Christmas truce on WWI battlefield inspires theater show 94 years later
The cast of "All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914" features actors and vocalists including, from left, Chris Foss, Alan Sorensen, John Catron, Tim Takach, David Roberts, Dashon Burton, Paul Rudoi, Adam Reinwald, Shazore Shah, Eric Hopkins, Aaron Humble and Gary Ruschman.
The cast of "All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914" features actors and vocalists including, from left, Chris Foss, Alan Sorensen, John Catron, Tim Takach, David Roberts, Dashon Burton, Paul Rudoi, Adam Reinwald, Shazore Shah, Eric Hopkins, Aaron Humble and Gary Ruschman.
Rick Spaulding
There was no last-ditch negotiation, no official declaration of a ceasefire, and certainly no withdrawal from the front lines. It was several months into a bloody battle that would rage for four more years, but on that first Christmas day, the killing suddenly stopped.

It was after 10 p.m. and the seemingly constant sniper fire had quieted. Soldiers on both sides of World War I hunkered down in cold, muddy trenches to await yet another violent confrontation. But the stillness of the gloomy night was broken by an unexpected and surreal sound. In the aftermath of that day's carnage, someone was singing. Stepping into the forbidding "no man's land" that divided the enemy camps, an unarmed German soldier was offering an unlikely gift, a moment of peace.

A new national theater production, "All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914," is based on that historic moment, when an extraordinary night of camaraderie brought the spirit of the holidays even into the darkest of places. Written by Peter Rothstein, with musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, the presentation features a cast of actors and vocalists who use letters, journals, official war documents, gravestone inscriptions and songs associated with the spontaneous truce to re-create a remarkable sequence of wartime events.

"Thousands of men put down their guns and left their trenches to meet their enemies in 'No Man's Land'," said Rothstein, who traveled to museums and libraries in Belgium and London as part of a two- year effort to collect first-hand accounts of the truce. "They exchanged gifts of tobacco, rum and chocolates, even photographs of loved ones. They sang songs, played a game of soccer and buried each other's dead. Upon orders from above, they eventually returned to their trenches and re-instigated a war that would last four more years."

That tale, which remains as poignant today as 94 years ago, will be re-told on Christmas Day, when "All is Calm" is broadcast to more than 400 public radio stations in the United States as well as on the BBC in Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand. Preceding that will be its New England premiere Saturday, Dec. 6, at 4 and 8 p.m. at The Music Hall in Portsmouth. The production will feature members of the Minneapolis-based Cantus vocal ensemble and the Theater Latte Da acting troupe.

One of only three U.S. cities chosen to host the production before it is aired worldwide on radio, Portsmouth -- given its "high profile as a peace center" -- provides a fitting stage for a true tale about peace, said Patricia Lynch, executive director of the Seacoast's Music Hall. "The Treaty of Portsmouth of 1905 stands today as one of history's great peace negotiations," program literature states. "It ended the Russo-Japanese War and marked the emergence of a new era of diplomatic negotiations and multi-track diplomacy."

But for Rothstein, the impetus behind "All is Calm" stemmed from the realization that many people knew little about the wartime goodwill shown during the unplanned "Christmas Truce," when the Allied Powers of France, England, the United States, Russia, Japan and Italy were pitted against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire.

"Why did I not learn of this remarkable event (in high school and college classes)?," he said. "The propaganda machine of war is powerful and news of soldiers fraternizing across enemy lines would put a human face on the Germans and readily undermine public support for the war. Also, the heroes of this story are not the generals, the battle strategists, the kings and queens, the stuff of bibliographies and history books. (They) are the lowest ranks of the armies, the young, the hungry, the cold and the optimistic."

That these soldiers chose to honor the spirit of Christmas in the midst of chaos is a fitting reason to revisit their actions, Rothstein said, especially as conflicts continue to be waged across the globe.

"It is a story that should be heard, especially today," he said. "A month before the Christmas Truce of 1914, Winston Churchill (who would go on to serve as British Prime Minister during World War II) stated, 'What would happen, I wonder, if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike, and said some other method must be found of settling this dispute?' I hope people leave the theater moved, enlightened and pondering Churchill's prophetic statement."

"All is Calm" is a musical drama that conjures a bleak battlefield where Allied and Central forces are holed up in trenches just a few yards apart. At night, the various troops sing their favorite Christmas carols and ballads in French, English and German, first competing to drown out one another and then applauding each other's efforts. Finally, on Christmas day, spurred on by a German soldier who earlier had walked out into the open singing "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night"), soldiers on both sides set down their arms for a holiday truce.

"Some lasted an hour, and some of them lasted up to a week," Rothstein said of the men who inspired the stage production. "And then they returned to their trenches and the war resumed for another four years."

Rothstein said he first heard about the truce through a folk tune titled "Christmas in the Trenches," and immediately was inspired to create some kind of theater piece.

"The challenge was determining the form," he said. "Drama is created out of conflict and the climax of this story is really the lack of conflict. So I began to do research, and the story tossed itself about my brain for about four years. Eventually, I went to Europe to do more extensive research and to immerse myself in the world of the piece, after which the writing came quite quickly."

After hearing the Cantus ensemble in concert a couple of years ago, Rothstein approached Lichte, the group's artistic director, about collaborating on a production.

"Words alone cannot convey the depth of feeling; music is essential to the telling of this story," Rothstein said. "In fact, I believe music was essential to the 'Christmas Truce.' The soldiers would hold impromptu concerts for each other, singing from their trenches to their enemy across 'No Man's Land.' They spoke many different languages, but music was a language they all had in common."

Lichte said Rothstein's research helped paint vivid images that aided him in arranging the music for "All is Calm," which incorporates WWI trench songs, patriotic fare and sentimental tunes with holiday music from many cultures.

"It was great to have all these scenes in our heads," Lichte said. "When we have the drinking and the camaraderie, we have this wassail song that's really expressive. With the burying of the dead, we have a setting of 'Auld Lang Syne.' You can lose sight as to why you're singing that Christmas music, and I think this story reminds us. It is about peace on earth, goodwill toward men -- that's not just a thing you sing in a carol you like the tune of."

"One of the reasons I love working in the theater versus film or television is because the theater is a two-way street," Rothstein said. "It asks the audience to engage their imagination in order to complete the story. So, here are the words, the songs, the sounds of that extraordinary event; picturing (it all) on the human face -- well, that's up to you."
Julia Ann Weekes,
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