17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2005
"Oh, What A Lovely War!" is one of the most memorable and critically-acclaimed war plays of all time. It was written by Joan Littlewood in 1963, and has endured to this day because of the impact it had upon audience when it opened at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East. The play is notorious for being ruthless in exposing the horror of the trenches and the callous incompetence of the ruling classes that plunged Europe into war in 1914.
Back in the Sixties, the play was also described as "deliciously scandalous" because of its aggressive, anti-war stance. Audiences associated the no-holds-barred assault on all the old clichés about king and country because of the dramatic social changes accompanying the youth rebellion of the Sixties. The play was one of the few instances up until this point where its content reflected the tumultuous climate of society.
A generation was beginning to feel the threat of the war in Vietnam, and this play had an immediate, personal resonance. Some people felt that the play voiced their own thoughts and feelings about war and conflict, whilst many of the older generation were shocked by the show's attitude toward the generals and civilians who sent a generation of young men off to the slaughterhouse of Ypres and the Somme. These were people who remembered the original songs that were being sung, so to see them performed in a completely different way was a sensuous and violent shock.
The play was ground-breaking in a number of ways, because it had no immediate human focus, or any continuing character that the audience could come to care about, or even any story to speak of, or a real resolution. In spite of all this, it was still very powerful and also immensely successful simply because of the overwhelming static charge between its subject and the society around it.
In terms of content, what makes the play so successful is the combination of songs and imagery, mixed to create a shock in the minds of the audience watching. War songs are sung to express patriotic ideas about fighting, against a backdrop of imagery that reflects the play's real attitude to war. Large images such as soldiers dying after being wounded in gunfire, or decaying corpses left rotting in the mud are accompanied by captions, such as death tolls and `updates' on the current war situation. The material Littlewood chose came from popular songs from the start of the century which were very patriotic and idyllic. However, in her hands, they become bitingly subversive rather than sterile pieces of heritage.
"Goodbyeee," sung through clenched teeth, expresses bitterness at the bloodshed of war rather than a stiff upper lip attitude. "Forward Joe Soap's Army" sung to the tune of 'Onward Christian Soldiers' captures the gallows humour of the trenches. Even a group of women factory workers singing an innocuous sing along number contrasts with the lifeless formality of a British army dance.
A few slapstick sketches show the pressures leading to the outbreak of war. Their absurd humour is the ideal vehicle for conveying the madness of August 1914. From then on, musical and comedy sketches are interspersed with moving scenes of war and its impact. The arrival of the first casualties at Waterloo Station stands out. Transport to hospital is arranged for the officers. The rest have to make do.
All this takes place as a screen above the stage flashes out casualty figures as the killing intensifies. "Total dead in the Battle of the Somme: 1,332,000" whizzes above the stage as you watch the actors play a group of demented British army officers. You watch a troupe of war profiteers on the stage as the message board informs you how "21,000 American businessmen become millionaires from the war." "Average life of a machine gunner: four minutes."
The play is still performed on stage throughout the country to this very day, yet some critics have labelled it stale and boring. This is because the cultural shock of the Sixties is no longer present in the 21st Century: what was deemed scandalous some 40 years ago is no longer exciting in modern times, in an era where a vast majority of people have grown up with the firm belief that war is wrong. This fact makes Joan Littlewood's original version all the more timeless, because it successfully captured a moment in time where society was in the midst of a revolution. The memories of the original performances are almost set in stone amongst the audiences who first watched it.
8 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2001
Unable to find any other way of tracking down a copy of either the film or the soundtrack of the film /play, Oh! What A Lovely War. Could someone please put me out of my misery and e-mail me with any information that might help me to obtain a copy of the film or the soundtrack. Failing this could someone please tell me how to get in touch with Richard Attenborough so that I can check with him to see if he has a copy that I could obtain a copy of.