The Dramatic Art of Uncle Sam: The Government, Drama, and World War II

By Wertheim, Albert | American Drama, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Dramatic Art of Uncle Sam: The Government, Drama, and World War II


Wertheim, Albert, American Drama


On 14 June 1943, the reigning glitterati of the day--Eleanor Roosevelt, Mayor LaGuardia, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor--were at the 46'h Street Theatre in New York to witness the Broadway Production of five one-act plays written and enacted by enlisted men. The performance, called The Army Play by Play, was the remarkable product of the U.S. Army and the genius of famed producer John Golden. In his introduction to published version of the plays, Golden explains how, working with the Army Special Service Staff, he created the John Golden-Second Service Command One-Act Prize Play Contest, which garnered 115 original playscripts from American soldiers at Army camps around the nation (x-xii). (1) A selection committee that included Elmer Rice and Russei Crouse chose the five best scripts. Golden asserted that staging the plays "became my patriotic duty" (xii-xiii). The five scripts chosen were mounted and presented on Broadway to raise funds for the Soldiers and Sailors Club. The opening performance earned $100,000, and the plays were subsequently staged for President Roosevelt at Hyde Park. They officially opened on 2 August 1943 at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York, where they ran for 40 performances; and later were produced at theatres and army bases around the country.

One wonders what sort of instructions Crouse, Rice, and the others on the selection panel might have given about the desired criteria for choosing scripts. One also wonders about the 110 scripts not chosen. Their whereabouts are not known; and it would be illuminating to know what issues they raised. But the five surviving and published scripts that comprise The Army Play by Play were written and performed, for the most part, by first time playwrights and by inexperienced, non-professional actors all drawn from the military. The five one-acters of The Army Play by Play thus provide a unique glimpse of wartime military life and the war effort as it is seen and dramatized by servicemen. In part, Golden's enthusiastic and somewhat magniloquent praise is apt. He writes:

   The plays that you are about to read are, in a sense,
   folk-plays, for they express with disarming simplicity,
   the sentiments, the expressions spoken, listened to
   and lived through by our boys in the service--gleaned
   from their experiences as characters participating
   in the greatest drama the world has ever
   known. And so it is that these "little plays," born of
   this great Drama, tell the story, not of death, but of
   living calmly, alongside death, and laughing at it.
   (xiii).

What is interesting about the five plays are the topics they cover and those they do not. Did the selection committee favor particular issues? Is there a reason the atrocities being committed in Europe and Asia were barely mentioned or that the cultural diversity among the troops arises often? We are not likely to know the answers to these questions. It is important to recognize that what we do have in The Army Play by Play is a government initiative to use drama in shaping both civilian and troop attitudes toward World War II and American involvement in that war. It is also important as well to value The Army Play by Play as five dramatic artifacts that register in fairly undiluted ways the feelings, issues, and points of view of not untalented enlisted men who were encouraged by the military to express themselves through playwriting and whose plays were subsequently performed by ordinary soldiers rather than professional actors. Filled as they are with personal and patriotic feelings of American soldiers, the plays were highly effective vehicles for boosting the morale of both military and civilian audiences because performances would seem to present truth unvarnished by any professional training or prior agendas by either playwrights or performers.

Three of the five plays contained in The Army Play by Play center on barracks life. Where E'er We Go by Pfc.

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