There was a time when Broadway regularly embraced plays of the political kind without fear of censorship or oppression. With theatre on hold in many places around the world, it might be a good moment to reflect on 1943's Tomorrow the World, the subject of this edition of "Theatre Yesterday and Today."
On an impulse, I recently 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 — and 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 Gassner’s wise and appropriate picks.
While perusing the “Contents” page, one title stood out for me as it was the only one of the seventeen I had never heard of: Tomorrow the World, by 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.
When Tomorrow the World opened on Broadway in 1943, it was at the height of World War II and its plot could not have been more timely. It told the story of a twelve-year-old brought over from Germany to live with an American family who, unbeknownst to them, was a Nazi-in-training. 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, and who passed way in 2017 at the age of eighty-six.
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 such 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 incendiary situations might arise 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, Maxwell Anderson's 1954 melodrama that is now deemed so campy it nearly defies description (its 1956 film version is readily available for all to enjoy, be they gay or straight).
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 than you may think possible to cram in. 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 must confess that reading the play this past week left me a bit depressed (as if last night's televised Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump wasn't depressing enough) and for the following reason: once upon a time mainstream commercial theatre fully embraced such foreboding subjects as authoritarianism (Robert E. Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night in 1940 and Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine in 1941 are two premiere examples of this genre). Plays like thoxd, and Tomorrow the World, served as all-too important reminders that there was a time when fascism was a known enemy all Americans agreed on.
Sadly, we need such reminders today more than ever.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.