Thursday, December 19, 2019

ASF: "All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914"

As a must-see complement to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever that is playing on the Festival Stage, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Theatre production of All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 will leave you breathless after its one-hour running time.

Peter Rothstein's profoundly moving play is sung a capella by a gifted ensemble of ten actors who each play several roles: soldiers of various ranks in the World War I armies of the Allies led by Britain and the Central Powers led by Germany. They introduce themselves via recitations from actual letters and journals, and we come to know them as representatives of the masses of young men who volunteered or were conscripted. And we also hear laments and warnings from the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, whose words remind us of the human cost of war.

It is based on historic events on Christmas Eve 1914 when these opposing armies temporarily put down their arms and joined one another in the "no man's land" between the trenches to share gifts, stories, a game of football, and a lot of songs that expressed the universal language shared by all of humanity.

What was later to be called "the war to end all wars" is set at the Western Front in the early stages of the war when the men were singing "God Save the King" full of robust patriotic vigor, believing the war would be over before Christmas and they would all return home as heroes. Soon, the reality of war sets in with the death of a close pal, and they sing a plaintive "I Want to Go Home". -- Audiences are drawn into their plight.

The trenches along the Front were only about 80 yards apart in places, and history notes that they could hear their enemies cough when fighting stopped at night, and called each other "Fritz" or "Tommy" in a kind of good-natured taunting.

But the fighting was real, and the men's disillusionment was palpable. And it took common soldiers from both sides to accomplish what even the Pope could not: a temporary truce that started with the Germans placing a Christmas tree atop their trenches and singing "O Tannenbaum"; a lone German soldier stepped into the "no man's land" singing "Stille Nacht", inspiring the British to tentatively join in with "Silent Night", their differences forgotten for a short while as they continued several other Christmas carols.

A commanding officer brings the unsanctioned truce to end and orders the men back to their respective trenches, though they are allowed to bury their dead comrades. -- The war continued for four years, and the carnage and loss of life enormous. Later battles at Verdun and the Somme are indelibly etched in our collective memory as testament to the horrors of "The Great War" and the cost to human dignity.

As a lament to this loss of life and dignity, this production directed by Melissa Rain Anderson stuns her audiences with its simple messages and warnings. The richness of four-part men's harmonies, and the quality of individual voices ["O Holy Night", for example], stress the senselessness of war, a potent theme of All is Calm that leaves a lasting memory.