Gateways recently hosted a three day conference, ‘Pack Up Your Troubles: Performance Cultures in the First World War', on the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent. Approximately 70 people attended most or all of the conference. The programme was a varied mixture which featured 2 keynotes, 24 research papers spread over 8 panels and a performance of 3 wartime plays. We also ran a Directors’ Panel and another which looked at the work of HLF-funded performance projects.
The first keynote was delivered by the composer, writer, broadcaster and performer Neil Brand. Titled ‘Bitter Laughter’, Neil examined how the war provided comic relief to combatants and non-combatants. He highlighted instances where the Home Front found the outlet of laughter at the expense of the conflict they endured. Neil played a number of film clips, many of which are not publicly accessible at present, including The Lads from the Village (Harry Lorraine, 1919) and Splinters (Jack Raymond, 1929). Neil also showed footage from a Roll of Honour film in addition to The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1916) to demonstrate how different types of music were used to accompany the silent films, and of how different some film scores were to what we might expect to have been played. Sitting at the Steinway piano, accompanying the Roll of Honour film, his rendition of I Vow to Thee My Country filled the Colyer-Ferguson concert hall and was incredibly moving. Many in the audience, however, were surprised to hear that the March of the Gladiators tune accompanied images of men going over the top instead of a more sombre tune. Indeed, Neil’s examples reminded the assembly of looking at the war from the perspective of 1916 and not 2016. Neil’s opening session was everything we wanted it to be, setting the tone for the rest of the day.
Neil Brand delivering his keynote lecture-performance.
After the first two panels, the first on Moving Image and the second on Patriotism & Nation, the conference enjoyed a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Vagabond (1916), with an introduction by leading film historian Dr Michael Hammond (University of Southampton). The university’s Lupino Cinema was a very suitable venue for such a showing, being an intimate 60-seater with steeply raked seats much like many cinemas at the time of the First World War. The film featured Chaplin as a ‘busking’ violinist who meets and falls in love with a girl (Edna Purviance) who has been kidnapped by gypsies. It was then time to prepare for the evening performance of Friend or Foe? Authentic Voices from World War One in the Gulbenkian Theatre. Extracts from three wartime plays were performed by a professional cast. The works were Black ‘Ell by Miles Malleson, X=0: A Night of the Trojan War by John Drinkwater, and The Munition Worker by Alec Holmes (Lady Aimée Byng Hall Scott). It was fascinating to see these play extracts being performed, and many of those in the audience were seeing them for the first time.
Day 2 began with a directors' panel, ‘Performing the First World War’, which included Peter Malin (director of Friend or Foe?), Ethan Maltby and Jenna Donnelly (Battle of Boat) and Daniel York (Forgotten of the Forgotten). Our reason for having this panel was to discuss how those working in performance and creative industries today are basing their work on elements of the histories of 1914-18. Peter Malin discussed the issues of directing three rarely performed plays in a range of different touring theatres, Ethan Maltby and Jenna Donnelly spoke of how they worked with casts of children aged 8-14 and of the development of their work to put Battle of Boat on with the National Youth Music Theatre this August, and Daniel York, a professional Shakespearian actor, discussed his new play based on the experiences of those who worked in the Chinese Labour Corps.
Performing the First World War Directors' Panel: Daniel York, Ethan Maltby, Jenna Dnnelly and Peter Malin.
After further papers in panels on Music Hall & Variety and Gender & Sexuality, poster presentations were displayed during a networking lunch. The conference then listened to a panel by those working on performance projects, all of them funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Sara Clifford (Insite Arts) discussed her play on Conscientious Objectors, Tony Lidington (Promenade Productions) presented his work on Pierrots, and Claire Penstone-Smith talked about the experiences of those who worked on a drama When I Come Home based on life in three Norfolk villages. It was fascinating to see how these projects, many of which are based on community research into their respective local areas, are both encouraging and enabling people of all generations to delve into histories of the First World War which are local and often personal to them and their families. Further panels on Theatre & Drama and Front-line Performances followed, and the day concluded in the convivial surroundings of Darwin College where the conference dinner took place.
The final day of the conference opened with the last two panels, on Music in Context and Composing the War, and then concluded with the second keynote. Dr Kate Kennedy (Wolfson College, Oxford), joined by tenor Matthew Sandy and pianist Rebecca Taylor, performed a dramatized recital The Fateful Voyage. The performance focused on the friendship between the poet Rupert Brooke and two composers, F.S.Kelly and William Denis Browne, who enlisted in the Hood Battalion and sailed to the Dardenelles together in 1915. The Fateful Voyage weaved together the forgotten songs and piano music of Browne and Kelly, whose deaths on the Eastern Front mean that their work has been forgotten, while Brooke’s writings before his demise on the voyage are amongst the most well-known poems of the war. To hear the voices of these young men through their writing and music was an incredibly moving experience. We know that they died, but the descriptions of Brooke’s passing and of his burial on the Greek island of Skyros was an extremely emotional passage. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
'The Fateful Voyage': Dr Kate Kennedy (narrator), Matthew Sandy (tenor) and Rebecca Taylor (pianist).
As the conference closed with lunch the feedback from those who attended was immensely positive. The overriding feeling was that the varied programme of research panels, performances and broader discussions meant that everyone’s interest and energy was maintained throughout. The Twitter hashtag #PUYT also resulted in many tweets and photos which provide snapshots of the event. We have had so many emails to say how interesting and productive people found the conference to be, and we are now working on the development of a couple of publications which will showcase much of the great work which is being done to understand, appreciate and contextualise the various performance cultures of the 1914-18. We are extremely grateful for everyone who came to the conference and contributed their knowledge, research and performance expertise. Pack Up Your Troubles did exactly what we set out to do; we showed that from the popular to elite, amateur to professional, a wide range of performative genres had a significant impact on the fighting spirit of servicemen and civilians in all combatant countries. The conference explored a variety of performance cultures in all theatres of war, on the home and fighting fronts, 1914-1918, and it has extended the breadth and depth of our knowledge of this important area of First World War studies.
Gateways is grateful for the support of the Western Front Association for this event.