A history of theatre during World War One

By | Posted on 28-Oct-2020

A history of theatre during World War One

Throughout time, theatre has always been a way to escape reality. During World War One, theatre was a vital form of entertainment which took the audience’s minds away from fighting and boosted the morale of soldiers and civilians. We take a fond look back at just how important theatre was in World War One, from theatrical developments to the biggest shows.

In 2020, Private Peaceful will play at the Garrick Theatre. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s fictional wartime novel, Private Peaceful is the first original play to be staged since lockdown. Find out more about Private Peaceful.

Theatre during World War One

What was the purpose of seeing live theatre?

Even though they were performed far from the battlefields, wartime plays tugged at the nation’s heartstrings, reinforcing a sense of national unity and pride for Britain.

Wartime shows were a form of light relief during the era, yet going to see the newest production did not sit comfortably with everyone. Some questioned going to see theatre, and claimed that enjoying these shows was in bad taste to those fighting in Europe. Yet, British newspaper The Bystander contended this, saying “the love of fun is eternal” and that wartime plays should continue.

What would shows try to say? 

While audiences escaped reality for a short time, theatre provided a great opportunity to promote British views and the British identity.

During the war, lots of shows would follow a particular wartime theatre formula. There would be a struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ ideas in the midst of a German invasion or the enemy within. In each story, ‘English’ values would triumph foreign German ideas to boost the morale of civilians whose family members were fighting in Europe. Shows following this formula often sold well, with theatres and music halls attracting large crowds by the end of 1914.

Events on the Western Front were also screened in cinemas across the country. 20 million people watched the film The Battle of the Somme in 1916, where people saw the harsh realities of fighting in the war for the first time. Without these showings, the British public would not have known as much about the war atrocities.

Were there many theatres in London?

Savoy Theatre

There were many large performance spaces across the capital, such as Theatre Royal Haymarket, the Savoy Theatre and the Adelphi Theatre. As the young males fighting in the war, few were available to act in productions. Teamed with unreliable public transport, making a trip to the theatre during the war was not easy. After shows, productions would raise funds for servicemen, going towards theatrical equipment for soldiers.

Would many people go to see wartime plays?

As the general public wanted to go to the theatre to escape wartime reality, there was a great interest in putting on shows. However, an Entertainment Tax brought into power in 1916, which meant that ticket prices were increased to fund the war. Raising the prices meant some members of the public could no longer afford shows.

The tax should have been repealed in 1919 after the war was over, but it wasn’t eventually removed until 1960.

What did British audiences like during the war?

Audiences enjoyed wartime shows that allowed them to escape their surroundings and explore new worlds. Chu Chin Chow was a popular show with British audiences, which opened at His Majesty’s Theatre on 3rd August 1916. Loosely based on the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the show was a lavish musical, combining an exotic feel with a British-sounding score. The show even had live camels and donkeys appear on stage.

Were shows performed on the war front?

While serving the country, soldiers were treated to performances by comedians, ventriloquists and theatre troupes. Using whatever they had, soldiers came together during the war to form theatre troupes. A noteworthy theatre troupe is The Balmorals who would perform satirical sketches about current events. Their sketch “A Peep into the Future” saw a German soldier staring down a British periscope to shave, mocking German intellect.

Actors also signed up to military service, with 800 actors fighting in the war by the end of 1914. Professional and amateur performers came together to form The Gaieties, a theatre troupe that would later tour across the Western Front and entertain soldiers.

What are some of the biggest plays about the war?

Just under 3,000 plays were written during the war, with many more World War One-based stories penned in peacetime. We’ve collated a list of some of the biggest productions.

Night Watches, Allan Monkhouse (1916)

Set in a military hospital, Night Watches is a comedy where soldiers deal with shell shock. Characters aren’t given names with soldiers labelled as “First” and “Second” as they receive treatment from a nurse who keeps referring to the soldiers as “boys”. The play was written by Allan Monkhouse, who wrote for the Manchester Guardian during the war.

The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, J.M. Barrie (1918)

J M Barrie

Best known for his children’s fantasy Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie wrote wartime stories, in particular The Old Lady Shows Her Medals. The story follows Mrs Dowey who falsely claims she has a son fighting in the war. When she decides to spend her leave with a soldier, her life changes and she sets off to work, supporting the war front and increasing morale of everyone around her.

A Well Remembered Voice, J.M. Barrie (1918)

Tackling the sensitive topic of soldiers dying, A Well Remembered Voice shows how members of the public tried to communicate with the afterlife to speak to soldiers. When a young soldier named Jack appears to speak to a group participating in a séance, his parents attempt to re-establish contact and feel connected to their son once more.

War Horse (2007)

War Horse

Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse was published in 1982, with Nick Stafford adapting the story for the stage in 2007. Albert, a young boy travels to France in order to retrieve his horse Joey after being sent to aid the war effort. When reunited with Joey, Albert risks his life to bring him and his horse home, in this heart-wrenching tale. The story is famously brought to life with puppets and has toured the world, bringing this fictionalised World War One tale to millions of audience members.

Oh What a Lovely War (1963)

Oh What A Lovely War satirised wartime events, premiering in the West End in 1963. The British patriotism is clear, with songs titled “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Own Kit Bag” and “Old Soldiers Never Die”. The show tries to present the war without bombarding the deaths, with explosions featuring later in the production.

Journey’s End (1928)

First performed in 1928, Journey’s End has become one of the greatest World War One plays, written by Robert Sheriff after serving as an army officer. Set in the trenches in 1918, the play follows the lives of a British army infantry as German attacks on British soldiers creep ever closer. Laurence Olivier performed in the original cast, but the show was revived in 2011, starring Dominic Mafham and James Norton.