Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Some Plays for Decoration Day

Posted by Bruce Miller
My grandfather, Edward Miller, died near his home in Inwood, WV, when he was in his 90s. I believe it was 1967, the same year that the U. S. Congress created Memorial Day.

From 1865 until 1967, the holiday we now know as Memorial Day was called Decoration Day by a large percentage of the population. It took place on May 30. Congress changed the name and the date in 1967 in an effort to beef up a holiday that was falling into disuse. The new date became the last Monday in May, ensuring that it would be part of a three-day weekend and the symbolic start of summer. What better way to beef up a holiday than that?

My grandfather would not have cottoned to the change. Decoration Day was important to him. You may remember from previous posts that he was a Mennonite minister, originally from Springs, PA. Unique among his peers (most Mennonites during that time were strict pacifists), my granddad had given his blessing for his sons and sons-in-law to enlist during WWII. That decision earned him some stiff ridicule, but he believed in the rightness of the decision until the day he died.

My uncle, Will Pettus, died while serving as a doctor during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which, after Pearl Harbor, morphed more or less into WWII. His story is an unusual and honorable one. You can find some of it at http://www.cgu.edu/pages/3282.asp.

Will was married to my father's sister, my Aunt Maude, who is still living. My Uncle Will was and is a family hero. He died in China in 1945, five years before I was born. He is buried in Changsha in a small graveyard connected to Xiangya Hospital. The picture below and to the left is of my Uncle Will and Aunt Maude, and my cousins Anne and Sally.

Every Decoration Day, my granddad longed to tend the grave of my Uncle Will. That, to him, is what Decoration Day was all about--tending (decorating) the graves of family members who had fallen during wartime. Since my granddad was never able to make it to China, he religiously marked May 30 by tending the graves of other veterans who may not have been in his family but were in his proximity.

During a visit to Inwood when I was ten or twelve, he took us with him to the graveyard. We all worked hard, pulling weeds, mowing grass, raking leaves, etc. That evening, my granddad read to our assembled family from a book of war stories. I don't remember what book it was. I only remember it brought a tear to his eye. I have always suspected that war means even more to someone who is a converted pacifist.

This Decoration Day, in memory of my late grandfather, Uncle Will and WWII veteran dad, I assembled a list of ten plays that I think my granddad would have found appropriate to read aloud to his family that night in Inwood, WV. Each has a Richmond connection. I mention one today. I'll talk about others in the days that follow.

Journey's End by R. C. Sherriff was written in 1928. It is set in an officers' dugout at Saint-Quentin, France in 1918, near the end of WWI, and concerns a small group of British infantrymen. After catching the attention and patronage of George Bernard Shaw, Journey's End was staged in London in a production starring a very young Laurence Olivier. It eventually became a major hit, and ran in the West End for two years.

Phil and I saw a revival of Journey's End on one of the trips we led to London. After we came home, Roy Proctor called to ask if I saw any London productions that I would recommend. He was trying to decide what theatre tickets to buy for an upcoming visit. I recommended Journey's End. He saw it. loved it, and returned to Richmond to direct it a season or two later at Dogwood Dell.

The London production I saw eventually transferred to Broadway, where it won the 2007 Tony Award for Best Revival. This classic British drama is a very sober, respectful and sad depiction of the horrors of war. It would make an outstanding Decoration Day tribute to our fallen forefathers.

The Sound of Music is not exactly a military play, but it certainly takes place during wartime. As I write this series about "war plays," I look forward to revisiting The Sound of Music this week. I hope to see you there!

--Bruce Miller

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