background

The Playwright and the POW

Theater professor Martin Andrucki’s new play emerges from the haunted memories of a World War II prisoner of war.

By Martin Andrucki

A play about a Jewish-American GI taken prisoner by the Nazis? The idea, frankly, had never occurred to me. And never would have, except for that phone call on a fall morning in 1996. On the other end of the line was a voice I had never heard, belonging to man I had never met. And yet he sounded familiar. I had heard voices like that throughout my childhood in New York City—same accent, same inflection, same ironic turns of phrase. This was a man who had learned to talk in the metropolitan area. “Murray Schwartz,” he said somewhat formally. “Friends have suggested I call you to see if you would be interested in my experiences as a prisoner of war.”

Eleven years earlier, in 1985, the Veterans Administration was finally dealing with the problems of the men and women who had been taken prisoner during World War II—as a sort of afterthought to their programs for Vietnam-era vets. Murray went to the VA hospital at Togus, near Augusta, where he was debriefed about his experiences by Jim Kidwell, a social worker. Murray audiotaped the session, and later had it transcribed. It was this transcription that he wanted me to read.

Well, why not? I liked the sound of Murray’s voice, and I admire the guys who served in World War II. The next day, I found the transcript in the mailbox on my office door—82 pages on yellow paper, with a cover page that read, “MIA Soul Survivor.”

Anyone who has ever read a transcribed conversation knows the experience offers very little literary satisfaction. People wander from topic to topic, talk in sentence fragments, repeat themselves, and seldom complete a thought. Indeed, the dread of following this kind of verbal meander kept me from reading Murray’s text immediately. But once I started, I realized this transcription was different from others I had read. Murray had a compelling story to tell, and he was being led through his account by a professional who knew what he was doing.

As I read, I reached for my pen and began marking passages I could imagine taking place on a stage: Murray wrangling with his buddy Tidwell at Camp Blanding in Florida, trying to get himself, “the avenging Jew,” shipped overseas; Murray, now in captivity after being captured during the early days of the Battle of the Bulge, being warned by a German doctor that his dog tags, with their telltale letter “H” for Hebrew, could get him killed; Murray agonizing about whether or not to throw those tags away … and so on, through most of the 82 pages. Yes, I thought, there might well be a play in this.

By this time, I had learned a bit more about Murray. He told me he was once a New York businessman, but then became a farmer—”the best Jewish farmer in Mechanic Falls,” as he put it—raising sheep on his huge old hillside farm, and later, as he got older, just maintaining the sprawling hayfields. I learned he was active in veterans affairs and that he had first discovered Maine when he sailed the coast on the boat he once owned.

He also provided me with four audio cassettes containing a very scratchy recording of the debriefing session. These became another rich source of material, because the words as spoken often conveyed far more than the words as printed. I could hear, for example, that when Manny recounted one particular story about Prison Camp XII-A—something that he has carried around as a guilty memory for the last 55 years—he was choking back tears. This was a man with a conscience. This man has paid a price.

Convincing myself the material, with themes of guilt and forgiveness, had dramatic potential, I showed it to Christopher Schario, artistic director of Lewiston–Auburn’s Public Theater, one of only two fully professional theaters in Maine. I thought the Public might be interested in a real-life war story that happened to a man living right up the road in Mechanic Falls, a story that would have a direct appeal to this community.

Like me, Chris took a while to get around to the transcript. By the time he read it, it was summer 1997. Also like me, he thought it would make good theater. So I finally contacted a very patient Murray, and over lunch Chris and I told him that we would like to turn his story into a play.

And then nothing happened. Chris and his wife, Janet Mitchko, were busy running the Public Theater and caring for a baby daughter. I faced a crowded fall semester of teaching and directing Antigone. So The Murray Project, as Chris and I had taken to calling it, idled in neutral.

Around Christmas of that year, Murray ran out of patience. He called me to request that I return his transcript and tapes, since I obviously wasn’t going to do anything with them. Wincing with guilt at my procrastination, I explained that I was planning to tackle the project in January—1998 already—when my winter semester and Short Term sabbatical began. Murray was mollified, and I kept my word.

Sort of. I knocked off the first 15 pages of the first act early in my sabbatical and showed them to Chris, who liked what he saw. Not until I returned from my sabbatical project in Hungary did I begin working full time on The Murray Project. And that’s when things got complicated. Writers are always advised to “write about what you know.” Well, what did I know about being a prisoner of war, or even about serving in the armed forces? In a word, nothing. I’d been passed over by the draft in my 20s, and spent the 1960s and early 1970s earning academic degrees, not combat badges in Southeast Asia. I had no firsthand knowledge of the world I was trying to create in the play. I was very conscious of this as I worked, always worrying that I was falling back on the only thing I knew about warfare and military life: the movies.

Anybody who has seen the classic war pictures of the ’40s and ’50s, or even later films such as The Big Red One, knows the familiar terrain. There’s a mission, a platoon, and a cross-section of America. There’s the down-to-earth Italian guy from Chicago; the wise-cracking Jew from New York; the Southern Baptist sharpshooter; the ineffectual intellectual pacifist; and the racist weasel. They talk about their families. They get shot and somebody calls out “medic!” And, under pressure, they break or bear up, depending on (1) their level of grit and (2) whether the narrative at that moment needs a bold statement on war’s inhumanity. Oh my God, I thought to myself as the script grew, look at this cast: The main character is a wise-cracking Jewish New Yorker, his best friend is an easygoing Baptist from the heartland, and they run afoul of a vile bigot. They talk about their families. Murray is wounded, and someone calls for a medic. And some characters crack up while others tough it out. Was I writing one big Hollywood-style bag of cliches during this summer of Saving Private Ryan?

My only defense to my critical self was this: It’s all in the transcript. I didn’t make this stuff up. It happened. Apparently, just because Hollywood makes something familiar doesn’t mean that it’s false. So I soldiered on, so to speak.

Reading a first draft, Murray wanted just one thing changed: his name. Murray wanted an alias for the staged version of his experience. I obliged, changing “Murray Schwartz” to the blindingly unoriginal alternative, “Manny Weiss.” I had been working with two syllables in my character’s given name and one in his family name, and a lot of the timing in the lines depended on keeping those rhythms.

The second and final act was done by summer’s end, and Chris agreed to give it a staged reading in October, during the run of Biloxi Blues, an army play whose cast members agreed to put in an extra night to hold my script in their hands and say the lines of my play.

I was underwhelmed. The script seemed flat and unmoving. My Bates theater colleague, Paul Kuritz, summed it up best: The play needed a more powerful motivation for Manny, the main character, and it needed more conflict.

Just about then, Murray called and asked me if I would travel with him to the sites in Belgium and Germany where his POW experiences occurred. He makes the pilgrimage frequently, usually around Memorial Day. That trip was the turning point in the development of the script. I got to know Murray much better and I sensed more deeply his living relationship to his war memories. I saw the important places mentioned in the transcript: the beer hall where Murray’s wound was treated and where the German doctor warned him about his dog tags; the barn in Welling where the peasants gave him raw potatoes; the prison in Limburg where he was tortured. The remaining drafts of the play were informed by two major factors: Kuritz’s criticism and the trip with Murray.

Second summer of work; second version. Better, but still missing something. By this time, Chris and I had come to a fairly concrete agreement about how we would proceed. We would do a joint production of the work, and it would be staged in Schaeffer Theatre in November 2000, near Veterans Day of the new millennium. As I left for my stint as director of the performing arts program at the new Colby–Bates–Bowdoin Centre in London in January 2000, I had that sweaty-palm feeling that time was running out. With 10 months remaining before opening night, we didn’t have a finished script.

London turned out to be a fine place to write: reminders everywhere of World War II, and lots of bad weather to encourage a man to keep indoors and at his desk. On Bloomsbury Square, I worked out what Act I needed: more tension in the memory scenes between wartime “Young Manny” and his best friend, Tidwell. Their scenes were just too amiable and unruffled. Likewise, “Old Manny” had to be more of an obstacle for his VA psychologist, Dr. Benoit and vice versa. And so the act was completely remade, with a vastly different ending. By now it was April. Act II, the final act, was still a mess. It wasn’t the foggy days in Old London town getting me down; it was the approaching deadline.

Back in Maine in late spring, I realized that the suggestion some people had been making all along was right: Dr. Benoit should be a woman. A young woman. When I made that change, a truckload of tension emerged between the two characters, sexual and generational. Suddenly, those scenes came alive. They were funnier, faster, and more confrontational. Having that happen was a real pick-me-up. But there was still Act II to face up to.

During a drive back to Lewiston, after a weekend on Islesboro with my wife, the solution to everything hit me. The most important event in Manny’s story—a guilty action against his buddy Tidwell, one that has haunted him his whole life—happened in the middle of his time as a prisoner of war. If that guilty action remained in chronological order, it would occur at the beginning of Act II, and that’s no place for a climax. But, I wondered, what if I put events in this act in reverse chronological order? Then the most important climax would come at the end of the play, where it belonged, and Manny could spend the entire play trying to conceal his guilt. His anguish, too, would help invoke the play’s larger theme within this tiny human drama: how the human soul demands we atone for our sins. Even in the face of Nazi nihilism, the soul demands that morality survive.

Finally, I could see house rising.

In early September, Chris and I agreed on a script we would take into rehearsals. Manny’s War was done in the nick of time, a bare month before the Equity actors arrived and less than two months before our Nov. 3 premiere at Schaeffer Theater.

On that evening, Murray Schwartz watched his wartime pain, psychological and physical, played out on stage. He was surrounded by family and friends, Bates people and Lewiston–Auburn citizens, a full house serving witness to a fellow American’s story.


Comments are closed.