Mixed Media: Oh What a Lovely War

The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London revived in February this year the anti-war musical entertainment Oh What a Lovely War to coincide with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The original production by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, and Gerry Raffles opened at the same theatre in March 1963. Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop was notable for left-wing and proletarian productions such as Brecht’s Mother Courage, A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, Brendan Behan’s dramas and the musical play Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be by Frank Norman.

The 2014 production was directed by Terry Johnson, writer of Insignificance. Production design was by Lez Brotherston who wrote ‘Joan Littlewood wrote it as a piece for a bunch of actors presenting a story, rather than very real characters. It was very Brechtian.’ Littlewood indeed used Brecht’s ideas on the politicisation of theatre to better convey the realities of war, using minimal props and Brecht’s half-curtain for rapid scene changes. Littlewood like Brecht was searching for truth in the dramatic realisation of soldier’s stories. Littlewood was influenced by the Expressionist techniques of Meyerhold in Russia, Erwin Piscator’s use of newsreel in Germany, and the Theatre National Populaire use of bare stage and pinpoint lighting. She combined a European aestheticism with a deeply English love of popular theatre evidenced in the Pierrot costumes. Oh What a Lovely War is a pierrot show with songs, battles, a few jokes and is anchored in a seaside tradition. The presence of music-hall is evident in the way the MC (Shaun Prendergast in the 2014 production) chats to the audience as they come in.

Oh What a Lovely War is sourced in the songs of the First World War, Barbara Tuchman’s August 1914, Haig’s diaries, memoirs by Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves plus Alan Clark’s 1961 military history The Donkeys. Clark identifies the High Command of French, Rawlinson and Haig as responsible for the virtual destruction of the old professional British Army in 1915. Clark’s book title originates with Falkenhayn’s Memoirs where it is written ‘Ludendorff: ‘The English soldiers fight like lions’, Hoffman: ‘True, But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys.’ The play clearly portrays working-class lions being exploited by upper-class donkeys, the main villain being Haig whose contempt for the working class is clearly evident in his diary entry ‘mostly gamekeepers and servants’ after hearing 13,000 men were killed in three hours during the battle of Passchendaele where they gained one hundred yards.

The working class soldier is central to the play, everything is viewed from his perspective and sympathy for the working class soldier is paramount. We wrote in the Socialist Standard ofAugust 1964 that it was a ‘witty and savage denunciation of the murder of a generation.’ In a letter to Littlewood and Raffles on 5 June 1963 Bertrand Russell wrote ‘a statement on war such as I have not experienced… I wonder that it has been allowed on a London stage.’ The newsreel panels in the show are grim statistics of the casualties in the so-called ‘Great War’: 10 million dead, 21 million wounded, 7 million missing, the battle of the Somme July to November 1916 – 1.5 million casualties. The 1963 programme read: ‘In 1960, an American Military Research Team fed all the facts of World War One into the computers they use to plan World War Three. They reached the conclusion that the 1914-18 war was impossible and couldn’t have happened. There could not have been so many blunders nor so many casualties.’ We wrote in the Socialist Standard of August 1964: ‘When war broke out in 1914 it was much vaster and grimmer than anything the Victorians had seen, something for which people were totally unprepared.’

In Act Two the MC announces ‘Part two of the War Game, find the biggest profiteer’ and we have a scene of British, French, German, and American Munitions Manufacturers with a Swiss banker, which identifies international capitalism as the cause of the First World War and the ultimate beneficiary: ‘two peace scares in the last year. Our shares dropped forty per cent, caused a flutter on Wall Street’ and ‘I’m a patriot, but I’m also a businessman; my stockholders must have dividends.’ The suffragette and anti-war left-wing communist Sylvia Pankhurst makes an appearance reading a letter from Bernard Shaw: ‘The men of this country are being sacrificed to the blunders of boobies, the cupidity of capitalists, the ambition of conquerors, the lusts and lies and rancour’s of bloodthirsty men who love war.’

American capitalist Henry Ford was honest when he said ‘Tell me who profits by war, and I will tell you how to stop it.’ Oh What a Lovely War contributes to an anti-capitalist and an internationalist outlook but needs some socialist rigour so we say, as we did in 1914, ‘Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism.’


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