This is a programme for the original production of Oh What a Lovely War, which opened on 19 March 1963 at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Advertised here as a ‘musical entertainment’, Oh What a Lovely War was a satire on the First World War created by Joan Littlewood, Theatre Workshop cast members and Charles Chilton. Chilton wrote and produced The Long, Long, Trail, the BBC radio show which inspired the play.
Learning from the past
Although Oh What a Lovely War was a ‘historical play’, Littlewood and Theatre Workshop wanted audiences to make connections between the past and the present day.
Inside the programme, Chilton gave the audience a moving account of what led him to work on the play, and his hopes for what could be learnt from it:
In 1958 I was on holiday in France. At the request of my grandmother I visited Arras to photograph the grave of my father (her son) who had been killed in that area in 1918. I had no idea there were so many soldiers’ cemeteries around Arras. When at last I discovered my father’s official memorial it was to find that he had no grave. Instead, his name was inscribed upon the wall along with those “35,942 officers and men of the Forces of the British Empire who fell in the Battle of Arras and who have no known graves”.
What could have possibly happened to a man that rendered his burial impossible? What horror could have taken place that rendered the burial of 35,942 men impossible and all in one relatively small area?
The search for the answer to this question has finally led to this production, in the sincere hope that such an epitaph will never have to be written upon any man’s memorial again.
The threat of nuclear war as a context for Oh What a Lovely War
Following Chilton’s account, Raymond Fletcher (the production’s military advisor) and Theatre Workshop frame the events presented in Oh What a Lovely War as a warning against ‘World War III’.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s – a period that witnessed America and Russia’s ‘Arms Race’ to develop and stockpile nuclear weapons, as well as Britain’s own weapons tests – the fear of nuclear warfare was prevalent in Britain. 1957, for example, saw the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Here, Fletcher writes that ‘A lesson can be drawn’ from the ‘miscalculation out of accident’ of World War One. ‘Accidents and miscalculations are still possible – and a third, nuclear World War could kill as many in four hours as were killed in the whole of World War One’. In later productions, distanced as they are from the play’s original historical and political context, this message has perhaps been lost.
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- Theatre Workshop : programmes
- 1963, London
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- Article by:
- Eleanor Dickens
- 20th-century theatre, Theatre practitioners and genres
Joan Littlewood's theatre companies were collaborative, experimental and politically engaged. Eleanor Dickens introduces the beliefs and experiences that led Littlewood develop her ideas about what theatre should and could do.
- Article by:
- Michael Billington
- 20th-century theatre, Art, music and popular culture, Power and conflict, Theatre practitioners and genres
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.