German prisoners were having comedy parties in British war camps – we recreated one

Imagine a richly furnished dining room with a table set for over 30 people. Dr Felix Volkart and his wife Hermine will later organize a sumptuous party; she is already in full evening dress. Their young maid is sent to roll the carpet in the street. An elderly servant, Baumann, is slowed down by nostalgia, testing Hermine’s patience.

HERMINE: Go ask the cook if the lobster hasn’t been brought in yet; otherwise phone.

BAUMANN: To whom? Lobster?

HERMINE: No, at the delicatessen. Number seven hundred forty-six.

BAUMANN: Everything will be settled. Just to think that 20 years have passed and that I still have the honor and pleasure of it.

HERMINE (aside): He’s incorrigible!

This is the opening scene of Ludwig Fulda’s 1890 comedy Unter Vier Augen (By Ourselves), staged a century ago near Hawick on the Scottish borders. It was performed entirely in German as part of a lustspielabend, or evening of comedy, music and two plays – the other was Der Zerbrochne Krug by Heinrich von Kleist (The Broken Jug, 1808).

The audience and the cast needed that kind of entertainment: they were in Scotland as prisoners of war. The show, which took place at the Stobs internment camp, was typical of those shown in British camps throughout WWI. They are a fascinating glimpse into a long forgotten cultural history.

As part of the war centenary commemorations, a team from Edinburgh Napier University decided to recreate this evening. Now it is a question of taking a mini-tour.

Objects of suspicion

When war broke out, German citizens in Britain became objects of suspicion and surveillance. Immediately enacted, the Aliens Restriction Act authorized the establishment of internment camps to prevent men between the ages of 17 and 55 from serving in enemy armies. Prisoners of war were soon added as well.

Besides the Scottish borders, other locations for the camps included Alexandra Palace in London, Dorchester and Southend in southern England, and Douglas and Knockaloe on the Isle of Man. In total, according to research to be published soon by colleagues on the Stobs project, Britain and its colonies have interned 50,000 civilians and 90,000 military prisoners from Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.

The theater nights were very popular. In Knockaloe, in the remote western part of the Isle of Man, inmates staged 113 comedies, 42 plays, 15 dramas, 21 variety shows and one show over a period of just six months. At Stobs, Carl Rössler’s comedy Die Fünf Frankfurter (The Five Frankfurters, 1911) was so popular that it had to be performed seven times.

The Ian Lowes collection
The two shots of Die Fünf Frankfurter played at Stobs.
The Ian Lowes collection

Stobs, which was recently the subject of a major memorial project, held up to 4,500 wartime detainees, although by 1916 civilians had all moved to Knockaloe. The war must have been long in this windswept valley and the inmates had to be entertained – besides the theater club there were musical instruments and a camp newspaper, Stobsiade. It was after hearing about this diary from my colleague Rachael Durkin that the idea of ​​recreating a comedy night came.

Stobs camp.
Stefan Manz / Hawick Museum

Theatrical performances in the camps helped guard against “barbed wire disease”, a dangerously depressive mixture of boredom and isolation. The performances reminded men of people and places far away, while German popular music provided powerful emotional signals.

The performances were dictated by practicalities – the camps were reserved for men, for example, so that all the female parts were performed by men dressed in women’s clothing. Sex therapist Magnus Hirschfeld later wrote that such acts helped normalize same-sex relationships in Germany and elsewhere.

The evening we decided to recreate, using just six actors in multiple roles, opens with a rendition of the bombastic overture of Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach, famous for the last section better known as cancan. The next item is By ourselves, followed by the interval.

The musicians return with a typical German Strauss waltz. Next comes The Broken Jug, a comedy about justice and the closeness to rural life. The truth of the title incident is slowly being revealed through a series of ridiculous events.

We felt that recreating this entire evening would have been too long and would have said nothing about the context of the camp. After all, our challenge was to bring the history of the internment to life.

Our director, Iain Davie, decided to create a show within the show. He orders the screenwriter Charity cup write a comedic play that takes place behind the scenes of the night in question, drawing on historical sources for authenticity and incorporating parts of the night’s performance.

Rehearsal time.
Iain Davie

Characters in the behind-the-scenes play include a college professor, gymnast, baker, and scientist. They are keenly aware of life in other camps, from home letters to details of theater props. The drama club is a great way to occupy their time, until an actor gets injured and a more reluctant inmate has to step forward.

Played for laughs

The playful tone of these camp comedy nights may seem odd to audiences today, but it shows how people manage under duress. The prisoners did not need to be reminded of their harsh reality, they wanted to focus on unavailable things such as intimacy, intimacy, female companionship and food.

We are seeing something similar with British prisoners in German internment camps. The Ruehleben camp near Berlin also had a theater club, where they performed everything from Shakespeare to light operas such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

Romance is not dead.

Indeed, entertainment and laughter have helped humans go through hardships for as long as we can remember. Examples include everything from pastoral poetry that was a running response to the English Civil War of the 1600s, to glam rockers and new romantics in the lean 1970s and early 1980s.

This reality adds spice to the lustspielabend internment camps. Elsewhere, house fires burned and millions of soldiers wrote letters from the front. But in remote corners of the British countryside were lonely and fearful men, clapping and laughing and hoping for better times.

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