Photograph of prisoners of war partaking in a entertainment revue show at Stalag XXIA camp

Production date
1939-1945
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Prisoners of war, the cast of camp entertainment - a photograph taken at Stalag XXIA in Schildberg, Poland sometime between September 1939 and March 1943.

Wartime incarceration was a harrowing experience for many of the soldiers that were apprehended and held as prisoners of war during the Second World War. It has been estimated that 35 million Allied combatants were detained and confined during the conflict, and men often had to find ways to cope through long years of imprisonment. Life behind barbed wire offered little amusement to prisoners of war who could spend years in captivity. In order to maintain camp morale, entertainment became a necessity in the daily lives of POWs. Theatre was one of the few leisurely activities that imprisoned soldiers enjoyed in their limited free time, and men were able to perform in front of large audiences of campmates to break up their monotonous routines. The perilous nature of camp life made brief respites such as camp theatre performances so vitally important to these men, as they were able to transport themselves away from their difficult lives for small periods of time and into a world outside of imprisonment.

Female impersonation was a large part of POW theatre; it had a long tradition in popular culture and military tradition prior to the Second World War, but the POW theatre shows differed from standard custom. For one, it was a great way to provide the men with a small escape from their tedious schedules. Costume design was an important part of the process of transformation for the men who were impersonating women. Not only were they able to keep themselves busy by spending their time carefully creating their dresses, but the clothing provided one of the pivotal elements of the transition from a masculine to feminine identity on stage.

The absence of women was the ‘subject of quite a lot of conversation’ according to ex-POW Eric Foinette. Men would often shave their bodies and were granted permission to grow their hair long. There was also the careful process of having their make-up applied to transform their masculine features. In an all-male environment, the men were craving female companionship, and this was the only socially acceptable way that they could transcend the gender barrier to meet that need. It certainly worked for some, Foinette stating that ‘they were so marvellous that you really could believe that they were women’, which led to ‘first class’ shows for the audience.

The drawing point to this photograph for me was the sheer level of delight that can be seen on the faces of the POWs involved in the show, despite their perilous situation in the Stalags.

Audio recording by Jake Gill (Volunteer), Manchester.
Collection Type
Archives
Level of Current Record
item
Catalogue Number
1655/IN1819

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