Oh What A Lovely War, Theatre Royal Stratford East
There can’t be many productions playing in London that begin with an announcement that the evening’s entertainment will be dedicated to Tony Benn – a statement followed by an unprompted and hearty ovation. With top price tickets for the revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit with, soon to be Dame, Angela Lansbury clocking in at £92.50 (plus booking fee, naturally) one can’t begin to imagine why the trend hasn’t caught on.
Somewhere Michael Gove would be pursing his lips at the news and busying himself with the retrieval of the hatchet he had carefully placed in Boris Johnson’s back before steadying himself for another swing at the leftist establishment. This is the combined massed ranks of the cultural elite and academia who have the temerity, if his recent diatribe is to be believed, to suggest that Britain is not necessarily as ‘great’ as Mr Gove thinks it is.
Mr Gove is one of those unfortunate politicians that have managed to hold onto the illusion of the Edwardian gentleman that saw Britain truly as the empire on which the sun never sets and, unlike those pesky Europeans from across the channel, a country that left behind a colonial legacy of democracy, fair play and cricket. No matter that there are those in Kenya and Malaysia who may choose to disagree with this assessment.
That people still express these opinions in the 21st century points to the continuing necessity of productions like Oh What A Lovely War. 50 years from its debut, 100 years from the start of World War One, it is clear that proximity to power still seems to blind our political leaders to some painful home truths about our nation’s history. Indeed the myopia of Mr Gove is not a million miles from the delusions of Field Marshall Haig that allowed him to happily order men to walk into the field of fire whilst declaring there must be ‘no squeamishness over losses’.
There is no-one who can seriously engage in the content of Oh What A Lovely War and see a show that reflects at best an ‘ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage’.
It may be true that Littlewood’s original production could have at least mentioned that the sense of traditional values of a large part of the embedded aristocracy meant that they were among the first to volunteer for the front and as a result suffered absolutely catastrophic losses, and far disproportionate to any other social class.
However this is a straw man argument and deliberately ignores the fact that the show quite clearly shows a deep and abiding love of Britain, and most particularly the men and women of Britain. It shows only compassion for the hapless men who were destined to be pinned between German machine gun fire and the equally lethal artillery of their own lines. It demonstrates every virtue that Mr Gove accuses it of undermining. There is never any doubting that Littlewood believes in the courage and virtue of the men who signed up to go to war, even when the lies and insanity of decision-making of their superiors, far from the front, must have been clear to them.
Has the show lost its power? Part of what made the original a revelation was that these attitudes were genuinely radical. They were telling stories that felt totally anti-establishment, that did not fit with the myth of the just and true war, of heroic stands and grand plans. However the seismic shift in history scholarship, away from the ‘great man’ theory of leadership and towards the narratives of everyday men and women has meant that World War One has been mined from every conceivable angle.
We now know ‘Tommy’s story’ inside-out; we recognise the deprivations of the trenches and the incompetence of the commanders. Increasingly the pendulum has begun to swing towards the middle-ground and new arguments highlight the complexity of the war and go further than the cheap jibes and easy solution found on both sides of the debate. This then begs the question of whether there is still a purpose for Littlewood’s production or has its iconic status turned it into the very thing that it probably most wants to avoid – something co-opted by the establishment as one of the official narratives for understanding the war?
Have its pierrot costumes – a genuinely radical piece of alienation and one that likely caused outrage by the insouciant use to represent a generation that died defending their country – become a rather comfortable fit; a prop that must be employed without really thinking about their purpose?
To an extent Oh What A Lovely War has become a victim of its own success. It has been turned into a museum piece, something to be preserved rather than something that maintains its own dynamism through constant evolution. In contrast one of the reasons that Shakespeare’s plays prove continually malleable is because his work sits outside its origins, and it is those productions that defer too much to every line of text that often fall flattest.
It is true that the play is beginning to show its age and more radical would have been to turn the whole thing inside out and see how it could be updated to increase its relevance to the modern era. However it is written in such a structured, formal manner and so intentionally uses source material that places it in a specific place and time that it is hard to see how it could be modernised in a coherent or logical manner.
And even if the production feels as dated as some of the MC’s jokes, it is still capable of shocking, brutal power. As interesting as the characters are, ultimately it is the ticker tape that rolls behind the head of Haig as he outlines his battle plans that provides his final condemnation. It is the statistic, the asserted fact, the number-crunching, which ultimately acts like a punch to the gut. We are so used to the documentaries that focus on the individual that perhaps we have begun to lose sight of the sheer vastness of the war.
Oh What A Lovely War gives us numbers that we can’t even begin to quantify as individual units. 17,000 men for the gain of 0 yards, or twice the number of people taking part in the London Marathon. 60,000 men died at the first day of the Somme, or the equivalent of filling every single seat at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium. Across Europe 10 million dead, 25 million wounded, approximately the entire current population of Canada; one in three dead, everyone else wounded.
Mr Gove, an intelligent man who must surely loathe himself for pandering to the Tory right with such witless arguments, argues that William Phillpott has recast the battle of the Somme as being a precursor for allied victory. That may indeed be true, it doesn’t however mean that it was right.
As long as people like Mr Gove continue to espouse viewpoints like this and con people into believing the political-military narrative of the ‘great war’ then Oh What A Lovely War must continue to be shown in the hope that it can redress the balance. The only thing that was ever ‘great’ about the ‘Great War’ was the number of casualties.
A snippet from the film
More on Oh What A Lovely War
Michael Billington reflects on the original production
Keith Tynan’s review from 1963
Charles Spencer in The Telegraph
Mark Shenton in London-Theatre
2 thoughts on “Oh What A Lovely War”