This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Role of a Lifetime

22 April 2016

There's a story in this photo.
A guitar playing groom,
a handsome if not winsome bride,
and a bewigged English judge.
Flowers, top hat, guitar.
Is this a civil marriage?

On their right, another fair-ish bridesmaid,
a couple of barristers,
and a half dozen stalwart gentlemen,

On the left, yet another wigged lawyer
and wholesome maiden,
with more stouthearted men.

It is a very strange wedding party.
Where are the bride's parents?
The groom's brother?
Uncles and aunts? 
Why is this group so nuptial and judicial at the same time?
Why are the three women so...manly?
It looks more like a theatrical occasion than a matrimonial ceremony.

This photo postcard has no identification, no date or names,
only a suggestion that it was taken
sometime during the Great War of 1914-18.
The rough vertical siding of the crude building behind them
resembles a barn, or possibly a soldiers' barrack.
It is not unlike the barracks of a prisoner of war camp.

Compare this photo's background with the billets
behind the
French, Belgian, and Russian soldiers
of Baraque I in the
Göttingen POW camp,
taken around 1915.

In both cases the wall construction was chosen
for practicality and not decorative style.
But where ever the photograph of this high court wedding was taken,
its outdoor location seems very odd.

Perhaps there are clues in the characters.
A bride, a groom, a judge, barristers, and a guitar.
Could this be the cast of a musical?

How about an operetta?

Gilbert & Sullivan Trial by Jury
1937 production
Source: Wikimedia

This photo from Wikimedia shows the cast of Trial by Jury, taking its bows in a 1937 production of Gilbert & Sullivan's first serious effort at opera. There are a few more women, but they and the several legal wigs match the group in my postcard. The operetta's nonsensical plot was developed by W. S. Gilbert as a comic satire concerning a "breach of promise". In Victorian times, whenever a man reneged on his engagement to be married to a woman, it was considered a serious civil offense that could result in damages paid to his intended. In February 1875 Gilbert read his libretto to Arthur Sullivan who immediately agreed to set it to music. After a successful opening at the Royalty Theater in March 1875, Trial by Jury became the first of 13 collaborative works known as the Savoy Operas that Gilbert & Sullivan would collaborate on over the next 25 years.

A scene from Trial by Jury Sporting and Dramatic News 1 May 1875
Source:  Wikipedia

The story begins as a courtroom melodrama over a breach of promise lawsuit brought by the plaintiff, a young woman who appears in court in a wedding dress, against the defendant, a frivolous young man about town. Singing with his guitar to the jury, the defendant admits to becoming bored with the girl and finding another love. He offers to marry both. When the jilted plaintiff fails to win him back, she attracts the attention of the judge. His honor falls wig over tails for her and resolves the case by getting the young woman to marry him instead. There is a jury, several bridesmaids, counsels, and attorneys as well. To call it silly hardly does it justice, but it was a terrific success and remains a favorite of G&S Societies today. It's quite a short opera with only one act and typically finishes its 14 musical numbers within 30 minutes.   

I think the evidence, though circumstantial, makes a convincing case that the men(?) in my photo postcard are guilty of performing Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury.

But are they in a prisoner of war camp?

That's harder to prove.
The jury will need to hear more testimony.

In 1917, a small book was published in London entitled The Ruhleben Prison Camp, A Record of Nineteen Months' Internment. The author was Israel Cohen, an Englishman who was working in Berlin as a newspaper correspondent when the war broke out in August 1914. Though he was a civilian, as a British citizen the German government considered him a potential enemy agent. By September 1914, Cohen, along with hundreds of other men caught on the wrong side, was sent to an internment camp for civilian foreign nationals. It was hastily built at a harness horse racing track near Berlin called Ruhleben. The prisoners, all men, came from Britain, France, Belgium, South Africa, Japan, Russia, etc. – the Allied countries opposed to Germany. They represented every kind of profession and trade imaginable. Not surprisingly, there was a very large number of musical and theatrical artists, who had been performing in Germany that summer of 1914.

Within months, the Ruhleben Internment Camp had a newspaper, a literary & debate club, a musical society with chorus and orchestra, and a theater group presenting both plays and musicals. Cohen writes that the prisoner's first attempt at comic opera was a production of Trial by Jury.

The Ruhleben Prison Camp
A Record of Nineteen Months' Internment
by Israel Cohen

Ruhleben also held many skilled illustrators, artists, and photographers and Cohen includes several photos showing life in the prison camp. This photo is labeled "The Orchestra" and shows about 56 musicians, including six cellos, and two double basses. It is notable too that there is an African face behind one of those double basses.

The Ruhleben Prison Camp
A Record of Nineteen Months' Internment
by Israel Cohen

Concerts were given on a stage constructed within the refreshment center of the race course's Grand Stand. Reserved seat tickets were sold, priced between 20 to 75 pfennige. The prison commandant and his wife were in regular attendance. By 1915 there were regular music series programed with well known piano concertos, symphonies, oratorios, and arrangements of popular music too. The theater was equipped with electric lights and printed programs were sold.

Ruhleben Prison Camp
Musical Society Orchestra
Dec 1916

The Ruhleben camp population varied between 4,000 and 5,500 detainees, most of whom were British citizens. After the start of the war, more civilians were added from the passengers and crews taken from British and French merchant ships captured by the German navy. The men interned in the camp endured the expected wartime privations on food and drink, and certainly suffered at the many onerous rules set by the military governor, but compared to military POWs they enjoyed a more free community. After it was recognized that the war would continue for an indefinite time, there were some prisoner exchanges arranged, especially of elderly or infirm men. Israel Cohen was fortunate to be released in June 1916. 

Some of the Ruhleben prison camp magazines have been digitized and are available on at the wonderful library of The December 1915 edition of In Ruhleben Camp included a map of the camp with labels for the "town" features.

{click images to enlarge}

Ruhleben Prison Camp Magazine
map of Ruhleben Camp
Dec 1915

Ruhleben Prison Camp Magazine
Schedule of Entertainments
Dec 1915

The December camp magazine offered a list of theater works planned for the first quarter of 1916. There was a play every week beginning with Playboy of the Western World by the Irish playwright John Millington Synge. Shakespeare's Othello was featured for February. The camp critic congratulated the Ruhleben players for their Christmas Pantomime of Cinderella.

* *

That same edition included a review of the camp production of Trial by Jury. It would seem that the stage heroines left something to be desired from the all-male cast.  

Ruhleben Prison Camp Magazine
Review of "Trial by Jury"
Dec 1915

At this point the prosecutor must provide all the evidence,
even that which may disprove his case.

Only a couple of pages after the review
was a grainy photo of the full cast of
the Ruhleben Prison Camp production
of Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury.

Ruhleben Prison Camp Magazine
Cast of "Trial by Jury"
Dec 1915

There are at least 42 people on the stage. Quite a few dressed as women too. It would seem that the Ruhleben Prison Camp had the benefit of many more musical thespians than are pictured on my postcard. Nonetheless if one prison camp could put on a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, then it's still not impossible that another POW camp might put together a similar production.

Where did the detainees get the scripts, the music, the costumes, the props?
Clearly the men of Ruhleben camp made the best of what they had the most of.     Time.

Ruhleben Prison Camp Magazine
Cover of  Xmas Number
Dec 1915

Courtesy of a comment link from David Cookson (see below),
here's a painting by Nico Jungmann, an artist interned in the Ruhleben prison camp,
of the camp audience watching a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado.

Gala performance of The Mikado
at the Ruhleben internment camp
by Nico Jungmann
Source: Wikipedia

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where this weekend her Majesty takes a turn on the stage.


Lorraine Phelan said...

A fantastic forensic study, interesting from go to whoa.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Fascinating. I can't believe the critic complaining about the men's performance as women. Thanks for once again offering a unique look at another slice of time.

ScotSue said...

I am a G&S enthusiast and I must admit my immediate thought was "Trial by Jury" - a fascinating sequence of photographs.

Barbara Rogers said...

Once again you have outdone yourself and brought my attention to an area of life of which I had no knowledge...musical performances in prison camps in WW I. And you have presented a wonderful story as well as plenty of photos. THanks!

La Nightingail said...

You continue to amaze me with the wonderful & informative things you find to post each week. Gilbert & Sullivan, indeed! Nice going, & congrats on the sleuthing to prove your point. :)

Jo Featherston said...

Perhaps the men receivd scripts in their Red Cross parcels, if they had these in World War 1 as well as World War 2. I know that theatrically inclned prisoners put on similar shows in the camp Stalag VIii, in Poland , where my father-in-law was imprisned rom 1942 to 1945.

Jo Featherston said...

ps. This site mentions items of entertainment being included in parcels sent to the POWs:

Titania Staeheli said...

A good end is a happy end. Well done again.

David Cookson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Cookson said...

Edgar Bainton was one of several English musicians, also including Edward Clark, (and the Canadian Ernest MacMillan) who had the misfortune to be holidaying in Bayreuth - visiting the Festival - at the time of the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914. What a colossal piece of bad luck! However, it's a ill wind which blows nobody any good, and Bainton's (and the others') misfortune at being arrested as enemy aliens and imprisoned for four years at Ruhleben Internment Camp was a piece of colossal *good* luck for the other inmates of Ruhleben.

As has been mentioned on SavoyNet in the past, and according to Ernest MacMillan's autobiography, Ruhleben produced a 'Mikado', a 'Trial by Jury', a 'Pirates of Penzance', a 'Yeomen of the Guard' and a 'Gondoliers' during the war years of 1914-18. MacMillan was director of 'The Mikado'. I can't find anything to confirm it, but I suspect that both Clark and Bainton were involved in some musical aspect of those productions.

According to Wikipedia, "Bainton is also notorious for his anti-semitism. In 1934, having just become Director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium in Sydney [Australia], he rejected the famous composer and music theorist Arnold Schoenberg for a post as teacher of harmony and theory because he was Jewish and for having "modernist ideas and dangerous tendencies"."

If anyone's interested, here's a link to an image of a painting of the 'Mikado' production, by Nico Jungmann

Oddly, it's a view of the audience, and of a part of the orchestra (including conductor and the string section, to the conductor's right), but not a view of the performance itself.

Here is a link to a BBC News Magazine article from July 2014 about life in Ruhleben internment camp in Germany in 1914-1918. It mentions the G&S productions put on by the camp's inmates (and includes a photo of The Ducal Party & Don Alhambra from 'The Gondoliers').

The article gives a good idea of what life in 1914-Britain must have been like, in the way it describes how the inmates replicated in an internment camp their pre-war British way of life.

It also explains why the Germans allowed that to happen (something I'd always wondered about).

Here's a photo of the 'Gondoliers' production at Christmas 1917

As to how they acquired scores/libretti, well, they probably didn't. According to the Wikipedia article on Benjamin Dale
"Dale was also one of the musicians who helped MacMillan recreate the score of The Mikado from memory for a full performance in the camp"

Reconstructing a score would not have been such a difficult task for musicians who had been involved with G&S productions. I once started (during the prelude to a G&S dinner-party gathering) to play 'Trial by Jury' from memory - the assembled company continued to sing, and I played & they sang it all the way through ... dinner then arrived! General knowledge of G&S was far wider 100 years ago than it is today.

To find out if the 'Trial by Jury' photographs are of a Ruhleben production, or a production in a different internment camp, it may be possible to compare faces from the 'Gondoliers' photo and faces from the 'Trial by Jury' photo. Any takers?

By the way, the British musicians were INTERNED at Ruhleben, not INTERRED (so far as I know) (grin)

David Cookson

PS I removed the previous comment because it interpreted <> characters as HTML indicators

Mike Brubaker said...

Many thanks, David, for adding more information on the Ruhleben Internment Camp. I've updated my story to include that wonderful painting by Jungmann. My first clue to the possibility that my photo might be from Ruhleben was found in Israel Cohen's book. That led to my discovery of the many professional musicians interned (:-{) at the camp. I easily found MacMillan of course, then the cellist Carl Fuchs, and then the Australian composer Arthur Benjamin, who bore a close resemblance to one of the "ladies" in my photo. It is but a coincidence, because as far as I know, Benjamin was not a singer. During the war years Ruhleben enjoyed an extraordinary cultural life for an improvised prison, and it deserves a more thorough study. I think it would make a great movie too.

For my purpose though, I don't believe the men pictured in my smaller production of Trial by Jury are from Ruhleben, since the camp newspaper photo clearly shows a much larger cast. But as you point out, Gilbert & Sullivan's music was so well known at the time, that another POW camp might easily have produced the operetta from memory. I have several postcard photos of other WW1 POW camp theaters and I may yet learn where this production was performed.


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