ETERNAL LESSONS OF WAR
Stories brought to life through poetry, drama and paintings have become timeless
John Hudson, artistic director at Shadow Theatre, holds a photograph of his great uncle Wilson Hatfield who died during the First World War. Shadow Theatre’s production of The Comedy Company, a true story about the members of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, runs until Sunday, Remembrance Day, at the Varscona.
Every Remembrance Day, the ranks of those who sit at war memorials, blankets tucked around their legs in wheelchairs, grow ever more thin.
There are no veterans of the First World War left. Of the more than one million Canadians who served full-time in the Second World War, less than 50,000 remain.
So much has changed since those mighty battles. Modern folk can barely imagine life without cellphones, never mind appreciate the experience of a young soldier forced to run messages between military outposts — one of the most dangerous and terrifying roles in the First World War.
This is why war stories brought to life through art — from poetry to theatre to paintings — are ever more important. As the real people fade from view, stories that touch our hearts are the only way to keep those real-life experiences, and their lessons, alive.
This felt clear to me while watching two plays about the First World War on stage in Edmonton until Nov. 11. Both plays brought war home at a visceral level, one I don’t get tuning into The National for my nightly update on worldwide conflict.
The first play is Shadow Theatre’s The Comedy Company, playing at the Varscona. Playwright Neil Grahn found the true story of a comedy company formed to entertain Canadian troops during the First World War while he was researching a film about the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Wildly successful, the comedy company was invited to appear before the Queen and King. After the war, their show went to Broadway.
When Grahn told his good friend, Shadow’s artistic director John Hudson, about the story, Hudson commissioned a play timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
“I’ve always had a deep affinity for both world wars,” said Hudson.
Hudson’s father fought in the Second World War. At the age of 16 under a false name, Hudson’s great uncle Wilson Hatfield signed up for the First World War. When his mother found out, she tried to have him released, but was unsuccessful. Hatfield, to whom The Comedy Company is dedicated, died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
“It was a loss the family never fully recovered from,” said Hudson. “It was something that touched all.”
A photo of Hatfield still hangs in Hudson’s house. His story is printed in the director’s notes of the playbill for The Comedy Company.
When I watched the show, I noted one character in particular, a pianist named Leonard, played by Nick Samoil. Leonard wasn’t Wilson, but in my theatre mind, where thoughts and feelings roam freely during productions, Leonard felt like Wilson. His face was so young, unlined and openly beautiful. I imagined that was what Wilson looked like, and felt a connection to his parents, and to all those parents who have lost children in war, then and now.
There is no underestimating the power and importance of that connection. As Hudson puts it, “we have to keep reminding ourselves that we have to be better as human beings.”
The Comedy Company provides that reminder, as does the Citadel’s Redpatch. Co-written by Vancouver’s Raes Calvert, who plays the lead role of HalfBlood, the play is about a young, mixed-blood First Nations soldier.
Calvert’s Indigenous grandfather fought in the Second World War, but Calvert hadn’t heard mention of the Indigenous contribution to the world wars in high school history books (he’s now 31). Research revealed that in the First World War, 4,000 Indigenous men enlisted, giving up their treaty status to do so. Calvert wondered why those soldiers wanted to fight in the first place.
“What were they expecting and what did it turn out to be?” he asked.
Here’s where the war story intersects with another important story, as all the best tales do. Calvert posits that a lot of Indigenous soldiers came from a “line of warriors.”
“In a lot of ways, it offered them an opportunity to prove themselves, and to be seen as equals,” said Calvert.
He notes audience members say Redpatch helped them see the war through a different lens, one that wasn’t focused on the traditional western European perspective. In itself, that’s a great outcome. There are many, many stories to be shared, and in that sharing, much to be learned.
Calvert says performance art has a critical role to play in war remembrance, calling it “a huge platform” through which to explore history.
“There is a line in Redpatch, ‘No matter where you go, you are where you come from.’ That, for me, is the truth, and it’s a way to connect to our history, whether it is something great or tragic
... to not recognize that leads to tragic things happening again and again.”
Theatre is my favourite of the art forms, and it’s not too late to see The Comedy Company or Redpatch. But there are other ways to experience a soldier’s story on or about Nov. 11.
Over at the University of Alberta’s fine arts building until Dec. 1, associate professor Allen Ball has an exhibit called Painting in the State of Exception: Documents of Contemporary War. The show is based on Ball’s journey to the northern Sinai in 2007 as an official war artist.
On Remembrance Day, as part of the Bells of Peace initiative, handbell ringers from Robertson-Wesley United will ring a bell 100 times at sunset (about 4:43 p.m.). Watch for them, weather permitting, outside the church on the corner of 102 Avenue and 123 Street. If it’s too cold, they’ll be just inside the church corner doors.
Project Heroes — an exhibit at the Prince of Wales Armouries — uses portraits and larger paintings to honour Canadian soldiers who died in Afghanistan. Also, the homecoming mural painted by Kris Friesen on the side of the Norwood Legion is both moving and easily accessible.