On Saturday 30 August (6.30pm) the British Library Conference Centre will host the premiere performance of War, Women and Song, a unique theatrical recreation of the entertainments given for troops on the front line in the First World War. Written and directed by Anna Farthing and Bea Roberts, the production is inspired by the remarkable story of the actress and acting manager Lena Ashwell (1872-1957) and her series of YMCA Concert Parties.
During the course of the war more than 600 actors, musicians and entertainers ‚Äď mostly young women ‚Äď signed up for tours of duty as members of up to 25 companies, travelling throughout France and as far afield as Egypt to bring succour and morale-boosting diversion to war-weary soldiers. War, Women and Song is inspired by the surviving programmes, photos, and archival materials that document the content and style of the entertainments, as well as the backgrounds and motivations of some of the performers themselves.
The first concerts took place in France in early 1915, with support from the YMCA. Concerts were given in tents, fields, or huts ‚Äď often to hundreds of soldiers ‚Äď with up to three performances per day (more than 5,000 concerts in total were given between 1915 and 1919). A typical ensemble consisted of a soprano, contralto, instrumentalist, tenor, baritone or bass, entertainer, and accompanist, allowing scope for a mixed entertainment of classical works interspersed with readings from poetry, and popular WW1 classics still familiar to us today ‚Äď such Roses of Picardy and Keep the Home Fires Burning.
Ashwell later wrote about the concerts in her book Modern troubadours: a record of the concerts at the front (London: Gyldendal, 1922). Music, she claimed, offered ‚Äėthe straightest road to the unseen world of spiritual beauty [and] fulfilled more than its tangible function of cheering up the men‚Ä¶ Music ministers with magical results to minds distressed, destroying the seeds of despondent thoughts, the black moods that dullness, pain, or loneliness sow in the most gallant hearts, for ‚Äúwhere music is, there can no ill thing be‚ÄĚ‚Äô (p. 8).
War, Women and Song was conceived by Harvest Heritage Arts and Media and features a professional cast including Samantha Barron, Nick Blakeley, Hannah Lee, Bryan Moriarty and Cassie Webb. The performance on 30 August forms part of the international conference ‚ÄėThe Music of War: 1914-1918‚Äô (29-31 August), presented by the British Library to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The conference is supported by the Royal Musical Association, Music & Letters, and the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.
For tickets, please follow this link to the BL Box Office.