As the centennial anniversary of World War I passes, the tragic loss of life can at times begin to feel remote; those history lectures whose dates and big battle names are the only resonating feature in the memories of subsequent generations. When my dad first proposed seeing Hotel Modern & Arthur Sauer’s production of The Great War, I had no idea what an amazing and inspiring performance I was in store for. It is difficult for me to express the depth of my admiration for this truly unique and astounding theatrical event. It is, in every sense of the word, a must-see production.
The performance employed scale models with items that create a world, such as parsley sprigs standing in for forests, and paper houses representing entire villages. These props are filmed up close to give the illusion of realistic settings, and are manipulated live on stage by the three skilled members of the group: Arlene Hoornweg, Herman Helle, and Pauline Kalker.
The play depicts the tragic events of World War I through the eyes of various soldiers from undefined countries as they go about their routines of brutal combat. Throughout the performance, first-person letters to the mothers, lovers, and families of soldiers were read as the audience followed the writers’ journey through the war. The anonymity of the soldiers created an unmistakable and moving sense of universality among the opposing members of the war and revealed the absolute futility of pitting these young men against one another without any understanding of the scope of the conflict.
In one grotesquely beautiful scene, the up-close and personal camera angles followed the carefully sculpted boots of a soldier trudging through soil as he encounters body after body of fallen troopers, indistinguishable as either friend or foe. Two of the more stunning visual effects involved the use of fire to burn down a compact paper town that appeared huge on screen, and the use of liquid nitrogen to represent flammable mustard gas scouring the fields of exhausted soldiers.
However, by far the most haunting scene was from the perspective of a soldier within a tank firing at random as he describes in a letter how the tank rolled across this valley of death, often crushing soldiers in its path.
Arthur Sauer’s mastery of the music and sound effects that accompanied the performance elevated it to such a degree that even the sound of wind as dust blew over the bodies of forgotten soldiers could spark a tear in one’s eye.
As the play and the war went on, and the seasons slowly passed, the rains came burying the bodies in mud—then a sprig of green, and another and another until the entire hillside was overgrown, a truck pulling past unaware of the carnage that lay just beyond the path.
These letters were moving and occasionally stopped mid-sentence as the soldier who we were following was shot dead. The final image, a long slow pull back to the “Eye of God” view of a solitary soldier as he slowly makes his way home, was portrayed over a recording of a drunken French soldier jubilantly singing a liberation song as the camera pulls further and further away.
After the performance, as everyone wiped tears from their eyes, the audience was invited up to the stage to view the props and see for themselves how this tragic world was created. Hotel Modern produces an array of works ranging from depictions of death camps in World War II to portrayals of bustling cities and issues of marriage, life, and death to fun romps where human life is explored through the use of shrimps as mini-humans. Whatever performance you may have the pleasure of seeing, I can guarantee it will be tremendous.