Sunday, January 28, 2018


Paul Green (1894-1981) while a student at the University of North Carolina in 1917 enlisted in the United States Army. He rose through the ranks from private to sergeant-major with the 105th Engineers prior to becoming a second lieutenant with the Chief of Engineers in Paris, France.  He also served four months on the Western Front. After his military experience, he returned to the university to complete his undergraduate degree. He began to write plays during this segment of his education. He wrote a one-act war play titled “Souvenir” which has been lost.  After that time he began to write Carolina folk plays. He did not write another play about war until 1936 when he worked with Kurt Weill (1900-1950) on Johnny Johnson.

Paul Green                                                                 Kurt Weill    
When Green and Weill collaborated on this play, Weill was a highly respected German composer who in the late 1920s had earned an international reputation. His successful collaborations with Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) began in 1927. The works created by these two men represented the Weimar Republic’s radical politics and cultural innovation, therefore, it stood for everything that the emerging Nazi regime hated. Both Weill, who was Jewish, and Marxist Brecht were early targets of Nazi cultural oppression. Weill and his wife, actress Lotte Lenya, moved to New York City in September, 1935.

By 1936 Paul Green had won the 1927 Pulitzer Prize in drama for In Abraham’s Bosom, a drama about the lives of African Americans in his native state of North Carolina. He followed this success with other Broadway plays. It was in 1936 that Green felt the need to write an anti-war play using World War One as a model for his position.

Johnny Johnson “The Biography of a Common Man” is a three-act play with music. It is dedicated to “A Memory Living.”  Paul Green established the time for the play as “A few years ago as well as now.”  It is a most unusual musical drama since each act is written in a different style.  Act One combines many elements of comedy, Act Two is tragedy and Act Three is basically satire.  It is stylistically a departure from most drama related to World War One.

Act One is divided into four scenes.  Scene 1 is a hill-top outside a small American town—April, 1917. The town folks are gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the founding of their town and to unveil the monument created by Johnny Johnson, the twenty-six year old tombstone cutter. During the ceremony, the town’s Mayor announces that President Wilson declared war on Germany. War fever immediately breaks out as the cry to join the armed services is raised.

Scene 2 is titled “Keep the home fires burning.” It is set in the living room of a typical American rural village home. Minny Belle, Johnny’s girlfriend, is trying to persuade him to enlist. Finally Johnny declares that he will enlist “to join the war to end all wars.”
"Minny Belle, you're purty as a pink."
Scene 3 is titled “Your Country needs another man—and that means you.”  The setting is the interior of the recruiting office.  Johnny is there to join the army.

Scene 4 is titled “A light that lighteth men their way.”  It is night at the harbor in New York City.  Far in the background is the Statue of Liberty.  Johnny is being shipped out to Europe.

Act Two is divided into nine scenes. The location for eight of the scenes is somewhere in France—a few weeks later.  Johnny is a kind, simple fellow who can handle a gun.  He is unafraid and willingly volunteers for dangerous assignments. He prefers to work out solutions without using his weapon.  When he captures a young German soldier, he sends him back to his commanding officer with a note that includes excerpts from speeches about peace by Woodrow Wilson. Johnny believes if all the soldiers want peace the war will end. As Johnny returns to his company, he receives a wound in his buttocks.  He is hospitalized in the next scene. Johnny quickly recovers and returns to the trenches. At the conclusion of scene eight, Johnny is arrested on the battlefield by the Military Police due to his personal efforts to end the war.
"We are your tools and you the dead--soldiers, soldiers."
Scene nine is set in New York harbor as Johnny is returning to the United States for a mental evaluation. It is several weeks after his arrest.

Act Three has three scenes.  The first is a psychiatrist’s office in a state hospital. The second takes place ten years later in the “house of balm”--an asylum. Johnny Johnson is about to be released since they can only keep a patient for ten years. The third scene is “A street corner”--today. That means 1936 is the time of the final scene. Johnny carves wooden toys and hawks them in this location. The play concludes as we learn Johnny’s feelings about soldiers as well as gain a glimpse into Minny Belle’s current lifestyle.
"Toy-ees for sale!"
The music is a significant element in this drama as it is in Weill’s collaborations with Brecht.  Even though Weill had only moved to the United States in the Fall of 1935, some of the music has a decidedly American quality. The score has been recorded a number of times since 1936. I listened to the 1987 recording starring Burgess Meredith (1907-1997) as Johnny.  The 1956 recording appears to have received the best reviews of those that were made after the original production.

Johnny Johnson was originally produced by The Group Theatre in New York City and the play opened on November 19, 1936 at the 44th Street Theatre. It was staged by Lee Strasberg (1901-1982) who would become a leading American teacher of acting as well as a renowned director. The settings were designed by Donald Oenslager (1902-1975) who would gain national recognition as a scenic designer. Russell Collins (1897-1965) starred as Johnny. His long Broadway career (1933-63) was further embellished by acting credits in Hollywood films and television.

The original production ran for sixty-eight performances and received mixed reviews in New York City newspapers. Brooks Atkinson (11894-1984) wrote in his November 29, 1936 New York Times article: “In spite of its very obvious theatre frailties ‘Johnny Johnson’ is an original and, at its best, a deeply moving piece of work.” Earlier in this same article Atkinson refers to this play “as a fantastic legend by Paul Green with a counterpoint of biting music by Kurt Weill.”

There have been several revivals of this play. The Popular Players presented it in May, 1941 at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City.  This production cut the script into two acts and omitted the entire score by Kurt Weill.  There was a revival in the first half of the 1950s and another in 1971.  The latter production was staged at the Edison Theatre and it was directed by Jose Quintero (1924-1999) who became associated with the development of Off-Broadway theatre. In 1977 the Ozone Dance Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota created a forty minute dance that attempted to tell Johnny’s story.

I read the 1937 edition of the play published by Samuel French. Production photos are from this publication. Playwrights photos: Kurt Weill from and Paul Green from Paul Green by Barrett H. Clark. New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1928.

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