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Theatre in Review: All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (Theater Latté Da/Sheen Center)

Photo: Dan Norman.

An extraordinary moment in twentieth-century history is the subject of this carefully wrought, deeply moving piece: the Christmas Eve when, all along the Western Front, World War One briefly halted and soldiers on both sides emerged from their trenches to celebrate a moment of peace. To appreciate the almost supernatural quality of this experience of grace, try to image something similar happening along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, outside the Green Zone in Baghdad, or along the border in Gaza. The war was, surely, the ghastliest event in human history up to that point, a charnel house that resulted in the slaughter of millions. And yet, in the dark of night, enemies chose to treat each other as human beings.

Peter Rothstein's script, which was originally developed for radio, is a song cycle, using period tunes combined with a narrative pulled together from the letters, accounts, and autobiographies of those who were there, including Winston Churchill, as well as excerpts from the works of the warrior poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and the Irishmen Patrick McGill and Francis Edward Ledwidge. That it is likely to be a familiar tale matters not at all: From the moment that the company of eleven emerges from the darkness -- Marcus Dillard's lighting is stunning throughout -- this story feels freshly imagined and deeply felt.

One may be startled to hear, to the melody of "Alexander's Ragtime Band," the words "Come on and join, come on and join/Come on and join Lord Kitchener's army" as recruitment posters are unfurled, but it is indicative of the high spirits with which, for many, the war was begun. More than once, we hear the now-poignant assertion that "the war would be over by Christmas." One young Scotsman, noting the absence of young men in the countryside where he was raised, says, "I thought it would be nice to be with a lot of lads on something of a picnic."

This spirit of adventure evaporates in the trenches, where mud, floods, rats, and general discomfort are a way of life. Another early casualty is the belief in a quick and easy victory. And then there is the experience of seeing comrades die, horribly. One soldier describes his close friendship with Joe, with whom he "shared everything down to the paper and pen we needed to write home with and the blacking to polish our buttons." When shrapnel gets Joe, he adds, "That was me pal gone, and I was too full to speak to anybody after that. I never palled up with anybody else, not after you got that feeling."

Perhaps the oddest thing about life along the front was the sheer proximity of the warring sides. "Only yards separated us," says a private. "In fact, so close you could hear a chap coughing." Indeed, when groups of soldiers gathered in the front trenches to sing patriotic songs, we learn that "on calm evenings the songs from one line floated to the trenches on the other side and were there received with applause and sometimes calls for an encore."

Partly because they coexisted only a few feet apart and, perhaps, because Pope Benedict XV in early December called for both sides to "cease the clang of arms while Christendom celebrates the Feast of the World's Redemption" -- a request accepted by the Germans and officially rejected by the British -- the seemingly impossible happened. In at least one case, a captain of the Scots Guards put together "a select little party" to take a position next to the German trenches and drown out "Deutschland über Alles" with "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," but soon trees were put up and soldiers emerged from their below-ground redoubts to sing, exchange cigarettes, share addresses and family photos, and take part in an impromptu football match. Demonstrating the sheer madness of the conflict, a German recalls working in London as a barber, on the same street as a British private's uncle. "They could all speak very good English," the private adds, "because before the war Britain was 'invaded' by Germans. Every pork butcher was German, every barber's shop was German, and they were all over here getting the lowdown on the country. It's ironic when you think about it, that he must have shaved my uncle at times and yet my bullet might have found him and his bullet might have found me."

Music is the thread that holds the evening together, providing an emotional bridge that crucially supports a story made up of a collage of anecdotes. (There is, nevertheless, considerable suspense, and a kind of transgressive thrill, at the sight of soldiers breaking protocol and putting themselves entirely in harm's way.) You can expect to hear many of the war's evergreens, including "Pack Up Your Troubles," "Keep the Home-Fires Burning," and "God Save the King"; most of the Christmas carols are standards, as well. (There are some amusing surprises, including a lament that begins with "Grousing, grousing, grousing," set to the melody of the hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy." But everything is transformed by the context in which it is sung, the richly resonant musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, and a golden-voiced cast. Among the more unforgettable moments is "Silent Night," delivered in English, French, and German, and both sides stopped short by the voice, in a nearby trench, of Victor Granier, of the Paris Opera, offering a haunting French rendition of "O Holy Night." In perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment, the armies take this opportunity to bury their dead, concluding by facing each other and reciting the Twenty-Third Psalm in two languages.

All of this is handled with tremendous restraint by Rothstein, who also directed; Lichte, the music director; and the company, all of whom clearly understand that this material needs no underlining. In addition to Dillard's lighting, which creates one understatedly beautiful tableau after another, Trevor Bowen's costumes look authentic and Nicholas Tranby's sound achieves an ideal transparency.

I'm sure I don't need to explain how meaningful All is Calm can be for audiences in these tribal times -- or in the wake of the struggle over Brexit -- but part of All is Calm's beauty is that it neither oversells nor discounts the importance of this event. As is noted in an epilogue, it was never to be repeated, and it did nothing to stop the murder of nine million. And yet, one member of the Queen's Regiment comments, "I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life." An officer in the Scots Guards adds, "If I had seen it on a cinematograph film, I should have sworn that it was faked." As Owen wrote, "War broke: and now the winter of the world/With perishing great darkness closes in." But for one night, this wasn't true, and for those who survived, it was not to be forgotten. -- David Barbour

(26 November 2018)

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