Terms of Armistice - Remembering the War in Theatre

This year marks a century since the end of the First World War. There is an echo of it everywhere in London, where I am currently studying. Poppies rest in the lapels of fellow commuters, torches are lit at the Tower of London, and uniformed soldiers collect money for the British Legion. Theaters are no exception to the centenary commemorations. Of course, as people who are living a century after the war, it is hard to remain genuine when memorializing a struggle in which we played no part. And with an event as complex as the First World War, it is hard to fully grasp all that happened. There were happy moments, but a focus on the better - even humorous - moments can end up being flippant. Following the serious images associated with the war, there is a fear that one will lose humanity for the sake of the big picture. The shows I’ve seen done in commemoration of the First World War fall into neither of these traps.

For a war that claimed the lives of over thirty-seven million people as casualties (including those who were killed, wounded, or taken as prisoners and those who went missing), it should be no surprise that there’s a comedy about it. Such is the way we react to horrors. But what makes The Wipers Times inherently special within the genre of dark comedy is that the source material and the humor are one and the same. This show, written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, draws from a satirical magazine of the same name; this magazine was created by English soldiers and circulated in the trenches. Throughout the show, which follows the story of the magazine’s masthead, jokes from the actual Wipers Times are played out on stage.

Presenting gallows (or should I say trench?) humor on its own would be a dangerous game, especially since the gravity of World War One humor has been lost in the past one hundred years. The Wipers Times doesn’t give the audience a chance to disconnect the laughter from the dark reality in which these jokes were penned because this play is the story of how those jokes came to be. Beyond that, the show draws several comparisons between trench life and the lives of others, such as the generals who live safe lives holed up in the office and the wives who live in uninformed fear on the homefront. Through all the frustrations, the jokes continue and we get to see the humor for what it is: a brilliantly crafted coping mechanism.

Of course, the war wasn’t all jokes and sarcasm, morbid as the humor may be. Theatre doesn’t pretend that everything can be laughable. A darker take on the war comes in a production of Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead. The Finborough Theatre’s production of this somber story is the first time the play has been performed in Britain in eighty years. While a specific war is never mentioned throughout the play, Shaw wrote it in the 1930s and it is a biting critique of the First World War. The story revolves around six dead soldiers who refuse to be buried.

Shaw’s damning critique of war is a poignantly crafted story of the disconnect between soldiers and the rest of the world. When the captain and sergeant discover that these soldiers will not lie down to be buried, they travel to the gravesite and try to command the dead. The six soldiers do not follow these orders. Their commanders are at a loss; what power do they have if they are not obeyed? Though these commanders give a rousing speech about duty, the soldiers are not convinced. Duty is what got them killed in the first place. Desperate, the army brings the closest females (wives, mothers, etc.) of these soldiers to the burial site. The women’s pleas are met with resistance; all of the men are indignant that they were not allowed to live a full life that should rightfully be theirs.

The only people whom the dead six get along with are the living privates who were tasked with digging the grave. The dead were in the same position as these privates, tired and miserable and at the whim of their commanders. Shaw’s play is full of constant reminders that these soldiers, both dead and alive, are individuals. The six who died go through the play in constant struggle to regain their personhood instead of going down as merely pawns in an army. The isolation of such lives exists even between a soldier and his closest family.

Despite the distance from the event, the theatre still strives to encompass the many facets of the Great War. In many ways, these productions seem more genuine than any of the other memorials in London. Once pinned onto your lapel, poppies can be forgotten. The torches at the Tower of London are only lit at night, and even then, they only exist in a specific area of the city. Uniformed soldiers were only collecting money in some of the tube stations, and for only a few hours at that. However, a show forces you to sit and stop and pay attention. When a show does its job, it stays with you. When it comes to memorials that accurately reflect the events on which they focus, theatre is better equipped than any statue or paper flower could be. Good shows rely on the complexity of human experience, while memorials cannot exist without simplifying the events they commemorate.

(Photo by Lieutenant Ernest Brookes. As described by the Imperial War Museum, “Captain A W L Paget MC and Second Lieutenant P R J Barry MC of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards reading news of the Armistice to their men at Maubeuge, 12 November 1918.”)