Monday, March 2, 2015


I was teaching a graduate seminar topic titled “Twentieth Century Plays about War” in 2003 and the first assignment requested the students to find plays relating to World War One. The script could be from any country, but it needed to be available in English. This search revealed several remarkable plays including Miracle at Verdun (Das Wunder um Verdun) written in 1930 by Austrian playwright Hans Chlumberg (1897-1930). His untimely death was a result of injuries he received when he fell into the orchestra pit during a dress rehearsal of this drama, as it was being staged in Leipzig, Germany.

Chlumberg had experienced World War One as a teenage lieutenant of a cavalry unit on the Italian Front. After the War, he began writing anti-war plays. Miracle at Verdun was his fourth play. More biographical information relating to Chlumberg is available in a book titled The Hooded Eagle: Modern German Drama on the New York Stage by Peter Bauland. This volume was published by Syracuse University Press in 1968. See pages 106-108.  

Verdun was the site of a long, horrendous battle and for several decades after the war it carried an emotional response to its name. The Battle of Verdun commenced on March 6, 1916. The French anticipated an attack and added infantry reinforcements as well as a group of fighter pilots known as “the Storks” which increased their aircraft numbers to 120.  The Germans had 168 planes, 14 observation balloons and 4 Zeppelins.  Verdun marks the largest use of aircraft in the war to date as an adjunct to the infantry battle waged on land.  The land battle continued daily until December 22, 1916.  One side did not win at Verdun, but it was the longest battle in history up to that date. It ended as a result of generals from both sides being moved to other battlefronts: the Kaiser was persuaded that the Verdun offensive was a failure. The French believed it was a stalemate.  France suffered 377,231 casualties; Germany counted 337,000—a total exceeding 700,000, including approximately 420,000 dead. This futile ten month battle clearly evokes the senselessness and suffering of war. The title of the play must have had audiences, especially the Europeans, clearly wondering what the play would reveal.

The script of the play is divided into scenes rather than acts.  The story commences twenty years after the end of World War One—August, 1934.  A group of tourists from America, England, France and Germany are on an excursion organized by Cooks Tours featuring World War One battlefields as a remembrance of the war on its twentieth anniversary. This group of tourists arrived at a clearing in the Argonne Forest in France where there is a small military burial ground. The tourists begin to bicker with each other over the role their respective countries played in the war. The next scene of the play introduces the dead soldiers who rise from their graves and discuss their former lives. The dead French and German soldiers leave their gravesites and return to their communities where they no longer have a place and are viewed as liabilities. Eventually, a group of Ambassadors and other representatives from several nations convene to determine if the resurrection of the soldiers is a miracle. The group’s final determination is that the resurrection of the soldiers is not a miracle and the soldiers must return to their graves. The final scene of the play reveals that the previous scenes related to the dead soldiers were actually a dream of one of the German tourist named Heydner.

The play Miracle at Verdun is experimental in its writing style. It also required production methods that were innovative in 1930. The script combines mainly elements of expressionism with realism and it uses a pattern of moving from episode to episode. Frequently each scene is built around a different character; therefore, the emotional range of a central character is never explored as it is in a realistic drama. “Verdun” requires a style of production that incorporates different ways of holding the audience’s attention throughout, since the play does not focus on the actions and thoughts of a single protagonist. The original German production utilized theatrical techniques developed by Edwin Piscator, an innovative German theatre director and producer who was experimenting with staging components now recognized as early elements in the Epic Theatre style that was further developed by Bertolt Brecht.

NOTE: Productions in English of Miracle at Verdun will be discussed in the forthcoming post.

Reference for Battle of Verdun information:
    Burg, David F. and Purcell, L. Edward.  Almanac of World War I. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998.

Reference for Miracle of Verdun photo at top: 
    Nadel, Norman. a pictorial history of the THEATRE GUILD. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1969. 111.

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