Last week, the Germantown Friends School drama department presented London’s hit play “Versailles,” a 2014 drama by Welsh playwright Peter Gill that explores how one middle-class family deals with the aftermath of World War I and the signing of the ill-fated Treaty of Versailles.
Drama department head Lisa Burns presented the production as an “open classroom” opportunity for the school and invited teachers across disciplines to investigate the themes introduced in the play.
GFS students saw the play on their spring 2014 drama trip to London and were inspired to perform it in the United States and explore World War I in an interdisciplinary way throughout the school.
“We sought to commemorate the anniversary of the Great War, which began 100 years ago in August of 1914 and ended on Nov. 11, 1918, claiming five long years and 15 million lives,” said senior Noah Kulak.
“The idea behind the open classroom discussion was to create a web in the back of our student’s minds – a tapestry for them to consider this time period from the perspective of the arts, music, literature, poetry, history and political theory, as well as drama,” Burns explained.
The faculty worked collaboratively to examine World War I from various academic, social, ideological and artistic perspectives.
The teachers at GFS, Kulak said, commemorated the day by teaching “how [the war and] its horrors shaped poetry, art, philosophy and thought … and how for the first time, humanitarianism, industry, idealism and genocide mingled on the bloody battle fields of the world.”
The drama department helped the school organize a weeklong symposium that included speakers and screenings of the films “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” the PBS documentary “The Great War” and “Blood and Oil: The Middle East WWI.” The events culminated in an extended-assembly presentation of the play during the school day, and public performances on Nov. 14 and 15 in GFS’s Loeb Performing Arts Center.
On Tuesday, Nov. 11, at 11:11 a.m., GFS students and faculty gathered in the Main Building to memorialize Veterans Day, Remembrance Day, Armistice Day and the anniversary of the official ending of World War I with the signing of this Treaty of Versailles. The students distributed red poppies and read selections from the works of the great World War I poets. The commemoration ended with a two-minute moment of silence, broken by the ringing of bells.
“The week created a forum for examining the Quaker peace testimony on many levels,” said Interim Head of Upper School Michael Williamson. It offered an opportunity for deep examination of the themes in Versailles, including, “history, politics, globalization, human relationships and sexuality, and class difference.”
“World War I is so important to many of the conflicts that we see around the world today,” Burns concluded. “Here, at a Quaker school, we are in a unique position to delve deeply into our reading, thinking, studying and reflecting about war.”