- Locating Fascism by Dislocating WarStage For Action’s Skin Deep
Aside from the attack on Pearl Harbor, American civilians during the twentieth century remained, for the most part, physically removed from the many sites of war in which the country was involved. Although World War II is often referred to as the least controversial of modern wars, it still had its detractors. Some of these were pacifists and others were anti-interventionists, yet there were also many citizens remaining disengaged because the fighting seemed recondite and distant; these individuals’ propensity for engagement was severely weakened by feelings of helplessness.1 Witnessing war from a distance often leads—after an initial outpouring of support and nationalistic fervor—to feelings of disconnection and even apathy. During World War II an exceptionally well-crafted government propaganda operation helped counteract this potential civilian apathy. Citizens sacrificed material comforts to aid in the war effort. Women were called on in much greater numbers to join the workforce as part of their patriotic duty, and children participated by purchasing war bonds as well as by growing victory gardens. Regardless, many remained largely disconnected from the prodigious social and political implications of the war.
Sensing the malaise U.S. citizens felt about entering another global conflict, theatre artists emerged as some of the most vigilant supporters of World War II. In July 1942, actor Philip Huston wrote in Equity, the Actors Equity Association Magazine, “The theatre can be important only where the need for it is important. And some three million khaki-clad arms point to where that need is.”2 The following summer FDR reinforced this in a statement eventually printed [End Page 151] in Billboard Magazine: “Entertainment is always a national asset; invaluable in time of peace, it is indispensable in wartime.”3 Theatre professionals and government organizations across the country answered the presidential call, and the USO (the United Service Organization—the Treasury Department’s entertainment program, founded in 1941), as well as the American Stage Wing with its Stage Door Canteens, rallied to support the troops through theatrics. As patriotic and entertaining as many of these performances were, they rarely traversed beyond engaging surface-level or nationally motivating problems, such as how to economically support the war effort or how to stay healthy while on combat missions. They infrequently addressed how the war impacts individuals or even the future social and economic structure of the United States. In this way, many wartime performances simply widened the geographical and ideological divide between the intentionality of American entrance into the war and how it affected those at home.
Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, reinforces this notion of how geographical and cultural distancing exacerbates wartime apathy: “It is because a war, any war, doesn’t seem as if it can be stopped that people become less responsive to the horrors. Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.”4 In 1943 the social activist performance collective Stage For Action (SFA) emerged and argued that action needs to be exercised locally in a productive and tangible way in order to combat a nation full of passivity. Starkly contrasting the relatively anemic government and commercially sponsored entertainments during World War II, Stage For Action was acutely aware of how the war abroad reflected challenges at home and used this pivotal moment both during and especially after the war’s conclusion to advocate for social change. This essay explores SFA’s performance of Skin Deep, revealing the group’s ability to theatrically translate the rather esoteric proposition of why we were fighting the war abroad—fascism—by connecting it directly to U.S. social issues at home.
SFA’s audiences were racially and religiously integrated and composed of people who did not have the financial means to experience antifascist views on Broadway in plays such as Decision, Watch on the Rhine, and Deep Are the Roots or who, as civilians, were ineligible to attend Stage Door Canteen and USO plays. SFA performed work illustrating that affronts to race, religion, and civil liberties in the United States mirrored the fascism of Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler...