There are a number of plays that we associate with the Great War, R.C. Sheriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ and Joan Littlewood’s ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ the most prominent among them. For Londoners during the war, though, the theatre was a place of distraction and escape. The most successful West End play of the war was Oscar Asche’s musical comedy ‘Chu Chin Chow’.
In the days before radio and television, the theatre, cinema and music halls were the big mass entertainments available to Britons. Throughout the Great War, despite the scorn of the ‘Die Hards’ who wanted all amusement abandoned for the duration, all three flourished.
There were war-related songs, films and plays, of course. The 1914 song ‘Your King and Country Want You‘ by Paul Rubens was clearly a product of the war, with its chorus of “Oh! we don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go/For your King and Country both need you so”. So too – just as obviously but much less popularly- was the song ‘The Military Representative‘ by RP Weston and Bert Lee. Other popular songs were simply sentimental – perhaps given added resonance by the pressures and separations of wartime – such as ‘If you were the only girl (in the world)‘
We have seen that the film the Battle of the Somme was a huge success for a few weeks in 1916, but really most audiences wanted escapism and follow-up documentaries about the war did not have anything like the same level of success. Charlie Chaplin was a much more popular choice among British cinema-goers.
The theatre, too, was a place of refuge. Diaries and letters of Londoners and people visiting the city include numerous mentions.
Vera Brittain remembered her brother Edward’s short leave in London in her autobiography, Testament of Youth:
‘Edward’s leave, like all short leaves, vanished in a whirlwind of activities. Somehow he crowded into it an afternoon at Keymer [visiting the family], a visit to Victor [Richardson], who was now at Purfleet, a concert, and one or two theatres, which inevitably included Romance, with Doris Keane and Owen Nares, and Chu Chin Chow.’
The plays people went to see were not war plays, although there were some of those. Michael Macdonagh went to the theatre regularly in late 1915 (in his In London During the Great War):
‘The theatres, music-halls and cinemas are doing well. None of us, speaking generally, are pinched for money. We are being paid good wages or better salaries, both with war bonus additions, and so are ready to spend freely on relaxations from the tension of the War. There are also large numbers of wounded soldiers in the hospitals, or physically well on leave, whose desire and need for entertainment is far greater than that of civilians, of course, and on no account must be denied. Matinées are held every day, and these are always well patronised. On dark nights, which are air raid nights, attendances are slack. We prefer to stay at home behind our well-curtained windows. But when the moon is out Zeppelins stay in, and we can go to the theatre with an easy mind. Places of entertainment have begun, in fact, to advertise “moony nights” as holiday resorts do “sunny days.” “Come and see the Bing Boys: it is a full moon to-night so you need not fear the ‘Bang Boys’.” Yes, the full moon was majestically sailing last night in a clear sky. The streets were thronged with carefree crowds “mooning” themselves. How we delight in the moon! We look up and laugh heartily at seeing the Man in the Moon winking good-humouredly at us!’
Walking around London in 1916, he noted down what was on offer:
‘Here are the titles of the plays at some of the theatres which I passed in the course of my walk. Strand, “Ye Gods!”; Globe, “Peg o’ My Heart”; Criterion, “A Little Bit of Fluff”; His Majesty’s, “Chu Chin Chow”; Daly’s, “The Happy Day”; Drury Lane, “Razzle Dazzle”; Duke of York’s, “Daddy Long Legs.” Ah, here is something different – Royalty, “The Man who Stayed at Home.” Even in War-time with all its gloom hilarity will keep breaking in. No situation is ever so bad that it might not be much worse!’
‘The Man who Stayed at Home’ stood out to Macdonagh because it was the only war play on offer at the theatres he passed, walking through the West End in 1916.
One play stands out beyond all others as the great hit of the war years, and it is the play mentioned in both Brittain’s and Macdonagh’s lists of plays in London. This was Chu Chin Chow, a music comedy written, produced and directed by Oscar Asche.
The play was, according to William A Everett (writing about its obvious Orientalist elements), ‘one of the greatest successes in the history of popular musical theatre’. It opened in August 1916 and ran for nearly five years – until July 1921 – with 2,235 performances, more than twice as many as any other previous musical. This made it the longest-running play ever in the West End (although it is no longer in the top 10). It went on to be a hit on Broadway and was revived in 1940.
The play is loosely based on the tale of Ali Baba and the forty thieves, featuring slaves, spies, lovers, disguises and a magic cave. The Guide to Musical Theatre has a fun synopsis here.
The Times described it as an “excursion into the region of fantastic, polyphonic, polychromatic Orientalism. Mr Asche himself preferred to call it an Eastern revue. It is, in fact, everything by turns and nothing long – a kaleidoscopic series of scenes now romantic, now realistic, now Futurist or Vorticist, but always beautiful, with action passing from the sentimental to the droll and from the droll to the grim, and yet with the unity of a familiar tale, the old Arabian Nights’ tale of the Forty Thieves.” (Times 1/9/1916)
The colourful set and costumes and the music were a major part of its appeal. Asche updated the costumes each year, with criticism from some quarters that cannot have harmed the play’s appeal with the masses:
As Macdonagh’s description of the theatre crowd and Edward Brittain’s whirl-wind leave schedule suggest, it was not just civilians who sought escape in the theatre. Many soldiers – and particularly officers – went to the theatre if they could.
They also took the theatre to war with them. In the Imperial War Musuem’s collection is an HMV record of the songs from Chu Chin Chow, taken to war by 2nd Lieutenant C.R. Tobbitt of the Royal Engineers.
Soldiers also performed the show to each other in concert parties on the Western Front:
Or even in Germany:
Although one suspects that the appeal of watching a bunch of comrades performing the play was rather different to seeing Asche’s young actresses in their risque outfits.
The contrast would have been even greater because of the lack of young men in the theatre casts in London. Milton Valentine Snyder noticed a distinct lack of them by 1918 after yet another effort to conscript more young men: ‘Managers have usually boasted of the number of pretty girls in their shows. If this war continues, it is possible press agents may be driven to lay stress on the number of able-bodied men.’
Theatre, like cinema and music-hall, offered civilians and service personnel alike an escape from the pressures, dangers and anxieties of wartime. Chu Chin Chow was great escapism for wartime (and post-war) Londoners, combining this relief from the anxieties of everyday life with a glimpse of (a version of) the orient and with music, comedy and colourful costumes. It was just what people needed in the hard years from the summer of 1916.