Morris Carnovsky on the Broadway production of Johnny Johnson
Morris Carnovsky, who played Dr. Mahodan in the original production, discusses the psychiatrist scene
Cannons (voiced by the men's chorus) sing to the sleeping soldiers in "Song of the Guns"; Broadway, 1936
Minny Belle Thompkins (Phoebe Brand) and Johnny Johnson (Russell Collins); Broadway, 1936
The French Nurse (Paula Miller, behind the bed) sings "Mon ami, my friend" in Act II; Broadway, 1936
Johnny Johnson (Russell Collins) and the German sniper (Jules [= John] Garfield); Broadway, 1936.
The Adelphi Debating Society scene in the mental hospital; Broadway, 1936
by Mark N. Grant
It is April 1917, in a small-town square somewhere in middle America. The villagers gather to unveil a monument carved by the local stonecutter, Johnny Johnson. The Mayor reminds them that President Woodrow Wilson has declared America must stay out of foreign wars (). Minny Belle Tompkins, Johnny’s sweetheart, reads an original poem in honor of peace (), though her Grandpa Joe recalls his Civil War combat with unseemly relish (). Then a messenger delivers President Wilson’s declaration of war. The whole town, except Johnny, is instantly inflamed with a mindless martial spirit. Even weakling Anguish Howington, Johnny’s rival for Minny Belle’s affections, vows he will enlist. Johnny finally unveils his monument after everyone exits; it is inscribed to “Peace.”
A few days later, Aggie, Minny Belle’s widowed mother, discusses Johnny with Grandpa Joe as she sews (). Johnny gives a locket with his picture to Minny Belle, who receives it rapturously (). But when Johnny tells her he’s not sure he wants to go to war, Minny Belle breaks their engagement. After studying Wilson’s declaration, Johnny decides to join up after all. At the recruiting station the next day, Captain Valentine reads a movie magazine () while Anguish takes his physical. After he is rejected, Valentine and his staff examine Johnny. His unorthodox replies cause him to flunk the intelligence test, and two hulking privates throw him out. But when Johnny knocks one of them flat with a single punch, Captain Valentine inducts him after all. Despite Johnny’s incompetence at basic training (, ), he is sent to France. As the troop ship passes the Statue of Liberty, Johnny addresses the statue, hailing the ideals she represents. As he falls asleep, she explains that she is merely an inanimate symbol, misused to send young men off to die ().
As the newly arrived American soldiers walk toward the front lines, a cortege of lame and blind French soldiers stumble away (). The new soldiers settle into the trenches with their British counterparts, and Johnny brings tea (). At nightfall, one homesick soldier sings of Texas (), and Johnny dreams of Minny Belle (). Three cannon muzzles take center stage and sing to the sleeping soldiers, saying that they are only metal that might have been put to better use ().
Johnny sets out at dawn to find a pesky German sniper and captures him. Since the young man speaks English, Johnny encourages him to stoke resistance to the war among the rank and file and sends him back to enemy lines. Captain Valentine appears and tries to gun down the sniper over Johnny’s objections. When the Germans return fire, Johnny is shot in the buttocks.
A flirtatious French nurse tends to Johnny in the hospital (). A doctor enters with a canister of laughing gas, but he loses track of it when the Sister enters. Shocked by his lack of fervor, she accuses Johnny of treason; he subdues her with laughing gas and sneaks out with the canister. Later the same night the Allied commanders convene in a splendid chateau. The generals plan strategy, casually discussing the thousands of lives that will be lost (). Suddenly Johnny appears and announces that the German soldiers are ready to call a truce. As the generals try to seize him, Johnny releases the laughing gas. The commanders collapse in hilarity () and send Johnny back to the front lines with an order ending the war, but they revoke it the instant the gas wears off.
Johnny rushes to the battlefield and proclaims the end of hostilities. Despite the joyful reaction from both sides, Johnny is accused of spying and an order is given to continue fighting. Over renewed shellbursts, an American and a German priest simultaneously intone prayers (). When the smoke clears, Johnny is arrested and returned to America.
Johnny is committed to a mental hospital, where the chief psychiatrist, Dr. Mahodan, extols modern psychiatric methods (). He tells Minny Belle that Johnny is suffering from “peace monomania” and must remain indefinitely. Ten years pass. Johnny helps form a debating society () in which each inmate resembles a well-known American statesman. They vote for a Wilsonian “League of World Republics,” and Dr. Frewd–another patient–leads them in the . The hospital directors, accompanied by Anguish (now a benefactor), enter the room on an inspection tour. The directors tell him that Johnny is soon to be released. Anguish coldly informs Johnny that he married Minny Belle years earlier.
In the final scene, a prematurely aged Johnny stands on a street corner hawking handmade toys while a war rally goes on in a nearby stadium. As the roar from the stadium grows louder, Johnny lifts his voice in a song of hope against the cruelty and dishonesty all around him ().
"Makes you laugh, cry and boil. The first anti-war play to use laughing gas in its attack on the stupidity of mankind, and to my mind the most effective of all satires in its class."
New Yorker, 1936
"People who believe that plays should be written about intelligent themes have something to be thankful for. Johnny Johnson is an original and deeply moving piece of work."
New York Times, 1936
"A hilarious medley of satire, musical comedy, melodrama, farce, social polemic and parable. A delectable score by that brilliant German exile, Kurt Weill. It is to the eternal credit of Johnny Johnson that in its high moments it has a way of recalling you to the quality of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest comedy Shoulder Arms."
New York Herald Tribune, 1936
"It is at once abrasive and gently elegiac in its deep revulsion against modern warfare. Its glory is its score by the late Kurt Weill . . . . It combines the sophisticated, bittersweet tunes of the pre-Hitler Berlin music-hall and the plaintive folksongs of America. Johnny Johnson was his first attempt to mix these two styles, and it is magnificent. One of the great scores of the modern theater."
The Record, 1971
"This score . . . is one of Weill's best. It is both sardonic and lyrical and employs a small orchestra brilliantly."
Daily News, 1971
"Most 'lost' shows deserve to stay lost, but not Kurt Weill's and Paul Green's Johnny Johnson. Where has this musical been all our lives? It is a knockout . . . . Johnny Johnson is an antiwar fable, yes. But Paul Green's story is about as naive as one of Uncle Remus' tales. You think you’re laughing at it; but it’s laughing at you . . . . Its freshness and relevance are startling."
Los Angeles Times, 1986
"A big, broad and stunning show: at times brutal and alarming; at other times as naïve and refreshing as backyard Americana."
Hollywood Reporter, 1986
"Paul Green's pacifist libretto about a First World War soldier remains funny and touching, and the music is among the potent best of the too little known, nostalgically melodic style Weill first cultivated in France, between his German and American careers."
Village Voice, 1989
"This show still proves to be fascinating, filled with the most haunting songs, one after the other, illustrating a pacifist and premonitory text--a story worthy of Chaplin's Great Dictator."
Le Croix, 2000
"Both moving and hilarious and still carries an enormous punch . . . . The music mixes the incisive, edgy style of Weill's German period with the more lyrical aspects of his later American musical shows . . . . Johnny Johnson cries out to be given a complete staging."