Giving peace a chance
Theatre Latté Da and Cantus combine to re-create a moment when soldiers chose peace over war.
by GRAYDON ROYCE, Star Tribune
December 20, 2007
They gathered on ground that was drenched in the blood of their countrymen — to share peace in the midst of war. On Dec. 24, 1914, Allied troops saw flickering lights along German trenches on the western front. Soon, the sound of "Stille Nacht" filled the cold, clear night. British troops responded with carols, voices rising from their subterranean warrens 60 yards across the no-man's land dividing the combatants.
By Christmas morning, German and Allied troops were cautiously tiptoeing up to barbed-wire barriers to glimpse fighters who days earlier had been shooting at them.
All along the western front, news rippled of these spontaneous truces, of soldiers exchanging smokes, candy, food and photos as they ventured forth to gather their dead and share "Happy Christmas." Impromptu football matches broke out in areas that had just been cleared of bodies.
Working-class Brits were amazed to learn the lights they'd seen the night before were from small fir trees — tannenbaum, the Germans called them. The kaiser had sent thousands to the front, complete with candles.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was long a bizarre blip on history's timeline — obscured by governments embarrassed by their soldiers' unwillingness to wage war on the holiest day of the year. Slowly, though, the story has spread into public discourse, and now Theatre Latté Da and the vocal ensemble Cantus have collaborated to tell the tale in a theatrical concert.
All Is Calm uses 26 songs and narration taken from combatants' journals to illuminate the moment when ragged bands of soldiers put a temporary stop to war — in some places for just the day, in others for nearly a week.
"There were eight truces along the front and more than 100,000 men took part," said Peter Rothstein, Latté Da's artistic director. "So it was an epic event, but very personal. I felt a responsibility to put a human face on war."
The show is conceived as a radio piece, with three actors portraying more than 30 characters and Cantus singers providing the a cappella voices that rang out along the 80-mile front.
"The heroes of the story are the guys in the trenches," Rothstein said.
Horror replaces glory
Warfare retained a patina of glory when troops marched forth in August 1914. However, technology — particularly the emergence of the machine gun as a defensive weapon — produced a grand-scale stalemate.
Soldiers who had assumed they would be home for Christmas that first year found themselves calf-deep in frigid muck, waiting to go over the top and spill their blood in fruitless raids.
As grandeur gave way to disillusionment, troops along the front found more commonality with their similarly deprived foes than they did with their families — comfortably ensconced far from the horror. Song became a bond. Germans would lob choruses of "Deutschland über alles" from their trenches, and Brits would sally forth with "God Save the King." Despite this odd comradeship, fierce enmity existed, particularly among western soldiers who had been taught that Germans were only one step above beasts.
These conditions, however contradictory, created an environment in which the Christmas truce could break out. Rothstein first heard of the incident in a song by folksinger John McCutcheon. Since then, historian Stanley Weintraub wrote a 2001 account, "Silent Night." Intrigued, Rothstein was determined to develop something, even if it wasn't "a full-fledged musical." For example, it would be impossible to re-create the epic scale or the visual presence of trench warfare. Too, how do you dramatize a moment that is remarkable for its lack of conflict? He approached Cantus with only the notion that the show would be driven by music. Everything else was up for grabs.
How to tell such a story?
Rothstein visited several museums in Europe last summer, walked through authentic and re-created trenches in Flanders and visited small towns near Ypres, Belgium, searching for a thread to hold his ideas together. He thought he might find the account of a single soldier to carry the story — much like Erich Maria Remarque's fictional construction All Quiet on the Western Front.
He did come upon a diary by Sir Edward Hulse of the Second Scots Guard, but it was a slice of life rather than a full tale. Finally, he settled on a documentary approach similar to that used by Tectonic Theater in The Laramie Project. Characters step up to read from their experience. By the end, you have a tapestry of voices rather than a single, clear narrative.
Woven among the stories are the carols. The centerpiece is "Silent Night," sung in four languages. Others include a mournful "Auld Lang Syne," made even more poignant by the sense of departure that promised no reunion. And an extraordinary moment was recorded by witnesses of Victor Granier, a tenor with the Paris Opera, singing "O Holy Night."
The show is presented as a radio concert, without costumes or set. Rothstein said he believes that fits with the means of communication in 1914 — oral and audio rather than visual.
"When we did a workshop, a woman just sort of lay down on a bench and closed her eyes," Rothstein said. "And you can do that with this piece. We don't have room so that everyone can lie down, but you can close your eyes and simply listen."
There would be three more Christmases during World War I, but the radical peace introduced that first year by foot soldiers was never replicated. Officers quickly rotated troops away from the front with the threat of execution for anyone thinking of fraternizing with the enemy. Rothstein chose a poignant diary entry from a Brit near the end of All Is Calm.
"A German soldier was walking along his parapet carrying a bucket when one of the members of my company, further up the line, took deliberate aim and shot him. Inevitable perhaps, but I felt unhappy that it was one of us that had broken the unwritten trust. ... The war was on again and with a vengeance."