Easter 1914: The calm before the war
I read this in The Republican-Herald's Days Gone By column: April 7, 1914, Herman Straub returned to Pottsville at the end of two years of working at "the greatest job the world has known," the construction of the Panama Canal.
Herman made it home just in time for Easter, celebrated on April 12 that year. Perhaps on that day, he and his wife strolled along Centre Street, participating in the Easter Parade. If by chance they did, Madam was most likely wearing a "hobbie skirt," wide at the hips and so narrow at the ankles she could only take mincing steps. Straw bonnets decorated with artificial flowers were popular that year. Perhaps she was wearing one of those, too.
Across the ocean, in Paris, women hobbled along in high heels, wearing the same ankle-pinching skirts. On their heads, they sported extravagant creations, turbans topped with erect, high-reaching plumes, hats with wide triangular brims, cloches fitted with a "Turkish veil" that covered the chin, mouth and nose in order to set off a pair of enticing eyes.
Men's fashions, on both sides of the Atlantic, remained conservative and dark. At a time when men were busy changing the world, they surely had little time to think about clothes. Some, like Straub, were off building the Panama Canal; in and around Paris, many were working in the automobile industry. At that time, Paris was the world's "Motor City," and in 1914, there were more than 600 car manufacturers in France.
One year earlier, a Frenchman driving a Peugeot had won the Indianapolis 500. Still in that year, a Frenchman was the first to fly from Europe to Africa across the Mediterranean Sea. Those triumphs were broadcast on radio beamed from the top of the Eiffel Tower or seen in newsreels projected on the silver screen of Gaumont Palace in Paris, the biggest movie theater in the world.
In 1914 change was everywhere and things were happening almost too fast, prompting the French poet Charles Peguy to write, "The world has changed more in the last 30 years than in all the time since Jesus Christ." By the end of that year, at age 41, he was dead.
On Aug. 15, 1914, the first cargo ship sailed through the Panama Canal. Two weeks earlier, on July 28, the Great War began. Between then and Nov. 11, 1918, it took the lives of 9 million soldiers. The poet Charles Peguy was among the first to fall, killed by a bullet at the Battle of Ourcq on Sept. 5, 1914.
World War I is much on my mind these days as everywhere in France as commemorations of the "Great War" are taking place. There are so many exhibits that it would take an entire year to visit them all (to get an idea of the wealth of events, consult http://centenaire.org/en). On TV, there are documentaries to watch, and once July rolls around, there will be official ceremonies galore.
Of course, these events interest me but on April 11 I had the unique experience of participating in one of these commemorations myself. I took part in an opera, a sound collage, a work of experimental music, based on what is called "verbal notation," a musical score built of words and not of notes. To participate, there is no need to play a musical instrument or to "read music" in the traditional sense. All you need to know is how to read - and to listen with heart and mind. If you possess those skills, then you can play a role.
This experimental work, "A Great War," is composed of music, sounds, images and words all belonging to the period of World War I. Its composer, Joseph Kudirka, came from the U.S. to France, where, as the guest of my university, he explained to us how to become a part of his work. We - a professional pianist, two video artists, three professors from the English department and three students from the music department - each a musician as well, listened and understood: We would be playing a creative role, improvising as we interacted with a "sound base," the composer's montage of songs, voices and gravelly silences all originating in the period of World War I.
Before our first meeting a week before the performance, we had all collected our materials. One of my colleagues chose advertisements: stimulants to keep soldiers healthy in the trenches, alcohol to keep them warm, and, as the war progresses, artificial limbs to replace those they've lost. Another chose American patents: a new and improved brassiere, a garbage disposal system, and (remember the Lusitania!) an idea for camouflaging ships at sea.
There were poems by the French poet Apollinaire and texts in Greek, Flemish and Russian I couldn't tell you anything about. There was also a ukulele rendition of "When this lousy war is over." I chose poems written in the trenches by the Italian poet Ungaretti and poems in German, wanting to "commemorate" those two languages of the war.
At rehearsals, we all sat down. Through the horns of two gramophones from the war period came a faraway, trembling voice singing "I'll take you home again Kathleen," a 1914 recording. We listened and then we spoke, reciting the words we had chosen, together, alone, in swells, accompanied at times by the piano, while behind us flashed images, not necessarily of the war, but of those times. Sometimes we sat in silence and the only sound was the hissing of white noise.
By the night of the performance, we had learned to listen to each other and to the sounds around us. And we had learned to pace ourselves to the composer's composition of sounds. Then the lights went down and for one hour, we were in the spotlight, using sound, music, image and movement, to recreate "A Great War."
And it worked. It brought home to us all, audience and performers alike, the density of time and the paradoxes of war. In 1914, during the long weeks of the First Battle of the Marne, Americans were crowding into movie theaters to watch Charlie Chaplin and the "Perils of Pauline." They were listening to the first recordings of calypso music, and blues and jazz were outpacing ragtime. America was isolationist and little did Americans imagine that a few days before Easter 1917, they too would be entering that war.
Easter 1914. I wonder if elegant Parisians strolling along the Champs Elysées had an inkling that a long and bloody world war was just around the corner.
(Honicker can be reached at honicker.republican firstname.lastname@example.org)