Sunday, January 30, 2011

Trying to get "Oh What a Lovely War!"

This Thursday, Elaine Ismert, a Crossroads photographer artist, and I will attend a rehearsal of the upcoming production of Oh What a Lovely War!. We’ll observe and listen and craft essays in various forms. I saw the film, directed by Richard Attenborough, when it came out in 1969. The last scene really stuck with me, reminded me of the expanse of Arlington National Cemetery. It’s a quite a moment in cinema.

The stage production of the play (first presented in 1963) is very English in its texture and dark humour, a creation from the mind of Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop in London. There’s a political story there and as war is an extension of politics, in the opinion of Clausewitz and other military theoreticians, this all strikes me as very interesting. More interesting is the setting for the upcoming production – The World War I Memorial in Kansas City.

Politically, Kansas City is fast asleep. Artistically, she’s very bold and alive, awakened. I’m trying to imagine this play performed on the street at Whitehall in London next to the Cenotaph or at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, or the Cenotaph at Martin Place in Sydney. I cannot. I’m not implying that performing this musical at our War Memorial is sacrilegious or inappropriate, but it does say something about our World War I Memorial. What it means to me is that in America we’re still trying to figure out all this war memory stuff. And perhaps because we’re at the (hopefully) tail end of a decade-long overseas expedition, we’re too tired to talk about war. We’re in the midst of burying our dead, after all, and the press is enjoying resurrecting our Civil War.

While this play may connect with today, I’m aware that Joan wrote it 44 years after the event. That distance was needed, maybe. That the times-that-were-a-changin’ (or beginning to do so), the Labour, old Labour government risings, the labeled leftish wing became acceptable enough to make this play something for the masses. The masses were somewhat ready, but our present masses are not.

I wish there was an equivalent or similar theatre piece in the American canon. Thinking of one, I cannot say that there’s our Yank-version of “Oh What a Lovely War”. And I’m not intending to stir up trouble but I’m really surprised that veteran groups have not commented upon the play’s place…it’s place in anti-war literature or the place where it will be performed. On one hand I am inspired, and on the other hand I’m wondering what the ghosts, the war dead would whisper…

There’s a nice preview piece here, in, but Jackie Emory doesn’t, in my opinion…get it. And this, my pre-preview homework piece, expresses that I still haven’t gotten it either. Complex stuff.

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