Performing War: ‘Military Theatre’ and the Possibilities of Resistance

Michael Balfour


In Celtic (and Norse) history there are stories about how warrior armies celebrated their victories back at camp. Often based on hillside encampments, the soldiers and fighters would gravitate to one or other side of the hill to celebrate and rest. On one side of the camp, Bards - professional poets called Scops - would sing the praises of heroic accomplishments of the kings and noblemen. The stories were constructed into epic poems of mythical struggles and military honour. On another side of the hill-camp, another groups of Bards, called Skolds, composed vicious satires on the shortcomings of the royals and aristocracy in battle. The poems and songs would poke fun at the ‘warriors’ and highlight the failings and timidity of the supposedly fierce fighters. The word skald has been preserved in modern English and has become ‘scold’.

The Skolds and the Scops represent two ways in which artists have responded to war in the past: the artist as morale-booster who constructs mythological propaganda, and the artist who undermines or resists the false-heroics of war. These dual characteristics are also present in more recent examples of theatre and war, and in particular the Second World War (Macleod, 1946; Jelavich, 1993; Berghaus, 1996; Balfour, 2001). The theatre from this period is often categorised as either ‘spiritual resistance’ to the inhumane conditions of war, for example Jewish Ghettos and Concentration Camps (Jelavich, 1993; Gilbert, 2005), or as theatre as a politically and socially malleable medium, as conducive to supporting the structures and ideologies of power as to resisting them (Berghaus, 1996; Schnapp, 1996; Balfour, 2001). These latter practices are seen as being exploited by, or incorporated into, the ideological ‘effort’ – in short the propaganda of the Scop.

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