Panto season on the Eastern Front

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By | From the Collections

Christmas on the front lines during World War I was a time when military personnel were most likely to get home-sick. While entertainment was provided throughout the year to keep spirits up, Christmas was when the troops most needed cheer.

On the Macedonian Front, also known as the Salonika Front, the 85th Field Ambulance of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) took up the challenge with what was to become an annual event: the Christmas pantomime. The illustrated programmes for each of the three years that the pantomimes were staged can be found in the RAMC digitial collection. As well as details of the witty and highly entertaining productions, the programmes provide an insight into the often difficult circumstances in which they were staged.

The programme for Dick Whittington, the first pantomime performed in 1915 in Salonika, reveals the scarcity of materials available and the makeshift measures employed to put on the pantomime.

'Dick Whittington, A Pantomime' programme 1915

A page from the programme for “Dick Whittington, A Pantomime” written and produced by members of the 85th Field Ambulance (3rd London), as performed in Salonika on Christmas Night, 1915. Wellcome Library reference:RAMC/661.

The ‘theatre’ was simple: two marquees placed together in the shape of a ‘T’. As timber was too scarce to use for the stage a bank of earth made an “excellent substitute for the boards”. A pair of suspended blankets and a pulley system provided stage curtains and “25 jam tins with one side cut away painted black outside and brightly burnished on the inside provided reflectors for the 25 candles that acted as footlights”. Rolls of matting and a tin moon hung on a blanket “were about the only attempts at scenery”.

The costumes were ‘an ingenious combination of hospital pyjamas, army shirts, blankets and old sacks.

While Dick Whittington was a simple affair with little scenery and few rehearsals, the following year’s pantomime was a “more elaborate and ambitious undertaking”. The 1916 production of Aladdin was described in the Balkan News as the “greatest pantomime that ever was”.

Aladdin in Macedonia. a pantomime by members of the 85th Field Ambulance. First produced 21 December 1916 to audiences of the 28th Division on the Struma front, Macedonia

A page from the programme for “Aladdin in Macedonia. A pantomime by members of the 85th Field Ambulance”. First produced 21 December 1916 to audiences of the 28th Division on the Struma front, Macedonia. Wellcome Library reference: RAMC/856.

A disused barn proved to be a good theatre, local costumes were purchased in Salonika in place of standard military kit, and the stagehands were quick to develop skills in stage-managing and make-up.

Bluebeard was performed in 1917 for a 5 month period to 80% of the Division, some 30,000 personnel based in Macedonia. Despite the communication difficulties over such a large area,  the ‘panto’ went on tour to other parts of the Eastern Front.

Bluebeard. Bluebeard: a pantomime by members of the 28th Division, produced in Macedonia, Christmas 1917

Bluebeard: a pantomime by members of the 28th Division, produced in Macedonia, Christmas 1917. Wellcome Library reference: RAMC/957.

This production was not without its problems: the “delicate electric light plant” had to be “nursed” and the “tottering fabric of the building” posed a threat of collapse at any moment, yet it was a success. Details of the tour, including photographs of scenery and staging can be found at the end of the programme for that year.

In the original story Bluebeard was a wealthy aristocrat feared and shunned because of his ugly blue beard. In the pantomime the story is initially set in Bluebeard’s house, conveniently set in Salonika. The action then moves to England and the bucolic village of Little Crowcombe in an old-fashioned inn: The Carruthers Arms.

Plumstein and Sam in the RAMC production of Bluebeard, Salonika 1917

Plumstein and Sam in the RAMC production of Bluebeard, Salonika 1917. Wellcome Library reference: RAMC/957.

The script is littered with references to the war situation: one character announces he has “had malaria 5 times” and another called Plumstein, a German ‘missionary’ and rogue seller of fake watches and jewellery, is satirised for his attempts to pass as an Englishman:

I find it good for mein business to bretend to be an Englishman. That is why you see me dressed in der correct costume of der english clergyman about to play der game of der hockey bats, so

‘Panto season’ on the Macedonian Front came to an end in 1917; the War ended here on 30 September 1918 when the ceasefire came into effect.

Author: Julia Nurse is Web Content Officer at the Wellcome Library.

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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