Johnny Johnson (1936)
by Paul Green
This play is based on the Czech story of the Good Soldier Schweik, but told from an American angle. Johnny Johnson is an all-American boy —independent, quixotic, pacifist and interminably good hearted. He is pressured to enlist in the World War I effort by his girl and his community, but only agrees when he believes the war’s purpose is "to end all wars." He ends up, via some comic shenanigans, causing an international peace, short-lived though it is because of the belligerence of all the big players.
Green himself served in WW I, and so we sense a strong dose of him in the Schweik scenario. The musical is a collaboration between Green and Kurt Weil, after the latter had emigrated from Nazi Germany to the US. The music is diverse and quite good, though with a strong feel of a variety show. Like the score, the play mixes genres, but it does so with less success. An ambitious work, the plot moves around a lot but without a moral crisis based in psychological need. It's also not comic enough to keep us invested in the action without a complex character to watch.
Kurt Weil’s former collaborator, Bertolt Brecht had developed a style to bring comic distance into the seriousness of war. He did it by morally degrading nearly all his characters and waiting for just one to emerge into the light of heroism. Paul Green, however, seems unwilling to let his central character descend into the moral disorder that defines good dramatic characters. Was this because he was projecting his own values onto Johnny? Was it because he and his American contemporaries had not yet cracked the nut of how plot and character should interact? In any event, if Brecht was the better playwright, Green was probably the better man.