The most famous theatre plays calling the purpose of the Great War into question were staged in the Weimar Republic. This was because the Germans suffered the dire political and economic consequences of their military defeat. Theatres in Poland, like German ones, also portrayed the Great War as an absurd slaughter. However, it was also remembered that Poles and other nations of Central and Eastern Europe would not have regained independence if it had not been for that conflict.

One of the first works devoted to the Great War was the Transfiguration or Die Wandlung staged in Berlin on 30 September 1919. Its author, Ernst Toller, was an expressionist writer of Jewish origin who grew up in the Wielkopolska region. He volunteered for military service in the German army in 1914 and distinguished himself in battle. Even so, the experience triggered a mental breakdown and he had to undergo compulsory treatment, which turned this former militarist into a pacifist. After the end of the war, at the beginning of 1919, he was one of the leaders of the Bavarian revolt and was sentenced to many years in prison as a result. It was behind bars that he wrote the Transfiguration, an autobiographical play comprised of a dozen or so episodes that recounted Toller’s involvement in the Great War including trench combat and his stay in a hospital together with other mentally and physically crippled soldiers. Toller eventually killed himself during a relapse of depression in May 1939 in New York where he emigrated to from Nazi Germany.

On 23 January 1928, Berlin witnessed the première of The Good Soldier Švejk, a novel by Jaroslav Hašek adapted by Erwin Piscator with expressionistic sets by George Grosz and Max Pallenberg playing the role of Švejk. They play was staged by the communist-leaning Piscator-Bühne that operated in the Theater am Nollendorfplatz. Published in 1921-23, Hašek’s Czech novel, written from the perspective of a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, laid bare the absurdity of the recently finished Great War and had an impact that was nowhere as wide as in Germany. Piscator, a director linked to the Communist Party of Germany and a veteran of the Great War, used a number of innovative techniques in his grotesque and dynamic production to give it an anti-capitalist tinge. He installed a moving walkway on the stage where members of the military, from decorated generals to ordinary privates, moved by as if during a parade. The procession was closed, however, by wartime invalids. Satirical films based on drawings by Grosz were projected onto screens in the background. Some of these drawings were later decried as blasphemous due to their anti-clerical or even anti-Christian nature (among others, they depicted Jesus in a gas mask and military boots).

Piscator would then use the same moving walkway technique to enact a military unit marching out in The Rivals by Maxwell Anderson and Lawrence Stallings, a play about American soldiers fighting in France after the USA joined the Great War, staged in Berlin’s Königgrazstrasse in 1929. To show trench combat, he used backlit canvas banners.

On 3 July 1932, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris staged the world premiere of the expressionist ballet The Green Table by Kurt Jooss performed by the Folkwang Tanzbühne group from Essen. Subtitled A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes, the ballet opens and ends with a scene featuring the Gentlemen in Black, that is diplomats involved in international negotiations at a green table. When the diplomats wearing grotesque masks stop talking, the war breaks out and they come back to the table after the end of hostilities that took the lives of millions of soldiers. The other six metaphorical scenes of this German ballet present the events taking place in the course of the war from the draft to the procession of victims led by triumphant Death.

The first reflection of the Great War in Polish theatre was The Mayor of Stilmonde by the Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck staged in Warsaw’s Rozmaitości Theatre on 28 June 1921. Set in 1914 in a Flemish town occupied by the German army, the piece was written in 1918. The actor who produced Maeterlinck’s play for the first time, Stanisława Wysocka, also prepared the premiere of Death on a Pear Tree, a Play in Three Acts by Witold Wandurski shown on 16 January 1925 in the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków. Wandurski, a communist writer who was murdered in the Soviet Union in 1934, wrote his play to satirise capitalism and militarism which led to the outbreak of the war in Europe. It was based on a folk tale about the imprisonment of Death and its negative consequences for mankind forced to start a war to kill millions of people. In addition to Death, portrayed as an old woman with a scythe, the play features St. Peter and Archangel, a married couple of workers, three village boys who become generals at the outbreak of the war, a policeman/secret agent, a trader, a Jew, a priest, capitalists and soldiers. Inspired by German expressionism, Wandurski, who contributed to the production, placed actors in the stalls, galleries and boxes, instructing them to shout over the heads of the audience and run all over the theatre. The spectacle shocked Kraków’s audiences and sparked so much protest that it was played only six times.

A whole series of plays devoted to the Great War did not appear in Polish theatres until ten years after its end. In 1929-30, silence about wartime experiences was broken all across Europe by the publication of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which appeared first in Germany and then in other countries. The first to react was Leon Schiller. An admirer of German theatre at the time, he staged The Rivals in the City Theatre in Łódź in 1929 as a protest against ‘imperialistic militarism’ expressed from the communist perspective. Modelling the production on Piscator’s, he used film projections to depict battle scenes. He then staged The Good Soldier Švejk ‘in 15 Scenes’ translated by Józef Wittlin, an author of pacifist poems and an unfinished novel about a Galician peasant drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army in 1914. Later, in the Lviv City Theatre, Schiller re-staged Švejk and directed a story about a deserter from the Russian army sentenced to be shot by a German court martial for disseminating Bolshevik propaganda, an adaptation of the novel The Case of Sergeant Grischa by Arnold Zweig. Zweig’s novel had been previously staged by Alexei Granowski in the Deutsches Theater of Berlin in 1930.

Warsaw’s National Theatre showed Journey’s End by Robert C. Sherriff, a play about the suffering and death of five British soldiers in France during the Great War. The Polski Theatre ran The Rivalen and Švejk. The City Theatre in Kraków showed a French play by Paul Raynal entitled The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier also known as The Tomb at the Triumphal Arch. Undermining the purpose of the voluntary sacrifice of soldiers, the play was first staged in the Parisian Comedie Francaise in 1924 but was discontinued in the face of protests from the audience. It then re-opened at the Odeon in 1929. All these foreign works conveyed a pacifist message and showed the absurdity of wartime slaughter.

However, the effect of the Great War for the Poles – like many other nations of Central and Eastern Europe – was that it brought about the downfall of the empires within which these nations had to exist, paving the way for independence. These varying experiences where reflected on the stage with a delay of almost 20 years. The Rosemary Twig by Zygmunt Nowakowski did not premiere until 9 November 1937 when it was performed for the first time in the Polski Theatre in Warsaw. Those ‘five scenes from the life of a platoon’ was based on the history of the Polish Legions created and commanded during the Great War by Józef Piłsudski. The character representing Piłsudski, who died in 1935, appeared at the very end of the play but did not say anything. Indeed, neither his name nor his surname appear earlier in the dialogues. The play was performed as many as 157 times during two seasons. The Rosemary Twig was soon staged in Kraków, directed by its author. In 1938, it was also shown in Lviv, Łódź, Toruń, Katowice and Vilnius. The play turned out to be perfectly suited to the expectations of Polish audiences as it reflected their specific experiences during the Great War as well as the road to independence of Piłsudski’s supporters who were in power starting from 1926, following the May coup d’état. In communist Poland, however, the play was banned until 1982.

Translated from Polish to English by Mikołaj Sekrecki
Proofread by Dr Ian Copestake