In this new production by Bent Architect, the stories of revolutionary women who helped bring about the end of the First World War are explored through an imagined collaboration between radical theatre maker Joan Littlewood and German revolutionary playwright Ernst Toller. Socialist Review spoke to the play’s writer and co-director (with Jude Wright), Mick Martin.
What led you to look at women’s stories from the German Revolution?
Professor Ingrid Sharp from Leeds University came to see our 2014 play England, Arise! about the Huddersfield socialist conscientious objectors in the First World War, and she loved it. Her specialist areas of interest are the German anti-war movement and women’s history. She said that the German anti-war movement has not really been looked into, and that German historians tend not to be as focused on women’s history as is the case here.
So Jude, my partner and co-director, and I went to Berlin to look into it. We drew a blank at first. Lots of German theatre people and archivists said, well, no, German women didn’t really play a role in the ending of the First World War.
Jude started trawling through archives and she found Gertrud Voelcker, an amazing woman who had played a major part in the Kiel uprising.
What kind of role did she play? When people think of the Kiel uprising they might think of men on a boat…
What we discovered is that the sailors on the boat were really the tip of an iceberg. The sailors were in port from the Battle of Jutland [June 1916] onwards and the food riots and the hunger and privations visited upon the people in the town began to have a real impact on their consciousness.
Gertrud Voelcker had worked in the union office and was a political agitator. She was massively involved in youth group meetings — she was very young — that began to organise opposition to the war. She played a really important part in spreading the word that the war was madness and that the hunger people were suffering was madness.
Gradually we began to realise that the sailors were part of this and did not simply say, one day in 1918, “No, that’s it, enough”. The sailors mutinied safe in the knowledge that they had mass support in Kiel. The support came from the food queues, the food riots, and we know from Gertrud’s first hand testimony that women played a huge part in that.
Then we found another young woman, Martha Riedl, 15 years old, whose family were socialists. We discovered from Martha’s first hand testimony that she was actively involved throughout the revolution running messages and that she was there when the shots were fired and people were killed.
Martha refers to the fact that when the soldiers got demobbed they all went to the pub and got drunk, whereas she was running around frantically trying to spread the revolution — a 15 year old girl.
So we began to pick up a picture that a lot was happening on the streets and what drove this was not just the sailors but the whole community. That’s why they had such conviction.
What’s really interesting is that all the way through the women talk about how they were supposed to be good German girls with plaits in their hair, crying for the soldiers at the front. The ones that were politically motivated had a lot of abuse thrown at them — the accusation that they were immoral, not proper German women, that they slept around, they were this, they were that. They had a lot to contend with.
One of the things Professor Ingrid Sharp said is that male historians have this odd sort of blindness where they only see what the men did, and if the women are there it’s only as somebody’s wife. When Ingrid pointed this out I realised I hadn’t really thought about it before myself.
Is this why you decided to use the device of Joan Littlewood asking Ernst Toller, “Where are the women?” So you could have that process you went through happening in the play?
Absolutely. We discovered that the only piece of work on the Kiel uprising was Toller’s play Draw the Fires. For people in Germany Draw the Fires is one of those plays that has been done to death — kids had to read it in school, they got really bored of it. It’s really old fashioned and there are just two women in it — the hero’s mother, and Lucy the barmaid-cum-prostitute who just throws herself at the hero.
Then Jude discovered that the first ever production of Draw the Fires was done in Manchester by Joan Littlewood. We’d already hit on the title for our play, Women of Aktion. So we thought, well, Joan Littlewood, there’s a woman of action! This became a way in for us, as British-based artists, to tell this story.
We knew that Littlewood’s production of Draw the Fires was very fraught — there were a lot of arguments. So we’ve taken the liberty of imagining that Littlewood’s issue with the play is where are the women? And that the food riots and the hunger that drove the revolution involved and impacted on women — that was their war. When you look at the real misogynist violence of the Freikorps — that’s not really gone away, has it? We still live in a world where that toxic masculine violence rules.
You set the play in the 1930s with this meeting between Littlewood and Toller, and that is a period of rising fascism. Is that another point of contact for you with the world today?
Absolutely. The Freikorps went on to become senior Nazis, of course. There is this sense that the German Revolution changed a lot for women, but there is also a pretty dark shadow looming over all of it in terms of German history.
What kind of audience are you hoping to reach?
We hope to reach a very mainstream audience. We found with England, Arise! that there was a lot of interest in this subject, and that people seriously want to engage with political theatre. We are very excited to be going over to Kiel to be part of their centenary commemorations. We always want to reach a younger audience with our work. But mainly we want a big audience — there’s really no point just talking to people who already know the history.