Cover image for Dramatists and the bomb : American and British playwrights confront the nuclear age, 1945-1964


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PS338.N83 C37 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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While the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki secured an American victory in the Pacific and hastened the end of World War II, it also ushered in an era of fear. When the Soviets developed an atomic bomb, the United States ceased to be the world's only nuclear power. Americans feared a nuclear attack by the Soviets, while the British worried about being drawn into a nuclear conflict for which they were utterly unprepared and particularly vulnerable. The threat of nuclear war left a lasting mark on the British and American imagination. Like other creative artists, playwrights began to grapple with the terrifying implications of a nuclear holocaust. This study reveals how English-speaking dramatists, both major and minor, reacted to the stunning events of the Atomic Age and the early thermonuclear era.

Moving from American to British responses, the book describes more than 25 plays and quotes a variety of reflections on the bombing of Japan, the evolution of the Cold War, the development of more and more refined atomic weapons, the proliferation of fallout shelters, and the occurrence of strategic crises, such as those in Suez, Berlin, and Cuba. The American plays are generally inferior to the British, with less experienced playwrights attacking a wide range of subject matter and experimenting with several dramatic styles. British plays more frequently protest the threatened imposition of an American-Soviet conflict upon their offshore island. The book concludes with a study of how Samuel Beckett's Endgame reflects a human dilemma distinctive to the Nuclear Age.

Author Notes

Charles A. Carpenter is Professor Emeritus of English at Binghamton University.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Covering an unexamined aspect of theater and culture, Carpenter (author of two "international bibliographies," Modern Drama Scholarship and Criticism, 1966-1980, CH, Oct'86, and Modern Drama: Scholarship and Criticism, 1981-1990, CH, Dec'97) discusses every original (albeit minor) pre-1964, English-language play that focuses on a nuclear problem. For context, his first chapters discuss key nuclear events and Robert Nichols and Maurice Browne's Wings over Europe (1929). Subsequent chapters include details that illuminate an author's attitude or reaction, followed by analysis of specific dramas or discourse. Alternating chapters between US and British authors, Carpenter discusses playwrights confronting, first, the birth of the "atomic age" (the immediate post-Hiroshima period), including, among others, Herman Wouk's The Traitor and Marghanita Laski's The Offshore Island. She goes on to the early "thermonuclear era" (post-Hydrogen bomb), including Lorraine Hansberry's What Use Are Flowers? and works by Ray Bradbury and Doris Lessing, Robert Bolt, and David Campton. The final chapter focuses on the early 1960s private-fallout-shelter dilemma, beginning with Rod Serling's The Shelter from the television series The Twilight Zone. Carpenter concludes with a persuasive reading of Beckett's allusive Endgame, arguing that a Cold War audience might construe the play as a post-Holocaust predicament. Recommended for libraries supporting coursework in literature during the post-WW II era. J. C. Kohl; Dutchess Community College

Table of Contents

Personal Prologuep. xi
Acknowledgmentsp. xv
Introductionp. 1
Chapter 1. A Context of Provocations: The Early Nuclear Agep. 11
The Birth of the Atomic Agep. 11
The Evolution of the Thermonuclear Erap. 13
Closest to the Edge--and Beyondp. 15
Chapter 2. A "Dramatic Extravaganza" of the Projected Atomic Age: Wings Over Europe (1928)p. 19
Chapter 3. American Playwrights and the Birth of the Atomic Agep. 27
Ridenour's Apocalyptic Playlet and Its Adaptationp. 31
Flanagan's "Living Newspaper," E = mc[superscript 2]p. 34
Sinclair's Naturalistic Thesis Drama, A Giant's Strengthp. 37
Wouk's Discursive Spy Melodrama, The Traitorp. 42
Lengyel's Allegorical Fantasy, The Atom Clockp. 47
Chapter 4. British Playwrights and the Birth of the Atomic Agep. 53
Shaw's Reactions to the Birth of the Atomic Agep. 55
Priestley's Summer Day's Dream: "Rousseau for the Atom-Age"p. 60
Laski's Neglected Post-Holocaust Drama, The Offshore Islandp. 61
O'Casey's Evolving Reactions to the Atomic Agep. 73
Chapter 5. American Playwrights in the Early Thermonuclear Erap. 75
Oboler's Futuristic Fantasy, Night of the Aukp. 79
Purkey's Theatricalist Fantasy, Hangs Over Thy Headp. 81
Schary's Antinuclear Domestic Drama, The Highest Treep. 83
Feiffer's Fallout Shelter Farce, Crawling Arnoldp. 87
Hansberry's Post-Holocaust Fable, What Use Are Flowers?p. 88
Bradbury's Post-Holocaust Parable, To the Chicago Abyssp. 92
Chapter 6. British Playwrights in the Early Thermonuclear Erap. 97
Playwrights and Antinuclear Protestp. 100
Lessing's Each His Own Wildernessp. 103
Bolt's The Tiger and the Horsep. 106
Mercer's A Climate of Fearp. 111
Kops's The Dream of Peter Mannp. 112
Absurdist with a Social Conscience: David Camptonp. 115
Then...p. 116
Out of the Flying Panp. 119
Mutatis Mutandisp. 122
Little Brother: Little Sisterp. 126
Chapter 7. The Private Fallout Shelter Dilemma Dramatized: Rod Serling, Elaine Morgan--and Samuel Beckett?p. 129
Serling's "Nightmare" Image of the Dilemma: The Shelterp. 131
The Issue Debated in Morgan's Licence to Murderp. 133
"All Those I Might Have Helped": Beckett's Endgamep. 136
Notesp. 145
Selective Bibliography of Background Worksp. 175
Indexp. 179