Tuesday, June 29, 2004


Lest you think that I like every old Broadway play or musical, I really can't find anything good to say about Tomorrow the World, by James Gow and Arnaud d'Usseau, even though I liked it well enough when I first read it many years ago. This play opened in 1943 and ran 500 performances (qualifying it as a substantial success), followed by a movie version which I haven't seen. The authors were two Hollywood screenwriters who had teamed up to conquer Broadway, and the cast was headed by Ralph Bellamy, who had also fled unsatisfying movie jobs and come to New York, where he would be a leading dramatic actor for many years.

Tomorrow the World is an ultra-topical play, a product of a time when it didn't take years to get a movie or play "greenlit," and when plays and movies could therefore deal with current issues while they were still current. The issue in Tomorrow the World is: when we win the war (remember, this was after Stalingrad), what do we do with the Germans? Can Germans who supported Hitler be reconciled to democratic values? Do they even deserve that chance? And so on. These issues are dealt with in Broadway's standard format: one set, a living room; three acts, each in one uninterrupted scene; ten characters. The lead character is Michael Frame, a scientist at a midwestern university who seems to be working on some kind of top-secret government project. Michael is a liberal, a freethinker (raises his daughter "as though she were a grown-up person"), and, as a widower, is about to marry a freethinking Jewish woman named Leona (Shirley Booth) who is "principal of the Experimental School." After the death of his old philosopher buddy and brother-in-law Karl Bruckner, the play's offstage version of the standard Victim of Fascism character, Michael brings over Karl's orphaned son, Emil, to stay with him. Alas, Emil turns out to be a Nazi, and not just your standard garden-variety Nazi, but a brainwashed robot Nazi who looks, talks and acts like an extra for the crowd scenes in Triumph of the Will:

You drank beer and read philosophy with my father. It was that which gave Germany trouble. Too many people drank beer and read philosophy. We Germans were soft. We forgot our great destiny. Then Der Fuhrer came. He gave us back our courage. With Der Fuhrer to show us the way, it is our position to conquer the world. You will find out that I speak the truth.

Please keep in mind that the above lines are supposed to be spoken by a twelve-year old boy (played by an actor named "Skippy" Homeier). Anyway, Emil doesn't respond well to Michael's sensitive liberal approach to child-rearing and deprogramming. He tries to stir up trouble in the house by exploiting the jealousy Michael's sister Jessie (Dorothy Sands) feels about his impending marriage. When a dog is barking all night, Emil kills it. And when he fears that Michael's daughter Pat might give away his plans to spy on Michael's top-secret project, he bashes her over the head with a brass book-end. This, you'll be surprised to hear, makes Michael consider sending Emil away. But Michael, finally abandoning his progressive spare-the-rod policy, tries to strangle Emil. After this display breaks him down, they finally find "the chink in his Nazi armor" -- the fact that, even though he tried to kill Pat, he actually likes her -- and, after getting him to break down in tears and question Nazi doctrine, they agree to let him stay in the house and get on with the process of deprogramming. Personally, I think even the most freethinking college professor might have second thoughts about letting his daughter share a house with a twelve-year-old boy who tried to kill her. But Pat still thinks Emil is okay, even though "You bopped me on the bean," so everything's fine. Oh, did I mention that the college janitor, a German-American, turns out to be a Nazi spy?

Somewhere within this mishmash of hysteria and really bad parenting are some interesting issues: the question of what kind of people we're fighting, of whether "de-Nazification" is possible ("If you and I can't turn one little boy into a human being, then God help the world when this war is won, and we have to deal with twelve million of them!"). And the play presents one of the last gasps of the progressivism of '30s and early '40s Broadway, only to dismiss it as inadequate: Michael's humanistic liberal principles and progressive child-rearing techniques are far less useful than giving Emil a really good thrashing. This was in fact a common theme of plays and movies during WWII: when you're fighting the Nazis, nice guys finish last. (See the movie The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp for an infinitely better treatment of this theme.) Progressive Broadway plays were few and far between in the period after WWII, and this is often attributed to the Red Scare; that's true to a certain extent, but it's also true that the experience of WWII had made it much harder to accept a play where all the evil in the world is blamed on greedy capitalists (The Little Foxes) or insufficiently fun-loving people (You Can't Take it With You). Tomorrow the World may be a ridiculous portrayal of the Nazi evil, but like a lot of Broadway plays at the time, it at least acknowledges the existence of a more difficult-to-solve evil than that of Mister Mister or Regina Giddens -- and once Broadway had gone in that direction, it couldn't go back.

In summary: don't read Tomorrow the World unless you have the appropriate medication handy. But if you're looking for a cultural artifact from Wartime Broadway, you might want to skim through it. It's in Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre, second series (1939-1945), edited by John Gassner. As you can tell, the definition of "Best" seems to be a very loose one.

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