Hippodrome programme - Special Collections and Archives, University of Kent

The Great War Theatre Project

In our latest Blog post, Dr Helen Brooks talks all things Theatre and WW1.

Dr Helen Brooks is Co-Investigator to Gateways to the First World War, an AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centre.

Helen is Principal Investigator of the Great War Theatre project and Co-Investigator of the Performing Centenaries project. She is a senior lecturer in Drama at the University of Kent, where she also teaches on the First World War Studies MA course in the School of History.

Hippodrome programme - Special Collections and Archives, University of Kent
Hippodrome programme – Special Collections and Archives, University of Kent

During the Great War the theatre was widely recognized for doing ‘its duty to the public’ as the Times put it one week after the armistice (18 November 1918). Throughout the war theatres raised money for wartime charities, kept up public morale, supported the rehabilitation and revitalization of the troops, and promoted patriotic messages. Yet the drama being produced was often seen as being poor quality and not addressing the current conflict. It is a perception which still holds firm today and it is partly for this reason that it has long been overlooked within scholarship.

Since 2016, under the banner of the Recovering First World War Theatre project (now the Great War Theatre project), a team of public researchers and academics have been questioning this long-held perception of wartime drama as either patriotic propaganda or ‘a little bit of Fluff’ (to use the title of Walter Ellis’s successful 1915 farce). We were helped in this, odd as it sounds, by the censorship of all British drama until 1968. Under the Licensing Act, any script being publicly performed in England, Scotland and Wales had to be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain’s office and the result is a comprehensive archive of scripts held at the British Library. It is here that we began our recovery of First World War drama.

Between spring 2016 and 2017, a team of 40 public researchers and academics worked through all the scripts – just under 3000 in total – sent in for licencing between August 1914 and December 1918. In doing this we were able to identify which plays were about the war and record data on them. The result is that we now have an extensive online database containing records on all of the  plays written during the war. For most plays the records include information on who wrote them, and where and when they were first performed. For those plays we identified as being about the war we also recorded how long they were, what they were about, how many parts they contained, and a summary of the plot from the licenser’s notes. With this data we are also now able to start comparing what was performed in different theatres, as well as how different themes and genres gained or lost popularity as the war progressed. We can also gain insights into the impact of the war on the theatre industry, as we see how the gender balance and size of casts changed over the course of the war.

One of the big surprises of this data analysis was finding that out of all the new plays licensed during the war, more than a quarter were about the conflict. These plays span a wide range of genres and attitudes towards the war. There are spy melodramas featuring dastardly naturalised Germans; patriotic sketches encouraging audiences to do their ‘duty’; light-hearted comedies about the military tribunal system for evading conscription; sentimental dramas about traumatised soldiers; serious dramas about grief, death and generational challenges, and political tracts decrying the dangers of industrial action. There are also some surprising topical pieces dealing with the death of Edith Cavell, the battle of Jutland, imperial identities and the entry of America into the war.

After the fascinating discoveries we made through our research at the British Library, we were still left with burning questions. Over lunches at the British Library we kept asking ‘were these war-themed plays successful?’, ‘where did they tour to?’, and ‘who were these playwrights?’. It was these questions which then led us to develop the second phase of the project, which launched in spring 2017. This was focused on identifying long-forgotten playwrights and mapping out the touring practices and reception of war plays.

To identify long-forgotten playwrights and map out the touring practices and reception of war plays, however, we needed a bigger team. Luckily we were successful in gaining support from the AHRC Engagement Centres Community projects, Gateways to the First World War, and the University of Kent. By Spring 2017 we had a network of more than 200 volunteers from as far afield as Truro and Glasgow. This team of volunteers is now working online and in local archives to trace performances and playwrights, enabling us to start mapping out touring patterns as well as producing biographies of long-forgotten playwrights. We are also finding that a number of the plays are in the public domain and are working to make them available to the public via our newly-launched website so that they can be explored in performance.

To find out more about the project and search our database of First World War plays, visit www.GreatWarTheatre.org.uk, or get in touch at Greatwartheatre@kent.ac.uk. If you fancy getting stuck into some historical research yourself we are always looking for new volunteers to help us in our work.



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