DC at Night

DC at Night

Saturday, August 18, 2012

How World War I Birthed Monty Python

This painting captures some of the the horror of WWI
For Lowell Fry, the society-shattering and world-altering impacts of World War I are often undervalued, perhaps because they aren't fully understood. "The Civil War defined us as a nation and then there is World War II. World War I seems to be a blip in between," Fry says.

But Fry, who is a Park Ranger at the National Mall, is attempting to change that with a walking lecture he regularly delivers provocatively entitled How World War I Birthed Monty Python.

"World War I was a game-changer if there ever was one," Fry told a small, but interested group he was leading on a recent warm summer evening.  "The world had never had anything like it before. It was a war that boggled the mind. It seemed to change everything that people thought would never change"

First and foremost, there was the incredible death totals from the war, which lasted from 1914 to 1918.  The final tally showed more than 8 million soldiers had died and 21 million more were injured, some of them so gruesomely that they had to wear masks for the rest of their lives.

"If you were to build a monument for the dead like the Vietnam War wall it would stretch for 25 miles, half-way to Baltimore," Fry said.

The kill totals were multiplied by the 1st widespread use of modern weaponry such as machine guns, tanks, planes, and, most terrifying of all, deadly poison gas. The large cannons used were so powerful that not only the soldiers bogged down in the disease and vermin-filled trenches could hear them, but citizens in far away London and Paris could, too.

While the actual event that triggered the war, which America finally entered in 1917, was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, conditions for the conflict had been developing for decades. Countries like Britain, France, and most of all Germany were looking to increase the prestige of their empires. "Germany really wanted their place in the sun," Fry said. Throughout Europe, a special breed of nationalism had developed, with each country believing it was superior to its enemies. At the same time, because of restrictions of royalty, many of the crowned heads were related as cousins, leading to simmering in-family rivalries. The ordered, science-and- progress-will-make-us-better Victorian world of the late 19th and early 20th world was rapidly changing. No event captured that change better than the debut of Ivan Stravinsky's musical ballet piece "The Rite of Spring" in 1913, which so shocked audiences that it provoked rioting in the streets.

By the end of the war, the change was complete. The old order was gone. While armies had initially marched off singing cheery anthems to patriotic fervor, those who made it back returned with a belief that they had experienced collective madness and the worst of humanity.  "It was the slaughter of the old world," Fry said.

At first, America, heeding George Washington's words to avoid foreign entanglements, stayed out of the conflict that was devastating Europe. Finally, after a German sub sank the Lusitania  and the German government pledged support to Mexico if it would attack the United States, America entered the war and, a little more than 1 year later, the Germans and their allies surrendered. "Probably, the French and British would have lost if we didn't enter," Fry said. "We came out of the war as the greatest power in the world."

Americans waged the war under the slogan "the war to end all wars" but the results of the war-ending Treaty of Versailles sewed the seeds of World War II, much of the strife of the later 20th Century, and even some of today's conflicts, Fry contended. He cited France's refusals to let Vietnam have a separate country, the Near East where conflicting promises were given to both Israelis and Arabs, special considerations given to Japan that forced China toward the Soviet Union, and dispositions toward Kurds and Muslims in the Middle East.

"It was said at the time that it was harder to wage peace than to wage war and we found that to be true," Fry said. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Eric Idle, John Cleese, and the rest of the Pythons
OK. So much for a brief accounting of World War I. But where does Monty Python, that wildly wacky, popular group from England whose influence on comedy has been compared to the Beatles' influence on music, come into the picture? At the end of World War I, the world's industrialized population, especially its young, were left alienated. Gone was the binding staple of love of God, glory, and country. "It (WWI) blew up not just the men, but the mores of the times," Fry said. "The individual was now the center. People were asking such questions as what is truth? And the answer was, we don't know."  Fry suggested witnessing the fullness of the change this way. "At the beginning of the war the troops left singing patriotic songs and, at the end, the men in the trenches were singing 'we're here because we're here because we're here," he said. Meaning was gone. The new nihilistic, meaninglessness-of-life ideas were expressed in art as Dadaism. And in comedy, the time was right for the groundwork that would eventually lead to the absurdist, boundary-pushing work of the Pythons, Fry said.

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