NEW YORK—At the onset of Christmas 1914, an amazing thing happened on the Western Front of World War I. Soldiers from both sides of the battle came out of their trenches, walked into no man’s land, greeted each other, and basically put the war on hold. This event, which happened up and down the lines, although certainly not everywhere on the front, was completely spontaneous, without any mutual agreement or official approval.
Peter Rothstein’s “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” examines this event, the circumstances leading up to it, and what happened afterward. First performed as a live radio broadcast in 2007, the musical has toured the country for the past 10 seasons. The show is now making its off-Broadway premiere in The Loreto Theater at The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture.
“All Is Calm” tells its story through the eyes of those who were actually there. Almost all of the spoken dialogue is taken from the writings of those who served during the so-called war to end all wars. The power of their memories creates a much more vivid portrait than a fictional retelling could.
Many of the recollections are interspersed with musical numbers, which include Christmas carols, patriotic hymns, medieval ballads, and other tunes of the day.
The first part of the piece concentrates on the patriotic feelings the British military recruiters tried to create in order to inspire potential recruits to enlist. Quite telling here is the feeling of those joining up that the entire thing would be a chance to get to where the action is. Some even wondered if they would see any fighting at all, especially with the prevailing thought that the war would be over by Christmas.
However, it’s not long before grim reality sets in. The soldiers battle endless days of freezing cold and pounding rain, as well as infestations of rats and lice, all as their comrades are dying right in front of them. One man recalls seeing his friend killed by a lump of shrapnel. After that, he never wanted to make friends with any soldier again.
The highlight of the show, of course, is the truce itself. The singing of Christmas carols gives way to a tiny lighted Christmas tree being placed atop a German trench, and things develop from there. In short order, soldiers from both sides are swapping stories, not to mention food and cigarettes, singing together, and even playing a football game.
More somber events take place, such as the collection and burial of those who had fallen in this unsecured territory.
While showing just how important the idea of peace on Earth and good will toward men was to some, “All Is Calm” also shows how strongly those higher up in the chain of command reacted to the truce. These officers understood the ramifications: Once their troops did get together, they would begin to realize how much they had in common with those they were trying to kill. One man recalls looking into the eyes of the enemy and thinking that he looked more like a university student than a soldier.
A question raised more than once by the soldiers is, why are they all trying to shoot each other in the first place? This question is not supposed to enter a soldier’s mind.
The cast of 10 (who depict 39 separate characters during the course of the show) all do an excellent job. While no one characterization particularly stands out—the text deliberately envisioned as a true ensemble piece—each line of dialogue and situation presented adds another layer to this fascinating story.
A particularly nice touch is that the songs used, no matter the language or origin, are all sung a cappella. Instrumental music is used only during the show’s final moments.
Rothstein’s direction is spot-on here. He helps to create the proper atmosphere of isolation and loneliness, which gives way to communal moments of unlikely camaraderie as the two forces come together.
While the technical elements are all well done, particular credit must go to dialect coach Keely Wolter in working with the cast on a great variety of accents and speech patterns; music director Erick Lichte who, with Timothy C. Takach, created the show’s very affecting musical arrangements; and sound designer Nicholas Tranby, whose work is instrumental in presenting a very significant coda to the proceedings.
“All Is Calm,” which ends with the carol “Silent Night,” recalls a moment in time when some men on both sides of a war decided that, for the next few hours at least, they would not kill. The show is a stirring reminder of how, sometimes, miracles really do happen.
‘All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914’
Sheen Center for Thought and Culture
18 Bleecker St.
Tickets: 212-925-2812 or AllIsCalm.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Dec. 30
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.