In the summer of 1914, when Europe called young men to war, there was a widely held belief they would be home by Christmas. But by December, nearly a million soldiers were dead, and the Western Front was a fierce battleground of Allied and German trenches.
Thousands of troops found themselves living in wet, hastily dug burrows with no chance of seeing home for the holidays. What they could see was their enemy. Opposing trenches often were just yards away.
On Christmas Eve, an extraordinary event happened based on that proximity. The Germans began singing carols and putting up miniature lighted trees and candles, with the Allied troops returning songs of their own. Soon, men on both sides had ventured out into the no-mans-land between the trenches and an unlikely cease-fire spontaneously occurred.
For that night, and days after, Germans and Allied troops fraternized peacefully – burying their dead, playing soccer, exchanging gifts and waging peace. It’s a bit of forgotten history that playwright Peter Rothstein explores in “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” a stripped-down musical drama making its last tour appearance at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center on Dec. 5, essentially 100 years after the detente.
“It’s my thesis that without music, the truce would never have happened,” says Rothstein, who wrote “All Is Calm” for Minneapolis-based a capella ensemble Cantus, with nine male singers. They are joined onstage by three actors who play multiple roles, resulting in a mix of music and spoken word relating the stark, powerful and hopeful story.
Some of the singing resembles arias in an opera, says tenor Aaron Humble, a member of Cantus. “And the trench songs are rougher and more character driven.”
Rothstein did extensive research for the project at war museums in Europe, writing more than 90 percent of the play from found text – letters, tombstone inscriptions and poetry. He also sourced period-specific song, from ragtime to traditional holiday tunes.
A key artistic decision, he says, was to give the source for each piece of dialogue used by the actors. “Every single quote you hear, you hear where that quote came from,” he says. “For me, these men have been denied their place in our history books. They were heroes, and I want their names to go down in history.”
Highlighting the courage it took for the men to defy their superior officers and trust in the humanity of their enemy is the central theme of “All Is Calm,” he adds – the truce involved more than 100,000 men and didn’t end entirely until commanders moved some of the fraternizing troops off the front lines.
“It takes much greater courage to execute peace than war,” he says. “What’s beautiful and powerful about this story is that it’s hard to be divided. You can sit on one political spectrum or the other, but the heroes of this story are the soldiers. They took peace into their own hands.”
All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 5
Where: Mondavi Center (One Shields Ave., Davis)
Information: mondaviarts.org; (530) 754-2787