On Christmas Day 1914, thousands — perhaps 300,000 — young men put down their rifles and stepped out of the trenches to break bread, share cigarettes, sing songs, play soccer, and even trade pictures with the enemy. Some historians believe that as many as seven or eight separate, spontaneous truces occurred along the front. The longest lasted until New Year’s Eve.
On Jan. 1, 1915, the British commanding officer declared there would be no more fraternizing with the enemy and attempts in future years to replicate the Christmas Truce were quashed. No one back home heard about the sharing of song and sausage — the few days of shared humanity — in the heavily redacted letters that made it home from the front lines. And the remarkable event barely made it into the history books. Some who heard about it in later years even thought it a myth.
Peter Rothstein heard about the truce in a song by folksinger John McCutcheon called “Christmas in the Trenches.” It piqued his interest and he started looking for more information, finding little until Stanley Weintraub’s book “Silent Night” was published in 2002.
The heavily documented book confirmed that not only did it happen, it involved hundreds of thousands of men.
“I thought, I really need to do something with this,” Rothstein, a local actor, director and cofounder of Theatre Latte Da. “At the time we had gone to war in Iraq and I was trying to find a way to respond to that. The beauty of this story is that the heroes are the soldiers and yet its message is antiwar. I can’t think of another story that is less divisive on this issue and has something to say for our time.”
Rothstein reached out to the chamber music group Cantus who were immediately interested, even though he hadn’t yet decided what form the piece would take.
After spending a few weeks researching archives in London, Paris, Brussels and rural Belgium, Rothstein hit on the right shape for the piece and was ready to write what would become “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” playing at the Pantages Theatre on Hennepin, Dec.17–20.
“I use the word writing loosely because 90 percent of it is found text,” he says. “When I was in the archives I thought, Oh my gosh, these men — most of whom were foot soldiers — were much more eloquent and articulate and powerful than what I could bring to it.”
In Europe, Rothstein explored letters home, journal entries, official war documents and inscriptions on gravestones. He read Francis Ledwidge and other World War I poets. On stage, quotes from all of these, from the humblest private to Winston Churchill, are interwoven with trench songs and Christmas carols. “Part of the magic,” he says, “is crediting every name so it becomes this mantra of names. ... Because [the story of the truce] was denied access to our history books, I felt the responsibility to make these men a part of history and to base it on fact.”
While shaping “All is Calm,” Rothstein realized that both the story and the form were ideal for radio. He made sure the piece hit a radio-friendly 53 minutes in length and Minnesota Public Radio broadcast the world premier on December 21, 2007, then rebroadcast it on Christmas Day. American Public Radio recorded it for national broadcast in 2008 and distributed it through the European Broadcasting Network that year. Rothstein’s brainchild, the Star Tribune declared, “likely will become a classic to be repeated for years to come.”
In that brief, powerful 53 minutes, the audience hears 40 songs, most of them familiar, but all of them now in an entirely new context. Rothstein says that the music is essential not just to the form of the piece, but to the story itself.
“I don’t think the truce would have happened without music,” he says. “It was such an enormous part of people’s lives to create music in a room together, back when we weren’t all walking around with iPods. Leading up to the truce, the trenches would hold concerts for each other. They would sing back and forth and encourage each other, calling for encores. So music had to be a driving force [in the play].”
After New Year’s Day in 1915, the warring armies rotated the soldiers who had participated in the Christmas Truce away from the frontlines. Many were simply refusing to fire. New soldiers were brought forward, the fighting resumed — and continued for another four years. Many, if not most, of the soldiers who had shared songs and ventured across no man’s land did not make it home.
Tricia Cornell edits Minnesota Good Age.
All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914
Performed by Cantus
Directed by Peter Rothstein