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Staging European languages and memories: the sounds and rhythms of the Great War

By ucyow3c, on 24 November 2014

pencil-icon Written by Stefanie van Gemert, PhD candidate, UCL Dutch


Is there a particular rhythm to war and violence? And if so, does it sound staccato, repetitive like machine guns and marching boots? Or are its sounds tempting, magical perhaps? Do they appeal to universal feelings of longing – for mum to be proud, for the kiss of a pretty girl? Alex Marshall’s article in Saturday’s Guardian explores these questions, discussing the allure of the ‘ISIS anthem’.

On Tuesday 4 November we did something similar at the Bloomsbury Theatre, exploring sounds of the First World War in a multimedia and multilingual performance: ‘I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)’.

A century after the Great War began, violence seems to be everywhere. Even in peaceful Bloomsbury we cannot escape the updates on our mobile phones: yet another child wounded, another journalist killed.

As global citizens, we are extremely well-connected and yet continuously distracted, under the bombardment of 140-character shallow opinions and beeping newsfeeds. How can we, in this state, relate to the overwhelming global violence in a personal manner?

This event, organised by the Centre for Low Countries Studies and the Flemish-Dutch cultural magazine Ons Erfdeel, involved a writer/artistic director, a translator, a video artist, seven students from UCL’s School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS), two professional actors and a European collection of poetry and film footage of the Great War. Its collage-like structure and its multilingual approach underlined the global aspect of this conflict: something to be reminded of in November when poppies appear to be symbols of a straightforwardly English tradition.

The poems echoed the voices of Russian newspaper sellers, German students with childlike zeal, Flemish farmer boys who did not speak French, French officers who did not speak Flemish. They spoke of Turkish victory and English euphoria. And, finally, of pan-European disillusionment.

The performance connected the rhythms of literature to historical pictures, and thus revived well-known imagery of wounded soldiers, obligingly dancing nurses and muddy trenches. English translations were integrated in the video installation: a reminder of the many local perspectives and individual voices.

Poetry, with its thought-through composition, shows more than any other genre that language is structured. And that such constructs are powerful: they generate emotions and can be motors for mass destruction or lull us into a vast, passive sleep. Language is never simply there; it isn’t innocent.

The featured texts by the French author Céline, the German Remarque, the Brit Pinter and Dutch poet Kouwenaar balance thresholds in-between personal experiences and the politically ‘mediated’ imagery of war. Erich-Maria Remarque, for example, directs us to the dubious relations mainstream media has with personal tragedy, in one poignant sentence:

He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so still and quiet along the entire front line that the army despatches restricted themselves to the single sentence: that there was nothing new to report on the western front.

And Pinter – as much as Sassoon in Dulce et Decorum– takes a bitter, accusative take on nationalist, political messages. His cursing rage against the Iraq war was rejected by the most progressive of British magazines and newspapers. Ironically, Pinter’s poem featured the F-word so many times that it made crystal clear what the word nowadays has become: meaningless.

When the Belgian author Marguerite Yourcenar was a young girl, she struggled to grasp the significance of an international event that would haunt Europe for more than a lifetime:

Behind me, on the other side of the new wall, news was travelling rapidly and crackling all along the telephone wires. […] An Austrian prince, whose hunting trophies I had seen with disgust in his castle in Bohemia, had just been shot in Sarajevo […].

Yourcenar knew that world events only gain personal meaning when time passes. But personal events happen: they are present and everywhere. The featured authors acknowledged that the range of what we as human beings can hear, see and feel is immensely more varied than what the ones in favour of war urge or nudge (here’s another word that has lost its innocence) us to hear, see and feel.

The event at the Bloomsbury Theatre found coherence in one language. The ‘Voice of History’ spoke English, our modern-day lingua franca. But its strength was that it showcased Europe’s differences, in various languages and dialects.

An energetic conversation emerged between authors of different generations and places, who were all committed to the struggle of voicing personal pains connected to political wars. As Kouwenaar appears to say: humans beg to forget painful memories and, at the same time, such prayers illustrate both their pains and hopes:

Sing me o muse the ovens that under zeus’ blindfold

made the tin soldiers melt like flesh […]

At UCL’s campus we speak many languages; in London we hear numerous voices; world news travels quickly. Everyday we are in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Sierra Leone. This poetic collage acknowledged that nothing is closer to us than our mother tongue(s), and that, if we listen well, we can hear the minor differences of today in our great-grandfathers’ voices, putting major nationalist narratives aside.

‘I died in hell’ put multilingual poetry on the stage, celebrating literature as a field of play where the past can inform global connections of the future.

Stefanie van Gemert submitted her thesis in comparative literature in August and is awaiting her viva. On 4 November she read extracts from the work of Benno Barnard, Hugo Claus and Gerrit Kouwenaar.

This event was funded and supported by Ons Erfdeel, UCL Grand Challenges, the Representation of Flanders in the UK, the Netherlands Embassy, Flemish-Dutch house deBuren and the Bloomsbury Theatre.

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