Friday, April 17, 2015

Mare Island and Back

Arthur Miller (1915–2005)
Published for the first time in Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1987–2004,
with Stage and Radio Plays of the 1930s & 40s


In 1942, the year he turned twenty-seven, Arthur Miller was still a struggling author, and he began working the night shift at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The next year, however, he quit his job when he was hired to write The Story of G.I. Joe, a film adaptation of Ernie Pyle’s Here Is Your War. For the film he interviewed soldiers at army training camps but was fired before the script was completed. Miller would use the material for a book of reportage, Situation Normal . . . , published in 1944 to mixed reviews and tepid sales, and his first Broadway production, The Man Who Had All the Luck, premiered that same year to scathing notices and closed after four days.

To help pay the bills during the war years, Miller also wrote radio plays. His main gig was writing for the
Cavalcade of America, a series of patriotic dramas depicting events and persons in American history. Later, from June 1944 to July 1945, he wrote plays for the CBS program The Doctor Fights, which dramatized stories of real-life physicians serving in the military. Although Miller later regarded most of these scripts as mere contract work, his biographer, Christopher Bigsby, argues that some of them “remain impressive” and that the requirements of radio drama taught him “something about plot, language, and character.” As Miller explained in a 1966 Paris Review interview:
We had twenty-eight and a half minutes to tell a whole story in a radio play, and you had to concentrate on the words because you couldn't see anything. You were playing in a dark closet, in fact. So the economy of words in a good radio play was everything. It drove you more and more to realize what the power of a good sentence was, and the right phrase could save you a page you would otherwise be wasting.
When working on each program Miller often ran up against various constraints; the scripts were expected to be uncontroversial and patriotic, and advertisers were nervous about overt political messaging or gloomy representations. But, as Bigsby notes, when Miller worked on the The Doctor Fights episodes, he “was determined that the true story of wartime injuries and their treatment be told.” He spent several days at Valley Forge General Hospital to understand better the realities facing doctors and patients. Miller told Bigsby:
[The producers] didn’t want it that way. It was dangerous. It would put people off the military. But I felt it was better to tell people the truth. . . . It was very moving for me. They were all very young, younger than I was, and marred for life. You couldn’t turn your back on them and I just felt I owed it to them. I was moved terribly by the whole experience, as remote as I was from it. I wasn’t flying over Europe getting shot at.
One of Miller’s last scripts written for The Doctor Fights relates the story of three soldiers who have lost limbs in combat and are recovering at Mare Island Naval Hospital, northeast of San Francisco. The episode’s doctor is Captain Henry H. Kessler, director of the hospital’s rehabilitation division, who was played in the original production by Robert Montgomery. (Kessler himself was interviewed at the end of the program.) “Mare Island and Back” is one of six radio plays selected by Tony Kushner and published for the first time in the new Library of America collection, Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1987–2004, with Stage and Radio Plays of the 1930s & 40s, and it is presented here in full for Story of the Week readers.
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KESSLER: Hear this! You blessed ones, you lucky ones sitting in your bedrooms with ten pink toenails to clip, and you in your kitchens opening a beer bottle with two living hands, hear this. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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