- “Near to Reality, but Not Quite”Lena Ashwell’s Concerts at the Front during the First World War
In 1917 the newly formed Imperial War Museum appointed the Women’s Work Sub-Committee to record the work undertaken by women during the First World War.1 The subcommittee members supervised the collection of ephemera relating to British women’s labor on the home front and in the theaters of war and in May 1918 began to add artwork commissions to their remit.2 Alongside paintings and photographs, the subcommittee commissioned canvas and plaster models, recorded in their catalog as “dioramas,” from female sculptors and model makers to represent the main categories of women’s war work. Eighteen models were produced, depicting scenes including a munitions factory, hospitals, canteens, women police officers, land girls, and the Forage Corps.3 One of these models is somewhat different in terms of its subject matter: it illustrates a performance of Shakespeare, with actors in brightly colored costumes performing to khaki-clad troops on a proscenium-arch stage (fig. 1).4 The full title of the model, made by Ethel Pye, is given in the catalog as “Lena Ashwell Concert Party at Le Havre.” It illustrates a specific production of The Merchant of Venice that took place in 1918. The production had been organized by actress Penelope Wheeler in conjunction with Lena Ashwell’s Concerts at the Front, which, under the auspices of the YMCA, sent musicians and actors across Europe to entertain troops for most of the war. The figures in the audience depict troops from across the services, with some in convalescent clothes, and possibly some female nurses. Although it is unlikely that [End Page 188]
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a single audience was ever comprised of such a varied collection of troops, the model demonstrates the vast cross section who attended performances during the years of Ashwell’s program.
The model stands out because of its depiction of a recreational pursuit rather than the manual labor and medicinal care that comprise the rest of the collection. The inclusion of this model demonstrates that the Women’s Work Sub-Committee considered the roles of these performers to be more than simply entertainers. Yet the woman for whom the model is named, Lena Ashwell, is absent from the artwork, present in name only. Her personal labor, which included traveling across Great Britain to raise money and recruit performers, making multiple trips to France to check on the concert parties and occasionally perform, and negotiating with the War Office and the YMCA to obtain permission for the Concerts at the Front to exist in the first place is invisible.5 The model holds in tension the relationships between labor and recreation, performers and audience, civilians and troops, institutions and individuals, and the home front and the theaters of war.
This article focuses on the work of Ashwell’s concert parties, exemplified by this model, to examine how the scope of women’s wartime labor was expanded and transformed by performers within the male-dominated military zone. The First World War was the first conflict in which the state began to consider women’s labor as a contribution to warfare, but conceptions of this potential were largely confined to the munitions factories of the home front, conventional occupations of nursing and domestic care, and models of upper-class philanthropy.6 Ashwell legitimized her Concerts at the Front program by positioning them as an extension of medical care; however, the repertoire performed by the concert parties and descriptions of the performers’ roles on and off the concert platform extended their work into other gendered social roles. Additionally, the movement of the concert parties across the UK, France, Malta, and Egypt and their varied interactions with the audiences in these spaces provided a unique form of communication between soldiers and civilians, disordering the lines between the home front and war zones. Ashwell’s Concerts at the Front can therefore be considered a paradigm for...