REVIEW: “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914”
What would happen if all the world’s soldiers decided to go on strike? It is a radical idea, one expressed more than once by men serving on the Western Front of World War I in “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914”, a beautifully moving evening of song and speech presented by Theater Latté Da at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in the Bowery neighborhood of the East Village.
Carl von Clausewitz famously opined that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. Never was this more true in the modern era than during World War I—itself a clash of old world empires and tangled contemporary alliances that marked a major political turning point history, the combatants of which fought more out of a sense of national allegiance than any moral claim to battling good and evil.
A conflict brutally defined by trench warfare and prolonged stalemates, late in the night of Christmas Eve 1914, as silence fell upon the killing fields of Flanders—mere months into the war—a German battalion began singing “Stille Nacht”. Across “no man’s land”, the idle British and French joined in, and an informal, unsanctioned truce was launched among soldiers of opposing sides that would last a few precious hours into dawn.
All across battlefields along the Western Front, men stepped out of trenches, sometimes mere feet apart, and joined each other in communal celebration—singing carols, exchanging food and gifts, and even playing football. In some places, they buried their dead—“yesterday’s enemies”.
The remarkable, true story of these organic Christmas truces was dramatized in the 2005 French film “Joyeux Noël”, and is now the basis for “All Is Calm”, a genre-defying epistolary oratorio that is more musical diary than either play or musical.
In a brisk and highly engaging 75 minutes, ten actors each playing multiple characters speak aloud a group monologue composed of snippets from contemporaneous telegrams, letters, and diary entries from the warfront, all spoken during and between 35 songs—ranging from period music to traditional carols—gorgeously sung a capella (musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach).
This outstanding ensemble, dressed in varying layers of black clothing (costumes by Trevor Bowen) and evocatively lit through a haze of smoke (lighting by Marcus Dillard), act as a symbolic unit, representing the varied voices of these infantrymen and their shared experiences during this improbable bout of civility amid the incivility of massive armed conflict.
Director Peter Rothstein, who created the piece, keenly structures and stages the story with a gripping immediacy that captures the spirit of an extraordinary moment in history and fashions a satisfying emotional arc without belabored exposition. The characters are specific, but shortly present, the movement nearly non-stop, yet highly intentional, establishing physical place and state of mind with sterling economy.
At the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, a nightly “Last Post” ceremony in commemoration of the nearly ten million military killed in World War I has commenced every single evening at 10 pm since 1928—interrupted only by the German occupation of World War II. Like that ceremony, “All is Calm” is a tribute to the increasingly forgotten sacrifices of those dead, and a glimpse of our common humanity at its greatest.
Bottom Line: “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” is a beautifully moving epistolary oratorio about the remarkable true story of British, French, and German soldiers emerging from their trenches and ceasing conflict on Christmas Eve 1914 to celebrate together. Gorgeously sung by an ensemble of ten men, and keenly structured and staged with gripping immediacy and emotion, this tribute to an unheralded moment in an increasingly forgotten war provides a glimpse of our common humanity at its greatest.
“All Is Calm: The Christmas Truces of 1914”
The Loreto Theater
The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture
18 Bleecker Street
New York, NY 10012
Running Time: 75 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: November 18, 2018
Final Performance: December 30, 2018