Edinburgh Festivals 2014: the lasting influence of All Quiet on the Western Front
Tony Bradman, Christina Bellingen and Guy Masterson discuss different approaches to WWI
This article is from 2014.
As the world marks the centenary of 1914, Yasmin Sulaiman explores some of the festival shows influenced by All Quiet on the Western Front – still, 85 years after publication, a defining tale of the First World War
Banned by the Nazis and immortalised in the 1930 film adaptation, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the greatest anti-war books of the 20th century. First published in 1929, excellent translations from the original German have made it part of the canon of World War I literature in this country too. And in 2014 – the centenary of the Great War – it’s influenced a few different shows across the Edinburgh festivals.
‘All Quiet on the Western Front is just sort of there isn’t it?’ says author Tony Bradman, who leads a reading workshop on the book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. ‘Every single trope of the First World War and anti-war writing in general is in there.’
‘I think the novel and the film still have a severe influence on how German people imagine the First World War,’ explains Christina Bellingen from Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre, who bring the polyphonic performance FRONT to the Edinburgh International Festival this year. ‘As far as I know it is one of the bestselling and most translated books ever. And the reason why people all over the world can identify with the main character Paul Bäumer is that it is irrelevant on which side this young soldier fights. There is no talking about responsibility. It simply describes the horror of being in war.’
In the book, Paul Bäumer and his young classmates are urged to join the German army by their schoolteacher after World War I breaks out. When they arrive at the front, they face squalid conditions and have to fight for their survival. Performed in German, English, Flemish and French with English supertitles, FRONT draws on Remarque’s tale – as well as work by French writer Henri Barbusse and real historical documents – to create an operatic show about the horrors faced by WWI soldiers.
‘When All Quiet on the Western Front came out, the war had been over for 10 years,’ Bellingen says. ‘Most men had come back unable to speak about what had happened to them. But then, they read this novel and told their wives and children to read it, telling them: “this is my story. When you read it, you will know how it was to be in the trenches.” And men did this all over Europe, not only in Germany, because they went through the same experience 19-year-old Paul Bäumer did.’
‘It had enormous impact at the time,’ chimes Bradman. ‘Germany had been heavily defeated and had been painted as the aggressor. The Allies made a big thing about how it was all the Germans’ fault and used the Versailles Treaty to punish Germany. When All Quiet was published and people began to read it outside Germany, they saw that the soldiers of the front were just as confused and unhappy. The battle scenes aren’t particularly about fighting French or British soldiers – most of the book is taken up by the struggle to survive in this apocalyptic landscape. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel. There are scenes that read like bits of The Walking Dead.’
Bradman is best known for his children’s books and will also appear in the children’s strand at the Book Festival with his author son, Tom, talking about Stories of War, a collection of story’s he’s edited. And he draws plenty of parallels between Remarque’s iconic characters and today’s ex-military writers, like British author Patrick Hennessey and American writer and poet Kevin Powers.
On the Fringe, Guy Masterson’s Anthem for a Doomed Youth is placing All Quiet on the Western Front back in its original context. A performance of WWI poetry and prose from Britain and Germany, Masterson’s show is timed to mark the centenary of the war’s outbreak in 1914. But it’s not the first time he’s depicted a combat experience on the Edinburgh stage.
‘In 1998, I produced A Soldier’s Song [based on Ken Lukowiak’s true account of serving in the Falklands War], where I played the soldier in combat,’ Masterson explains. ‘My research led me to many paratroopers who were [in the Falklands], as well as many from the Second and First World Wars. The experience was of course the same: the terror, the fear, the fact that you have to maintain professionalism and try to survive. But the main feeling when you’re in combat is “kill or be killed” and it’s a terrifying mindset.’
And it’s this terror that has resonated with generations since Remarque’s classic was released. ‘The message of the novel is “we have to fight to end all wars”,’ says Bellingen. ‘“It has to be the last war ever.” And that is actually what many soldiers thought at the time. When the Nazis took over, they immediately banned the novel and the film and burned it. And for us today it is unbelievable, unimaginable and almost unbearable that the Second World War and the Holocaust were possible after this awful Great First World War.’
Anthem for a Doomed Youth, Assembly Roxy, 623 3030, until 24 Aug (not 11, 18), 4.20pm, £11–£13 (£9–£11).
Tony Bradman on All Quiet on the Western Front, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 17 Aug, 1pm, £15 (£12).
Tom Bradman & Tony Bradman: Stories of War, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888,17 Aug, 4.30pm, £4.50.
FRONT, Lyceum, 473, 2000, 22–26 Aug, 7pm, £10–£32.