Features Essays Published 1 July 2014

Echoes from the Past

"History does not just belong to historians." As two productions in Bristol tell stories from the First World War on stage Rosemary Wagg looks at the way we remember the conflicts of the past.
Rosemary Waugh

“I was four years old when the atomic bomb dropped, so I don’t know ‘normal life’.  I hated the war for a long time, but realised that having a grudge does nothing. I have to speak and leave messages to the next generation.”

 – Hidetaka Komine, survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

The voices of people from the past – recent or ancient – can often be hard to hear. Despite oral testimony now being a key piece of the popular historical record and replayed on a loop in museums across the world, there will always be many more whose voices we simply cannot hear. For every person who survived Hiroshima and now speaks with the aim of educating others on the horrors of nuclear war, there will be hundreds of others who perished instantly on that day and left only a pocket of silence as their legacy.

The generation who experienced the World War II and events including the atomic bombings or the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden are gradually passing away. As they do, the generations below them experience that unique moment when the living oral testimony of a major historical event morphs into being documentary evidence – photographs, film footage, letters, newspaper articles. If we are quick, then we can still make an effort to find out what others thought of the events Kurt Vonnegut captured in Slaughterhouse 5. But this is not so with World War I. On 25th soldier known to have fought in the trenches, died – at, it must be added, the amazing age of 111 years, 1 month, 1 week and 1 day. We have many a record of Patch’s words, but an extra question came to our minds that was not addressed in the documents, we could no longer ask him it.

“I wrote a family chronicle for my children and grandchildren, with background about the past and what I experienced so that others don’t need to witness this again.” 

 – Ruldolf Eichner, survivor of the firebombing of Dresden.

And for every Patch who was able to tell his stories, there are all the others who could not. Almost every town in Britain has a war memorial somewhere. A list of silent names to accompany the silent faces that stare out of old photographs. World War I is punctuated by silence. Thousands of young men left home and very quickly turned into silence. Voids all over Britain and Europe were created. Chairs un-sat on; arms wrapping around emptiness. We have, for whatever reason, a great desire to give voices to these mute figures of the greatest events of the twentieth century, and this week in Bristol two theatre productions did so with poise and integrity.

Private Peaceful at the Tobacco Factory

Private Peaceful at the Tobacco Factory

Private Peaceful, by the author Michael Morpurgo, is the story of a soldier condemned to die by firing squad at 6am, sentenced for disobeying orders. He will not sleep through his last night on earth, but rather spends it reliving his short existence. The soldier’s life before he became a soldier was, like Patch’s, spent in the West Country. For a large chunk of the play we are taken to Devon  July 2009 Harry Patch, the last surviving and to cold brook water tickling blistering feet. A girl with chestnut hair, the same colour as his dad’s horse, runs laughing through the narrative. Molly, who ends up with a round belly carrying his brother’s son, is the redeeming rural angel, the beauty that is absent in the trenches.

“I did not even know that I have been saved. I was filled with hate for a long time. But now, I devote my life to telling others my story. It is my responsibility to teach younger generations about the dignity of life and the importance of peace.”

 – Suzoko Numata, survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Morpurgo wrote Private Peaceful after visiting Ypres and being reminded of the over 300 British soldiers executed for desertion or cowardice. Many of these soldiers were deeply traumatised by the events they had witnessed and suffering from shell shock. He read the stories of these soldiers and then came across a gravestone with the name Private Peaceful carved upon it. He now had his character to give a voice to. However his real interest in the lives of those during wartime began with the mantlepieced photo of his uncle Pieter, killed whilst in the RAF in 1941.

Private Peaceful  – currently being performed at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol – is then an attempt not just to tell the story of those executed in WW1, but also an attempt to give a voice to all silent soldiers captured in the lens. Similarly, the idea for Wild Men came from a plaque in a corridor in Bristol Cathedral. The show was devised by Hotel Echo during their time as part of the Made in Bristol scheme – a project designed to give young theatre-makers the opportunity to develop and perform their work. The youthfulness of the ensemble was far from being a disadvantage. Instead it imbued the performance with an unsettling bite of reality. Many of the soldiers who died would have been exactly this age – young adults on the very edge of beginning their lives. Young adults just old enough to have left behind new-born infants and newly wed wives.

Wild Men, in contrast to its title, tells the story of five boys who are far from ‘wild’. They are choristers in Bristol cathedral who go off to fight in Normandy together. It is the idea of the boys as choristers that gives the production its poignancy. Choral music is everything that war is not – and anyone who has spent time listing to Evensong in Bristol cathedral will know this to be true – whether or not one subscribes to the ideals of the Anglican church. Choral music is meditative beauty. It has at its core Time. Time to be spent considering God, prayer and human actions. The circularity of the yearly events that influence the proceedings creates a sense of both time available and time eternal. Time is not something one has in war. In war there is no time to stop and sing the Magnificat and no time ponder on the light through a stained glass window. War takes away from souls time to expand.

“The atomic bomb killed even students. A wonderful life must have been waiting for them, but they were killed so easily. If there was no atomic bomb…”

 – Kiyomi Kohno, survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Wild Men. Photos: Matt Crush

Wild Men. Photos: Matt Collins

In the space of the cathedral the young choristers are surrounded by symbols of human achievement – music, art and literature. Placed into the setting of war all this is gone. Books are potential kindling to keep warm and churches are full of rats. The church as a symbol of contemplative thought and stability loses its power and becomes just stone walls between them and the encroaching German army. Loud feet are marching and the solid stone is turning transparent. We, the audience, never witness their deaths as the story now returns to the silence it began with.

Wild Men was a beautiful and thoughtful production. It was a great example of how people can begin to explore the silent spaces of history and how, outside of the academic rigour of historical studies, people are able to answer the desire to turn engraved names into voices. History does not just belong to historians and academics, it can also be explored by artists, writers and theatre-makers. A fictional re-imagining of the past can, at times, contain as much truth as a journal article – even if that ‘truth’ is as much about the writers and their relationship with the past as it is about the actual people who lived through the events. As perceptive though as this type of performance is, it is saddening to think that in a few decades time we will also be left only with re-imaginings of the Second World War and its related events. After all, many people from that era are still talking and still waiting for you to listen.

“I survived by the grace of the deceased…but to stop history from repeating, I have to talk.”

 – Haruyo Nihei, survivor of the firebombing of Tokyo.

All quotes taken from From Above, by Paule Saviano (2011)


Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.



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