By Michelle Salerno
In considering the numerous events of the project, it is important to note the work of students, both undergraduate and graduate, in the initiative. In connection with the Illinois Theatre production of Oh What a Lovely War, the department’s programming committee helped to organize “Then and Now: Theatre and Performance of The Great War.” The program included a reading of Alice Dunbar Nelson’s Mine Eyes Have Seen (1918) performed by actors from the MFA and BFA Acting and Theatre Studies programs, theatre minors, non-theatre students from across disciplines, and a community member. The play is a key component of my dissertation and the chance to share this rarely performed work was an incredible opportunity. Following the performance, several Theatre Studies doctoral students presented papers on 21st century responses to the war including graphic novels, video games, and twitter war re-enactment.
Mine Eyes Have Seen offers a look at an African American family on the day they discover their youngest brother has been drafted. They debate, with their Jewish and Irish neighbors, if they are willing to contribute to the war effort on behalf of a country that allows lynch mobs and vigilante violence, racism, and segregation. The characters’ arguments for and against participating in the war profoundly resonated with current protests articulating the violence of institutional racism and the frequent disconnect between the rhetoric of nationalism and inclusion and the lived experiences of minority citizenship. Through directing and presenting the reading, my own understanding of the play expanded in innumerable ways thanks to the diligent work of the actors and the thoughtful feedback of the audience. In addition, the graduate students of “The Great War: Transnational Literary Response” reading group concluded their semester of meetings by discussing the play and offering comparative insights to the British and Irish literature they read for previous meetings. This group also worked with the English Student Council to organize a “Literature and War” event with readings of poetry and drama and the performance of live music.
There were also numerous undergraduate students who encountered events on the First World War through their courses. The core course World War I and the Making of the Global Twentieth Century, offered by Tamara Chaplin and Peter Fritzsche from the History department, delved deeply into the complexity of the war and its commemoration, and many of these students attended initiative events. In addition, we also know of other courses with World War I content or classes that required, requested, or encouraged their students to attend particular events or exhibits to enhance classroom discussions. The IPRH “Inside Scoop” undergraduate event, with Lessons from Sarajevo author James Hicks, was particularly popular and facilitated a remarkable conversation about literature and war within the group.
"The Great War: Experiences, Representations and Effects” was just a small contribution to the global recognition of the 100th anniversary of the start of the war including such responses as the beautifully somber 888,246 ceramic poppies that overwhelmed the Tower of London in Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, each standing for a British military fatality during the war. Research trips to other exhibits and events across the country have given me the opportunity to see how many American institutions examine the commemoration of the war. I highly recommend the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, MO that offers extensive collections on the war from a variety of perspectives and includes exhibits on its particular resonance in the Midwest. This museum also served as the primary American locus for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, hosting a large scale Twitter re-enactment of the event discussed by Theatre doctoral student BJ Gailey in “Acting is Reenacting: Twitter, Archduke Ferdinand, and the Performance of History” in the aforementioned panel. College students from the University of Kansas and members of the Kansas City community are still tweeting as historical First World War characters so you can continue to watch the story unfold by following @KU_WW1 on Twitter.
I was also able to visit The Huntington Library’s “Posters of the First World War,” which drew from the library’s collection of prints and ephemera, demonstrating how the graphic arts can be utilized as propaganda. The exhibit offered the ability to see both American and European posters, allowing attendees to compare how their messages were conveyed.
These examples demonstrate an interest in First World War content that I hope to see extending at least through the next few years. Although we had intended our initiative to conclude at the end of fall term, it became clear that there was momentum to continue updating our website and social media with local events and performances happening throughout the spring; instead of being at the end, we’re just a little closer to the end. So keep checking our website (http://www.thegreatwar.illinois.edu), following us on Facebook and Twitter, and contact us if you’re planning an event this spring with World War I content. We’re eager to continue the conversation and we hope you are as well.