Elia Kazan, Audience tomorrow: Preview in New Guinea (Review)
In my previous life I worked in a film library and film archive, so I was drawn to this week’s Library of America offering, “Audience tomorrow: Preview in New Guinea” by film director Elia Kazan*. My interest was strengthened by two more facts. Firstly, the title mentions New Guinea, which I visited twice in the late 1970s. Secondly, it was published in 1945 suggesting it might be about the war, and I am interested in reading about the two world wars. All up, it looked like an article for me.
Kazan, who made some great films including A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden, wrote “Audience tomorrow” about his visit to New Guinea during the war as an advisor to the military. “Our mission” he said, as quoted in LOA’s introductory notes, “was to set up self-entertainment units for the soldiers, to keep men from going nuts before they were shipped to other theatres of action or home. The soldiers didn’t think much of the USO shows”. Apparently, they liked the big name acts, but most shows were by “third-rate cabaret entertainers”.
Kazan’s visit to New Guinea was part of a wider Pacific tour. LOA’s notes state that while he was in the Philippines, his most recent film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, was screening. He was pleased that his film was being shown and that the soldiers seemed to enjoy it, but he wrote later in his autobiography that he was bothered by the “contrast between the terrible intensity and cost of what was happening around me and the sentimental fairytale I’d made”.
“Audience tomorrow” is a fascinating article, mainly for the insight it provides into Kazan. There’s very little of the horror of war here and it almost sounds like propaganda at times. The young soldiers are idealised:
The boys … were kids from around the block. You kept feeling that you recognised someone. They did not seem like soldiers. Their stance was easy and casual, their smiles shy and fresh, never arrogant or domineering. They were the citizen soldiers of a democracy: tow heads, red heads, Italians, Negroes, Greeks, Irish. The mood was congenial, the night soft, all about was harmony.
Also, “our army is beautifully organised, beautifully equipped”, and, after briefly mentioning the “ambulatory cases” and “the shell-shocked”, he praises the “New Medicine”:
I remembered with a start of joy that 97% of the wounded in our army recover. All thanks to the New Medicine.
He was there, after all, in the employ of the military.
It’s interestingly written. Its opening made me think I was about to read a short story – or a film script perhaps?:
Eddie Moran wasn’t going with us. He had a bad headache, and his bones ached. Someone suggested Eddie might have a touch of dengue fever …
But this is not a story about Eddie Moran, or any other character, in fact. The Eddie Moran reference enabled him to set the context: “the talk about dengue furnished a striking contrast to our ‘cocktails and dinner downtown’ before going to the theatre back in New York”. In other words, they were off to the theatre but one of a very different ilk to his usual experience. It was a “Soldier Show program”, that is, one produced by the GIs themselves. He was surprised about “the degree of hunger with which the men craved entertainment, the eagerness with which they offered to participate in programs”, both in front of and behind the scenes.
He describes the theatre (called “The Medicine Bowl” as it is at a hospital), the attendees (including the WACS who, my horrified feminist brain read, had curfews), and some of the acts in the show. Rain eventually forces the show to end – “there is hell in the bowels of the weather here” – but his article goes on to describe the post-show action in the Officers’ Club. Again he is positive about the quality of the young men whose:
language was highly technical, their faces new to a razor … these kids made me feel out of it. Something had passed me by. Folks, there’s a new generation.
Did I tell you that Kazan was 35 at the time? Anyhow, this “new generation” is the point of the article. He recognises that these men “are citizens, not soldiers” who want to go home. He suggests they have idealised the “States” but fears that the States “can’t hope to live up to the picture these boys have in their mind’s eye”. Interestingly, he argues that:
These twelve million men are potentially the greatest unified body of Public Opinion our country has ever known. They could, if brought together, insist that an organisation be found and made to function that would never permit a repetition and intensification of this nightmare.
This is an aside, though. His main argument is that these “fellows who come back will be demanding” of the entertainment industry. “We’ll have to be good to survive,” he says. “If we’re not, we’ll feel our failure where it really hurts: at the box office”. He concludes the article, which was published in Theatre Arts, with a plea to the industry
to make what is in the theatres a live experience for the people, not merely a kill-time. All the people of the nation have grown some during the war. Twelve million men have grown a lot. Some of us may not know it, but we are being challenged!
“Audience tomorrow: Preview in New Guinea”
First published: Theatre Arts, October 1945
Available: Online at the Library of America
*Kazan had a stellar but rather controversial film and theatre career. Wikipedia is a good place to start if you’d like to read more.