Barbed Wire
Memories of Stalag 383

 

 

Chapter 9 :

Nights of Gladness

 

 

The old, bright magic of the Theatre was doubly potent in a prison camp, for nothing else gave such release from drabness. By contrast with the dreary world outside - a world of dingy huts and soldiers' washing - the footlights were more brilliant, the scenes more gay and lavish, and the music and the costumes more alluring.

 

All this applied at Hohenfels. But though the Theatre gained from its surroundings and though circumstances lent it extra glamour, there was something more behind its glowing triumph: there was talent, work and, sometimes, inspiration. The shows put on were good by any standards.

 

The Germans seemed to think so. Minor drawbacks such as not knowing English did not prevent them from sitting spellbound through plays, while revues and pantomimes in which the 'girls' were featured left them simply gasping. As for Comic Opera, so delighted was the Kommandant with the Mikado that he cancelled roll call for three days in its honour, which Gilbert and Sullivan would have deemed a pretty tribute.

 

Generally speaking, however, apart from planting their posteriors in the front row stalls, the Jerries did little for the Theatre. Indeed, in its humble beginnings, they were dead against it. Providing no materials themselves, they screamed 'sabotage' when pioneer stage constructors helped themselves to wood, pulling down a few huts in the process, and they made more than formal protests when electric bulbs and fittings disappeared from their own administrative offices.

 

Later, when the Theatre proved a great success despite them, they realized that entertainment was necessary and that photographs in Red Cross magazines of prisoners enjoying themselves made good propaganda. They therefore offered keen co-operation, and if this consisted of little more than not interfering too much, it was all that was required of them. We were thankful that they did not confiscate stage suits of clothes on the grounds that they might be used in escape attempts, for instance, and that they did not habitually switch the lights off or call a roll call in the middle of a show; for tactics like that were apt to mar the best rehearsed productions.

 

Eventually, there were two permanent Theatres at Hohenfels, each capable of holding several hundred men, which meant that the average Kriegie could look forward to 'doing a show' about once a fortnight, the other thirteen nights being just what was needed to whet a gay dog's appetite.

 

Known as the Ofladium (the camp had once been an Oflag) the main Theatre was a long, barn-like building to which many tons of earth were transported and stamped down methodically to form a sloping floor. Apart from the packing-case fauteuils reserved for distinguished guests, there were no permanent seats in the Ofladium and the audience had to bring their room forms with them, different companies attending each night and a rota system deciding where each hut could place its own seats.

 

Everybody was convinced that his own particular hut had been fobbed off with more back row positions than anybody else's, so every performance was preceded by caustic comments on the barefaced racketeers in front. But apart from this, and the facts that the atmosphere was either freezing or stifling according to the season and that there seemed to be a whole forest of posts between the audience and the stage, it may be said that a select audience nightly packed a really first-class Theatre.

 

Certainly the stage itself was excellent. The proscenium, curtain and orchestral pit were all that could be wished, the colour scheme of rose and sea green being highly tasteful. The orchestral pit was a triumph of diplomacy. For reasons made plain in later chapters, the Germans did not encourage digging feats by Kriegies. It was therefore put to the Kommandant that he might like to view the Theatre and make suggestions. He did so and, having casually asked where the band would sit, found himself handing out chits for shovels, some of which were no doubt returned after use.

 

The orchestra, nicely dressed in blue shirts and usually conducted by Ben Sorrell, were above the normal standard for a Music Hall. The House Manager's evening dress suit was not only a triumph of blanket tailoring, but was expandable or contactible to the figure of anybody who happened to be compering a variety show or announcing at a symphony concert, while the original 'usherettes,' in their neat little skirts and pill-box hats, collected thousands of cigarettes for the stage funds, even if they were apt to get pugilistic with wisecrackers in the audience. Finally, the stage lighting was most effective and if the limelight men on their barn beam perche never toppled off, they disappointed us in no other way.

 

In short, all the appointments of the Ofladium gave rise to pleasurable anticipation before the curtain rose on the actual show, and I can only say that it was very seldom that the play or other entertainment fell short of expectations.

 

There were a number of professional and semi-professional actors in the camp and these men not only gave of their best themselves, but were tireless in their coaching of talented amateurs, of whom there was no shortage in a camp of six thousand men.

 

With the assistance of professional dress-makers, tailors, carpenters, electricians, scene painters, etc., all with plenty of time and enthusiasm to spare, the Stalag impressarios produced play after play, putting on anything from Shakespeare to Noel Coward with increasing confidence. A play like Night Must Fall to a standard quite equal to that of an average Repertory Company in England, while the stage sets and furnishings were often better than those of a normal production in the provinces.

 

Where some of the materials came from was a mystery - especially to the Germans - but skill, patience and craftman's pride could convert Red Cross packing cases into sumptuous drawing room suites, and tailors asked nothing more than blankets and palliasse covers to make the smartest lounge and evening suits for the stage.

 

Frequent appeals for handkerchiefs, sheets, coloured shirts, pyjamas, or any unwanted articles of clothing parcels were made, and the camp responded well. The skill of many hands would then convert these odds and ends into frocks and evening gowns that any girl would covet. A good deal of stuff from grease paint to stockings was obtained through the rackets - a cigarette fund supported by the sale of theatre photographs providing the basis - and last, and probably least, were those essentials that the Germans helped us purchase through the Munich shops, the inevitable cigarettes being converted into Marks.

 

One useful gesture the Jerries did make was to loan us the complete costumes for The Merchant of Venice from the State Theatre of Berlin; and though this was done simply because they considered it an anti-Jewish play, it was none the less welcome. A grand production was most enthusiastically received and I remember few more impressive performances than that of Bob Jarvis, an Australian professional, who gave Shylock a fine dignity rather disturbing to the Germans in the stalls.

 

Shylock's daughter was played by a sergeant whose name escapes me, but under the magic of the Theatre the character was just Jessica and it was as easy to accept her beauty as to accept Lorenzo and the moonlit bank the lovers sat upon.

 

Since the absence of women was the chief thing that distinguished the Stalag Theatre from the ordinary Dramatic Society, the female impersonators were all-important; and perhaps the first thing I should say about them is that most of them were not female impersonators at all: they were actors taking female parts, which is quite a different thing.

 

Portia, for instance, was played by Robert Teather, a character actor whom I first saw as Richelieu and whose features, voice and gestures were naturally suited to that part. Yet from the hard, ambitious cardinal to the much admired heiress was a simple step for Bob. Growing his long hair longer still and ironing out the thought lines on his pensive brow, he looked, spoke and moved like a perfect Portia, just as he later gave a completely convincing portait of the tough old Lady Bracknell.

 

However, all the acting ability in the world would not have made Bob bearable in certain female parts. He looked as though he'd lived on Stalag rations all his life, so he spared us his appearance in backless evening gowns, and producers of plays like George and Margaret, Dinner at Eight, I Killed the Count, and all the other modern plays, looked elswhere for their heroines. They sought for fellows who could act seriously, and who could also make up to look like girls - glamorous and sophisticated girls.

 

This was not easy. There was no lack of nice-looking fellows, outside my own acquaintances, but they were not necessarily actors and they naturally felt shy about facing a Kriegie audience in feminine finery. However a few brave souls, realizing that someone had to play the leading lady if the Theatre was to function at all, cast away self-consciousness and learnt the job. Some of them were most successful. They could wear the most dazzling of dresses, the most daring of hair-do's and the highest of heels with perfect naturalness, and they could carry off the most sentimental lines and situations without embarrassment.

 

Given the ribald atmosphere of a prison camp, it was no mean feat of acting that enabled love scenes to be played without self-conscious winkings at the audience. There would be a little ripple of amusement upon the first entry of the ersatz beauty, but no sniggers from the pit would be heard to mar the later lines, for the illusion of watching and listening to a normal actress would be wellnigh perfect. All that paint, powder and judicious padding could do to convert a corporal into a vamp would be done - and done well. These rest depended upon acting, which was usually forthcoming in good measure.

 

Two pioneers in 'straight' feminine roles who deserved full marks were Sergts. Bill Eadie and Bert Harris. Bill was probably the only 'leading lady' in stage history who broke a jaw in a football match, but still played the heroine at the night's performance.

 

In lighter roles, some deliciously clever feminine studies were given by Stan Hawkins, while Teddy Laws and Bernard Cockroft were also noted for comedienne parts with touches of genuine observation. Stan Long was the most formidable mother-in-law outside reality and Robin Owen, a professional, played the difficult role of Gwenny in The Late Christopher Bean with more than feminine subtlety. But there were so many fine individual performances, in both male and female roles, that I cannot do more than mention Terence Cook's Danny in Night Must Fall as one of them.

 

Revues and variety shows were largely carried by Jack Harris, an Australian comedian of great experience, by Jimmy Duncan, David Tulip and a whole host of non-serious female impersonators, who wore wigs or bandeauz and skirts and stockings to prove that they were really chorus girls. Some of them were exceedingly clever in making their own clothes and if you came upon a fellow washing stockings or French knickers in the Stalag laundry you didn't raise an eyebrow. You merely asked him whether he was appearing at the National (the second permanent Theatre, situated in the dance hall) or at one of the bigger club concerts, which might be given anywhere.

 

Perhaps the favourite female star in revue was the Stalag 'Show girl,' Don (Pinkie) Smith, who, in Ascot frock and picture hat looked absolutely radiant and who could mimic girlish coquestries so perfectly that he did the fair sex some disservice. 'Just shows you what frauds girls are!' said the cynics. 'A spot of paint and powder, a few yards of curtains - and a bloke like Pinkie beats the lot for looks!'

 

Off the stage, or in the male roles he sometimes played, Pinkie revealed as a cheeful lad in glasses, so his startling transformation was a first-class tribute to the make-up men and to the fashion artists who 'created' his models. One of these fashion artists - it would be inadequate to call him a dressmaker - was that same Stan Hawkins who so delighted us in Mrs. Feather roles. His organization (Decoria Ltd.) was responsible for dressing whole shows and I presume that to him goes the chief honours for the really brilliant way in which Gilbert and Sullivan operas were costumed.

 

Not only The Mikado, but The Gondoliers, The Yeomen of the Guard, and H.M.S. Pinafore were staged at Hohenfels and were delightfully well sung and acted to the most enthusiastic audience the Stalag ever had. That grand little pro, Sam Brierley, was probably the man most entitled to credit for the smooth production and his own singing and acting set a standard which Taffy Sanders, John MacKay and Elwyn Jones, to mention but three, maintained throughout. Of all the enchanting things in The Mikado, what pleased the Ofladium audience most, was the appearance, acting and singing of the 'Three Little Maids from School,' which was encored time and again.

 

The Germans, as I have said, were as enthralled as anybody, for to them the music of Sullivan was a revelation, those who had heard of him at all having thought of him as a mere imitator of Offenbach. Strange that it should be left to prisoners of war to change those ideas, and to instal into Teutonic heads that England, too, had composers.

 

But there was one British tune which the Germans never heard. Every performance at the Ofladium or the National concluded with 'God Save the King,' and perhaps it was the Theatre's greatest triumph that the Kommandant allowed it to be played openly - after the German guests had left the hall.

 

Just before the final curtain, a signal would be given and the Kommandant and his staff would depart. Then the orchestra would break into the National Anthem, and never would it be sung more heartily than by those Stalag audiences, whose nostalgia for home had been quickened by the Theatre.

 

And now, having merely sketched the facts about the main entertainment at Hohenfels, I hand over to William Kemp, who will write about the unique 'Social Clubs' in the Stalag. Then Messrs. John Mallory and John Hamilton will tell, respectively, about the School and the Debating Society, after which I must devote some space to the greatest Stalag pastime of the lot - galloping.

 

 

 

 

Next Chapter/.....

 

 

Music : 12th Street Rag

 

 

 

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