December 9, 2009.By Amy C. Rea, WCCO-TV.
How long does it take to establish a holiday classic? This year, the Guthrie Theater celebrates 35 years of A Christmas Carol, while the Minnesota Dance Theater brings Loyce Houlton’s Nutcracker Fantasy back for its 45th year. Clearly these groups have found performances that resonate with and are beloved by local audiences.
But this year also marks the third year that another production is being stage dthat is winning acclaim and attention during the holiday season: All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914.
“I don’t think anyone ever sets out to write a holiday classic,” said playwright Peter Rothestein, laughing, when I spoke with him last week. But he may have just done that, intentionally or not.
“I hope it has a big life – it deserves to be part of our collective history.”
The Christmas truce of 1914 is a rarely discussed incident during the first year of World War I. Opposing forces along the Western Front voluntarily set aside their weapons and battles and, literally and figuratively, reached out a hand of support to their enemies. The soldiers sang together, shared treats like rum, tobacco and chocolate; they even helped each other bury their dead and exchanged photos of loved ones back home. On their own, perhaps the war would have eneded right there, but orders from above drove them back tor their separate sides of the trench, and the war continued.
Rothstein use considerable source materials from letters, war documents, memoirs and even gravestones to create All is Calm, which is performed by the Cantus Ensemble. A wide variety of music is performed, from traditional Christmas carols to war songs and popular music of the period.
Rothstein noted that although he’d studied WWI in school, the Christmas truce was never mentioned. Nor, he said, did many Americans know about it when it happened.
“That was when the propaganda machine started working so strongly,” he pointed out. “All communications were censored. They couldn’t have the soldiers sending home stories of sharing Christmas together with the enemy.”
He went on to point out that much beyond the 1914 truce was censored, including the fact that more men were dying from conditions in the trenches than from actual warfare.
After learning about the truce, Rothstein spent several years researching and developing the project, including two trips to Europe, traveling through France, England, and Belgium.
“You can still see the trenches from the air,” he said. “The extended trench warfare left its mark on the land.”
Part of his research took him to the In Flanders Field Museum, which is different than other war museums in that it focuses less on the glories of war and strives more to put a human face on war instead. What he learned during his research was heartbreaking; the stories of these young soldiers – some only 14 or 15 years old – with feet rotting in the trenches, finally reaching the truce, only to be ordered back into war by superior officers not in the trenches. In fact, lat a British soldier noted, “I regret that it was one of ours that broke the trust.”
“The roadblock for the play was that its theme was the lack of drama, and drama is usually what’s required,” Rothstein said. “It needed a nontraditional form.” When he came up with the idea of creating a radio play, he knew he’d found his medium. Radio was the primary form of communication in 1914, and music was a common language. When he had the opportunity to hear Cantus perform, he realized he’d found the right group to carry out his message.
It’s a message that is gaining ground with audiences, even if its subject matter is not the usual cheery holiday fare.
“It’s poignant and profound,” Rothstein said, “but its powerful and uplifting. Peace becomes such a cliché this time of year – everyone wishing everyone ‘happy holidays’ – but this wakes us up.”
The year, All is Calm started the season with a brief tour in the western and southern US before returning to Minneapolis. As for future tours, Rothstein noted that he’d really like to bring the production to the rest of the country, but the difficulty is in the short holiday production season (basically Thanksgiving to Christmas) and the strong ties with Cantus.
“We'd have to add another company, but it’s a challenge to reach the exceptional level of Cantus,” Rothstein said.
Tickets may still be available through Ticketmaster for the Dec. 17-20 performances at the Pantages Theater. The show, which appropriately enough has been broadcast on MPR, is also archived on the American Public Media site, or you can purchase an original cast recording here.