Friday, 22 May 2015

Between Battles 8: There’s no business like show business, especially on the front!

Caption: Anzac Concert Party, Photographer: A J Bromfield, North Queensland Photographic Collection.
Believe it or not the men depicted in this photograph are not professional performers. Rather they are fighting soldiers of the First World War who, in their time off, provided vital entertainment and comic relief for troops between battles.

The value of theatrical entertainment was recognized very early on during the First World War, and Australian and New Zealand soldiers had a particular knack for humorous comedy routines. Soldiers were often encouraged to audition for performance troupes run either by military units or by the YMCA, however entertainers were also sometimes hired externally in order to entertain the troops.

Concerts were usually put on at rest camps, some distance away from direct conflict, although the YMCA were known to hold shows within their own canteen huts significantly closer to the action. On special occasions and holidays ‘Division concert parties’ were put on for everyone’s enjoyment. These types of concerts included the ‘best of the best’ drawing performers from all the units that made up the division. These performances tended to be much better organized than individual unit’s impromptu gatherings, although audiences equally appreciated both. Senior officers clearly acknowledged the positive effect of theatre on the front because by the end of 1917 each military division had at least one military theatre company in operation.

Caption: A WWI Pierrot troupe poses in front of a tank. Pierrot performances were familiar to soldiers at the time and were effective ways of identify performers when costume resources were limited.  Source: Collins, Larry, J. “War Culture- WWI Theatre”.  Last modified December 13, 2012. Accessed May 9, 2015.
An enormous variety of material was performed for soldiers, from Shakespeare though to burlesque. Performances by Pierrot troupes were popular (these are easily recognized by ruffled costumes and skull caps often worn by performers), although it was most certainly the comedy routines that were most enjoyed. Comedies were a particular favourite not only because a good laugh lifted morale, but also because a significant amount of cross-dressing by the performing soldiers added to the amusement.

Caption: A ‘female impersonator’ is assisted in getting ready for a WWI performance. Female impersonators were often the highlight of a show and received the most applause. Source: Collins, Larry, J. “War Culture- WWI Theatre”.  Last modified December 13, 2012. Accessed May 9, 2015.
It was difficult for military units to maintain regular performance groups because of casualty rates, and because of the high mobility of military units. A unit never stayed in one place for very long and a stage could not be transported. Performance venues were sometimes difficult to find although resourcefulness allowed performers to re-purpose old barns or ruins they came across.

According to Larry J Collins, in Theatre at War, concert parties fulfilled a number of roles for audiences and performers alike, including providing a ‘platform on which [soldiers’] grievances about food, conditions, sergeants and officers could be aired’. Theatre also played an important role in the recovery of wounded soldiers ‘according to military doctors’. But most importantly it reminded the troops of home and  of a future when the types of activities they now undertook between battles would simply be ordinary activities of enjoyment.

Further Reading/References:
- Collins, L. J. Theatre at War, 1914-18: Houndmills, Great Britain: Macmillan Press, 1998.
- Collins, Larry, J. “War Culture- WWI Theatre”.  Last modified December 13, 2012.
  Accessed May   9, 2015.
- Holden, Robert. And the Band Played On. Melbourne, Australia: Hardie Grant Books, 2014.
- Kent, David. From Trench and Troopship: the experience of the Australian Imperial Forces 1914-1919. Melbourne: Southwood Press, 1999.

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