- from 'Everyweek Magazine' March 21st, 19l8
- 'The French Tommies' Theatre'
- by Marc Loge
- Le Theatre aux Armées
French theatrical artists in Alsace
The authorities who have change of the moral and physical welfare of the poilus, have long since realised that ''all work and no play make Jack a dull boy." They understand that, although Boche-killing is the best kind of sport, it nevertheless involves a certain. backs, the repetition of which does not exhilarate the spirits of the men in the trenches.
In December, 1915, M. Emile Fabre, Director of the Comédie Framçaise conceived the idea of creating a, movable company of actors which could be easily transported from one part of the front to the other. After a year and a half of trench warfare, he dreamed that the artistes of France could not undertake a more patriotic or useful work than to help relieve - if only for a few moments - the terrible monotony of the lives of the poilus. The idea was immediately welcomed with enthusiasm by the public, and subscriptions in favour of the Theatre aux Armées soon reached the important sum of 200,440 francs.
The first representation took place in February,1916, and three months later, seeing the immense success it had already attained, M. Dalimier, who was then Under-Secretary of State for the Fine Arts, opened wide the door's of his Ministry in the Rue de Valois, in order to give it an official consecration, whilst in December, 1916, the daily paper, "Le Journal," organised a representation at the Opera-Comique for the benefit of the Theatre aux Armées, which brought In about 190,000 francs of net profit.
A certain number of artistes already mobilised were specially assigned to arrange the tours, and there were no less than six stage managers who, besides accomplishing their particular functions, were charged to constitute the different companies and direct them whilst touring on the front. There have been, up to the present date, more than 900 representations, some of which have taken place under shell fire and often at a distance of only a few hundred yards from the German trenches.
The most celebrated artistes of Paris, from Sarah Bernhandt to the inimitable clown Footit - including Mesdames Bartet, Cecile Sorel, Dusanne, N. Martyl, Kolb, Marcelle Prainee, Catherine Fontenay, Moreno, Edmée Favart, Hatto, etc., and Messrs. Alexandre, Croue, Francell, de Feraudy, Signoret, Sacha Guitry, Fursy, Mayol, etc., have appeared successively on the hastily improvised stages, often built by the poilus themselves, for real theatres are scarce at the front! The representations often take place in the aeroplane sheds or in barns and other buildings of the kind which can always house a large and enthusiastic audience, which motor lorries have often brought directly from the firing line.
The organisers of the Theatre aux Armées have strictly followed Rabelais' well known axiom: "laughter is the attribute of mankind." Great care is therefore taken that each programme shall be comprised of two or three short, gay plays, as well as songs, music- hall numbers, dances, etc. Each show lasts from two and a half to three hours, which seem all too short for the delighted spectators, some of whom, the most elegant, who have society manners, have brought their field glasses and occupy the intervals between the numbers, by nibbling hot doughnuts cooked in a small stove in a corner of the shed.
Artistes who officially belong to the Theatre Armées are obliged to submit to severe regulations. Ever since General Headquarters granted this organisation, the exclusive right to give representations! on the front, all the artistes belonging to it are considered as mobilised, and have to submit to very strict military control. They are forbidden, amongst other things, to accept any private invitations from officers, etc. and must abstain from publishing notices on the representations in which they have taken part, or from divulging details of military interest; and an officer is specially assigned to ascertain whether these rules are obeyed.
News of the arrival of the Theatre aux Armées is always welcomed by the poilus, and some of the actors have won an immense popularity. It is evident that the men were much touched and honoured when Sarah Bernhardt, infirm as she is, insisted on being carried on to the stage in order that she also might bring them the tribute of her grateful admiration. A respectful silence reigned in the rustic theatre whilst the great artiste recited, as only she knows how to recite, some beautiful verses by one of our noblest poets.
The leading chansonniers have all taken a more or less active part in the war. The poilus consider them in some sort as comrades.
The marching songs-chanson de route-of a particularly Gallic expression in which the men can join in the chorus, are still the great favourites, the Parisian repertoire of the chansonniers has undergone a complete evolution since the beginning of the war, becoming less boisterously martial. The charming drawing of Guy Arnoux decorating the programme of the Theatre aux Armées. and representing a young soubrette offering a rose of France to a war stained poilu, really possesses all the value of a symbol.
several French artists
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