The most influential treatment was probably Joan Littlewood’s 1963 Theatre Workshop production of Oh! What a Lovely War. This was a seminal work whose influence stretches far beyond the comparatively few people who have actually seen it on the stage. Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film version, although inferior as art, was seen by a much wider audience, both at the cinema and in subsequent showings on television. For whatever reason, Oh What a Lovely War came to symbolise for many people the essential ‘truth’ about the First World War, and was much quoted, alluded to and parodied.
The play has a seductive message: the war was pointless and the soldiers died for nothing. The Allied military victories of July to November 1918 are literally written out of the script. Instead, in the film version, the fighting just stops, the front lines apparently in place. For the original play, Joan Littlewood chose as the finale not the victory of the Allies (which might appear logical) but a scene from Henri Barbusse’s novel Under Fire in which French soldiers follow an officer in a hopeless attack ‘baa-ing like sheep till they were all mown down’.
Theatre Workshop’s ‘Military Advisor’ was Raymond Fletcher, a future Labour MP. His perspective on 1914-18 can be judged by his own description of the content of a lecture he gave the Theatre Workshop company on the War; ‘one part me, one part Liddell Hart [a military historian fiercely critical of British high command] the rest Lenin!’ Only six months before the play was first performed, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the USA and the USSR close to nuclear war. Parallels with the way Europe had apparently slipped into war in August 1914 seemed all too obvious. Fletcher’s ‘Lenin’ remark is especially interesting in view of the fact that in 1999 it was revealed that the KGB recruited him in 1962, the year before Oh What a Lovely War was first performed
Gary Sheffield Forgotten Victory