Thursday, April 9, 2015


The first several posts discussing specific World War One plays relate to two plays written after the war and one penned prior to it.  After reading numerous World War One plays from a number of different countries, I began to realize that the plays fell into three distinct segments—Pre War, During the War and Post War.  This is particularly true for plays written in Europe and Great Britain; however, there were also voices in North American that followed this pattern.

                   PRE WAR PLAYS (1910-1914)
This group of plays anticipated a war and discuss specific attitudes about how to be patriotic and/or heroic.  Others scripts make a case for not engaging in a war.  There are also plays that examined possible social and political changes that a war might introduce into the social and cultural environments.  Edward Knoblauch is one example of a playwright trying to use his art to provide insight into the growing possibility of a war.  Knoblauch, who changed the spelling of his name in 1916 to Knoblock when he became a British citizen, was born in the United States. He moved to Europe and then to London in order to establish his credentials as a playwright. He achieved his goal in 1911-12 with his box office success Kismet that successfully played in England, United States and France.  Knoblauch wrote two plays that fit the pre-war plays category.  Marie-Odile written in 1913 had its world premiere on Broadway in 1914. The declaration of war by England delayed its originally scheduled opening in London.  The story is set during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and relates to the impact of war on innocent citizens.  The other 1913 play Knoblauch wrote is My Lady’s Dress, which also appeared on stage in London and New York in 1914. Its premise is that all countries share the responsibility of maintaining the achieved level of civilization, since many basic commodities for daily life were based on international manufacturing cooperative practices.  His example is a lady’s gown.  The silk was spun in Italy, it was woven into fabric in France, lace was made in Holland, sable trim came from Siberia and the garment was assembled in London. It was sold at a Bond Street establishment.

          DURING THE WAR (1914-1918)
There are several different types of plays that fit into this timeframe. 

  •  Perhaps the most popular commercial plays written in English were the spy plays.  These plays were thrillers and often they included the element of romance.  They were very popular at the box office in many countries.  In Great Britain these dramas played to the public’s fears of embedded German spies, who had immigrated to England years earlier. Many of these plays also represented the British phobia of a surprise invasion by sea.

  •  Patriotic plays helped to encourage behavior relating to supporting the war effort as well as building hope and developing courage. Sarah Bernhardt commissioned a play by Eugene Morand shortly after the war commenced in France. The play titled Les Cathedrals raised the hopes of the French citizenry and the soldiers at the front by providing national pride in victories of the past. Another type of patriotic play may also be dubbed recruitment plays. These dramas urged the population to contribute actively to the war effort. A patriotic identity also applied to women who were urged to join the war efforts in such areas as nursing or working in armament factories.

  •  Social change plays were written during the war as well as after its conclusion.  There were plays concerned with the possible rise of Communism in their country following the war.  Many British and European plays in this category related to the erosion of the class system.    J. E. Harold Terry’s 1917 comedy titled General Post was a huge success throughout Great Britain for over a decade.  It is an entertaining play that was also well received on Broadway.  

  •  There were numerous antiwar plays written in many countries.  While some countries banned antiwar plays from their stages during the war years, these plays were read by individuals.  One stunning example is the play Ein Geschlecht, It was written by Fritz von Unruh, an officer in the German army, who was from an aristocratic Prussian military family.  He wrote this play in 1916, as he fought his way to Verdun.  It is reported that young German soldiers in the trenches read hand written copies of this play.  This drama was an international success throughout Europe after the war ended.

  •  Propaganda plays were assumed necessary to insure continuing support from the home front. These plays generally display negative sentiments about the enemy and his actions toward innocent victims caught in the jaws of war.  Outrageous acts of violence committed by the named enemy were thought to fuel the audiences’ hatred and add another layer of fear if the war was lost to this vicious foe. 

My listing of categories only focus on the plays presented on professional stages.  However, many theatre professionals presented productions written for charity events during the war years.  These plays were usually shorter in length and were often labelled skits or sketches.  There were various topics for these special events plays and many of the leading playwrights contributed to this type of endeavor. Some of the plays became popular and had a life beyond one event.

The third period for World War One plays will be discussed in the forthcoming post.

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