Don’t let the jingoists highjack First World War commemorations
When Oh What A Lovely War was premiered at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East in March 1963, it sent its audience wild with approbation.
But at the time many mainstream critics were less than enthusiastic about Joan Littlewood's musical satire on the first world war.
The Guardian noted that "it was as unfair as any powerful cartoon" and The Times wrote that it repeated "the familiar view of the war as a criminally wasteful adventure. A sitting target for anyone who wants to deliver a bludgeoning social criticism without giving offence."
Not only did Littlewood, founder of the legendary Theatre Workshop which has inspired theatre practitioiners ever since, present a completely new take on the history of that horrendous war. She also made an iconoclastic break with West End theatrical tradition.
The show, whose title is derived from the music hall song Oh! It's A Lovely War, has become a marker in British theatrical history. Littlewood used Bertholt 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, imaginative lighting and sound effects, the audience is transported straight to the trenches.
Littlewood sought the truth in the stories told by ordinary soldiers, their bawdy and irreverent songs and the earthy humour that helped them keep sane in the abattoirs of the trenches.
She contrasted their lives with the pompous pontification of top officers and government politicians at home, totally divorced from reality and lacking any sense of empathy. The piece used facts and statistics, juxtaposed with reminiscences and versions of songs of the time, as an ironic critique of the reality of the war.
Previously WWI had always been seen through the glorifying spectacles of misty-eyed nationalism or the tragedy-laden, fatalistic lines of war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. And now Education Secretary Michael Gove is trying to wind the clock back once more.
Left-wing myths about the first world war peddled by the TV series Blackadder belittle Britain and clear Germany of blame, he wrote in a recent Daily Mail article. He lambasted historians and TV programmes that denigrate patriotism and courage by depicting the war as a misbegotten shambles.
The conflict, according to Gove, was a just war to combat German aggression. The minister, who has already rewritten the school history curriculum supposedly to give pupils a better grasp of the broad sweep of British history, reserves his greatest scorn for those who have sought to depict the soldiers as lions led by donkeys, a metaphor starkly underlined in Littlewood's musical.
The coalition governmemnt has already pledged £50 million in public money to mark the event, with school trips to battlefields and ceremonies planned over four years, hundreds of hours of TV programming and, no doubt, military parades and exhibitions of the latest military hardware.
The idea for Theatre Workshop's production started in 1962 when Gerry Raffles heard Charles Chilton's BBC radio musical about the war, The Long, Long Trail. It was written and produced by Chilton, who later went on to work with Ewan MacColl - later Littlewood's husband and collaborator - on their famous radio ballads series.
Theatre Workshop developed productions through improvisation and initially the cast would learn the original script but then have that taken away and have to retell the story in their own words for performance. Each member was tasked with learning about a particular topic, such as Ypres or gas.
As the production developed it also used scenes from The Donkeys by military historian - and future Conservative politician - Alan Clark. With his contribution initially unacknowledged, Clark took Littlewood to court to get credited.
Littlewood decided on pierrot costumes from commedia dell' arte as a "soft, fluffy entertainment mode" in ironic contrast to the tin hats which the cast also wore. There is no blood or realistic horror - words and sounds alone provoke the images in the mind. Richard Attenborough's sugary film of 1969 based on Littlewood's musical was, sadly, a travesty of everything the play achieved and represented.
Oh What A Lovely War is undoubtedly one of the greatest anti-war plays ever and its revival by Theatre Workshop in Littlewood's original theatre in Stratford East next month can't come too soon as an antidote to the Establishment's spin on the conflict. One of the theatrical events of the coming year, it's not to be missed.