THE GOOD WAR
Prologue Theatre Productions
at the First Unitarian Church
Since Prologue’s 1988 stage adaptation of Studs Terkel’s The Good War, the U.S. has been involved in a couple of popular little military excursions: the invasion of Panama and, of course, Desert Storm. But even though Terkel’s premise is that World War II was the last of America’s popular wars, Prologue’s remounting of its hit hasn’t been diminished by recent events. If anything, it’s been eerily enhanced.
“Everybody was patriotic and clean,” one of the women Terkel interviewed for his book says about wartime in the 1940s. “It was the last time Americans were seen as liberators. And there was something warming about that.”
Now flash to recent news footage: the endless yellow ribbons, the videos of Panamanians cheering the invading U.S. Army, the well-traveled photo of the Kuwaiti woman who named her recently born son after George Bush.
In the first half of Michael Hildebrand and Anita Greenberg’s adaptation of Terkel’s book, we see–with the benefit of recent memories–how patriotism feeds the bloodshed. Pop songs celebrate military might. Ordinary soldiers going off to war become romantic objects. Dissent is perceived as intolerant and weak. In Hildebrand and Greenberg’s The Good War, this is underscored through period songs: “The Army Made a Man out of Me,” “As Time Goes By,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” and many others.
In between these songs are excerpts from Terkel’s book. A young gay man explains why he enlisted in the Marines, the toughest of all the military branches. Another soldier talks about obeying orders. A young woman remembers the many young GIs her mother invited to dinner before they were shipped off. A young factory worker, assigned to painting missile noses red, says she never considered that what they made actually killed people.
“We started out with enthusiasm, but as the war dragged on we got sick of the bloodshed and killing,” another Rosie the Riveter says. “We got cynical.”
By juxtaposing Terkel’s stories of innocence and doubt with the joyful songs of the day, Hildebrand and Greenberg explore the gap between wartime propaganda and reality. War has mass appeal. Those who had questions about the war–and they were few–buried them, ashamed.
The second half of The Good War is darker, showing the emotions filtered through years of military conflict. Here black American soldiers consider the irony of liberating Jews from the Nazis while they themselves suffer under second-class citizenship. Japanese Americans talk about our concentration camps. The women who went to work while the men were at war lament the loss of their jobs, and their independence. Soldiers liberating Buchenwald and other camps are shocked by the cruelty humans can inflict on one another.
There are parallels here with recent history: The ironies of American women soldiers working shoulder-to- shoulder with their male counterparts to safeguard the borders of Saudi Arabia, a country that does not allow women to so much as drive. A mostly poor, minority American army coming to the rescue of a millionaire sheik and his golden toilets. American military planes bombing Iraq back to the Stone Age, killing as many as 200,000, while on U.S. television generals boast about the war’s limited loss of life.
When the war ends in The Good War, some GIs are happy for their experience, and their benefits. “I wouldn’t have been able to go to college without the GI Bill,” one veteran says.
But others come back spiritually wretched. A woman bemoans the change in her husband, from good ol’ joe to alcoholic. A Buchenwald survivor wonders what she’ll do with the evil she’s discovered in her own heart. A retired admiral explains how this good war has given men his age the notion they can have anything they want, anytime.
Post-Panama, post-Desert Storm, we are just now beginning to talk about the results of these wars. The New York Times reports that drug traffic and drug-related violence is up in Central America, not down, since the arrest of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Panama City is still covered with tents filled with families displaced by the invasion. Saddam Hussein is not only alive, but still able to threaten his people. The Kurds are forever traumatized. Gasoline prices remain high. American-backed Kuwaiti authorities turn a blind eye to abuses against native- born Palestinians.
The current Prologue production, which features three cast members from the 1988 version, is quintessential ensemble work. The acting is smooth, the voices are solid. The choreography, while not very innovative, is joyfully and professionally executed.
What The Good War–the book and the play–does is look beyond illusion to the real consequences of war. Even though Hildebrand and Greenberg’s adaptation ends with an uncomfortable, much too sentimental rendition of “God Bless America,” this is a critical, sobering work. It’s also uncannily timely.