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The Theatre of War

Marius Kwint reveals long-standing connections between the military and thespian worlds.

It is often assumed that the strangely theatrical quality of public life in general, and of warfare in particular, is peculiar to our media-saturated post-modernity. However, a strong relationship between military affairs and the more theatrical aspects of the arts – including the so-called ‘visual’ arts – is long established in European culture, as it probably is in many others. And not merely in the generalised sense of armies displaying their lethal powers through parades, snappy uniforms and in the oft-quoted ‘terrible beauty’ of war itself. The arts have long been valued for their ability to impose distinct and graphic lines on the fog of actual battle, and give a commemorative human shape to metaphysical notions such as nation, morality, destiny and history.

Vivid examples include Trajan’s Column in Rome (115 AD) and the Bayeux Tapestry (1067-70) in Normandy, respectively celebrating the Roman conquest of the Dacians (modern Romania) and the Norman conquest of the Anglo-Saxons. The latter’s figure of King Harold pinioned by an arrow through the eye has been more influential in the historical imagination of generations of British school children than all the patient researches of scholars.

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