'All Is Calm': Show coming to DL Tuesday tells story of WWI 'Christmas truce'
"The Western Front, Christmas, 1914. Out of the violence, a silence, then a song. A German soldier steps into No Man's Land singing 'Stille Nacht' ('Silent Night'). Thus begins an extraordinary night of camaraderie, music, and peace."
A "Christmas truce" in December 1914, just a few short months into World War I? Yes, it actually happened — though the wartime propaganda machine on both sides of the Western Front did its best to quash the stories of French, German and British soldiers crossing the trenches to exchange holiday greetings, help bury each other's dead, share food and souvenirs, sing Christmas carols and, in general, treat each other as comrades-in-arms rather than enemy combatants.
It is this story, brought to life through photos, diaries, poetry and other mementos — most of them created and/or collected by the soldiers themselves — that Theater Latte Da writer and director Peter Rothstein used as the inspiration for his original theatrical production, "All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914," which comes to the stage of Detroit Lakes' Historic Holmes Theatre this Tuesday, Dec. 19 at 7 p.m.
"I wrote it 12 years ago," said Rothstein in a telephone interview. "I had first learned about the Christmas truce from a folk song by John McCutcheon ('Christmas in the Trenches,' recorded and released in 1984), but I didn't realize it was based on real events... then this book by Stanley Weintraub came out."
After Rothstein read that book — "Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce," originally published in 2001 — he realized that this Christmas truce had had a much bigger impact than most people knew, as it had occurred in several places along the front — some ceasefires lasting only a few hours, while others lasted a week or more, and involved much more interaction between the soldiers on both sides.
"I felt it would make a great piece of theater," Rothstein said, "but I didn't want to write a piece of fiction... I thought it was a story that had been denied its place in our common history, so I wanted this piece to represent the Christmas truce as realistically as possible — to be based on fact rather than fiction."
So Rothstein spent several months traveling through Europe and visiting its war museums — most notably, the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium.
"They have the largest World War I archives in the world housed there (in Ypres)," Rothstein said — but he also visited the Royal War Museum in Brussels, Belgium; the Imperial War Museums in London, England; the Musee de la Grand Guerre (Museum of the Great War), near Paris, France; and "most of the major military museums and archive centers throughout western Europe." "I really dug into the first-hand accounts of the Christmas truce, and realized I could tell this story pretty much entirely through song and first-hand accounts," he said. "That became my goal."
The result was "basically a 'docu-musical'," Rothstein said. "I wrote the epilogue of the piece, otherwise the words are taken entirely from real World War I figures."
The songs, meanwhile, are mainly Christmas carols, all of them sung in their original languages — be it German, French or English.
"I think this piece cites the words of about 30 different World War I figures and includes about 30 different songs of the period, all woven together," he said. The entire production is only about an hour and 15 minutes long. "It's quite compact, but it covers a lot of ground," Rothstein added.
Tickets for Thursday's show are $22 for adults and $11 for students — or you can buy one adult ticket and get a second student ticket for free.
To reserve your seats, please call 218-844-7469, or order tickets online at www.dlccc.org/holmes.html. Tickets are also available for purchase at the Holmes Theatre Box Office, located at 806 Summit Ave., Detroit Lakes. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support Grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.