Calm before the storm

Dayton Theatre Guild performs All is Calm, The Christmas Truce of 1914

By Don Hurst

Photo: The cast of All is Calm performs Nov. 20-Dec. 6 at The Dayton Theatre Guild; photo: Debra Kent

 


All is Calm,
The Christmas Truce of 1914, written by Peter Rothstein with musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, is about a remarkable Christmas Eve set in the middle of World War I, and offers a haunting alternative to traditional holiday productions.

The musical opens in the least likely of places to find goodwill, peace and joy: the bloody trenches of war torn Europe. By the winter of 1914, the fighting between the Germans and the French and British alliance had ground into a stalemate in France’s Aisne valley. An impenetrable barrier of defensive positions stretched from North Sea to the Swiss frontier.

Neither side could gain an advantage. With nowhere to go, the troops settled into the reality of trench life. Soldiers huddled for warmth in the frigid holes that served as their homes. Men slept in the frozen dirt. Lungs burned from open latrines. Rats stole stale rations.

Just yards away men suffering the same misery huddled in their trenches, both sides ready to kill each other. In between these dug out lines lay a no-man’s land, pock marked with artillery rounds and littered with the dead.

During this holiday a soldier looked forward to bouts of terror punctuated by intense boredom. Trench warfare was a special kind of hell on earth. Instead of Christmas carols one would listen to the hacking coughs of the sick and the moans of the injured. In the morning, while his family members would exchange gifts, the soldier expected to kill or die.

This was Christmas Eve in 1914 on the Western Front of World War I.

Then, in defiance of the brutal conditions, a German soldier sang “Stille Nacht” and wished his enemies a Merry Christmas. Other Germans began decorating the surrounding trees and their trenches with candles, not caring that they exposed themselves to sniper fire. Soon French and British troops joined in the singing.

The music gave the men courage to emerge from their protective trenches. Contrary to their orders to kill one another, both sides stepped into the no-man’s land. Territory where blood and pain purchased every step, now the soldiers offered for free. On this evening, no shots broke the stillness of the night. No screams pierced the air.

Instead, these men met to exchange presents of candy, cigarettes and alcohol. They allowed each other to bury their dead. For one night they weren’t Germans. They weren’t British. They weren’t French. They were just men searching for sanity, all the while knowing that the following day they may kill one another.

That night they had peace.

Beginning Nov. 20, Dayton Theatre Guild’s production of All is Calm will tell this remarkable true story through the letters, journals and songs of the men who lived it. While a musical involving trench warfare might not be the typical holiday fare, Kathy Mola, the director, says, “[All is Calm] combines all the facets that make a beautiful and meaningful holiday show. A true story that should touch everyone.”

The power of the show relies on the talented cast: Gage Emerson, Michael Favors, David Gaylor, David Hallowren, Chuck Larkowski, Dave Nickel, Chris Petree, Jeff Sams, David Short, K.L. Storer and Mike Taint. The men perform several different roles, reciting letters written by the soldiers and singing the carols that joined these warring groups together. David McKibben, the music director, leads the cast through 28 a cappella songs and six-part harmonies to bring the emotions of this extraordinary evening to life.

The unadorned set maintains the focus on the power of the singing and the actors. The simple crates used in the staging call to mind the improvised furniture soldiers created. Sandbags and boxes of supplies kept troops from having to wallow in the mud that collected in the bottom of the trenches.

The uniformity of the set and the costumes emphasizes the common humanity of these men who faced each other in combat. When all the differences between them were stripped away the miracle of a spontaneous peace could occur. Unfortunately the truce did not last forever nor was it observed by the majority of the units. The peace that ordinary soldiers forged ended when senior officers drove them back to the trenches. The fighting endured another four years. Four years of grueling combat, machine guns and poison gas. The worst of humanity.

But for one night, soldiers showed what we could become. If peace could last for one day, why not a week, why not a month, why not a year, why not longer? The truce, Kathy Mola says, “gives a true sense of what the holidays are supposed to be about.  If these men could do it, so can we. I believe that even though it takes place in a war setting, the message is a hopeful and uplifting one.”

The Dayton Theatre Guild presents All is Calm Nov. 20-Dec. 6 at the Dayton Theatre Guild at 430 Wayne Ave in Dayton. Tickets are $20 adults, $18 seniors and $13 students. For show times and tickets, please visit daytontheatreguild.org call 937.278.5993.

Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach him at DonHurst@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at DonHurst@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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