Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Back to the Forties

As I watched the New Rep's production of the WWII-era drama Mister Roberts last night (review to follow), I wondered why, exactly, we seem to be in a slight resurgence of 40's nostalgia. Right now the Stoneham Theatre has actually programmed The Good War, "a musical collage of World War II" against Roberts (Henry Fonda's publicity for the film, at left), which was itself something of a nostalgic (if poignant) look back at the war when it opened in 1948. Later in its season (which has been dubbed "American Stories") the Huntington will be mounting Arthur Miller's 1947 drama All My Sons, which confronts the aftermath of moral failure during WWII. And I don't think it's a stretch to point out that even Quentin Tarantino has gotten into the game by rewriting the history of "the good war" in the repellent Inglourious Basterds.

Of course it's hard to ignore the fact that we've basically been at war in the Middle East now for over six years (longer than World War II). It's also worth noting that while Inglourious Basterds has been doing boffo at the box office, movies like The Hurt Locker, which is set during our current Middle East conflict, have struggled to find a popular audience.

So one wonders precisely what kind of projection is actually going on down at the moviehouse - or on our local stages. Perhaps it's natural that, given the questionable ethics of our current conflicts, we should turn to "the good war" for our latest round of war stories. But it's worth wondering when (or if) our culture will actually begin to engage with the present day.


  1. Perhaps the media at large,( cable news, talk radio and mainstream websites,) have so expertly internalized the mechanics of storytelling that they have hijacked the preemption of narrative that the theatre, and entertainments still had in the Forties?

    After countless Frontline documentaries, Anderson Cooper Special Reports, and even New England Cable News documentaries, audiences may feel that they have already seen and digested it all with regards to the current conflicts.

    As you mention, Mister Roberts and All My Sons were reflective pieces rather than visceral experiences of combat. Theatre has always had a tough time with combat and its psychology. I am convinced cinema has the advantage here.

    Most of the best plays set around war push the action one step removed, or have the slaughter to side. Streamers would be an example. But even most of Observe the Sons of Ulster takes place in the barracks or on leave. In Journey's End, the fight rages outside.

    The stage version of The Caine Mutiny, expelled the first two thirds of the novel and concentrates itself on the trial of Captain Queeg.

    Of course, the public itself has become distanced from armed conflict As I said when reflecting on the lukewarm critical reception to the Huntington production of Streamers, most of the public today never has to even consider serving in the military as a possibility.

    In the Globe pre-show piece for Mister Roberts one of the actors mentions how he considered signing up for the military after 9/11. He didn't.

    The difference is that after Pearl Harbor, many DID. During Vietnam, even if you weren't drafted yet, there was a possibility.

    In All My Sons, all the sons have been in combat.

    Maybe we are looking to connect to a time when we "all in it together." But if true, it brings up more disturbing questions.

    Theatre may learn something from looking at these works though.

  2. Wow, it's so weird to get an intelligent, civil comment these days, I don't know quite what to say. Thanks, Art!

  3. Btw, I apologize for not mentioning you and "the guys" who did such yeoman duty in Superheroines. You were a scream! And I bet those spoiled superheroines are just backstage smoking and doing their nails while you guys are out there tearing off one costume and throwing on another. It's just not fair!