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"This Loneliest Hour" - Vera Brittain

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On Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, and Extract from Chapter 9, "This Loneliest Hour"

Testament of Youth PosterTestament of Youth film adaptation poster

In 2016, The Guardian journalist, Robert McCrum listed Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth as the 42nd best non-fiction book of all times. What follows are extracts from his article and a passage from the Testament of Youth's Chapter 9:

"Testament of Youth was written by Vera Brittain, a woman approaching 40 who had spent some 17 years coming to terms with her singular experience of the first world war – as a girl, a fiancee, a feminist, a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse and, finally, as the sorrowing victim of intolerable grief. Brittain’s is one of several memoirs inspired by the fighting in Flanders, but it made a lasting impact through the raw passion of its anti-war message and its rather modern confessional candour. 

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Josephine: Government Girl, 1918

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Josephine: Government Girl, 1918

by Margaret Thomas Buchholz

Jo fancydressJosephine Lehman Thomas. She writes in her diary: "June 1918: The gowns were of the real evening variety. I have gotten entirely over being shocked by such a display of arms and necks. After I have some new glad rags I am going to have some large pictures taken to astonish the Ionians by the general absentness of the upper part of my gown." Photo courtesy of Margaret Thomas Buchholz.

My mother, Josephine Lehman Thomas, who spent the last half of her life in Harvey Cedars, NJ, was a “government girl” in Washington DC during World War I. She lived as a determinedly modern young woman who relished the wartime excitement of the nation's capital – with its soldiers, movie stars, and international celebrities. She kept a detailed diary from 1917 until the late twenties, when she was a researcher and ghostwriter for Lowell Thomas. Her entries offer a lively record of city life at the time. The following is excerpted from her story which appeared in Washington History, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Fall/Winter, 1998/1999) and was later expanded into my book, Josephine: from Washington Working Girl to Fisherman’s Wife. (www.down-the-shore.com/josephine.html). The captions to the photos in this post also come from her diary.

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Brest-Litovsk: Eastern Europe’s Forgotten Father

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Brest-Litovsk: Eastern Europe’s Forgotten Father 

by Adrian Bonenberger

Belarus Soviet Monuments 2 Brest Hero Fortress 12Brest Hero Fortress. Photo courtesy ww.brest-fortress.by/en/

 One of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century—perhaps ever—Vaslav Nijinsky was born to Polish parents in what is now Ukraine, was at the time Imperial Russia (and for a brief six-month period, was a puppet-state of Imperial Germany). He is supposed to have thought of himself as Polish, for whatever that’s worth. He married a Hungarian woman and raised his children as Polish. He spoke Russian.

NijinksyjumpDancer Vaslav Nijinsky jumping. Photo courtesy http://journal.alinareyes.net/

One of the elements I find so extraordinary about Brest-Litovsk, personally, is the assumptions that the Germans made about how populations and peoples worked, what identity meant at the dawn of the 20th century. Although Germany had expended great military, financial, and political capital in annexing or expanding its influence at Russia’s expense—a fact that they hoped would be to Germany’s financial and political benefit—to the people who lived within that territory, Germany’s sovereignty must have seemed like a distant abstraction, a matter of architecture and linguistic preference. As intellectually similar and similarly modern as even the most cosmopolitan people of that time were to people today, they were, nevertheless, different—there was a kind of existential freedom to choose one’s path, to pick an identity, rather than having it forced upon one.

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"The Colored Man is No Slacker" - WWI Poems by the Peters Sisters

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"The Colored Man is No Slacker" - WWI Poems by the Peters Sisters

WarpoemsCourtesy of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History

* “I was in awe…because they were young. They were students, teenagers. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was their way of contributing to the civil rights of their people. Having lived the life of a black person who had been segregated always, in my schooling, church, in every way—my neighborhood had no other people who didn’t look like me; my school was completely segregated—so the book, it really struck me…They knew what was happening to black people. And they saw fit to put it in writing.” — Jean Barnes-Peters, West Virginia native, owner of the book “War Poems.”

In the late 1970’s Jean Barnes Peters found a copy of War Poems sitting on a bookshelf in her house in Charleston, W.Va. The authors, Ada (17) and Ethel (18) Peters, were half-sisters to Jean’s husband, Joseph Cromwell Peters. Joseph Cromwell Peters, who is now deceased, never met his two half-sisters and didn’t know anything about them because their mother and his father divorced before his birth. The little book had always fascinated Jean and she would occasionally pick it up and read some of the poetry.

The preface in the book reads:

The sole intention of the authors in writing these poems is to show the Negro’s loyalty to the stars and stripes in the war with Germany and to show the need of unity of all men in the fight for democracy.

Eventually, Jean started to scrutinize their words and she realized she was reading protest, which seemed unusual for teenage girls in 1919 in rural West Virginia. How was it possible to know just after WWI how badly black soldiers were treated?

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Listen to the Silence: Yoshi Oida on Directing Britten's War Requiem. Part 2

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Listen to the Silence: Yoshi Oida on Directing Britten's War Requiem at the Lyon Opera. Part 2

Last week, WWrite featured an interview with world-renowned tenor, Paul Groves,. Groves was the tenor and played the role of the British WWI soldier in one of the most original interpretations of Benjamin Britten's musical masterpiece, War Requiem  at the Lyon Opera House in France. This week, we hear from actor/director/writer, Yoshi Oida, the Japanese director of Benjamin Britten's piece. Oida's discusses his connection with WWI through personal stories about Hiroshima, the experience of children in war, and his latest film with Martin Scorcese. 

8yoshi oida copyright mamoru sakamotoDirector Yoshi Oida copyright Mamoru Sakamoto

WWrite: Why did you decide to direct an opera inspired by Benjamin Britten’symphony for the Lyon Opera?

Yoshi Oida : Since childhood, people around me have gone to war and they have died in war. Even before the Second World War, I remember we were at war with China. So, when Japan lost the Second World War, I wasn’t sad. I was so happy because I could sleep every night instead of going to the underground shelters to protect myself from the bombing by American airplanes. I was so happy because my house was burned by the American attacks twice. My father had a bicycle factory and everything was broken. And when I escaped to go to the bomb shelters, I saw people die by my side. As a child, I was always with war and death.

Fortunately, after several years old there was no war in Japan. But I can never forget my childhood. So, when the Opera of Lyon asked me to War Requiem, I said yes. I also knew that, in addition to WWI, I had to make it a ceremony for my life. In fact, in WWI, the nuclear shuttle was the human being.

Mushroom cloud after bombing of HiroshimaMushroom cloud after bombing of Hiroshima

Read more: Listen to the Silence: Yoshi Oida on Directing Britten's War Requiem. Part 2

Benjamin Britten's Musical Masterpiece, War Requiem

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Benjamin Britten's Musical Masterpiece, War Requiem
Part 1: Interview with Tenor, Paul Groves

 

Bigoperawarrequiem46 copyrightstofleth 1 728x486Scene from War Requiem, Lyon. Copyright @stofleth

The Lyon Opera House in France opened its 2017-2018 season by commemorating the WWI centennial with the powerful, intense WWI masterpiece War Requiem by British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). A pacifist, Britten was deeply affected by the horrors of WWII, by the brutal destruction of Hiroshima and had always wanted to create a musical composition calling for peace among all humans. He finally got the chance in 1961 when he was commissioned to compose the dedication for the new Coventry Cathedral in England, which was reduced to ruins during the WWII bombings of November 1940. Known for both its traditional and innovative writing, Britten organized War Requiem in three layers: the conventional requiem of liturgical mass with a chorus, orchestra, and a soprano; the sound of individual human voices with a tenor and baritone reciting Wilfred Owen’s poetry, accompanied by a chamber orchestra; a chorus of children accompanied by an organ. In the middle of the Cold War, as Germans were building the Berlin Wall, Britten aimed to bring together soloists from three “belligerent” nations: a Russian soprano, an English tenor, and a German baritone.

3operawarrequiem01 copyrightstoflethScene from War Requiem, Lyon. Copyright @stofleth

Britten is one of the greatest lyrical composers of the twentieth century and, and according to the director of the Lyon Opera, Serge Dorny, Britten's exceptional sense of narrative and drama demanded a theatrical performance. For the centennial performance in 2017, Lyon decided to invite the Japanese actor and director, Yoshi Oida, to lead the performance alongside Italian conductor, Daniele Rustioni. Oida claims that Britten’s War Requiem is not just about WWI; it is universal and speaks to him particularly since he witnessed the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima during WWII. In talks and interviews, he encourages spectators to view the work through the eyes of children, who are not only strangers to adult conflicts, but also victims. He says that the young singers of the Lyon Opera play an enormous role in War Requiem’s staging. Unlike the other singers in the show, who wear WWI-era clothing and uniforms, the children who sit on the side of the stage during the whole performance are dressed in modern clothing. They act mostly as spectators as if watching a history lesson, but at times they get up to sing and interact with the soloists and the stage.

WWrite had the opportunity to sit down with Paul Groves, the tenor, and Yoshi Oida, the director to talk about the piece. We’ll hear this week from Groves. Next week’s WWrite’s blog post will feature Yoshi Oida’s interview. Here’s Paul Groves:

4War Requiem 2WWrite: Britten’s War Requiem focuses on the British and German experience of WWI. What did director Yoshi Oida, a Japanese artist, bring to what appears to be a European-centered narrative?

Paul Groves: Yoshi Oida, occasionally, would tell us about Japan. He is from where they dropped the bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he was 12 years old at the time, so he remembers it very well. He explained that after the war, “the Japanese Emperor just said ‘Ok, we lost the war, and now we're just going to everything the American way’ and there wasn’t ever a question. I never saw my mother or any of her friends blame the Americans. We never blamed them for anything. We immediately thought that we had lost and now we’re going to live this way.”

And I never even thought about this.

Read more: Benjamin Britten's Musical Masterpiece, War Requiem

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