The First World War in British theatre
thesisposted on 2022-03-28, 17:15 authored by Nathan Gregory Finger
More than a century since its declaration, the First World War is universally accepted as one of the defining events of the twentieth century. Socially, politically, economically and culturally the war is viewed as having been a watershed and marks the boundary between all facets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Unsurprisingly, it has been depicted in every artistic medium, from novels, memoirs, poems, theatre, film and the visual arts. Yet, while extensive scholarship exists for the majority of these forms, the war’s portrayal in theatre has been largely overlooked as a subject for study. The present project aims to redress this gap through an analysis of the most influential and commercially successful plays to be staged in Britain, set against the social atmosphere present at their time of production. What will become apparent is that the manner in which the war has been portrayed has never settled, but has remained in a constant state of flux. The project will cover four distinct periods, beginning with the war’s enactment, (1914-18). During this time the public’s understanding of the war was predicated on mythic constructions. This was the result of former Victorian and Romantic literary traditions and the widespread circulation of propaganda. The second period, (1919-38), denotes a time when those who had served and returned home came to see the mythic and romantic portrayals as inaccurate representations of their experiences. Works produced during this period reveal a conscious effort to counter former traditions by taking focus away from ennobled abstractions and placing them on the object of experience. During the third period, (1960-80), new, revisionist historians began to produce critiques of the conflict that cast the commanders and national leaders as the true villains. They were seen as having been out of touch with the realities of frontline conditions and overly reliant on out dated tactics. As a direct result, the war came to be seen as progressively devoid of meaning. Since the 1980s it has been accepted that the First World War was a meaningless conflict. However, contemporary works bring focus to bear on a celebration of the male friendships that formed during the war. In the face of a meaningless conflict soldiers are shown to devote themselves to one another as a means of psychological survival. This final period will reveal that a return to romantic traditions has occurred, albeit of a different variety from that seen during and at the beginning of the century, bringing portrayals of the war full circle. Today there no longer remain any living persons with first-hand experience of the war, and so the manner through which society constructs an understanding of the event must come from texts that portray it. As such, history itself will be shown to be a constantly shifting and evolving entity. Through performing an in-depth analysis of the selected plays and the broader themes pertinent at the time of their composition, this study will reveal that the theatre surrounding the Great War both responds to and exerts its own shaping influence on social attitudes; an influence that has been as culturally significant as any other work from any other artistic form.