‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain,’ Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters
In Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, the setting of the play is Britain 1942. Based on a pamphlet of the same time (valuable historical/cultural ephemera) created by the American War Office, the comedic play is a fascinating bit of history. It reveals the cultural divide between America and Britain and pointed differences in words, coinage, foods, phrases, social graces, sports, class system and much more.
At the time military and civilian officials anticipated that the socio-cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K. could create havoc in cooperation during the war effort, unless Americans were provided with a guide book to smooth over relations between the two countries. Germany had already initiated a propaganda campaign against Britain and hoped to keep America out of the war. Military officials didn’t want servicemen to so influenced by the propaganda that Americans and British would be attacking each other instead of the Germans. Hence the “Instructions.”
The comedy, part of an offering in the Brits Off Broadway season is refreshingly quaint in light of advances after WWII in technology through the digital age, Google, Wikipedia, and social media which have made knowledge and interactions with the UK’s culture and society ubiquitous. However, in those days, paper in the form of pamphlets was the vehicle used to educate servicemen about British lifestyles.
At the top of the play friendly, intelligent, socially attuned Lieutenant Schultz (James Millard) who already lives in Britain and is a stalwart mentor of proper comportment welcomes the servicemen (audience) and informally shakes hands with them to make them feel comfortable in a potentially awkward situation.. As Schultz, James Millard portrays an immediately likable and well meaning American soldier that we can be proud of. Schultz introduces himself to the Eight Air Force squadron (the audience) and gives his resounding interactive opening remarks. He then answers a few logistical questions, i.e. “Private Welch-yes if you can find somewhere to put it.” Millard’s superb interplay essentially sets the tone and exuberance of the production which carries through to the second act.
After this humorous interchange which actually preps the audience for the smartly paced jokes to follow, Schultz attempts to oil the way for the bulk of the program handed off to the imperial, crass and vapidly dense (single digit IQ dense) Colonel Atwood (the excellent Dan March). Atwood unwittingly manages to insult the British in every conceivable way imaginable after Major Randolph Gibbons arrives. Matt Sheahan portrays the endearing senior-ranked British officer who is the perfect foil for Atwood to lay his cultural “Brutish” stupid on.
What follows is Atwood’s disconnect and Randolph’s attempt to correct him with great frustration. Their resistant attempts at establishing a relationship is a bumpy ride throughout the production. Randolph is the standard polite Brit whose social norms and phrases completely confuse the rough and ready American cowboy style of Atwood, who must defer to Schultz to clear up his muddle. (i.e. “It’s very urgent, I’m afraid.” Atwood: “He’s afraid?”)
Eventually, as Randolph attempts to assume his authorized position to instruct the men, Atwood refuses to give place to “a smart ass in short pants.” Indeed, we think if these instructive sessions are populated by other Atwoods and Randolphs in American bases dotted throughout the English countryside like this one, the Germans don’t need to lift one more finger to sow discord. Americans and British are doing an excellent job of disrespecting one another on their own and dissolving the good will to cooperate and unify against the Germans.
Throughout Act I Colonel Atwood embarrasses himself as a rude, dim-witted ugly American, albeit one in a position of power who thinks he is the “smartest guy on the base.” Considering that we understand the outcome of the war and the importance of the US to winning it, of course the vignettes about learning British coinage, going out in a social setting, having tea, etc. are hysterically funny and we enjoy laughing at Colonel Atwood.
However, the underlying irony is that the British do not know the outcome of the war in 1942 and were very frightened of the Nazi aggressions, i.e. bombing London and threatening invasion. If Atwood illustrates the typical American higher up military man with “know-how and bravery”, the Germans will easily win. This gap in logic should have been strengthened in the play’s writing for even more laughs. But indeed, with aplomb, the writers (also the actors) Dan March, James Millard, Matt Sheahan emphasize the theme that the Peter Principle is alive and well and running the US and British military, in an all too familiar dynamic that the greater the incompetence, the higher the rank.
That the Peter Principle applies to the British military resides in Atwood’s humorous observations that because of mismanagement and incompetence, the British blew it against the Germans, nearly lost it at Dunkirk and had to beg the Americans to come there and “save the day.” This most calumnous of truth-based insults sets Randoph and Atwood in a competitive war of one-up-manship. Schultz, ever the peacemaker attentive to the servicemen (us) watching this mini-attack of the Americans against the British points out their divisiveness is just what the German’s intend with their propaganda. Schultz (his name is an irony) effects a truce and diverts the men so they proceed calmly.
Some of the high points in this act occur when Randolph takes over the command which he has been authorized to do to educate the servicemen despite Atwood’s bombastic protestations which reveal he has lost the point of the entire military exercise. Randolph’s explanation of British coinage is fascinating (we see how large the 5 pound notes were). Atwood’s muddle-headed confusion about the specific values and differences between shillings, guineas, tuppence, etc. (which he never learns) is hysterical as is our confusion.
Also in Act I to school the servicemen in the social graces and polite conversation (you always talk about the weather) while going to a pub, Schultz impersonates Randolph’s wife as “she” and Atwood have drinks. The scene is Monty Pythonesque in its absurd ridiculousness. James Millard’s demure, shy wife is thick with hilarity as is Randolph’s outrage at Atwood overstepping his boundaries and going against propriety. If one thing is obvious, Atwood has learned little, and Randolph underscores this by tossing his own weaponry in the form of ironic asides at the dull-witted Colonel Atwood which, like duds, never register or square away on their target.
Act II continues the humor with an intensive conducted by the enemy at Nazi Spy School. March, Millard and Sheahan use puppets to reveal how the Germans are prepping for the invasion of the British countryside and sowing discord in their propaganda between the Americans and the British. Then in additional vignettes, we meet Lord Tolly, learn the differences between cricket and baseball, discover British puddings and end with learning the steps to Morris Dancing. The vignettes are redirected and the last, depending upon the audience flies or falls. However it is fun and instructive.
The production has many fine points in revealing the history and customs, attitudes and variabilities between the two countries during wartime. And importantly, not only is the writing, especially in Act I crisp and well paced, it illustrates that although both countries evolved, some of the particularly noxious elements of behavior associated with both countries has not. The pompousness and sense of superiority that manifests culturally in Americans and the British needs work certainly.
The enlightened spoof of a typical Nazi spy school which instructs German soldier-spies and officers how to sow division and discord and how to pass for a countryman in England or America is an excellent reminder of how countries attempt to gain superiority in power domination. The carry-over is that this is done even in peacetime.
I couldn’t help but think of Russian efforts in their cyber-warfare campaigns against the UK with regard to Brexit and the US with regard to the 2016 election. Currently, Americans like Steven Bannon and other conservative groups in Germany and France are pushing forth an ultra right-wing propaganda agenda in concert with Russian efforts to push out liberal, democratic views, policies and perspectives. The spy techniques used in the theater of war in the Pacific and Europe during WWII, evidenced in this play, then and now are now effective psychological weapons to gain advantage. Indeed, many of these techniques and principles are largely used today in social media and alternative news sights to influence unwitting global citizens and strengthen lies, memes, mythologies to promote the policies of political groups, and also to divide. The divisions continue and of course, the country that remains unified and in a solid state will dominate.
In that I found this to be a vital production, not only in its humorous approach and clever writing and acting but also in the important themes of which we need to be reminded. Knowledge about the underlying customs, mores and graces that have held a culture together for centuries is valuable not only in war but also in peace. Divisions can only be created when religious sects, cultural groups with different values and mores are kept divided in separate communities without speaking to one another or sharing a cup of coffee or cup of sugar. Cultural divisions create discord, the perfect medium for an attacking enemy, especially on the internet.
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is instructive, funny and prescient. For a delightful and thematically trenchant evening give it a look-see at 59E59 Theaters. It runs with one intermission until 12 May. For tickets, go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR AMERICAN SERVICEMEN IN BRITAIN
Adapted with kind permission from the Bodleian Library’s publication “Instructions for American Servicemen, 1942” by Dan March, Matt Sheahan, James Millard, and John Walton; directed by John Walton
Produced by Fol Espoir in association with Jermyn Street Theatre and The Real MacGuffins, for Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters.
Posted on April 21, 2019, in NYC Theater Reviews, Off Broadway and tagged 59E59 Theaters, Dan March, Fol Espoir and Jermyn Street Theatre, Ins, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, James Millard, Matt Sheahan, The Real MacGuffins. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.