7 First World War plays you might not know

Plays about the First World War

100 years ago to the day, the first shots of the Great War were being fired. As we mark the anniversary, productions of Journey’s End and Oh, What a Lovely War! are being staged around the world. Accute and evocative as those pieces are, it sometimes seems surprising that there aren’t more great plays about an event that reshaped the 20th century and had such a lasting impact on generations of artists in other fields. In fact, there are more than you might think, but they haven’t always got the attention they deserve. Here’s our guide to seven plays about the First World War that deserve to be seen as we reflect on this terrible moment in history, in all its complexity.

1. The Accrington Pals by Peter Whelan

The Royal Exchange, Manchester production of The Accrington Pals, 2013

The Royal Exchange, Manchester production of The Accrington Pals, 2013

Written in 1981, the late, much-missed Peter Whelan’s play focuses on the early years of the conflict, as the heady jingoism of the first days of the war starts to wear off, and the terrifying reality dawns. Unusually, the play examines life both for soldiers at the front and the women they left behind, as their worlds are torn apart and reformed in ways they could never have imagined. Poignant, human and eminently theatrical, The Accrington Pals has been described as “one of the best plays ever about the first world war” (Michael Billington, The Guardian).

> Learn more about performing this play

2. To the Green Fields Beyond by Nick Whitby

Whitby’s play, which premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in 2000, takes the experiences of an elite tank crew in 1918 as its subject. Blessed with remarkable good fortune in the war so far, one night on the eve of battle, the men decide their luck has finally run out, and debate whether to sabotage their own tank to save themselves. Atmospheric and impeccably researched, this is a refreshingly different perspective on well known events.

> Learn more about performing this play

3. Hamp by John Wilson

John Hurt in the original production of Hamp, 1964

John Hurt in the original production of Hamp, 1964

This play sheds light on what for many years was a taboo subject in discussions of the First World War: the treatment of deserters. When Private Hamp scrambles out of a shell hole one day and walks away from battle, he thinks everyone will be too busy to notice. Soon though, he finds he is subjected to the full scrutiny of a power structure that, given the rapidly deteriorating conditions, has no choice but to take desertion very seriously indeed. Wilson’s play, first performed in 1964, raises still-powerful questions over the meaning of heroism an cowardice in the hell of war.

> Learn more about performing this play

4. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness

Production shot from the Ohio University School of Theatre

Production shot from the Ohio University School of Theatre

In this 1985 play that helped make McGuinness’s name, he follows the experiences of a group Unionist Irishmen who volunteer for the war.  It not only reveals the terrible human tragedy of the Battle of the Somme, it also weaves the event into the fabric of Irish history – examining what led these men to volunteer, and the lasting impact the war would have on Irish identity.

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5. Not About Heroes by Stephen MacDonald

The Great War is, in a way few other historical events are, a war that we remember in poetry. MacDonald’s play centres around the real friendship of two of the most eloquent voices of the war – Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Meeting at Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917 (where some say Owen was sent to undermine his protest by questioning his sanity), an unlikely but profound friendship soon developed between them. In this play MacDonald uses the letters, diaries and notes the pair left behind, as well as a healthy dose of historical imagination, to bring their relationship to life.

> Learn more about performing this play

6. Heroes by Tom Stoppard

Richard Griffiths, John Hurt and Ken Stott in the original production of Heroes

Richard Griffiths, John Hurt and Ken Stott in the original production of Heroes

Very different in tone from the other plays on this list, Heroes is Tom Stoppard’s translation of the 2003 play Le Vent Des Peupliers by Frenchman Gérald Sibleyras. The literal translation of this title would be The Wind in the Poplars, but since this was a little too close for comfort to The Wind in the Willows, Stoppard’s version plumped instead for Heroes. Set in 1959 in a retirement home for military men, the plot follows their attempts to escape (calling to mind Bernard Jordan’s real life escape from his nursing home earlier this year). Stoppard brings all of his trademark sparkling wit to a very funny script, but there are also moments of real poignancy. It’s an unusually humorous take on this piece of history, reminding us that even in the inkiest of shadows there are always flecks of light.

> Learn more about performing this play

7. Post Mortem by Noel Coward

Coward’s inspiration for tackling the war in a play came to him during a brief stint playing Stanhope in Journey’s End. It was, by his own admission, a terrible performance (the audience, he wrote, “politely watched me take a fine part in a fine play and throw it into the alley”) but the experience nonetheless stirred and unsettled him. Post Mortem, an “angry little vilification of war”, was his response to these emotions, written in 1930. He immediately decided that the piece was for publication not performance, and consequently it wasn’t produced until 1944 when it was staged, fittingly, by a group of British prisoners in an Austrian prisoner of war camp. Though far from Coward’s finest work, the play remains interesting for the raw anger that runs through it, as well as some imaginative plot devices which Coward would later develop in more successful plays.

> Learn more about performing this play

 

All of these plays are available to license now. Visit our website or call our licensing team 020 7255 4301 to find out how you can perform them.

Have we missed any plays from this list? Leave a comment and let us know, or talk to us on Twitter.

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