The GREAT WAR CYCLE is an ambitious project to tell the story of the First World War through a series of plays examining some of the key decisions that shaped the conflict, looking at the human factors behind them and at their human consequences.
Playwrights with no background in the study or teaching of history tend naturally to gravitate towards the ordinary soldiers and their stories and shy away from the leaders or famous people. The most famous example is Joan Littlewood’s famous 1964 Theatre Workshop production, Oh! What a Lovely War, still regularly revived, which places ordinary soldiers centre-stage and reduces the leaders and generals to crude caricatures. The show was radical in its day and had a huge impact on our perception of the war, but it is now over fifty years old and things have moved on since then. Our knowledge and understanding of the Great War is much deeper and more nuanced now. In particular, the old “lions led by donkeys” canard has been well and truly exploded by historians, who have shown that the British generals of the First World War were – with some inevitable exceptions – extremely able men, nothing like the crude stereotypes of Oh! What a Lovely War or Blackadder Goes Forth, trying hard to adapt to a war which was quite unlike anything they had encountered before. Far from being stuck in their ways or indifferent to the plight of their men, they were eager adopters of the latest technology – if anything, Field Marshal Haig, to take the most controversial example, was too eager to seize new ideas before they had had time to be properly tested.
I dislike caricature in theatre. It’s the easy way out; it ducks the complexities and relieves both the writer and the audience of any obligation to think. So in the Great War cycle, I take the big names, the names in the history books, and I examine them as people, individuals, with the same sort of weaknesses, sympathies, strengths and foibles as anyone else. In Assassination Before Lunch, for example, my play about the Sarajevo assassination of 1914 that sparked off the war, we see key members of the Austro-Hungarian government and High Command as real people. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand himself is, ironically, firmly opposed to launching a war, since he knows it would destroy the Austro-Hungarian empire (and he was right); Count Berchthold, the Foreign Minister, agonises over his limited choices and feels his inadequacy for the decision he must take; even General Conrad von Hötzendorf, who genuinely did want war, is humanised as we see him with his mistress, with whom he was deeply in love, explaining his frustration at a situation whose solution, to him, is crystal clear. Similarly, in Dead in the Water, about the sinking of the Lusitania, we see Admiral von Tirpitz outlining with passionate clarity the logic of launching a completely unrestricted U boat campaign as the quickest way to end the misery of the war; we also see his apparently warlike façade crack, briefly but unmistakably, as he pens a moving letter to his son in British captivity.
The cycle will consist of six dramas, one for each year of the war, as follows:
1914 (Sarajevo): Assassination Before Lunch
1915 (Lusitania): Dead in the Water
1916 (Somme): His Plan of Attack
1917 (Russia): The Women’s Battalion of Death
1918 (Armistice): Abdication by Teatime
1919 (Peace Settlement): The Destruction of President Wilson