Tuesday, February 3, 2009

LIBERTY LANE

This one is in pretty sad state: no cover and a barely legible first page. Nevertheless, LIBERTY LANE (1943), by Catherine Allison Christie and adapted by Lilburne Hoffman, is an intruiging snapshot of schoolchildren and the wartime mentality.

The first act is Uncle Sam, studying the globe and worried because he doesnt think America really has it any more. He despairs. But Miss Liberty (whom he doesnt quite recognize at first -- an interesting little point, given the times) urges him to be more optimistic and then, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, takes him back to the high points of American history: Washington, Lincoln, and the soldiers of World War 1, whose glorious return from battle rings down the curtain on Act One.

The second act suddenly moves to the rehearsal for a Bond Rally, to be presented by the Boy Scouts (or, as the author indicates, the Girl Scouts, or just any old bunch of kids if you dont happen to have any Boy -- or Girl -- Scouts). It's not going well: the girls cant get the lights positioned right and the boys cant remember their lines. But they start to muddle through, even though "Uncle Sam" cant find his pants and "Miss Liberty" has come down with the mumps.

But then we see the US dealing with problems never before encountered... like ration books, who appear -- accompanied by jars of fruit, meat, and gasoline -- and tell the incipient audience that, yeah, times are tough "but we're winning the war!". These are followed by gremlins, who put "too much salt in the meat and too much starch in your shirt".

And now the Gardeners, whose home gardens are threatened by evil Weeds. But the Gardeners prevail and cut the Weeds down, then dispatch the Gremlins as well. Then everyone, including the Act One Uncle Sam and Miss Liberty, as well as Washington, Lincoln, the WW1 soldiers, and a colour guard -- return to the stage for a rousing patriotic finale, in praise of kids as the future of America.

LIBERTY LANE is a mixture of old standards, like Yankee Doodle Dandy, and somewhat over the top patriotism, such as the title song:

Come on come on along
March on forever down Liberty Lane
Come on singing a song
Faltering never in Liberty Lane

It is the trail of the red white and blue
It will not fail to bring freedom to you

So come where honor and glory reign
March down Liberty Land

... or the finale:

Lead on, Young America
Lead on, Young America
Come from the verdant fields
Come from the sandy shore
Come now, come now
A million more

Come for your country needs your service true
Come for your country's calling you and you
To lead on, Young America
Firm and free
Our own native land
We sing to thee

... which is sung in counterpoint to My country tis of thee.

I have to admit, I'm somewhat taken aback by the unabashed patriotic spirit of this little work. It wears its stars-and-stripes heart on its sleeve, make no mistake about it, and it does so with a naive gusto that would make it the envy of every flag-wrapping senator in Congress today. It deals not only with whipping up fervent glee for America but also addresses the problems that came with the war, like rationing and all the thousands of daily little annoyances that come with a full-blown wartime economy.

And it is so amazingly innocent...

I find it a little interesting to compare the tone of this to what we have to deal with today: World War 2 certainly had its share of big time governmental blunders, like the California internment camps for Japanese Americans, but it had a focus that led to a specific purpose. And we havent seen that since. Maybe it's because everything from Korea on hasnt really been a war (since they were never formally declared as such), and this most recent fiasco has demonstrated that we cant just go into other regions, play kingmaker, and then expect everyone to just love us for trying to remake the world in our own image.

Somehow, I just cant see a work like LIBERTY LANE today -- nor can I imagine a return of the Bond Rallies that inspired it. For a half century now, people have grown more and more suspicious of war as a way to solve problems -- not because it's not necessary but because we always seem to get stuck with leaders that cant do it with honesty and integrity. About the closest thing we have to bond rallies these days are the our political conventions... and that's pretty sad, when you think about it.

If anything, LIBERTY LANE is a very, very harsh mirror on American society today. Its one-dimensional love of country would no doubt inspire mild derision in audiences today, but it should also make us ashamed for not following through on Uncle Sam's and Miss Liberty's hopes for what was then the future. The children of LIBERTY LANE grew up to be even more monstrous than the enemies we faced during the war. If he werent sad already, I'm betting Uncle Sam is now feeling downright suicidal.

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