Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day on Broadway

For as long as drama has been around, the idea of war, and sometimes actual war, has been the subject of plays and musicals.  Often, the playwright's point of view is negative or anti-war; other times, the playwright seeks to glorify armed conflicts and raise the morale of a hurting nation.

Today, as we pause to reflect on those men and women lost or serving during our country's history of war around the world, I thought I might take a look at a few shows that depict some 20th Century conflicts.

World War I: War Horse

Even though this play depicts the Great War from the British perspective, it doesn't lessen the impact of the show on American audiences.  While it certainly brings up the question of duty, the idea of heroism, and the triumph of bravery, it seems pretty clear that the play is anti-war.  Nowhere is it more apparent than in the scenes where the direct impact of battle on innocent citizenry is depicted.  The terror of foreign invaders, literally in one's front yard is, vividly depicted.  The show also addresses the modernization of warfare, with vivid reenactments of trench warfare and the roll of tanks through the battlefields at the expense of men on foot and the titular war horses.  And one cannot dismiss the equal treatment the play gives to the German soldiers, who are as angry, spent and grieving as the British.  Everyone and no one are heroes in War Horse.

The valiant and brave are depicted in this show by the characters Joey and Topthorn (war horses), Billy Narracott, Albert Narracott and Frederich Muller.

Other plays that deal with WWI: Journey's End

World War II: South Pacific

This glorious musical depicts a wide range of people brought together by World War II, with a decidedly pro-American bent.  That is not to say that the show is pro-war; no one, living or dead, leaves this paradise unchanged.  But consider how soon after the war was over that the show made its debut, and you'll understand the pro-American sentiment.  This show gives it to us from all angles: the common enlisted men, trying to keep some semblance of normalcy in the midst of life and death chaos; the military leadership, who at the brink of a possible turning point are forced to make very difficult and life-changing decisions; the war hero, fed up with war, who in one last burst of duty loses his life; and in a rare case, the show depicts women at war, the nurses who must balance duty with the unspoken need for romance, mothering and friendship in a man's world.

Among those veterans depicted: Ensign Nellie Forbush, Lieutenant Joseph Cable, Seabee Luther Billis.

Other shows that deal with WWII: On the Town, Biloxi Blues, Bent, The Diary of Anne Frank, The People in the Picture

Vietnam: Miss Saigon

This mega-musical is decidedly anti-American and, ultimately, anti-war.  It brutally - and realistically - depicts the seedier side of the American participation in this conflict, with soldiers using and abusing young Vietnamese girls forced into a life of poverty.  The commercialization/Americanization of the war really gets some attention with The Engineer doing his best businessman routine to capitalize on the conflict and make his fortune before the world around him collapses, and later tries to escape to the very place he mocks in "The American Dream."  Then, too, is the cut-your-losses-and-run recreation of the Americans leaving the embassy and the war torn nation altogether.  The consequences of war are also brought to bear with "Bui Doi," the thousands of children fathered by American soldiers and left behind.  By giving it to us from all sides, the creators of the show certainly are making a statement about war,

Among those veterans depicted are American soldiers John and Chris.

Another show that depicts the Vietnam Conflict: Hair

Whether one is pro or anti war, one cannot escape the fact that eventually all armed conflicts become ingrained in the culture of our society.  And as long as there is war and theatre, the two will forever be entwined.

For my grandfather who served in the Pacific during World War II, and my uncle who served in Vietnam.
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