Today we find war waged on a scale more vast than ever known in the world before. What has happened to the contemporary American play-wright in the midst of this confusion and perplexity? Only Eugene O'Neill remains apart from the turmoil, continuing work on a gigantic cycle of nine plays, to be called "A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed." He has the true artist's contempt for problems of the moment; his sole concern is with humanity in all time. To many critics this seems a selfish and unpatriotic occupation when our nation is fighting for its basic principles. Particularly does it seem so to those playwrights like Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice, and Robert Sherwood, who have dedicated themselves to what we term "propaganda" writing. This is a necessary outlet for artistic creation, too, one which seems of more worth at the moment than that of the ivory tower artist whose output is for unborn generations.
But these playwrights have, almost without fail, been unable to translate the crisis of our time into good propaganda plays. "Candle In The Wind," "Flight To the West" and "There Shall Be No Night" are honest attempts to explain in dramatic terms the threat of totalitarianism. They have failed in this attempt because they are composed of conjecture and cheap dramaturgy and Hollywood symbolism. Even in propaganda plays we demand a certain amount of university, a level of meaning above that of action and character alone. University implies more than the minute, the particular a Nazi uniform on stage does not represent German imperialism. The broader abstractions of injustice, inhumanity, of greed and lust--these are the universal qualities of totalitarianism as Hitler practices it. None of these playwrights have been able to see beyond the Nazi uniform. They offer only a dramatic restatement of newspaper headline ideas on democracy, racial problems and totalitarianism.
The astonishing thing about Western culture is that it has developed in the midst of internal and external strife. England was living dangerously when Shakespeare was composing his sonnets and writing his plays; the tumult of battle runs through much of his work. While Louis XIV ruined France financially in his desperate bid for glory on the battlefield, Moliere wrote his brilliant social comedies. These and other great playwrights through the ages wrote on the problems of their times, but they saw further than the playwrights of today. Shakespeare put his themes on the level of universality, not basing them on day-to-day issues that fluctuated waywardly.
We need sound plays today on the problems confronting us. But we will not get them if the playwrights continue to do as they have done. They must re-evaluate their approach, seeking to come at the basic problems through a level of universal meaning, not a meaning based on the level of day-to-day through and action.
Of all the propaganda plays produced in New York since the outbreak of the war in 1939, the only one that has approached this broader implication, while still retaining a sound statement of the German menace, is Lillian Hellman's "Watch On the Rhine," and it hasn't a single Nazi in it.