Performances behind the wire
Professor Victor Emeljanow
Much has been written about the experiences of Australian prisoners of war but a unique study being undertaken by ArtsHealth: Centre for Research and Practice member Professor Victor Emeljanow will for the first time reveal the significance of dramatic and musical performance as a coping strategy for detainees.
According to Professor Emeljanow, among the significant body of work that has focused on Australian, British and New Zealand prisoners of war, few studies address the lengthy periods of inaction endured by the prisoners and the demoralisation that ensued.
"POWs were forced to come to terms with their capture and immobilisation. Some felt a sense of failure at being captured. They were rendered powerless, with no sense of where they were going, let alone when the war would end. They were confined for the foreseeable future," he said.
"For them, life was a day to day mindless grind - lack of food, poor sanitation, no privacy - and finding a sense of purpose was very important.
"This will be the first, fundamental investigation of the nature of theatrical and musical performances, their widespread use in camps and their value in preserving a connectedness with the past, during wartime conditions that accentuated emotional and physical meaninglessness," he said.
Professor Emeljanow said establishing a sense of community through the arts was one way in which the POWs coped with their incarceration.
"When you put on a play there is an instant sense of community," he said. "You have collaboration, cooperation - establishing a point of reality and engagement."
According to Professor Emeljanow, documented accounts of the POW experience make reference to theatrical performances being used merely as a way to fill in time, however he believes the performing arts were indeed hugely popular amongst the prisoners - particularly melodrama, revue, pantomime and musical comedy.
"History shows us that entertainment committees were formed almost immediately in all camps to organise choirs, bands and theatre venues during both World War I and World War II.
"The sheer numbers of those involved in the camps is attested by the statistic that over 10,000 musical instruments were sent by the Red Cross to prisoner of war camps by the end of World War II," Professor Emeljanow said.
From research already undertaken, Professor Emeljanow knows that while some POW performers had previous experience in dance, music and drama, most had never performed before.
He said scripts were sent into the camps by groups such as the YMCA and Red Cross and that the performances - often of light-hearted productions such as The Importance of Being Ernest - were hugely popular.
Professor Emeljanow said musical and dramatic performances demanded teamwork and individual commitment, leadership and collaboration and, it was likely, proved very effective in combating the effects of "barbed wire fever".
"My contention is that these performances played a far more vital role in keeping people sane in these conditions than past research has recognised."
As part of his research, Professor Emeljanow - who has been Professor of Drama at the University of Newcastle for more than 20 years - intends to collect documentary resources such as diaries, letters, pictorial evidence and official reports, as well as first hand oral accounts where possible, to quantify the nature and extent of musical and dramatic performances in the POW camps.
Professor Emeljanow said a series of case studies of specific camps in Europe would demonstrate the nature of popular entertainment and their enduring value in POW camps while also bringing new research and insights into neglected periods of theatre history.
The findings of his research project, which is titled Performances behind the wire: the nature, extent and significance of dramatic and musical performances in European prisoner of war camps during World War I and II, are set to coincide with the centenary of World War I in 2014.
He hopes the findings will create possibilities for collaborations and linkages between academic researchers, government officers responsible for the welfare of veterans and curators of wartime memorabilia during this centenary year.
This study will add to Professor Emeljanow's impressive body of work in the area of popular theatre. His past studies have included published and acclaimed work on Victorian and Edwardian theatre and, most recently, a project focused on the employment of children in the theatre between 1885 and 1920.