"Oh What a Lovely War"
March 14, 2000
Thom Parkhill

I'm sure my experience of this production is informed by the understanding I have of myself as a war-resister. I was sure the play had been written in the late 1960s or the early 1970s. I had thought that although the play was "about" the first World War, it was really about the Vietnam War. Since that is simply not the case -- the play was written in 1963 -- I take it this says more about me than about the production. And so will what follows I suspect.

Of the many things I want to write about -- Ilkay's brilliant casting of the war profiteers as women in order to counter the subtle 1960s sexism of the play for example; or in that scene Juliette Bossé's wonderful cigar-smoking tycoon; or the moment when one of the (not self-aware, maybe even ditzy) women decides she would rather make munitions than funeral shroud cloth because the thought of the latter gave her the willies; or the wonderful contribution of the band -- I will write of only two: the emotional roller coaster of the play, and how people come to believe what they do about the efficacy and justness of war.

In the first act or half -- I'm not sure this was really a play so much as a musical review -- I found myself often not knowing whether to laugh at the "war game" or be somber in the face of war. More than once I caught myself choking on my laugh as things changed so quickly from "war play" to depictions of the real thing. In the second half I found myself wishing that the war would be over as the body count mounted and the trenches became more gruesome. Not that the production would be over; that the war would be. I guess that's how I was supposed to feel. I guess that the production was getting me to feel this way while entertaining me at the same time. For example, I found myself near to laughter hearing the two laconic, exhausted soldiers (??? and Jeff Richardson); we had no program preview night) discuss whether Fred had gotten sick or been sucked into the ooze of the trenches. Laughter: things had gotten that strange.

Which brings me to how people come to believe war is necessary or efficacious or the noble thing to do or for glory and honour, or a way to become a man, or what God wants. The scene I remember is the one, probably set in Hyde Park, London, in which a pacifist (again played brilliantly by Juliette Bossé) is haranguing a crowd, who are hurling insults at her. The scene ends with her exasperated, screaming something like, "Do you want Germany to be beaten into the ground?" and the crowd responding with an enthusiastic, "Yes!!" The specter of Nazi Germany rising from the ashes of this kind of defeat haunts the end of this scene. In fact that specter haunts the antiwar message of the play. The nasty Nazis are held up as a caution against any movement against war. World War II is, in popular history at least, the last Just War. I don't know enough about the complicated history to say much here, but I always wonder about such unchallenged cherished beliefs.

More easily challenged is the idea that "we" are somehow different from those boobs who were so easily convinced to march off as lambs to slaughter (another moment of choked laughter in the production) or to work in munitions plants and cheer on the cute Aussies. We are not so different. I have no confidence that I could work against a consent so deftly and completely manufactured as the one that smiled on so much killing for so little from 1914 to 1919. During the Vietnam War there was no universal consent. In fact, there was a large contingent of dissent, large enough finally to make a difference in US government policy. It was relatively easy to resist the war in that climate. There were "draft counselors" helping individuals resist more effectively; there was an "underground railroad" helping enlisted war resisters get to Canada. There was no widespread consent when I was of the age of slaughter. Had there been, I'm not sure I would have been able to resist.

So my "truth in society" question is How do we come to agreed so willingly to such horror? The play tells us that the "Great War" was begun for some pretty silly reasons. The play tells us that war commanders are chosen for some pretty silly reasons, and are sometimes incompetent. I happen to agree with the message of these narratives, but that only underscores my vexation with this issue. How in the face of some obvious negative evidence do we come to believe that such slaughter of human beings is necessary, right, and even good?

Perhaps it has to do with coming to believe that there are only two courses of action; or two ways to see things. When the world is constructed so simply, I start to see things without much grey. Surely this kind of consent to war cannot be manufactured so simply....

"The war to end all wars." "The Great War." I am not convinced we could not all come to believe just this sort of dangerous shit again. I am not convinced we don't already have the seeds of such belief in us already. Sarajevo is still Sarajevo, but the tyrants have new names. Are we responding any differently than we did the other times? Really?

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