Great War Theatre is led by Dr Helen Brooks of the University of Kent. It is a collaborative community research project investigating plays about the First World War written and performed between 1914 and 1918 across England, Scotland and Wales. These plays, their production histories, and contemporary responses to them, offer a unique and hitherto unexplored insight into contemporary experiences of, and attitudes towards the war.
Between the end of August 1914 and the end of December 1918, 2,996 new plays were written and licensed for performance. Over a quarter of these dealt directly with the war. Most however have been long forgotten and are only available as manuscripts at the British Library, searchable solely by title in a card-catalogue.
As of 30 December 2020, the database contains data on 2,981 plays, 5,418 people (mostly playwrights and performers but also producers), and 1,816 theatres. These can
In 2016 Brooks launched ‘Recovering First World War Theatre’, a public engagement project in which she worked alongside 31 volunteers in the British Library. The project recorded key information on all new wartime plays and identified scripts that dealt with the war, providing a glimpse of the diverse ways in which contemporary theatre engaged with the conflict. Out of this, a group of volunteers emerged who wanted to continue their research. The questions and discussion led to the Great War Theatre project, which draws on and significantly develops those findings by undertaking detailed production and content analysis of selected war-plays. It also develops a model of collaborative research. You can find out more about this development of the project here.
The Great War Theatre project was co-designed by Brooks with 17 of the original 2016 volunteers. It aims to generate new insights into the Great War through analysing the content, production, and reception of war-plays and considering this in relation to the wider context of the conflict. With a national spread of plays being examined, the project sheds new light on local, regional and temporal, as well as national, experiences of the war. Two central and interlinking questions, reflecting the interests of the volunteers and Brooks, underpin this research:
- How did new war-plays respond to and represent the conflict?
- In what ways did the production and performance of war-plays reflect regional and temporal experiences of the war?
As an academic-community collaboration the project also has methodological aims. These are to:
- Provide a space where diverse members of the wider community who share common interests in the research themes and/or methodologies of the group can come together to develop projects, learn new skills and undertake historical inquiry.
- Encourage, support, and develop models of co-production and co-inquiry between public and academic researchers, in particular around communities formed through thematic interest rather than geographic locality.
- Undertake rigorous, collaborative research which draws on both academic and public knowledge, skills and experience.
- Advance the skills and knowledge of a diverse group of new and existing volunteers (including in archival and online historical research),
- Support members in developing, designing, and realising project ideas and/or outputs around the group’s research themes.
The research is undertaken by a team of volunteers with diverse expertise, knowledge, and approaches. Volunteers undertake ‘work packages’ which are allocated by Brooks. A work package can be a) identifying the biography and date of death for a playwright and/or identifying details on each performance of a play, or b) a transcription. The volunteer completes their work package using a combination of online resources (Ancestry, FindmyPast, and British Newspapers Online: subscriptions provided by the project), local archives and manuscripts in the British Library. The resulting data is input directly into the bespoke online database. Transcripts are submitted to Brooks, checked for rights status and uploaded to the database. A script can only be uploaded where it has been identified as public domain based on the author’s death date, where it has been identified and registered as an orphan work, or where the rights holder has given permission for its use. Once data is input into the database, this allows patterns of production and content to be digitally mapped within the wider temporal and geographic context of the war. The project is supported by a Steering Group and external expertise.
The group seeks to encourage diversity in its membership and recruits nationally through the National Council for Volunteering Organisations and local volunteer bureaus. It also recruits through organisational mailing lists and networks including those of The National Archives, the Association of Performing Arts Archives, the Western Front Association, the U3A, and the Society for Theatre Research.
The project has a number of outcomes.
For participants these include: the archival skills and historical knowledgeof the volunteers and the PI, as well as providing volunteers with the social benefits of being part of a community group. By bringing together individuals from diverse backgrounds the project provides the opportunity for peer-led learning, support, and friendship. For some volunteers it can provide skills and/or experiences which can aid them in seeking employment or furthering their education.
Methodologically, the project provides a model for undertaking co-designed and co-produced historical research with a diverse community connected by thematic interest rather than geographic locality.
The open-access, searchable repository database makes available a substantive body of open-access research data and knowledge for future scholars working on society and culture in the Great War. The database contains extensive data on every new play licensed for performance in England, Scotland and Wales during the Great War. To date this data has been hidden in individual manuscripts and newspaper records. By bringing this information together in a searchable database for the first time, the project makes it possible to analyse and map out performance histories and gain new understandings of popular culture of the period. Design input from the Steering Group and volunteers seeks to ensure the database is accessible to a diversity of users. The repository incorporates the ability to add extra and new forms of data, as well as enabling new modules for visualising the data to be added, beyond the life of the project. CSV files of the data-set are also available on request, enabling scholars to manipulate and develop further research using the project data.
Project findings have also been made available in performances which raise awareness of the value of drama and performance history as a lens through which to understand and examine the war. These include performances at Theatre Royal, Brighton (2017); by Threadbare Theatre Company (2014-2017); and at symposia such as ‘Women and Work’ (Inverness, 1018)
Findings from the project also underpin a number of publications. These include (up to 30 December 2020):
Brooks, Helen E. M., ‘Remembering the War on the British Stage: From Resistance to Reconstruction’ in Revival after the Great War: Rebuild, Remember, Repair, Reform, edited by Luc Verpoest, Leen Engelen, Rajesh Heynickx, Jan Schmidt, Pieter Uyttenhove, and Pieter Verstraete (Leuven: University of Leuven Press, 2020), available free via open access here.
Brooks, Helen E. M. ”Are there any more recruits?’ British Theatre and the Recruitment Drive, 1914-1915′, First World War Studies 10:2-3, (2019) 207-224,
The findings from the project also form the core of Brooks’ next monograph Staging War, and will shape the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to British Theatre and the First World War (delayed by Covid and now due in press 2022).
Findings have also been shared at a number of conferences and invited talks to both academic and public audiences. A selection of these is given below.
- Brooks, H. (2017). ‘It was just like that out there’: Wartime Representation of the Trenches. in: TaPRA Conference 2014. View in KAR
- Brooks, H. (2017). Theatres of War: New insights into wartime theatre production through the Recovering First World War Theatre project. in: TaPRA Conference, 2017. View in KAR
- Brooks, H. (2017). Staging the Great War in the British Theatre between 1914 and 1918. in: War Through Other Stuff.View in KAR
- Brooks, H. (2017). Collaboration and Co-production: an example of a partnership between the University of Kent and Theatre Royal, Brighton. in: In Good Company: Working with Partners (APAC Annual Conference).View in KAR
- Brooks, H. (2017). Mobilizing the Home Front: British Theatre in 1916. in: The Fictional First World War. View in KAR
- Brooks, H. (2017). Not just ‘A Little Bit of Fluff’: British Theatre during the Great War. in: Civilian Experiences of War Symposium.View in KAR
- Brooks, H. (2017). ‘Torture, murder and bestial lust’: German Villains on the British stage in 1915. in: ‘Pack up your Troubles’: Performance Cultures of the First World War.View in KAR
- Brooks, H. (2017). Staging Jutland. in: Jutland and After: The First World War at Sea from War to Peace 1916-1919. View in KAR