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An introduction to Oh What a Lovely War

In its emphasis on the perspective of ordinary soldiers and its use of crinolines and clown costumes, Oh What a Lovely War departed from previous portrayals of the First World War. Michael Billington examines the ideas and sources that shaped the play, and discusses the contradictory emotions it provokes in audiences.

You have to be a certain age now to have seen Oh What a Lovely War in its first production at the Theatre Royal in London's Stratford East. I remember, as a 22-year-old, rushing down from Lincoln, where I was working in the theatre, to see it on a golden spring day in 1963. I was bowled over by the experience. I had never seen a show before – indeed no-one had – that combined such anger at the loss of life in the First World War with such fluidity and grace. The critics of the time were similarly overwhelmed. Harold Hobson wrote in the Sunday Times of Joan Littlewood's astonishing production that ‘the piece is stamped with originality, with entertainment and pathos, with the true life of the theatre’. 

Programme for Oh What a Lovely War

Programme for Oh What a Lovely War

Oh What a Lovely War opened on 19 March 1963 at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

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The production quickly transferred to the West End. Today the original text – co-created by Littlewood herself, her Theatre Workshop colleague Gerry Raffles and the cast – is frequently revived: at Stratford East itself (to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in 2016), in regional theatres across the land and even by adventurous schools. There was also a film version by Richard Attenborough in 1969 which had realistic episodes about which Littlewood was less than happy: ‘nobody died on my stage’, she brusquely commented.

Script extracts from Oh What a Lovely War, with notes and rewrites by Joan Littlewood

Script extracts from Oh What a Lovely War, with notes and rewrites by Joan Littlewood

This original working script for Oh What a Lovely War reveals how the play was co-created by Joan Littlewood and members of Theatre Workshop through a process of collaboration and improvisation.

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The perspective of the common soldier

But why, at a time when there has been a flood of TV documentaries, books and articles about the First World War, does the show retain its potency? I think there are two basic reasons. The first is that Oh What a Lovely War broke new theatrical ground in viewing the war from the perspective of the common soldier. There had of course been attacks on the conduct of the war from the start. The poetry of Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon was full of bitterness and rage. Sassoon's poem, ‘The General’, begins:

'Good morning; good morning!' the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

In the late 1920s books such as Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero and Robert Graves's Goodbye To All That provided horrifying descriptions of life in
the trenches. R C Sherriff's play Journey's End (1928) also offered a moving portrayal of the stress suffered by members of the officer-class. But that last work, above all, acted as a spur to Joan Littlewood: she felt that it omitted the experiences of the 'poor bloody infantry' who were the victims of the indescribable stupidity of their military superiors.

'Break of Day in the Trenches' by Isaac Rosenberg

Rosenberg wrote his poems in the army on whatever scraps of paper he could find. He sent this manuscript of ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ to George Bottomley, a prominent literary figure.

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Poster for the East Berlin production of Oh What a Lovely War

Poster for the East Berlin production of Oh What a Lovely War

Gerhard Rappus’ poster design for Oh What a Lovely War dramatizes the play’s take on military superiors and their alleged incompetence.

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Style and costume

The second thing to give Oh What a Lovely War its enduring power was the form it took. It was one thing to feel rage and sorrow at the waste of life: by the end of the supposed ‘war to end all wars’ there were 10 million dead, 21 million wounded and seven million missing. But how to give theatrical expression to a legitimate anger?

Littlewood took a radical decision to offer an ironic counterpoint between the show's content and its style. Khaki-clad realism was banished. Instead, the male actors were clad in the silken uniforms of a seaside Pierrot show: ‘their costumes’, as Littlewood writes in the introduction to the published edition, ‘were white with black bobbles and ruffs’ with helmets and medals added as needed. The women, meanwhile, wore tiny crinolines or long lace pants caught in at the ankle. Whatever the horrors described, the show was beautiful to look at. The aesthetic evoked the kitsch playfulness of British popular culture – a light-hearted seaside prettiness that was joltingly inappropriate when placed alongside the horrors of the war.

Photographs of Oh What a Lovely War (1963 premiere at Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Photographs of Oh What a Lovely War (1963 premiere at Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Khaki-clad realism was banished from Littlewood’s production. Instead the male actors were clad in the silken uniforms of a seaside Pierrot show.

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Counterpoint: pleasurable delight and political anger

This use of counterpoint extended to every aspect of the show.

The original idea for it came from a BBC radio documentary by Charles Chilton that assembled songs from the First World War. Gerry Raffles, who managed the business side of the Theatre Workshop at Stratford East, heard it and thought it had the germ of an idea. But both Littlewood and the company felt that the treatment was sentimental and nostalgic. What they did, brilliantly, was to retain the songs and give them a specific context. You see this early on in the show when in 1914 a seductively dressed woman sings ‘I'll Make A Man Of You’, which implies that sexual favours will be granted to any chap who signs up for war. The song itself has a suggestive naughtiness. But, as you see slides of 1914 posters encouraging even Boy Scouts to ‘Enlist now’, you grasp the intense pressures on the able-bodied and the implied association of war with manhood.

Typescript of The Long, Long Trail, the radio show that inspired Oh What a Lovely War

Typescript of The Long, Long Trail, the radio show that inspired Oh What a Lovely War

Joan Littlewood’s copy of The Long, Long Trail with her notes. The radio show, created by Charles Chilton, inspired Oh What a Lovely War.

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I believe that the key to Oh What a Lovely War lay – and still lies today – in its ability to tap into contradictory emotions: pleasurable delight and political anger. The music was a crucial part of this. As the war progresses, the soldiers' songs become increasingly bitter and cynical while the tunes themselves are inherently moving. After the Battle of the Somme we hear a church service in which a chaplain offers prayers for the British commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig. First the soldiers sing, to the tune of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, ‘Forward Joe Soap's army, marching without fear / With our old commander safely in the rear’. Later, to the melody of ‘What A Friend We Have in Jesus’, they burst into a chorus of ‘When this lousy war is over / No more soldiering for me / When I get my civvy clothes on / Oh, how happy I will be’. To anyone remotely aware of the Anglican tradition, the tunes bring a lump to the throat while the words express the disillusionment of the battered soldiers.

Littlewood's visual masterstroke, however, was to counterpoint the songs with slides of photographs from the war itself and a running newsreel tape above the stage which recorded the number of those killed and wounded and the number of yards gained and lost. Littlewood was anxious to confine the physical horror of the war to the savage statistics unspooling above the stage: something, Murray Melvin reminds me, the actors never saw and scarcely knew the content of until after the first night. At the start of the second half, the cast sing the show's jaunty title-song (‘Who wouldn't join the army? / That's what we all inquire / Don't we pity the poor civilian /Sitting beside the fire’). Meanwhile the newspanel tells us ‘April 22 ... Battle of Ypres ... Germans use poison gas ... British loss 59,275 men ... May 9 ... Aubers Bridge ... British loss 11,619 men in 15 hours … ’. By the time we get to the bloodiest battle of all, we find ourselves gazing at the screen in horrified disbelief. While the band plays a few bars of Twelfth Street Rag, the newspanel informs us ‘November ... Somme battle ends ... Total loss 1,332,000 men ... Gain Nil’.

Research used to develop Oh What a Lovely War

Research and notes for Oh What a Lovely War

List of cues for Oh What a Lovely War's newspanel, devised by Gerry Raffles. The statistics rolled above the stage, behind the actors.

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Dated May 1963, this recording provides a sense of the variety of wartime sound effects and musical numbers that featured in the original production of Oh What a Lovely War (created by  Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop). Explore this item further.

© Theatre Royal Stratford East. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

1916, in fact, was a turning-point in attitudes to the war. A J P Taylor wrote in his History of England: 1914–45:

Kitchener's army found its graveyard on the Somme. Not only men perished. There perished also the zest and idealism with which nearly three million Englishmen had marched forth to war.

Taylor goes on to point out that, while the war poets came almost entirely from the officer-class, the Tommies (i.e. the common soldiers) left few memorials. As he notes, only their songs, composed on the march or to beguile the tedium of the trenches, provide a clue to their feelings at the time. It was part of Littlewood's genius to use these songs as the backbone of a show that, in 1963, helped to change popular attitudes to the military and political conduct of the First World War and to fuel a growing cynicism, especially amongst the young, about armed conflict in general.

Propaganda or re-creation

This raises, however, a crucial question about Oh What a Lovely War. Is it skilful propaganda (in 2016 the then Tory education minister, Michael Gove, even went so far as to call it ‘unpatriotic’)? Or is it an honest and moving re-creation of the increasing disenchantment felt by the soldiers of the time?

The first thing to say is that it was undertaken with total dedication to real events and experiences. Around the framework provided by the songs, the actors were encouraged to improvise scenes based on diligent research. Murray Melvin, a member of the original cast, told me how Littlewood gave the actors a reading-list that included key books such as Barbara Tuchman's August 1914, Haig's Diaries, the memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. Melvin particularly remembers a passage in Alan Clark's 1961 book, The Donkeys – based on the idea that the soldiers were ‘lions led by donkeys’:.

What hit me was a story about a division marching towards the front in an eerily silent landscape, with no birds singing. In the distance, they saw a troop of British soldiers coming towards them, staggering and swaying about as if drunk. As they got nearer, they realised the soldiers had been blinded by mustard gas. Joan had us try to recreate this by marching round and round the stage for three days. You must remember her shows were as carefully structured as a Mozart symphony. Just when we thought we'd got it right, she said, 'We'll have to cut this.' When we asked why, she said, 'It's too horrific.'"

Looking back at the 1963 programme, it is clear that the production was intended as a political provocation. One note reads:

In 1960, an American Military Research Team fed all the facts of World War One into the computers they use to plan World War Three. They reached the conclusion that the 1914-18 war was impossible and couldn't have happened. There could not have been so many blunders nor so many casualties. Will there be a computer left to analyse World War Three?

There is no doubt that Oh What a Lovely War was conceived with the idea of showing the soldiers to be the victims of an horrendously damaging campaign that showed little regard for loss of life, but that doesn't make it unpatriotic or fundamentally untrue. Everything that Douglas Haig says in the show, including his statement that ‘I am the predestined instrument of providence for the achievement of victory for the British army’, is drawn from the memoirs of the time. Equally, it is a matter of fact that the suffragette, Mrs Pankhurst, publicly condemned the war, claiming that ‘slowly but surely we are killing off the finest and the best of the male population’.

There are undoubtedly passages, when you see or read the show today, that seem a bit clunky: especially a scene where international munitions manufacturers calculate their profits and express horror at the prospect of peace. At moments like that you feel you are being hit over the head with a message. But, in general, the supreme virtue of this iconic show is that it leaves you torn between conflicting emotions in a way that is peculiar to theatre. Everyone now knows that the German and British troops fraternised on Christmas Day 1914. Instead of giving us the expected football match, what did Littlewood and her team do? First they show the Germans singing ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’ in a way that brings tears to the eyes. They then show the British retaliating with a lewd ditty, ‘Christmas Day In The Cookhouse’. That is entirely characteristic of a show that appeals to both heart and mind and that leaves you admiring the dauntless spirit of the troops while questioning the unimaginable sacrifices they had to endure.


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  • Michael Billington
  • Michael Billington is one of Britain's foremost arts critics; he has been the drama critic for The Guardian since 1971. He is the author of several books on theatre including the authorised biography of Harold Pinter (1996); a survey of modern drama, State of the Nation (2007) and The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present (2015). He is also a Visiting Professor at King's College, London. an Honorary Fellow of St Catherine's College, Oxford and and Honorary D.Litt at the University of Warwick. 

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