These extracts are from the original working script of Oh What a Lovely War. The production was developed collectively in 1962–63 by Joan Littlewood, Gerry Raffles and Theatre Workshop, and premiered at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in March 1963.
What was Oh What a Lovely War about?
Oh What a Lovely War was an epic musical satire about the First World War. It set out to capture the ordinary soldier’s story, and to challenge official narratives about the conflict. A highly innovative and exuberant show, it counterpointed elements of popular entertainment and songs from the First World War with stark battle statistics that appeared on a ‘ticker-tape’ newspanel above the stage. Oh What a Lovely War is widely recognised as a key theatrical landmark of the 20th century.
The idea for the production was conceived by Gerry Raffles (manager of Theatre Royal) after hearing Charles Chilton’s BBC radio broadcast, The Long, Long Trail. Initial scripts for Oh What a Lovely War commissioned by Raffles were rejected by Theatre Workshop as overly naturalistic, but Joan Littlewood could see its potential. She drew up a rough plan and the show went into production without a set script.
How was the script for Oh What a Lovely War developed?
The script for Oh What a Lovely War was developed through a process of discussion, improvisation and experimentation by Littlewood, Raffles and all members of the Theatre Workshop cast, in collaboration with Charles Chilton.
The whole company carried out research into the First World War using many primary and secondary historical sources, including diaries and letters. Littlewood organised lectures and gained input from First World War experts. This knowledge was then shared and fed directly into the script.
The extracts shown here reveal this process. For example, in two drafts of the agit-prop style grouse-shooting scene, Littlewood’s heavy revisions demonstrate the challenge of incorporating historical facts into this satirical sketch (ff. 13r–20r); a mime of a war scenario where the cast leap onto the stage with different flags and ‘fight’ with sticks (f. 21r) turns into the Circus Parade in the final text, a powerful theatrical metaphor in which Pierrots representing different countries portray the build-up to war.
Improvisation was essential to achieving the right atmosphere, pacing and tone to each scene. Littlewood would present the cast with a situation – such as being in a trench following a bombardment – and encourage actors to build the action and characterisation around it. The Christmas 1914 scene evolved out of this process, of which an early version is shown here (f. 28r).
Also central to achieving the right tone was evoking pathos without resorting to sentimentality. For example, in a draft of a scene where factory girls discuss the recent war casualties Littlewood has added the poignant details ‘… they bring the wounded here at night now’, and ‘… they say they’re going to let them out of the prisons’ (f. 118r), but lightens the tone with a rendition of the tongue-twister, ‘Sister Susie’s sewing shirts’ (f. 119r).
Why did Oh What a Lovely War make such an impact?
Oh What a Lovely War was a critical success in London, Paris and on Broadway. Highly original and entertaining – and deeply moving – it had a profound effect on audiences, critics and everyone involved in the production. It also had a lasting impact on theatre practice of the 20th century.
Deliberately controversial, Oh What a Lovely War was very much a product of the 1960s. It tapped into – and contributed to – an increased interest in uncovering the ‘truth’ of the First World War. It also highlighted the links between capitalism, imperialism, working-class exploitation and war.
 A ‘Pierrot’ is a kind of sad clown, a trusting fool, which originates from Italian Commedia Dell’Arte. Pierrots wear loose white costumes with large buttons and a black hat. Pierrot shows were common at the seaside before and during the First World War.