Greasepaint and Cordite: How ENSA Entertained the Troops During World War II.
Maintaining the morale of armed forces at war is important but often difficult. This was clearly true in World War II, when millions of men were torn from civilian life and often sent to distant and perilous places, sometimes separating them from home and family for years. Frequent mail from home was probably the most effective means of keeping up the spirits of combatants, but supplying suitable entertainment could be a valuable supplement. Andy Merriman examines one such effort made by wartime Great Britain. His thesis, if the book can be said to have one, is that the effort was by and large successful.
"ENSA," or the Entertainments National Service Association, was established at the outbreak of war in 1939 under the leadership of theater impresario Basil Dean. By 1946, when ENSA was demobilized, it had presented, according to the author, over 2.5 million theatrical performances and film showings to audiences totaling over five hundred million. The statistics are impressive, but this book is likely to be of limited interest to US historians. It is written for a general audience, and a British general audience at that. There are no footnotes or endnotes. The author's sources seem to be primarily interviews with surviving ENSA members, as well as memoirs and biographies of participants.
The reader will learn something about ENSA's organization, its recruitment of entertainers, and its rivalries with competing organizations, as well as the personalities of its leading figures, particularly the autocratic and womanizing Dean. Much space is given over to descriptions of performances, from slapstick comedy to opera, classical ballet, and plays by Shakespeare, with performers ranging from unknown amateurs of little talent to the likes of Noel Coward, John Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier. The incidence of relatively low-quality entertainments gave rise to the somewhat overdrawn witticism that ENSA actually stood for "Every Night Something Awful." The names of many performers, even those well known in the British entertainment world, will be unfamiliar to most American readers. A few, however, advanced their careers through ENSA performances and became internationally prominent after the war. Two who became well known to American audiences were Peter Sellers and Terry Thomas. Readers will encounter the occasional humorous anecdote, such as the experience of a female vocalist who sang "Bless This House" to an audience of patients in a military hospital. The line "bless the folk who dwell within, keep them pure and free from sin" was received with uproarious laughter. She later learned that she had been performing in the hospital's VD ward (250)!
Beyond providing diversion to troops far from home and providing entertainers with the satisfaction of having contributed to the British war effort, ENSA, the author argues, exposed thousands of men from humble backgrounds to cultural experiences that they otherwise would not have had. Some came away from their military service with an appreciation for opera or theater that they would not have developed in peacetime. A social historian might be able to make something of this, but this book has more entertainment than academic value.
James J. Weingartner
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
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|Author:||Weingartner, James J.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2016|
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