NURSE: [to a stretcher case with a bandaged head] Don’t worry. We’ll soon have you back at the front.
This must be said first and foremost: I love Oh! What A Lovely War. Not the radio play, not the 1969 film, not the idea behind Illinois Theatre’s production up now at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, but the production itself. When you put yourself in the rhetorical position of reviewing, you are partly asking yourself essentially whether there was anything that could be done to help a play achieve the goals it sets for itself. Last night, despite the bitter cold and first flakes of snow, was one of those rare moments when I as both a teacher and a playgoer was fully warmed by a theatrical experience.
And this is certainly not a play that attempts to warm you in any way. A “musical entertainment” composed in the early ’60s by Joan Littlewood and Charles Chilton, it is a biting inditement of both our willingness to be a party to if not the cogs of warfare in war time, but also a critique of our resistance to the notion that war is part of our life stories in peace time. It is cyclical, generational, and has informed all of our lives to a unique degree since WWI, the focus of this production. Generically framed as a vaudeville act—that is mixing of specialty acts such as burlesque comedy with song and dance features—the trivializing tenor of the form underscored our own blasé when it comes to the material immediacy of warfare. The production also scaled up the vaudeville form by applying multimedia as a useful tool in an already medley form. One wall of the blackbox theatre was entirely take up with floor-to-ceiling projections of actual battle footage, and during the course of the production attrition data was chalked over it.
All the smarter was the decentering of power effected by the vaudeville form—where there is no protagonist or central characters with which to associate, but rather a number of figures and MCs—as well as the general movement the production required. Programs were handed out only after the production, as throughout the long benches we used to sit were continually moved and repositioned underneath us, sometimes again used for seating but as often used as platforms for dancing. There was no central location in the theatre from which a narrative emanated. The two other sides were used as sets, one as a board room for military deliberations and the other replicating a trench. The final wall had a live band, conducted by Cara Chowning, from which actors intermittently pulled instruments and performed themselves. In this way the play suggested that while there are certainly leaders in war, we followers, we that make up the nations of the war games direct where we choose to locate centers of power.
But perhaps what I loved best about the production is that it overtly (and not merely seemed, as in 44 Plays for 44 Presidents) targeting the immediate concerns of Krannert’s ethical constituency: the undergraduates. The announcement to turn off your cellphones was a complex one, teasing the undergrads about debating to leave after intermission knowing they were there for class credit. It also interrogated openly whether the University of Illinois had any business putting on plays critiquing warfare at all—made especially poignant as it was the day after Veterans’ Day. Furthermore, this was presentational theatre: that kind of theatre not interested in storytelling and narrative relate-ability, but rather that kind of theatre that works as a “site of passage for those immense analogical disturbances in which ideas are arrested in flight at some point in their transmutation into the abstract,” according to Antonin Artaud. It would have certainly been a production Artaud would have liked, cruel in its relentless marking of millions upon millions of deaths to absolutely no gain. As the University of Illinois celebrates the 100th anniversary of World War I’s start with a number of events, lectures, and exhibitions, I actually felt connected in an authentically disturbing way with this part of world history.
I am going to confess something here: when it is a really good play, something that fundamentally shifts or rattles the way I look at the world, I cry. I usually can make it out of the theatre, but then I typically need to walk home, weeping all the way. I’m not sad, but rather this is my reaction to being emotionally overwhelmed by art. When I first visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome, I pretty much saw nothing of it because I couldn’t stop from tearing. I did the same when I left the Steppenwolf production of Good People, and the Court Theatre production of Titus Andronicus; it’s just my tell. At the end of the production, Thom Miller as the MC shattered the fourth wall by removing his bowler hat and detailing all the members of his family, from great grandfathers in the Great War to brothers in our wars, who served in the military. Then every single actor in the very large (and impressively balanced) ensemble stood against the projection wall, stated there name and their lineage in warfare rather than taking bows, rather than evacuating the seriousness of the experience. There were stories of grandfathers just missing boats that sank, fathers leaving camps just before they were obliterated, siblings serving in foreign wars and others disallowed to serve because of their race. I started to loose it when one young man confessed being the great grand son of General Patton, and then was nearly lost when the last in the line, Mark E. Fox, articulated that he himself had served as a marine for six years. And rather than taking an applause, the cast remained behind encouraging attendees to chat about their families, their stories as connected to the history of war we all share.
I walked all the way home in the 29-degree air, not bawling but sniffling, thinking about my younger brother and only sibling, Jacob. He’s in his early 20s still, and had there been a draft in our lifetime, as a soccer and football star he would have been one of the first to go I’m sure. I thought about both of my grandfathers, one with six brothers and the other four, all of whom served in either the Korean or Vietnam wars. I thought about the handful of band geeks from high school who ended up doing military service. Usually any student that I have that also comes from Hawai’i are military kids, and I couldn’t help but think about them, too. The play didn’t make me angry that war existed (though certainly partly), but rather by interrogating the ways in which war has been woven into our heritage, our identities, so much so that it is only a passing consideration. If you only go to one thing at Krannert this year, make it this play. That’s all I can say.
- Illinois Theatre‘s production of Oh! What A Lovely War plays in the Studio Theatre at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus 6-16 November 2014.
- Note, there is absolutely no late seating for this production due to experimental seating (trust me, I’ve tried).
- You can also download the program for this production; and consider attending a special roundtable talk-back with MFAs and graduate students about the production this Friday.