History comes alive
‘Journey’s End’ brings WWI trench warfare, shell shock to stage
Published: Thursday, September 19, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 19, 2013 00:09
The new Liberal Arts and Humanities Building opened in 2012, but those who walk inside its Black Box Theater step back in time to World War I, to the trenches of St. Quentin, France, in March 1918. The floor is laid with sandbags marking out the trenches and the room is seemingly lit by candlelight. Two sheets suspended in the air portray haunting images from World War I.
As close as this feels to time travel, it’s actually the set of “Journey’s End,” a play put on by the A&M Department of Performance Studies as part of the conference, “1914 and the Making of the 20th Century.”
“We want to talk not just about the war, but about how the war shaped the world in which we live,” said Adam Siepp, representative of the conference.
“Journey’s End,” put on as a manifestation of this conversation, is performed in the Black Box Theater, an intimate space with only five rows of seats, making the performance an immersive experience.
The actors portrayed men who weren’t sure whether they’d see another sunrise, which brought a certain amount of weight both to the actors as characters, and to the actors as students in 2013 learning to understand the past.
“What made it special for me was the fact that I am British, and during my high school education, the First World War was a big topic which we had to learn about quite a bit, so that’s what made the production for me much more literal,” said Joseph Pfang, junior computer engineering major.
The play spans three days in the trenches of France as the threat of an imminent attack by the Germans hangs in the air. The soldiers and officers entrenched in the front lines do their best to hold onto what makes them men and people and individuals while facing the threat of death from all directions, a feat that would take experience to understand.
“Being the Corporal, there’s the idea of being taught what the war is like,” said Stephen Adams, sophomore history major. “We originally had some sense of military protocol, but battlefields dictate what battlefields dictate.”
But production was not without its challenges. Since there are no local places that rent legitimate World War I costumes, the company ultimately reached all the way out to California for their wardrobe.
“There was a lot of research, and still despite that there was a lot of necessary guessing,” said Jeff Morris, performance studies major and sound supervisor. “It translated, ‘How or to what extent is the past represented or accessible?’ The process was enlightening.”
But the play is historically accurate in more than just its costumes and military protocols — the crew and the people behind the play did immense research on all kinds of trauma.
“We had one rehearsal where we just sat around and watched shellshock videos of individuals who experienced shellshock,” said Brock Hatton, senior biomedical sciences major, who portrays Capt. Stanhope, one of the main characters in the play. “Of people who were no longer able to speak, people who weren’t able to move, people who had constant tremors that they couldn’t simply turn off, people who had different kinds of funny walks that they did afterwards that they had to be shock-therapied out of. It was little stuff like that that really drove this play home.”
“Those five hours of rehearsal,” said sophomore biological and agricultural engineering major Sean Gordon, shaking his head. “In the beginning it was just another play, but that one rehearsal really turned it around for me.”
Gordon portrays Lt. Osborne, a well-intentioned father figure in the company who thinks the best of all his fellow men and whom the soldiers refer to as “Uncle.”
Stanhope, Hatton’s character, along with the other soldiers in the trenches, deals with many crises that could lead to similar forms of shock. He has various coping mechanisms, and asks rhetorically at a tense moment during the play, “Is there no limit to what a man can bear?”
Anne Quackenbush, play director and performance studies professor, said she felt strongly about this theme, and hopes the play inspires people to think about how individuals deal with the constant shadow of death, yet continue to maintain their humanity.
“An entire generation of individuals went to war and didn’t come back — and they were our age,” Hatton said. “My character is the exact same age that I am now, and so it sort of really struck home that these men worked for three or four years in horror, and then they were told to go back into society. You realize the ramifications of everything at that point.”
Conner Brazil, sophomore English major, said the play humanizes enemy soldiers as well.
“You normally think about the other side of any war as that machine trying to hurt your family,” Brazil said. “The German soldier I play isn’t really there to fight for his country necessarily, just to fight because he had to. The most important things to him are his personal letters. It’s not just the British, it’s the Germans too, that react to wanting to get home to their families.”
Hatton said the way characters are based on real people deepens the impact of the play.