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‘Oh What a Lovely War’: the Texts and Their Context

  • Derek Paget


This year marks no less than the twenty-seventh anniversary of the first performance, on 19 March 1963, of Oh What a Lovely War by the Theatre Workshop company at Stratford East – a production which has been alternatively mythologized as the apogee of the company's achievement under Joan Littlewood, and, by fewer but influential critics (notably the late Ewan MacColl), as its nadir. Even those who saw the show after its transfer to Wyndham's Theatre on 20 June 1963 may, as Derek Paget here illustrates, have seen a production which differed significantly from the original: while those who did not see either version (even if they can be persuaded that the subsequent film bears little relation to either) have to rely on the text as published by Methuen. But this, as Paget demonstrates, provides only one. albeit the most accessible, of the several sources of textual documentation: and in this article, derived from the author's doctoral thesis for Manchester University, he draws on the recollections of actors and other theatre workers as well as on printed, manuscript, and source materials, to illuminate the creation and, arguably, the subsequent dilution of this collectively created indictment of war.



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Notes and References

1. For an examination of the European antecedents of Oh What a Lovely War, see my own unpublished Ph.D. thesis, ‘Oh What a Lovely War and the Broken Tradition of Documentary Theatre’ (Manchester University, 1988). The material in this article originates from research carried out for that thesis. See also my True Stories? Documentary Drama on Radio, Screen, and Stage (Manchester University Press, 1990), p. 59–78.

2. The phrase is Taylor's, John Russell in Anger and After (Methuen, 1969), p. 9.

3. McGrath, J., A Good Night Out (Methuen, 1981), p. 48.

4. I interviewed Brian Murphy at his London home on 16 November 1985. All quotations derive from this interview.

5. The phrase is Davison's, Peter in his Contemporary Drama and the Popular Dramatic Tradition in England (Macmillan, 1982), p. 86.

6. See Goorney, H., The Theatre Workshop Story (Methuen, 1981), p. 125–8. The difficulty with Goorney's account of Oh What a Lovely War is, of course, that he himself was not in the show, and did not like it a great deal: it therefore figures as a marker of decline in his analysis.

7. See Samuel, R. et al. , Theatres of the Left (Routledge, 1985), p. 254.

8. See Hoffman, L., ed., Erwin Piscator: Political Theatre 1920–1966, trans. Vallance, M. (Arts Council, 1971), p. 47.

9. I interviewed Clive Barker on three occasions – 18 September, 1985, 7 October 1985, and 25 March 1986. All interviews took place in his office at Warwick University.

10. See Tynan, K., Tynan Right and Left (Longman, 1967), p. 316.

11. Charles Chilton showed me how early posters and publicity material for Oh What a Lovely War did not mention Joan Littlewood's name at all. As soon as the show was perceived as a ‘success’, claims Chilton, her name started to be given prominence over his own in publicity. Both poster and programme (which originally billed the show as ‘a musical entertainment based on an idea of Charles Chilton’) were subsequently changed to read ‘Joan Littlewood's Musical Entertainment’. I interviewed Chilton on three occasions at his London home – 12 September 1986, 1 November 1986, and 18 September 1987.

12. The historian Alan Clark, the writer Ted Allan, and Charles Chilton himself sued Theatre Workshop over the play. There was also a threatened law suit over a BBC radio programme by Gertrude Hutchinson. This was first broadcast (as It's a Shame to Take the Pay) in August 1950, then repeated four times (as It's a Lovely War) between May and November 1959. Despite the similarity of its second title (and the fact that it begins with a concert party, the ‘Jolly Boys’, at the beach), I can confirm that it bears no resemblance to the stage show, having read the script at Broadcasting House, London.

13. It was broadcast, perhaps, in a fairly unfavourable slot, two days after Christmas, and fairly late (9.00–10.00 pm) in the evening. There are more songs in this version than the later, Bud Flanagan one.

14. See Goorney, op. cit., p. 122–4. Hopes for Giants were high, but very soon dashed.

15. See Seton, Marie, Sergei M. Eisenstein: a Biography (Bodley Head, 1952), p. 62.

16. I interviewed George Sewell backstage at the Festival Theatre, Malvern, on 28 May 1988. Ironically, he was on tour in another play about the Great War, Ted Willis's Tommy Boy.

17. Tuchman's book was first published by Constable in 1962, Clark's by Hutchinson in 1961 (later page references are to this edition), and Wolff's by Longman in 1959. A cheap Pan edition of Wolff was published in 1961.

18. Murphy's ‘private study’ was Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart's study of the First World War, first published by Cassell in 1930 as The Real War. Murphy almost certainly read the revised edition of 1934, which was titled A History of the World War. This kind of cast research was far from unusual at Stratford East. I saw a similar process take place during the 1972 revival of Behan's The Hostage, when I was a member of the stage management team. In order to give the play a perspective on the new ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the cast researched fresh material in the form of books and articles. Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles also travelled to Dublin to speak to IRA contacts there (such as Cathal Goulding, then Chief of Staff of the ‘Official’ IRA, and a former friend of the dead playwright's).

19. Dating of songs follows John Brophy and Eric Partridge's The Long Trail, a 1965 account of First World War songs, first published in 1930 as Songs and Slang of the British Soldier.

20. The Observer, 24 May 1963.

21. There is a facsimile edition of trench, Roberts's newspapers, edited by Beaver, Patrick, The Wipers Times (Peter Davies, 1973). Items incorporated into Oh What a Lovely War will mostly be found in the first two numbers of The Wipers Times.

22. See Marowitz, C., Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic (Methuen, 1973), p. 66.

23. See McGrath, J., The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (Methuen, 1981), especially the ‘Lord Krask/Lady Phosphate’ scene (p. 38–44), and the ‘Texas Jim’ scene (p. 58–69).

24. Barker's analysis was based partly on a critique which he was giving me of Hoffman's, F. J.The Mortal No: Death and the Modern Imagination (Princeton University Press, 1964), a book which I had not read.

25. Carelessness is evident in M's misspelling of Hanighen's name as Heiniger (p. 111). But, in truth, the Appendix to the published edition is a mass of garbled and inaccurate information, badly in need of an editor's attention. Of course, a fully edited Lovely War could conceivably bring yet more legal interventions (for example, from the representatives of Tuchman and Wolff, whose texts are used at least as liberally as Clark's: see my thesis, Chapters 6 and 7).

26. See Goorney, op. cit., p. 128.

27. See Hodgson's ‘Foreword’ to Cullen's, AlanThe Stirrings in Sheffield on Saturday Night (Methuen, 1974).

28. Goorney, op.cit., p. 127.

29. The Observer, 14 December 1969.

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‘Oh What a Lovely War’: the Texts and Their Context

  • Derek Paget


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