front.

Canadian performers (including a female impersonator) getting ready for a show, 1917. © IWM, Item  CO 2013.

Theater was an important aspect of the war--entertainment for troops and civilians was an important cultural space or experience in which relaxation, pleasure, and a bit of escapism were possible. As the above photo of a Canadian performer preparing to play a female character (because women would not have been present on the front) shows us, wartime theater often worked within many limitations to achieve its illusions. While doing research on British P.O.W. camps, for instance, I discovered that imprisoned soldiers frequently participated in light-hearted theatrical shows or other entertainments. The disparity between such momentary fantasy and the horrible gravitas of a prisoner's typical existence is quite moving. Despite (or perhaps because of) grim circumstances and daily oppression, prisoners of war from many nations embraced the opportunity to set reality aside and don costumes, sing or dance, and play dramatic roles. There were politically-motivated theatrical events for P.O.W.s too. A pamphlet or flier in the IWM collection represents a German P.O.W.  "production of music, recitations, and a lecture" all about William Shakespeare at a camp on the Isle of Man. 

Troops in service and civilians at home were also committed to the theater in wartime. There are dozens and dozens of beautiful and exciting images representing the theater of war in the IWM's wonderful collections database. Posters and artworks concerning exhibitions of war photographs, reenactments, concerts, comedy acts, and all sorts of other entertainments can be found. Just a sampling of these resources can demonstrate the wide variety of theatrical festivities that our ghosts of 1914 might have enjoyed. For example, female munitions workers watch a show in this lovely sketch by Nellie Isaac:

Nellie Isaac, "At a Performance in the Canteen Theatre," ca. 1914-18. © IWM, Item ART 2318.
An aptly-named company, "The Shrapnels," advertise their upcoming concert for British troops in a 1915 poster:

A performing troupe with a lovable though somewhat odd name, "The Merry Magnets," advertises a pleasant-sounding outdoor concert during the last summer of the war:

"The Merry Magnets," 1918. © IWM, Item PST 13757.

At home in London, the Women's Auxiliary Force advertises a multi-faceted event including a flower show, carnival, costume parade, and various musical groups to be held at the Savoy Hotel, 1918.  From all indications, this was a high-society fundraiser:

"Floral Fete and Carnival," 1918. © IWM, Item PST 5486.

Thank you for joining us for this little exploration of one of the many scenes that played out on the stage of Great War history! Stay tuned for holiday-themed posts next time at Ghosts of 1914.

© Fiona Robinson

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