Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Douglas Messerli "The Coward's Hand" (on Arthur Laruents' Home of the Brave)

In the room I stay when am in New York at Sherry Bernstein’s Central Park West apartment, there is a high shelf of books collected from childhood to the high school student days of her son, Edward. Edward is now a teacher, and evidently, his own apartment can no longer hold all of these early wonders. When I visit, I often peruse those books, and have read some of them of them over the years.

On the morning of the May 5, 2011, I decided to check out his yellowing and dog-earned series of the Dell/Laurel Drama series, consisting of several volumes of plays from the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1940s, etc. I had had some of those same volumes in my basement hideaway in my parent’s house as I grew up.

For some reason, the 1940s volume particularly interested me. What a strange selection, I thought to myself. I could understand the choice of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, even Carson McCullers’ lovely play The Member of the Wedding, but Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars was a very strange selection. The final play, Arthur Laurent’s Home of the Brave, his first work, was a modest success with a relatively short run, but I’d never read it, so it attracted me most. I began reading a few pages, and before long, I had finished the first act
Having completed my toilette, I went out for breakfast, and, soon after, took a taxi to mid-town where in a few hours I was about see the first of five plays I was planning to attend during my stay. Suddenly on the taxi television, I saw a news flash: Arthur Laurents, New York playwright, has died at age 93. For a few seconds I sat in some shock, since I had not only seen in the past few years his new directorial rendition of
West Side Story, but had just been brought, by my companion Howard, the DVD of Hitchcock’s Rope, for which he wrote the screenplay, and had only a few weeks before written about Laurent’s one-time lover Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train. I should not have been so surprised, since it certainly is nothing new for me, this sudden chance relationship with larger events, but I was somewhat shaken, nonetheless, by the coincidence. Surely it meant that I had now to finish the play, and over the next few mornings, between my own writing and my theater attendances, I finished reading the play as a private salute to him.

by Douglas Messerli

Arthur Laurents Home of the Brave / New York, Belasco Theatre, 1945

Arthur Laurent’s first play, Home of the Brave, is the story of a young soldier, Peter Coen, part of an engineering division of the US Army during World War II in the South Pacific.

By the time the curtain rises, Coen, called by his Army companions Coney, has already endured a mission in which he and four others penetrated an island held by the Japanese, secretly surveying and mapping the landscape to prepare for an invasion and the building of a small airport. Just as they finish their jobs and prepare to evacuate, Japanese soldiers discover their position and shoot, hitting Mingo and, later, wounding Coney’s best friend, Finch, who has temporarily forgotten where he put the maps. By the time Coney retrieves the maps, Finch is too hurt to move ahead with him and the others, and they are forced to leave him behind, with the hopes that we can eventually make his way to them before they leave the island that night.

Events do not go well, and Finch, found and tortured by the Japanese at a distance close enough to where the others are hiding so that they can hear his cries and suffer his torture with him, horrify the soldiers. As they move off to dig up their canoes, Coney is left alone to protect the gear as Finch crawls into the small clearing, dying in Coney’s arms.

Coney attempts to bury him so that the Japanese cannot dismember the corpse, but by the time his friends return, he finds himself unable to walk, suffering an inexplicable paralysis. He is carried away by a fellow soldier, waking to find himself in a military hospital under the care of Captain Harold Bitteger, a sympathetic psychiatrist.

In December 1945, the date this play appeared at the Belasco Theatre in New York, the events of World War II still so fresh that the audiences who attended the performances would have felt the circumstances of the play had occurred only yesterday. The play’s events are described as just a year earlier, and only five months before the play's opening the US had bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

If today much of the psychological jargon and the treatments used to help Coney seem obsolete and naïve, one must remember that although Freud had perhaps been assimilated by the intelligentsia, even a couple of years earlier a major character in Guys and Dolls had been told by his girlfriend, “Nathan, you got psychology, everybody’s got it!” Certainly the ideas of post-war syndrome and psychological hysteria were startlingly new concepts for the general public; treatment by "narcosynthesis" must have seemed almost futuristic.

Any sensitive reader today, in our cure-all culture, might be able to discern that the problem with Coney was a terrible feeling of guilt for not having protected his close friend Finch, the only one of the group for whom his being Jewish seemed to have no significance. And the discovery later that Finch, in a moment of duress, turned on his friend, parroting the statements of the other men: “you lousy yellow…” stopping before he finished the word "Jew," and transforming it into the word “jerk,” helps us to further understand Coney's guilt. The hurt Coney momentarily endures in that statement results, a few minutes later, in a momentary sense of pleasure, when Finch gets shot. And we realize that his regret for that brief sensation is entangled with the thousands and thousands of racial and religious epithets Coen has had to endure not only throughout his life but, more particularly, while, in warfare, he has put his own life on the line for his prejudiced companions.

Laurents has created a painful and revelatory play about how racial slurs and prejudices effect all Americans who must suffer them, whether in civilian or military life. But the situation upon which Laurents focuses, where Americans such as Coen were helping to battle just such hatred in Europe and elsewhere, makes such disgusting behavior even more insufferable.

Only two years later, in 1947, the film Gentleman’s Agreement, would even more complexly reveal the ugliness of American anti-Semitism and its effects on good families and human inter-relationships, including Gregory Peck’s love with the liberal WASP Kathy Lacey (played by Dorothy McGuire) and, even more evidently, the job aspirations of the Dave Goldman (John Garfield) for a new job. And in that sense both of these works, Home of the Brave and Gentleman’s Agreement should be understood as works that helped, if all too slowly, alter standard American prejudices with regards to being Jewish, prejudices which my own father, fighting in World War II, thought he was challenging as well through his actions as an Air Force bombardier flying over Germany.

Yet I cannot help but feel there is something “more” going on in Laurent’s play that is not at all an issue in Gentleman’s Agreement, another matter that renders the central subject of Home of the Brave somewhat diffuse and incomprehensible. The good psychiatrist perceives the “central” issue, so it seems, and “cures” his patient by helping Coen to realize that every soldier of necessity feels, for an instant when another soldier is hit, a momentary sense of relief, expressed, as one of Coney’s group, Mingo, puts it “Thank God, it’s not me!” Coen is made to understand that he is like everyone else, no matter what men like the intolerant T. J. call him. And that, in turn, frees Coen to forgive himself, to comprehend his flash of anger and hatred towards his dying friend as an instant of justifiable self-protection.

Even the psychiatrist, however, laments that he cannot go further, in the short period he has to work with his patient, into Coen’s past in comprehending his mental issues. By play’s end, now with Mingo’s help, we can only believe that—unlike T. J.’s suspicions that one day Coney will go “off” again—he will survive in the civilian world as a productive human being. Yet Laurents, we feel, or at least I do, has left something out. Why has Coen gone “off” in the first place? It is hard to believe that a Jewish man living in what was often an anti-Semitic society in the 1930s and 1940s, fighting in a War that, at least in the European scene, occurred in part because of the German hatred for and determination to destroy all European Jews, would still be so utterly sensitive to what appears, at least in the context of the play, as a few racial slurs.

Yes, they would be painful, angering, particularly, when uttered, or almost uttered, by a dear friend. But then, a moment before, Coen has referred to Finch as a “dumb Arizona bastard,” perhaps to Finch just as painful an epithet. Of course, there is a radical difference, one is a statement dismissing one’s home state and the conditions of life there; the other is a complete dismissal of belief and cultural identity, not only one’s own identity, but the identities of one’s father and mother and all the generations before that. Yet both demean and belittle the individuals to whom these slurs are addressed.

Throughout one of the earlier scenes, moreover, Coen calls Finch a “jerk” numerous times. A few minutes later he describes Finch to Mingo as “the Arizona tumbleweed.” So Coen himself is not above handing out a few epithets, if not racial, that suggest his friend’s backwardness, lack of education, and cultural isolation. What exactly does Coen’s over-sensitivity to slurs he must have heard much of his life suggest? I am reminded of an important scene in Gentleman’s Agreement, when Phil Green (Gregory Peck) revels to his Jewish friend, Dave Goldman, that he is pretending to be Jewish in order to write a story about anti-Semitism:

Phil Green: I've been saying I'm Jewish, and it works.
Dave Goldman: Why, you crazy fool! It's working?
Phil Green: It works too well. I've been having my nose rubbed in it, and I don't like the smell.
Dave Goldman: You're not insulated yet, Phil. The impact must be quite a business on you.
Phil Green: You mean you get indifferent to it in time?
Dave Goldman: No, but you're concentrating a lifetime into a few weeks. You're not changing the facts, you're just making them hurt more.

So too does Peter Coen seem to be concentrating all his hurt into an single incident having to do with a young Arizona boy named Finch.

Of course, it helps to know that he and Finch are not just friends, but are planning, when they are discharged, to open a bar together in…Finch’s “whistlestop home” in rural Arizona. A Pittsburgh Jewish boy in Arizona? Something is wrong with this picture. Or, I should perhaps say, something is quite right if you comprehend the situation. The two men are clearly in love, whether or not they know it or the author is willing to openly expess it. The very fact that Peter Coen, who keeps Kosher and is religiously observant, would be willing to abandon city life and move to a small town in the Southwest in the 1940s (long before that area’s startling growth) in order to open a bar where “married men” will feel comfortable, speaks volumes. The two men are suggesting a long term relationship completely off the beaten path, which was a way of saying, in those days, they were commit themselves to one another.

Of course, Laurents cannot speak of this, and why should he? His central issue was painful enough. To have brought in the story of their love would have completely overwhelmed any other concerns he might have wanted to express. Or, to put it another way, if he had centered the work on gay sexuality in 1945, the play would never have been produced. While it was the time to discuss, finally, the issue of anti-Semitism, gays would have to wait through the blistering attacks on homosexual writers, composers, and other figures of the early 1960s until later in that decade to even bring up the issue. Laurents would be one of the earliest, in his 1948 screenplay Rope, where he and Hitchcock created a situation where two gay men simply lived together, without making anything of it in the story; but then they were murderers, based on the real life figures Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

I know there are some readers, who have read several of my essays, who will say that I find these issues in too many plays, films, fictions, etc. and they are right. My response is that for much of the 20th century writers who wanted to consider these difficulties had no choice but to bury them in other narratives that opened for those who understood and were sympathetic to the situations and were closed or oblique to those who were not.

Moreover, I want to make it clear that I am not diminishing the obvious concern of Laurents’ play. It’s simply that the love between these two soldiers, sexual or not, intensifies and clarifies everything!

Laurents, moreover, takes this issue even further when, once Coen has regained his sense of self and purpose, he goes off with another man—this time Mingo, perhaps the kind of married man for who Finch and Coen had planned their bar, which now, Mingo suggests he is willing to partner with Peter. Mingo, whose wife has abandoned him, even likes poetry (seen by many in this decade as a woman’s avocation), which he claims throughout the play his wife writes, but which we suspect, given the appropriateness of the lines he quotes, he himself might have written:

you are my only friend.
And frightened, we are everyone.
Someone must take a stand.
Coward, take my coward’s hand.

The ending is a bit like Rick and Louie’s last lines in Casablanca:

Coney: Hey, coward.
Mingo [turning]: What?
Coney: [coming to him]. Take my coward’s hand.
[He lifts the bag up on Mingo’s back.]
Mingo: Pete, my boy, you’ve got a charming memory.
[A slight pause.]
Coney [softly]. Delightful!.....

And it is…charming, delightful, as the one-armed survivor and the formally paralyzed man walk off into the sunset.

New York, May 8, 2011

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