Celestial singing and words from men who were there evoke a moment of peace on a stark, 80-mile long World War I battlefield in All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, a production by Theatre Latté Da, Cantus, and the Hennepin Theatre Trust. For more than 95 years, the ceasefire between soldiers on opposing sides was thought to be a myth, but this moving play reveals that it was a true event.
“In the first months of the war and leading up to Christmas,” says writer/director Peter Rothstein, “spontaneous concerts happened across No Man’s Land. The trenches were only 40 yards apart. On a cold winter night sound really carries. We quote a letter that says, ‘I could hear a chap’s cough.’ On Christmas Day, the men stopped fighting. They stepped out of the trenches and shared food, tobacco, and photos of loved ones and sang songs, played a game of soccer, and buried their dead.”
Singer-songwriter John McCuchen’s Christmas in the Trenches instroduced Rothstein to the truce and propelled him into five years of research and collaboration with musical arrangements by Eric Lichte, artistic director of Cantus.
|all is calm: the christmas truce of 1914, playing through december 20 at the pantages theatre. for tickets ($27.50-$35.00) and information, see hennepintheatretrust.org. hear an interview with peter rothstein on catalyst at kfai.org.|
Theatre Latté Da re-connects audiences with musical theatre in innovative ways. Cantus, the Minneapolis-based all-male a capella vocal ensemble, has a diverse repertoire, from spirituals to Renaissance music, world music, and chant. They are perfect partners for this extraordinary production. Actors John Catron, David Roberts, and Alan Sorenson brilliantly portray more than 30 historical figures.
Patriotic songs like “Will Ye Go To Flanders” and popular tunes like “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” coupled with letters expressing the initial enthusiasm of young men off to war, set the scene. One lovely surprise is the first set of carols, arranged by English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams, who also served in WWI. Familiar songs like “O Tannenbaum” and “Good King Wenceslas” entwine with medieval Scottish ballads and carols of Wales, England, France, and Germany, which deepen their meanings in this context. Gorgeous music is seamlessly interwoven with vivid observations from diaries, letters home, and inscriptions on gravestones of soldiers—including poet Wilfred Owen, killed at 24 on the battlefield. Winston Churchill, Pope Benedict XV, and some generals are also heard from, but at heart All Is Calm is a solders’ story.
“The sadness for me was that these men were the foot soldiers. They’re heroes, but they’re not the ones we know about,” says Rothstein of his five years of research. He traveled to the Western Front—to “the exact spot” of the Christmas Truce—and went to London, Paris, and Brussels to uncovering this hidden history. “These men were not making strategy. They weren’t politicians. [Still,] these men deserve a place in history.”
The men of Cantus are simply magnificent in their interpretations. You will never hear some of these songs in quite the same way again. “Auld Lang Syne” and “Silent Night,” the song that’s been most associated with the Christmas Truce, become moving testaments to both grief and hope amidst the horrors of war.
All Is Calm is a perfect marriage of music and text, a contemporary classic that should become an annual holiday tradition. Rothstein has toured the production, now in its second year, to eight cities, going to colleges and VA hospitals.
“High school history made no mention of the Christmas Truce,” says Rothstein, who began working on the play as a way to channel his frustration after the U.S. invaded Iraq. “Until recently few knew about it. The propaganda machine started and got going full swing in WWI. They didn’t want anyone to know that Fritz and Johnny were having fun on the battlefield. We’ve been denied this history.”
|This event is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.|