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An officer of the 12th East Yorkshires on his round in a snow-covered support trench is drawing aside the gas-curtain of a dug out.

An officer of the 12th East Yorkshires on his round in a snow-covered support trench is drawing aside the gas-curtain of a dug out.

'But the men of '14 and '15, and what meagre records of their day were safe to keep, have long been lost; while the crowded years between remove their battles across dead Belgian towns and villages as far from us as the fights in Homer. Doubtless, all will be reconstructed to the satisfaction of future years when, if there be memory beyond the grave, the ghosts may laugh at the neatly groomed histories.'

R. Kipling, Introduction to The Irish Guards in the Great War (1923)

'The Ghosts May Laugh' is a play set in a Western Front dug-out on Christmas Eve, 1917. It was written in 2001 by Stuart Lee, and its first performance will be at the Burton-Taylor Theatre in Oxford 12-13 December 2003. However, if anyone is interested in putting on their own performance then they can do so through Playscripts.com below. It requires 8-15 cast members.

In this brief interview with the author he explains some of the reasoning behind the play, and the images and themes explored.

Read an extract from the play (PDF) | Order a copy from Playscripts.com

1. What is the play about?
2. Why write about WW1?
3. Is the play anti-war?
4. What are the sources for the play?
5. Why is nature so important to the play?
6. What happens at the end?

Alternatively you can email the author directly with a different question at stuart.lee@english.ox.ac.uk

Q. What is the play about?
A. The play has a fairly simple premise. The main characters are 4 British Officers from the First World War. The location is a dug-out on the Western Front, Christmas, 1917. Three of them (Jenkins, Jones, and Lewis) have been out for some time, and they are joined by a new recruit - Saunders. A fifth Officer - Miller- is discussed throughout the play, but is killed before the start. It is Miller's belongings that spark off a story-telling competition.  Four ghost stories are told all in flashback.

I decided to make it a single set with only a few diversions in the form of short stories. In particular I wanted to concentrate on the way the soldiers are confined to the dug-out and just 'while away the time'.

The play though is more about how men react to war. Jones is cynical and is fighting against everything, Jenkins simply accepts it and drinks to create a cushion around him, whilst Lewis seems to revel in the authority and order. I tried to make the stories reflect all these views. Saunders, the new Officer, is really being presented with a set of choices - as indeed we all are.

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Q. Why write about the WW1?
A.  Partly out of interest and experience in researching the War, but also because WW1 has a unique place in the psyche of Europe. It was such a monstrous event that is very difficult to comprehend, thus it allows you to explore all kinds of issues and moral ambiguities, moreso than perhaps WW2 does.

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Q. Is the play anti-war?
A. Yes. But it also acknowledges the fact that sometimes individuals find themselves trapped into events over which they have no control. The question therefore is how do we, or should we react.

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Q. What are the sources for the play?
A. There are several inspirations for the play. Chaucer and Journey's End present obvious parallels, as do all the portmanteau horror films from the 1970s produced by Hammer. However the inspiration to write the play came from Colin McPherson's The Weir which was a stunning piece of theatre and showed that good story-telling  can be as powerful as any special effect. Outside of that numerous sources and quotes appear. Some of the vignettes come from actual interviews with veterans from the war, but there are also short quotes from Sorley and others, and of course Jenkins' tale is an adaptation of a short story by Kipling.

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Q. Why is nature so important in the play?
A. It actually comes in quite a bit. The men describe the surroundings outside, and so on, and I wanted to show that the War, at times, was about men just attempting to survive. The stories reflect this. If you read them you notice that they gradually come closer and closer to the front line (the first is set at home, the next near the front, the third story on the frontline, and the fourth in no-man's land). They also have an association with the elements. So in the first we have water, the second fire (from the burners), the third earth, and the fourth air (due to the gas).

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Q. What happens at the end?
A. In a sense it is left open. Jones is asking Saunders and the audience which one they think is the right attitude to adopt. Some people have asked whether Jones leaves to commit suicide but that never occurred to me.

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Page created: 11 Sep-2003