The Great War

Blog #1

This has been a good week for learning about the First World War.  First off we watched Neill Ferguson’s highly academic 90 minutes The Pity of War, investigating the causes of the war, and considering the counterfactual question, what would have happened if we had stayed out? Then we had 37 days, the dramatized version of the countdown to war. Here the theory we had heard about with Ferguson acquired flesh and blood features, the bellicose Churchill, the patrician Edward Grey, the really weird Kaiser. But we learned new things too, such as the extent of the anti-war party in Germany. And finally, Oh What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal Stratford.


I do not have a rational relationship with this wonderful piece of theatre. My mother, a passionate enthusiast for experimental theatre, went all the way from Shropshire to Stratford to see Joan Plowright’s original production. Although I didn’t go (I was only 10) I did devour the LP and indeed the playscript which she came back with. It was through Oh What a Lovely War that I learned about the horrors of the war, in particular through the texted ‘scorecard’ of deaths versus ground gained. From here it was a short step to the War Poets, to the greatest novel of the war, All Quiet on the Western Front, and to my essential pacifism. I was interested to discover that I still know the script by heart, and all the song lyrics. Apart from the film version, and I have a vague memory of seeing a school version long ago and there was the wonderful 1998 National Theatre version, performed in a big top on the South Bank.

This production very much looked back to the original, more I think than the National production. Caroline Quentin was the obvious star with her two storming Music Hall numbers Make a Man of You and Sister Suzy Sowing Search – perhaps the Victorian Theatre was particularly well suited to these flamboyant performances. Predictably, as the numbers of dead rise and progress continues to not happen, the songs get darker and both anger and emotion rise. Hanging on the old barbed wire was bitterly poignant and Haig’s concern about the King being thrown from his horse, over and above the loss of 70,000 men stirs fury. The ending is (and always was) surprisingly low key: ‘And when they ask us... why it was we never won the Croix de Guerre, We’ll never tell them. There was a front, but damned if we knew where.’

So while I thoroughly enjoyed this production and I think it was great to see the theatre with so many youngsters, I do not think this is the definitive 21st century production. The huge power of ethnographic style productions such as this (or indeed “Tyne” which we saw in South Shields last week) is that the words are genuine, the songs really were sung. However, the way they are put together is of a specific time. It is interesting to look through the original programme notes and see how many are about the Cold War rather than the Great War; inevitably the structure and subtext of Oh What a Lovely War is also about the imminence of nuclear destruction. Now, of course, we have different issues, and the current Crimea crisis show how little has actually changed in the past century.

I would like to see someone put the same elements on the table and start from scratch, thinking about what a teenager born in 2000 might want to know or need to know about the Great War, the war (which failed) to end all wars. Only then will we really see this landmark play reborn.

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