There’s an old story about a man and his child who were attending a military parade, prompting the child to ask, “What is war, father?” When the father replied with a detailed description of what war was all about, the child innocently asked, “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?.”
This story could well apply to the First World War, which of all of the wars fought by Western nations seems to be the most senseless. In the opinion of many who have studied the conflict, there was no clear reason for fighting. Moreover, the lack of any real strategy amplified the number of deaths, as the nature of trench warfare made it certain that the advancing army would suffer major casualties in each assault. Soldiers involved in these offensives knew that they were heading for almost certain death.
It is the very nature of this conflict, where it was hard to tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys,” that makes the stories of fraternization with the enemy so compelling. It is no accident that the most famous American film about this war was All Quiet on the Western Front, which tells the story from the German side. (The lead actor, Lew Ayers, was so moved by his experience that he became a pacifist). Likewise, the most notable musical stage treatment of this war prior to Puts’s Silent Night was Kurt Weill and Arthur Green’s Johnny Johnson (1936), a story with a strong pacifist slant. One of the most effective scenes of this play is the one where the German and American priests recite identical prayers, each in his own language, before the battle. At the end, Johnny, after a post-war stay in a mental institution, tries to regain his childlike innocence by becoming a toy salesman, but in the final scene he loses a sale due to his refusal to carry toy soldiers. A bitter satiric 1962 review, Oh, What a Lovely War, grew in popularity as Americans became increasingly disenchanted with their nation’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict.
The opera Silent Night is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel, which depicts the historically accurate Christmas Eve truce of 1914 through fictional characters. In the words of librettist Mark Campbell, the message of the opera is “War is not sustainable when you come to know your enemy as a person. When you see that the person you might be shooting has a child or a wife or has this life at home and they’re just not the enemy, then it becomes very difficult if not impossible to sustain war.” Yet in the end the story has a sadder message – no matter how well intentioned the soldiers may be, they are the victims of stronger forces which compel them to kill despite their humanity. In this sense the opera adheres to George Bernard Shaw’s definition of tragedy: “It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.”