War, bloodshed, and a cappella music seem unlikely companions in a Christmas show, but All Is Calm is a holiday production without parallel. Subtitled The Christmas Truce of 1914, it revisits in letters and songs of the period a Christmas Eve in World War I when soldiers in the trenches suspended their enmity and joined one another for a night of celebration in no-man’s-land. The story has been told before, notably in Joyeux Noël, France’s 2005 Oscar nominee for best foreign film. But even with its melancholy trappings, All Is Calm is a deeply moving and spiritually thrilling piece of theater.
There’s virtually no setting. It begins in darkness, then Marcus Dilliard’s lights slowly fall on a stage filled with fog, and a soloist (David Darrow) comes out singing a traditional Scottish song, “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” It evokes the poem by Canadian John McCrae: “In Flanders fields, where poppies grow….”
All Is Calm, created and directed by Peter Rothstein, with music arranged by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, features an ensemble of 10 men who sing carols, music-hall ballads, wartime propaganda songs, and classical selections as they take turns reciting the words of soldiers. They range from George Littlefair (Darrow again) of the Durham Light Infantry, writing about his pal Joe, to Winston Churchill (James Ramlet, who excels at authority figures, including an angry general).
Other high-profile writers also appear. A poem, “1914,” by Wilfred Owen, killed at the front in 1918, begins, “War broke: and now the winter of the world/With perishing great darkness closes in….” A letter from Siegfried Sassoon, who got into trouble when it was read in the House of Commons, indicts the generals and politicians: “I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” The same sentiment bubbles underneath the missives home and the conversations between the British and Germans on the night of the truce. Historians have affirmed the incompetence and callousness of the generals and politicians.
The music is drawn from a variety of traditions. “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” is Scottish; there are a couple French songs—including one from an operatic tenor in a nearby trench—and some German ones as well. Every singer has a moment to shine, from tenor Evan Tyler Wilson to the amazing bass Tom McNichols.
Divided into sections, the selections begin with The Grim Reality, which includes the jaunty “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and ones with grimmer sentiments: “The Old Barbed Wire,” “I Want to Go Home,” “Raining, Raining, Raining,” and Ivor Novello’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”
As a narrator explains, both German and English soldiers in the front trenches, separated by mere yards from the enemy, sang in a call-and-response fashion. They applauded one another’s vocalizing, but on Christmas Eve of 1914 things took an unexpected turn. Although Pope Benedict XV had urged a truce, and the Germans had been willing, the British rejected the idea. It was the men in the trenches themselves who defied their superiors. After trading songs customarily, one German singing “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) stepped into no-man’s-land—a moment of throat-choking sublimity in Rothstein’s production, with the music visiting glorious harmonies. Soon both sides had laid down their arms and were celebrating, sharing food and a game of soccer, trading stories and showing one another family photos.
During the segment titled The Truce there are familiar carols: “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “The First Noël,” and the German-language “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (known in English as “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”). As H.G.R. Williams of the London Rifle Brigade wrote: “‘The First Noel,’ ‘O Tannenbaum,’ and ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’ I thought this an extraordinary thing—two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The show ends, as it must, on a somber note. “In Ypres [in a slice of Belgium that remained free throughout the war],” we are told, “every night at 8 p.m. the last post is sounded” to remember the dead. Nonetheless, the overwhelming takeaway of All Is Calm is of the power of music to bring people together and the common interests of those from different backgrounds. Not merely at this centenary of the end of World War I, but at any time, All Is Calm demonstrates the essence of the Christmas spirit.
All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 runs through Dec. 30 at the Sheen Center (18 Bleecker St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, except Dec. 9; additional performances will be at 7 p.m. Dec. 16, and 2 p.m. Dec. 24. Ticket are available by calling the box office at (212) 925-2812 or visiting alliscalm.org.