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A Journey of Commemoration: The Great War through the Lens of Art


Scenes from The Great War Theater Project performances.

In late June 2013, I stood on the banks of the SambreOise Canal in northern France.    The scene before my eyes was peaceful and bucolic.  It could easily have been 1913 instead of 100 years later.  A lone fisherman plied the waters of the canal; an elderly woman, dressed in black walked her dog.  I had come to this peaceful spot to remember the British war poet Wilfred Owen.  André – my guide, a former Belgian military officer steeped in the history of The Great War—showed me the exact spot where Owen had been killed on November 4, 1918, one week before the Armistice was declared.

My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.

(Wilfred Owen)


Over the past five years, I have explored the history of WWI through the lens of art, using as the centerpiece the writings of the men and women who experienced this cataclysmic event.  I have been intrigued by the possibility of applying different art forms to examine this history from the perspective of the individual.  Working in close collaboration with artists from different disciplines, we have created multi-media performance pieces that have examined this history – through dance, theatre, and currently a song cycle. 


In 2013, I worked with a choreographer to create a modern dance piece using a fragment from a letter written by British poet Isaac Rosenberg –"I’m back in the trenches which are terrible now" – to inform the choreography, which was set to commissioned contemporary music.  The short work was performed in 2013 at a city-wide Arts Festival on Boston Common.   

wierbe1Scene from The Great War Theater Project performances

As the centennial of the start of World War I approached, a New York-based theatre director and I developed the script for a multi-media performance piece, drawing on the writings of more than 20 young men and women from both sides of the conflict.  The finished work, performed by TC Squared Theatre Company, Ros Thomas-Clark, artistic director, served as an opportunity to illustrate the power of using the written word as a pathway into this history.  


…I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

(Alan Seeger)


The words of these young men and women were spoken by four actors – two men and two women – who were close in age to the writers themselves at the time when they were trying to capture their experiences.

O why was I born for this time?  Before one is thirty to know more dead than living people…Really, one hardly knows who is alive and who is dead.

(Cynthia Asquith)

The spoken word script was enriched by video projection – archival film footage, photographs, and artwork from the frontlines.  Commissioned contemporary music complemented the spoken word script and projected images.  Choreographed movement enabled us to represent the war both physically and abstractly – from the sense of a bucolic pre-war world to the horrors of trench warfare.

Do I see things differently because … I would imagine and wish for myself another object in life other than to have a grenade blow me into little bits?                    

(Ernst Stadler)


During the theatre project’s two-year run, The Great War Theatre Project was performed at ten Boston-area secondary schools and two universities.  We performed the piece also as companion programming to special Great War exhibits at the Boston Athenaeum and at the New York Society Library.  By invitation, we held a 10-day sponsored residency for young people in Letchworth, England.

wierbe2Scene from The Great War Theater Project performances

My interest in exploring individuals’ responses to the First World War through the lens of art continues today, in a new direction.  We have created a libretto, using women’s war writings, which will be set to commissioned contemporary music.  It will be performed as a Song Cycle by Lorelei Ensemble, a Boston-based women’s vocal ensemble to commemorate the war’s end in November 2018.


Using an extensive body of women’s war writings, weaving together the words from poetry, memoirs, novels, letters, and journals and setting them to contemporary music enables us to encounter women’s stories through the lens of art, thereby enriching and deepening the impact of their words.  The proposed Song Cycle, Letters That You Will Not Get, illuminates the inner lives of these women from a century ago and enables today’s audiences to connect imaginatively, emotionally, and deeply with the poetry of women.  It throws into high relief how women experienced the war.


Where are my children now?

What is left to their mother?

One boy to the right and one to the left…

Where are my children now?

One dead and one so far away –

(Käthe Kollwitz, German)


Dance – theatre – music – three art forms used to envision The Great War and its outcomes through the lens of 21st Century art.  Each time, taking the words and the images that were produced 100 years ago to create contemporary responses to the war and to honor the men and women whose lives were either lost or forever changed in this first global conflict of the 20th Century. (above image, scene from performance based on women)


It has been my hope and intention that these dance, theatre, and music performance pieces would enable us - the presenters -and our audiences to thoughtfully examine the two critical questions that underlie all these projects – why this war, and most importantly, why war.


I would leave you with one more excerpt from The Great War Song Cycle written by Elizabeth Lazenby, a young American from Boston who served as a volunteer nurse in 1918.


When the end came,

Finally, finally –

It took everyone’s breath away.


On the 11th day

Of the 11th month

“Hostilities ceased at 11am”


Finally, when –


A clerk brought the communiqué into the ward


Finally, finally,

That was all.


Author's Bio

SEW headshots 012 compressedSusan Werbe is an independent scholar who for thirty years has pursued her interest in the social, cultural, and political history of early 20th Century England, including a focus on the social and cultural history of World War One.  She was the executive producer and dramaturg for The Great War Theatre Project: Messengers of a Bitter Truth, performed in Boston, New York, and Letchworth (UK). In creating The Great War Theatre Project spoken word script, in collaboration with Script Advisor Kate Holland, Susan engaged in WWI primary source research in the US and the UK.  In March 2013, Susan was an invited panelist at the National World War I Museum’s International Centennial Planning Conference: A Century in the Shadow of the Great War, held in Kansas City.  She was also a panelist in February 2016 at Boston University’s art gallery; the panel, Visual Memory in a Time of Endless War, was presented in conjunction with the exhibition Paul Emmanuel: Remnants.  She served as the dramaturg for Vilda Chaya Collective’s production of A Bright Room Called Day and mentored Boston Arts Academy student dramaturgs for Sarah                                                                                             Ruhl’s Eurydice.  Susan holds a BA in English Literature from New York University and                                                         a Master’s in Education from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.