This is a three part series.
To read Part 1 of this series, which discusses the recent production of The Picture of Dorian Gray that was performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, please go to Novel Entertainments – Part 1.
To read Part 2 of this series, which discusses the recent productions Creation (Pictures for Dorian Gray) by the Gob Squad, The Woman in Black at the The Pasadena Playhouse, and The Turn of the Screw, by noted playwright-screenwriter Jeffry Hatcher, please visit Novel Entertainments – Part 2.
Intriguingly, The Actors’ Gang has brought us a new production of Johnny Got His Gun, the 1938 award-winning anti-war novel from legendary screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo – Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Roman Holiday (1953), Spartacus (1960), and Exodus (also 1960). Trumbo directed his own film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun in 1971, and has himself become widely known through the recent biopic starring Bryan Cranston (2016).
The novel is an excruciating tragedy, a dark, anti-war satire about a patriotic young American in WW1 (it was published two days after the declaration of war in Europe, more than two years before the United States joined World War II). It’s the story of Joe Bonham, a duty-bound volunteer, who enters the war to the rousing hoopla of “Over There” which repeats and repeats the Civil War rallying cry:
“Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.
Johnny, show the Hun, you’re a son-of-a-gun.
Hoist the flag and let her fly
Yankee Doodle, do or die.
Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.
Yankee to the ranks from the towns and the tanks
Make your Mother proud of you
And the old red-white-and-blue.
Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun…”
“Johnny get your gun” became a slogan encouraging enlistment in the army in 1917 as American entered the War to End all War. Most recently the lyric was used by the rock band Ladyjack, as an ironic protest. But Trumbo’s past tense use of the cry says it all: Johnny got his gun and see what that got him?
Joe – the “Johnny” who got his gun in the novel was, by a horrific artillery shell attack, rendered blind, deaf, and mute, even losing his arms or legs. In the book, trapped in what’s left of his now limbless body, unable to communicate with the world around him, he recalls his earlier life and attempts to overcome the tremendous obstacles that stand between him and contact with the rest of humanity. After learning he can pound out Morse code with his head against the bed rail, the outer world’s indifference to his consciousness forces him, in desperation to find a way out, to end his life.
Trumbo’s film version succeeds because his adaptation lets us see and hear the doctors and nurses, so we understand that they’re only keeping Joe alive to study the effects of such mutilation on a mangled human body. The doctors are convinced he’s a vegetable, unable to feel pain, without memory or hope. Trumbo’s elegant, heart-wrenching narrative, puts the lie to that medical diagnosis. It presents the reality of Joe’s situation in stark black and white and his memories in color.
The Actors’ Gang production, directed by artistic director, Tim Robbins, from an adaptation by Brandley Rand Smith, is in effect a solo performance, with eight actors functioning like a Greek chorus. They echo words and voices in Joe’s mind’s ear. They move choreographically, sometimes in military formations, sometimes as leaves blown on the wind, generally as remembered characters, but sometimes as mere impulses in Joe’s memories. But unlike the novel, The Gang’s script/production is really narrative drama brought to life as agitprop theater. It mimics rather than dramatizes – at least until that magic moment when a nurse with her finger spells out “Merry Christmas” on Joe’s chest. Suddenly, he has real communication, his first since his war wounds rendered him what was then insensitively called “a basket case,” and the script springs to life, beginning to achieve what the novel does so profoundly – let us experience the horror of war.
What is ultimately so devastating in the book and the film is the continued indifference to Joe’s inner needs and the service to which the world around Joe puts what’s left of his body – his life, even when the nurse and a soldier discover his ability to communicate. They deny his own best interest with the same arrogance as the politicians and general who sent him into their useless war.
That the Actors’ Gang, with all reverent homage to Trumbo’s novelistic efforts, fails so completely as a stage work, is unfortunately an opportunity missed. What is lost in the Brechtian approach Robbins uses in staging the piece is the real drama. When Jow, four to five years into his post-War experience is finally able to communicate with the outside world, he is thwarted at every turn. Using his Morse code technique, he tells his caregiver he wants to be displayed around the nation as an emblem of the reality of war. “It’s against army policy” is the excuse, drawn on his limbless, torso. But in the Gang’s production, we never really grasp the outside world’s take on Joe. Where the Dorian production gives us mostly exterior, this Johnny locks us into the interior. That the essentially human tragedy of the novel is lost in the staged political message is a dramatic miscalculation!
Last but certainly not least, Kenneth Ludwig’s adaptation of Murder On The Orient Express at the La Mirada Theatre. It’s based on that most famous of Agatha Christie’s novels (whose play, The Mousetrap, is the only show in London that’s been running longer than The Woman In Black (since 1952, 65 years). The Hercule Poirot mystery was first published as a novel in 1934 (originally, in the US, as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post under the title Murder in the Calais Coach). The story, (one of 33 in which Hercule Poirot is a character) was inspired by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case of 1932 – at the time considered “the biggest story since the Resurrection.”
On his way from Istanbul to London on the swanky Express in the Calais Coach and its adjoining dining car, an American gangster is found murdered in his locked compartment with nine telltale knife wounds and a broken watch. As Poirot, at the begging of the train’s general manager, sets out to identify the killer, the train gets stuck in an avalanche of snow.
So he does what the detectives in Agatha Christie novels always do – interview everyone with even the slightest access to the dead man, comparing everyone’s statement for inconsistencies, oddities, and lies. He follows the clues, looking for a motive. He reconsiders the clues again and again, with an open mind, and fearless in the face of truth. The script and the novel follow the tried and true Christie formula.
But perhaps unique in Christie’s work is the unexpected drama of Poirot agonizing over a criminal dilemma. That he comes down on the side of the angels is, perhaps, a tragedy of ethics? Certainly, it shatters his devotion to legal absolutism, and after more than two dozen novels, it forces him to face his so easy convictions, painfully reducing his certainty about his role in life. Welcome to humanity, Hercule! The recent TV adaptation (with David Suchet) and the two films versions (one with Albert Finney – the most recent with, and by, Kenneth Brannagh) emphasize this internal issue.
The tone of the Ludwig’s adaptation used in the La Mirada production is lighter, playing the story for its humor and theatricality, not for the emotional reality. It’s a matter of style. Playwright, Kenneth Ludwig, is a popular American stage-crafter (Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy for You, Moon Over Buffalo, and many others), with a string of awards and successes. He created this script for a 2017 presentation at The Old Globe (reportedly, at the request of the Agatha Christie estate). It is both efficient in the telling and entertaining in performance. This Poirot is charmingly effective as the driving force, and all characters are drawn with a comic precision that is probably more what novelist Christie had in mind. The emphasis on Poirot’s internal agony is the fortunate product of our culture’s craving for “relevance” and “profundity.” A sort of political correctness required for art today which in this case is to the advantage of the novel.
As this survey hopes to demonstrate, a well-written novel is a compelling journey into and through a fully integrated world. It’s either an extended, totally immersive read you can pick up and put down and contemplate at will, or it’s a page turner you can’t.
But the theater is a very different art form. Each viewing is a one-time experience in a single sitting. The dramatis personae are right there in the same room, living through the series of happenings before your eyes and sharing it with us, the patrons?
That’s what makes live theater so special. You’re there when and where the adventure – emotional and intellectual – takes place. It exists only, as Shakespeare tells us, “in the two hours’ traffic of the stage.”
Laugh, cry, groan, leave! It’s over. It’s memory.
And each time, a very novel experience.