“All is Calm” celebrates World War I’s storied Christmas truce of 1914

By Bliss Bowen

The cast of “All is Calm” sings in many languages
Photo by Dan Norman Photography

Even by the standards of modern warfare, World War I was brutal. Raging from July 28, 1914, through Nov. 11, 1918, it ushered in mechanized weaponry — armored tanks, flamethrowers, machine guns, planes, as well as the chemical horrors of chlorine and mustard gas — and claimed an estimated 15 to 19 million lives. One hundred years later, WWI still ranks as one of the most gruesome and lethal conflicts in human history.

Against that backdrop, the Christmas truce of December 1914 seems even more miraculous. At several places along the Western Front, Allied and German soldiers warily ventured into No Man’s Land, the frozen open ground between their muddy trenches — which were sometimes only feet apart — and shared cigarettes, chocolate and rum, sang Christmas carols, and even kicked around a soccer ball. In those surreal spaces, for that one night, peace held.

Peter Rothstein, artistic director/co-founder of Minneapolis’ Theater Latté Da, had long been considering that singular incident for a theatre piece when the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq propelled abstract contemplation into concrete action.

“I remember the night we invaded Baghdad, turning to my mother and saying, ‘I’m booking a flight to the Western Front. I have to write this piece; we just don’t seem to learn from history,’” he recalls. “It was absolutely our declaration of war that made me move this idea to the front burner.”

His resolve was clear, as was his structural quandary: How to tell a dramatic story whose climax is defined by its lack of conflict? Traditional approaches wouldn’t work.

Not wanting to “create fiction around the event,” Rothstein decided to let the form of the piece reveal itself as he researched the truce at archive centers in Belgium, England, France and Germany. He drew extensively on firsthand accounts for the resulting 10-man, entirely a cappella revue, “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” which premiered to resounding acclaim in 2007, and which tells the story in the language of the men who participated.

The current tour, which originated in Canada, winds up at The Broad Stage on Saturday.

The medieval Celtic ballad “Will You Go to Flanders” sets the tone with its haunting call to arms as men emerge from darkness at the top of the 70-minute show. It’s followed by “Come On and Join,” a soldier-created parody sung to the tune of Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and, eventually, dozens of Belgian, English, French, German and Scottish Christmas carols and WWI trench songs, all arranged by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach. Verse by legendary WWI poets Wilfred Owen, Francis Ledwidge, Patrick MacGill, and Siegfried Sassoon is also resurrected.

“The piece is composed entirely of WWI poetry, gravestone inscriptions, official war documents, journals, letters home, old radio broadcasts, and songs that were all in existence that first year of the war,” Rothstein explains.

Most of Germany’s WWI archives were destroyed during WWII, so, lacking firsthand German accounts, he again opted to let form honor content: The audience only hears songs and text from the British Isles until soldiers exit their boat; then they hear French. When songs are exchanged across No Man’s Land, German sources emerge in a joyful free-for-all.

The uplifting story remains inspiring, although reality was inevitably more complex. The string of ceasefires took place only between British and German soldiers; the French did not feel goodwill toward German troops occupying and often brutalizing their country. The Christmas truce was preceded by informal “don’t shoot” arrangements between soldiers as they retrieved bodies, bartered cigarettes, and bantered across No Man’s Land. Military leaders prohibited such fraternization with threats of court martial, and tried to squash press reports. By the following December, each side was demonizing the other. There was no second Christmas truce.

Yet as more soldiers succumbed to deepening cold and harsh trench conditions than combat, “men began to feel they had more in common with their enemy,” Rothstein theorizes, than they did with superiors who’d falsely promised Christmas homecomings.

“I believe that it was music and song that built that camaraderie between opposing forces,” he says. “Because as winter set in, the men began to hold these impromptu concerts back and forth across No Man’s Land, singing to each other and calling out for encores, and music moved beyond language barriers. It’s the international language.”

“All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” will be performed at 4 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Dec. 22) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit alliscalm.org.