PEI

Soldiers of Song brings back songs and humour of the First World War

A show of the songs, dances and jokes as performed by soldiers on the front lines of the First World War is hitting the Island.

The play will be performed at the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside on Tuesday

Soldiers of Song tells the story of Canadian soldiers who made up the Dumbells. (Submitted/Harbourfront Theatre)

A show of the songs, dances and jokes as performed by soldiers on the front lines of the First World War is hitting the Island.

Soldiers of Song, written and directed by two-time Juno Award-nominee Jason Wilson, hits the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside, P.E.I. Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

Certainly the Dumbells weren't the only ones, but they were one of the better ones that pre-dated the likes of Monty Python, Saturday Night Live or Kids in the Hall.- Jason Wilson

The show tells the true story of the Dumbells, a group of Canadian soldiers who dedicated their efforts in the First World War to singing, dancing and joking around to boost morale.

"One guy would sing a song, another guy would tell a joke or story, and another guy would be a musician. Even another guy would be a female impersonator," Wilson said.

"You had all these different kinds of roles for these concert parties that were put on right on the front lines ... and put on by soldiers themselves."

A concert party

The format of the concert party was incredibly popular at the time, Wilson said. After the war, the group would perform on Broadway and embarked on 12 coast-to-coast tours.

The show itself will tell the story of the Dumbells alongside recreations of their performances, with a live score.

A humour that came out of unbelievable tragedy and making light of it, trying to survive something like that.- Jason Wilson

Wilson said the group's dark comedy and ensemble-style cast is influential to this day.

"I feel you can draw a real line from the Dumbells right through to current black comedy," he said. 

"Certainly the Dumbells weren't the only ones, but they were one of the better ones that pre-dated the likes of Monty Python, Saturday Night Live or Kids in the Hall."

The inspiration

Wilson said the play was inspired by his master's thesis.

Here was this Canadian story, of Canadian soldiers.- Jason Wilson

After completing his bachelor of arts degree, he pored over archival footage of interviews with war veterans, knowing he wanted to focus on the First World War.

He stumbled across a two-hour interview with an original member of the Dumbells and was fascinated.

"Here was this Canadian story, of Canadian soldiers."

Part of the appeal, he said, is to watch the comedy that came from hardship.

"That's where that germinated, was in the First World War," he said. "A humour that came out of unbelievable tragedy and making light of it, trying to survive something like that."

With files from Mainstreet P.E.I.

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