By Retta Blaney
Actor Alex Gwyther spent a night in a replica of a World War I battlefield trench outside London because he wanted to enhance his one-man play. By morning, though, exhausted from having slept little on the chicken wire in the “officers’ quarters,” he was no longer thinking about his acting skills.
“What really struck me was I was dying for a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea, typical English,” he said, adding that he could not imagine living that way for an extended time. “What would it be like to be attacked or shelled? Most of that I have to leave up to my imagination.”
During a telephone interview from his parents’ home in Surrey outside London, Gwyther, 29, explained how he came to write and star in Our Friends, the Enemy, which depicts the Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War I. As a student in England, he learned much about the war, but the Christmas Truce seemed to have been glossed over, he said. In that truce, English, French, Belgian, and German soldiers crawled out of their trenches on December 25 to share small gifts like cigarettes, food, hats, and buttons, to bury their dead, and to play football. Then the fighting resumed. In some places the trenches were so close (about 100 feet apart), one side could smell the other’s cooking.
“I always thought there must be more to the story than a football match,” he said. “How crazy that they came together and then went back to fighting each other.”
Gwyther began researching the event and was surprised by what he found. He developed the result of his research into Our Friends, the Enemy. The play’s American premiere is at Off-Broadway’s Theatre Row, Dec. 8-20. The 50-minute show played to sold-out houses in London. It had two tours across 11 weeks in the United Kingdom, where it was seen everywhere from “village halls to football stadiums,” as well as a month-long run at the prestigious 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It also has been heard on BBC Radio.
“It’s one of the stories we know but we don’t know these details about,” Gwyther said. “I thought, If only people knew about this.”
What Gwyther had thought was crazy, men returning to kill each other after a day of good will, was not how the soldiers wanted it. Many refused to fight the next day and for days after that. It was those in command who, fearing a weakening of resolve, pushed the battle into full gear. Two-thirds of the troops, about 100,000 people, are believed to have participated in the legendary truce.
“A lot of people didn’t know that both sides increased fighting massively after that. They didn’t want soldiers fraternizing that way,” he said, adding that mustard gas was then introduced. “They didn’t want the soldiers to have that opportunity again. That’s why there was not another Christmas Truce.
“It’s sad, but it’s inspiring that it actually happened. I can’t imagine that happening in today’s world conflicts.”
To Gwyther’s knowledge no play has been written solely about the Christmas Truce, although it was featured as a scene in another play (Oh, What a Lovely War!) and the Royal Shakespeare Company staged an account with music.
For his play, Gwyther read books and diary accounts to make his stories authentic, but decided against using real names. Instead, he created Private James Boyce, a young English soldier, to act as narrator, sharing his diary entries as monologues, as well as providing narratives of different scenes happening spontaneously across the front lines.
“He’s like Scrooge, taking the audience across the western front and telling what was happening,” Gwyther said.
As the audience enters, James is onstage, dressed in an authentic World War I uniform, cleaning his rifle, propping up sandbags and looking out toward the German trenches. After the theatre door closes, the lights change to a single spotlight on James as he walks forward, drops to his knees, and prays. After a brief blackout, he begins to tell his story and those of other soldiers on both sides of the divide.
Andy Robertshaw, who was Steven Spielberg’s military adviser for War Horse, supplied him with his uniform and equipment and arranged for him to spend the night in the trench. During that Saturday-night experience, at around 1 or 2 in the morning, Gwyther looked into the clear sky and saw stars. “It was quite moving,” he said. “It’s what it must have been like after a week or so being attacked, to look at stars and think of home.”
After managing his heavy gear, listening to the intense shelling (firecrackers) and being “gassed,” Gwyther felt he better understood his characters and what they went through. “Before, it felt phony trying to pretend I knew what it was like living in a trench,” he said. “I wanted the proper experience so I could be more truthful. It helped me as an actor to get into the mindset of a soldier.”
He also realized he probably would not have survived since he did not don his mask in time when the surprise canister of thick, putrid “gas” was lobbed. He could not see a thing and began choking on the fumes. “I think I would easily have died,” Gwyther said.
World War I, which claimed more than 8.5 million soldiers’ lives, was fought by “ordinary people, doctors, and school teachers,” not trained soldiers, Gwyther said. “Neither wanted to be there. They were fed propaganda. After the truce they realized: These are decent guys. We don’t want to be here.”
People in power sign off, not seeing “these are individuals being sent to war,” Gwyther said. The play “highlights the futility of war and shines a light on how easy it is to send people to war.”
Gwyther keeps photos of World War I soldiers backstage and looks at them before each performance.
“It gives me perspective,” he said. “How would they want their stories to be remembered? It reminds me why I want to tell them.”
Image of actor Alex Gwyther by Pamela Raith Photography
Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, which includes interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad and Vanessa Williams.