Soldiers feed a pantomime horse from a helmet in the snow

The theatrical entertainment industry might not spring to mind initially thinking back to the First World War, but it played a crucial role throughout, from charity to propaganda. At the home front and on the front line, seeing a play performed might well have been welcome release from day to day experiences. To dig in a little deeper, we spoke to Helen Brooks, a Theatre Historian and Senior Lecturer in Drama at the University of Kent, and co-investigator at the ‘Gateways to the First World War’ project.

Brooks notes that even though the performer and singer Lena Ashwell has demonstrated the importance of entertainment at the front, the importance of theatre is largely absent. Which is strange, she continues, since at the time it was the most popular form of entertainment and can tell us a lot about people’s experiences of and attitudes towards the war. The kinds of plays staged during the war highlight people’s preoccupations, fears, and concerns. At the start of the war for example there are lots of plays representing the danger of naturalised German spies, reflecting the hysteria around spies.

Promotional poster for WW1 era play about German spies












There are also plenty of recruitment plays encouraging men and women to do their respective duties however as the war progressed different themes came to the fore. One of the most successful plays of the war, The Better ‘Ole by Bruce Bairnsfather, brought cartoon Tommies, Bert, Old Bill, and Alf to life, poking fun at the experience of war in a way that many soldiers felt reflected their real experiences.

By going beyond scripts, and looking at production patterns too, Brooks has been able to actively explore questions of local experiences of the conflict, women’s roles and changes through time. For instance, as conscription became tighter, there were fewer and fewer parts for male performers. In attempts to galvanise the public, there were also highly patriotic plays at key phases in the war and many that sought to equalise class barriers.

Theatre also played an important role in recruitment in the early stages of the war. Patriotic plays such as The Call, Heroes Every One of Them, and The King’s Man, were written quickly once war broke out and served as clear recruiting tools. Recruiting Sergeants were also often placed in theatres to sign up enthusiastic audience members on the spot.

Theatre productions were also key to raising funds for the ongoing conflict, as early as August 1915 there were as many as 4 benefit matinees a week in London alone, and one drama critic estimated that the theatre had already raised more than £100,000 for war charities. Therapeutic performances were also provided for wounded soldiers, part of a larger process of ‘refitting’ them for the war.

Soldiers watch some frontline actors perform in the ruins of a building

This maintenance of morale at home often, and unsurprisingly perhaps, meant that the most common figure to appear in war-themed plays is the British Tommy, famously in the guise of the Walrus moustached Old Bill. Yet while Australian and Canadian soldiers appear in a number of plays there are remarkably few plays that represent a non-British experience, and none that address the Easter Rising. Although, Helen adds, there are several that depict the lives of refugees from France and Belgium.

Helen’s work reminds us that there is still a great deal that we do not yet fully understand about the conflict and the multitude of ways it impacted on the social landscape. Helen is currently engaged alongside a group of volunteers to compile an online database of all the new drama written for performance during the war; with the aim being to provide some accompanying scripts for community groups, public historians and schools. As such, she is always interested in hearing from community groups or individuals looking to collaborate on related projects in an attempt to bring us a little closer to what is fast becoming distant memory.

Helen is also working on a book exploring representations of Germans as villains in melodramas and trench plays, which will be published next year.

Visit the Gateways to the First World War project here:

Or follow them on Twitter @GatewaysFWW

Words by Helen Brooks.
Edited, abridged and interviewed by Ned Suesat-Williams.