The first time Peter Rothstein heard about the Christmas Truce of 1914 — a series of unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front during World War I — was in John McCutcheon’s 1984 folk song, “Christmas in the Trenches.” He was struck by the story of English, French, and German soldiers putting down their weapons and celebrating Christmas together via song and sport, and thought it had theatrical possibilities. But he’d never learned about it in any history class, so he didn’t immediately put pen to paper. “To be honest,” he said, “I thought it was a lovely piece of hippie fiction.”
In 2001, Stanley Weintraub wrote Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, which Rothstein called the first scholarly documentation of the event. Once he knew for sure that the unauthorized moment of peaceful brotherhood inspired by the Christmas season was more than romantic apocrypha, his interest in writing a piece of musical theater about it deepened — but still, he put it off. And then, he said, the United States military invaded Baghdad in 2003, and he knew that he had to prioritize this writing project, “because we don’t seem to learn.”
Rothstein’s musical, All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, premiered on Minnesota Public Radio in 2007 under the auspices of the company he co-founded, Theater Latté Da. It has since been performed nationally and internationally and is currently playing off-Broadway at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture. The national tour, directed by Rothstein, comes to the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, Dec. 20.
In order to write All Is Calm, Rothstein embarked on a research trip to Europe, where he visited war museums and explored archives in the German cities of Dresden and Hamburg, and in Brussels and Ypres in Belgium. He didn’t want to create a fictional piece because he wanted to give the Christmas Truce its due place in history, “but to tell it in a kind of documentary style was a challenge, because the climax of the story is a lack of conflict — which doesn’t make for great drama,” he said. He found his structure when he visited the In Flanders Fields Museum, where he was able to read and handle original documents, letters, and photographs from that first winter of World War I. He appreciated that the museum approached war from a humanistic perspective rather than a sort of pragmatic glorification.
“In the other cities, they tended to curate war through military strategies and numbers of casualties. The commanders-in-chief got all the ink, so to speak. When you enter into various museums in Europe, you might walk between two cannons, or underneath a fighter jet. But at the In Flanders Fields Museum, there was just this mural of all these nameless men, these faces at eye level, and the folk song ‘Will You Go to Flanders’ playing. I loved that it was intentionally nonpolitical. My personal goal was to put a human face on this mass human tragedy and this event.”
He learned that it’s likely that thousands of soldiers participated in the ceasefire in a half-dozen or more spots along the front. Some men simply stopped firing at each other for a few hours, and others wound up playing soccer, singing songs, exchanging gifts, and even burying the enemy’s dead. The men would tell the story in their own words, he decided, so he adapted the dialogue from archival documents. The actors state the name and rank of whoever wrote the passage in question. This choice gives the words — which weave between more than 35 folk songs, trench songs, and Christmas songs from England, Scotland, France, Belgium, and Germany — an epistolary, incantatory quality, akin to reading the names of the dead at a war memorial.
Private Tom MacDonald, 9th Battalion Sussex Regiment: “At night we would be on sentry, head and shoulders above the trench gazing into No Man’s Land, which was lines of tangled barbed wire in front of our trench and also in front of the Germans. Only yards at times separated us. In fact, so close you could hear a chap coughing.”
General Sir John French, British Expeditionary Force: “The heavy rain has almost flooded the trenches, particularly in the neighborhood of Ploegsteert. The Germans are suffering as much as we are! The men in the trenches say the Saxons call across to them and say they ‘have had enough of it!’ ”
Rothstein said, “They were promised they would be home by Christmas, and clearly that wasn’t going to happen. We know from official war documents that they shifted the rotation schedule in the trenches in order to get new men to the front because they were simply refusing to fight.”
He did not claim to know whether soldiers were called to their truce out of a sincere celebration of the birth of Christ, or if the spontaneous reprieve in fighting was more strongly tied to homesickness and a longing for comfort. He knows from growing up in the Christian faith that people utter the phrase “Peace on Earth” pretty easily in December. “But I don’t know how much we take it into our own hands to actually exercise peace,” he said. The men portrayed in All Is Calm were in the thick of it, putting their lives on the line for a bit of holiday cheer. Perhaps it was because of Rothstein’s personal stake in the songs that he came to this conclusion, but during his research, the composer quickly realized that without the intercultural camaraderie of music, the Christmas Truce of 1914 would not have happened. The men held impromptu concerts, singing to each other from across the battle lines, he said. Music penetrated language barriers and allowed the men to communicate and connect.
The musical arrangements in All Is Calm are by Erik Lichte and Timothy C. Takach. Songs include English traditionals (“God Save the King” and “The Old Barbed Wire”), a 12th-century chant (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”), and a German traditional (“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”). There are also familiar standards like “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” “O Tannenbaum,” and “Auld Lang Syne.” The arrangements are structured around what Rothstein called big concert moments, moments that would be the big aria in an opera, and big ensemble moments.
“I wanted it to feel like almost constant music,” he said. ◀
▼ Performance Santa Fe presents All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 by Peter Rothstein
▼ 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 20
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ $14.50-$110, ticketssantafe.org, 505-988-1234