Theatre yesterday and today



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Over the weekend, and on a whim, I pulled a play anthology off my bookshelf titled Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre, edited by John Gassner, once a noted critic and writer. This was the second in a series of eight volumes of plays chosen at his discretion, all produced between 1939 and 1945. At 774 pages, it includes the full texts of seventeen dramas and comedies, among them: Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie; Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner; William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life and Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday, to name just four of them.

Perusing the “Contents” page, the one that stood out for me was Tomorrow the World, the sole title of the seventeen I had never heard of, nor its authors, James Gow and Arnaud D’Usseau. After a bit of Googling, I discovered that not only was it a hit play, but it had even been turned into a motion picture a year later — and I’d never heard of that either! I was further taken aback, as it starred one of my favorite actors, Fredric March, in a role created on stage by another of my faves, Ralph Bellamy.*

Al Hirschfeld's depiction of the original Broadway cast of Tomorrow the World (1943),

with Shirley Booth and Ralph Bellamy on the left.

When Tomorrow the World opened on Broadway in 1943, it was at the height of World War II. Its plot could not have been more timely, as it told the story of a Nazi-trained twelve-year-old, brought over from Germany to live with an American family. The role of Emil Bruchner was played by thirteen-year-old Skip Homeier (then billed as Skippy), who went on to a long career as an adult in film and television, only just passing away in June at the age of eighty-six.

Skippy Homeier and Edith Angold in Tomorrow the World (1943).

Though Tomorrow the World is a play completely of its time, it has some not-too-surprising things to say about the world we live in today. I found it interesting that it ran fifteen months on Broadway between April of 1943 and July of 1944, with its drama played out smack in the middle of America’s four-year involvement in World War II. With the brown-shirted Hitler youth already familiar via newsreels, and from photographs in Life Magazine, setting a play around the arrival of a twelve-year-old German boy to a modest Midwest home had to have been compelling. Would his Nazi indoctrination make him impossible to convert? What mischief could he cause and how would it be dealt with, considering he is only a child? At times, the playwrights’ depiction of young Emil veers a little too close to the histrionics of Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed (anybody?). That being said, it's all set within a believable scenario.

Upon his arrival to the home of Professor Michael Frame (the boy's uncle by marriage), we are introduced to the characters in the play in an opening scene that is filled with more exposition that is necessary. Lines abound like: “The train will come in and we won’t be there, and he’ll get lost. After all, he’s only a child.” Or my favorite, when the sister of Professor Frame picks up the phone minutes into the play and says: “He can’t be reached. He’s working in the Bronson Foundation Laboratory at the south end of the campus—and there isn’t a telephone—and you can’t send a messenger, because when they go in they lock the door behind them!” (And if you don’t think that locked door doesn’t play a huge part later in Act Three, then you're not paying attention).

There is antisemitic language in the play, which is still shocking when read in 2017, but still important it be heard. Surely audiences back in the day needed to hear it as well, considering what was at stake with the annihilation of Jews throughout Europe. And when talk in the play turns to lies in the media, by way of propaganda, you would swear that the discussion is taking place today.

Even after Emil attempts murdering a ten-year-old girl by bashing her head in with a paperweight (I’m not kidding), the play is on the side of redemption for the boy. The final scene in the play where he breaks down and begins to get an understanding that it is possible he has been mislead, brainwashed even, the writers make it believable. Though undoubtedly a melodrama, I found myself caught up in the story, and was relieved it ended on a positive note, as I’m sure audiences were too. Perhaps if it hadn’t, and the message was that a monster is a monster, it might have been rejected and had a much shorter run.

I wasn't kidding when I said the play veered into melodrama.

Here's Fredric March trying to strangle Skippy Homeier in the 1944 film version.

There was hope that after this country elected Barak Obama President, not once, but twice, some of the issues we are currently debating would be glimpsed in the rear view mirror. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Plays like Tomorrow the World remind us that there was a time when fascism was a known enemy all Americans agreed on. Reading it this week left me a bit depressed (as if this week didn’t start off depressing enough with the Las Vegas shooting). And yet, due to the honesty it earned with its uplift at the finish, I continue to hope that Anne Frank’s optimism may still prove true: “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”


* Previous columns on Ralph Bellamy and Fredric March can be read here:

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