Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Show Must Go On!
reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

The Show Must Go On!
by John Mullen
Farnham: Ashgate, 2015

The Show Must Go On! was originally published in French in 2012. The aim of the book is twofold: to provide a taste of the atmosphere of wartime Britain and to review what British entertainment meant during the war. The texts of over 1000 songs have been analyzed and suggestions given for their success. In the process, a number of myths about popular entertainment have been dispelled. Many different genres are discussed in Mullen's study, including music hall, musical comedy, pantomime, army entertainment, and amateur entertainment in prisoner of war camps. Mullen also considers non-commercial songs such as folk songs and soldiers' songs. The analyses of several dozen individual songs are enhanced by the inclusion of internet links to the original recordings.

I'll Make a Man of You!
Maggie Smith's Music Hall Number from Oh, What a Lovely War!

Chapter 1 describes the entertainment industry in Britain in 1914, illustrating how aspiring singers, lyricists, musicians and showbiz agents reacted to the trauma of war. In chapter 2 the different songs are discussed from two viewing perspectives: genre and the songs themselves. Mullen demonstrates that "each genre has its specific artistic content, but also its own social rules and values, since, in wartime as at any other time, the musical show can define the person who attends it almost as much as it entertains them" (37).

Chapters 3 to 5 provide fascinating analyses of individual songs, focusing on their themes and what they say about the life and dreams of the audience. Chapter 4 discusses the representation of women in songs, demonstrating how the image of women changed to reflect their new roles in wartime. Chapter 5, which discusses the hundreds of songs about the war and life in wartime Britain, is particularly fascinating and is discussed in more detail below. The final chapter, while discussing non-commercial songs, including hymns and folk songs, focuses primarily on soldier songs that express the British soldier's view of the war, death and his superior officers. The six chapters are interspersed by short but fascinating portraits of popular music stars. Mullen claims that the concentration among historians on kings, queens, and elites must be nuanced by a study of how ordinary people lived and thought and how this is expressed in popular entertainment. The Show Must Go On! fills this gap.

To return to chapter 5, here Mullen explores the complexity of music hall songs, which are the result of different forces—economic, social, and political. While the profit motive is a key factor, for example, the music hall must attract a working-class audience with artistes who share common features and experiences with that audience and who can "express its condition and its problems'"(147). Behind songs of the war are contradictory ideological forces; alongside a general acceptance of the need to win the war, for example, was mistrust of the government and of employers. Songs fulfilled a variety of functions: they expressed dissent or popular patriotism, urged soldiers to join the war drive, acted as propaganda, helped unite the nation, restored morale, and expressed black humor. Above all, however, they gave voice to the dream of the end of the war and the return of loved ones.

The section "notable absences," also in chapter 5, is particularly fascinating because it demonstrates that "what is not sung about can be just as significant as what is sung about" (169). There are, for example, remarkably few songs expressing hatred against the Germans. The reason for this absence, Mullen suggests, is that anti-German xenophobia in Britain "was not consensual enough for sing-along purposes" (170). Also, traditionally music-hall songs are not aggressive and do not express negative emotions.

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Death and killing are also conspicuous by their absence because there was already sufficient death in the war and because the British war poets had been providing graphic scenes of death from the beginning. Music hall songs featured both the comic and tragic aspects of war. Home was the key value celebrated, leaving little space for death, empire, or even victory. In fact, the majority of the songs do not, as Mullen explains, speak of war at all. It is this discovery that he identifies as his single most original contribution to our understanding of the role of the music hall during the war.

The Show Must Go On! is written with passion and with the reader clearly in mind. Its style is elegant and accessible, the tone is persuasive, and the comprehensive bibliography impressive. The numerous extracts from a wide variety of war songs, the Internet links, and the "Political, Military and Cultural Timeline of the Great War" in the appendix bring home the spirit of the music hall to the reader and make it comprehensible. The Show Must Go On! is for everyone—as was the music that is its subject. .

Jane Mattisson Ekstam


  1. This is a great look at the musical aspect of WWI social history! A 'companion book' now available in paperback is Max Arthur's 2001 "When This Bloody War is Over", with an introduction by Lyn Macdonald.

  2. Thank you so much for this reference. I met John Mullen at a conference on World War One held at St Mary's College, London, last year. I really recommend his book!

  3. Great review -- and wonderful photo of Maggie Smith from "Oh, What a Lovely War!"

  4. For me, the German singer as an end scene of Paths of Glory will always sum up a soldier's entertainment during the war...