100 Years after World War I, Tim Robbins on Militarism, Dissent, and Johnny For His Gun

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By Ed Rampell

The Actors’ Gang’s “2018/19 Hellzapoppin Season” opens with an adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war classic about a World War I soldier terribly maimed by an explosion at the front lines.

Director Tim Robbins is an Academy Award winner (Best Supporting Actor for 2003’s Mystic River), was Oscar-nominated for Best Director for 1995’s Dead Man Walking, and has received a number of Golden Globe awards and nominations. After graduating UCLA in 1981 where he studied drama, Robbins co-founded The Actors’ Gang, which has been his theatrical acting, writing, and directing home for 37 years. In addition to his commitment to the boards, as Artistic Director Robbins imbues The Actors’ Gang with a socially conscious ethos combined with avant-garde aesthetics, such as its anti-Vietnam War play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, produced in 2009 as the Iraq War raged. Here, Robbins discusses the production, his company, his thoughts on war, and politics in art.

@THIS STAGE: Why did you choose to produce and direct Johnny Got His Gun? Did you present this play about a World War I doughboy now because Nov. 11 is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I?

ROBBINS: Actually it was not something I was thinking of. The timing of it just happened to work out that way. …Bradley [Rand Smith] sent me the script in the spring around the same time I was considering what to do in the season. We did a reading of it. I really loved it – I loved the book and I loved the writing in the book. A few years ago I’d done an Off-Broadway show called Trumbo in New York, which was a reading of [Dalton Trumbo’s] letters and I’ve been admiring his writing for years. [Smith’s Johnny] was so beautifully poetic, it captured the spirit in the book, this great spirit of survival, strength, love of life, celebration of life in a beautiful yet small way. After reading it I contacted [Smith] and asked him if it’d be possible to do a production… I realized it was a much more relevant story to tell than The Madwoman of Chaillot [as originally planned].

@THIS STAGE: Why is Johnny relevant?

ROBBINS: Because, metaphorically, there is a paralysis in the country right now that is related to the story of Johnny Got His Gun… It also works as a condemnation of war. I heard the drumbeat starting to beat about Iran and in a literal sense Johnny Got His Gun is about a veteran who has been abandoned. There are Joe Bonhams in VA hospitals all across the U.S. that have been forgotten. Their stories are not being told.

@THIS STAGE: Smith wrote Johnny as a one-man show originally starring Jeff Daniels in 1982. He told me this is the first time his version has been produced with a full cast. Why did you decide to open it up, expand it?

ROBBINS: When I first read it, it felt to me very lyrical and different voices could be manifested. That entire play takes place inside Joe’s head… Some of the voices inside him, like parents and loved ones, would further illuminate the play.

@THIS STAGE: What are the directing challenges of staging the mise-en-scène for a character as horribly disabled as Joe?

ROBBINS: I thought it was very important that we not get lost in the tragedy of it. The thing I find inspiring about the book and this adaptation is that Joe Bonham is going to fight for survival. I and the cast found that very inspiring and strangely uplifting. … Normally, when you’re assembling strangers you’re trying to make an ensemble, but with The Actors’ Gang the ensemble already exists. It allows us to fast forward in the rehearsal process to a much deeper level in a very quick way. From the moment of the first rehearsal to the first performance was about three weeks. We were able to achieve so much in that time period because we have an ensemble of actors that have been working together for years and know each other and how to get on their feet right away and make discoveries. This is a rare thing, I know – to have access to this, and I’ve been very fortunate to have that for the past 37 years.

@THIS STAGE: Johnny is very much about memory, how Joe’s mind and the human mind work to remember. How can works of art be used for the purposes of historical remembrance, commemoration of important events and people?

ROBBINS: All works of art that resonate with people have a subject matter that is relevant to their lives. The cycles of history are such that we tend to repeat our mistakes – probably because there are not enough reminders in our art and culture about the machinations that lead to war. 

@THIS STAGE: World War I was fought as “the war to end all wars.” It brought warfare to new mechanized levels of mass butchery and carnage. Abroad, it brought us the Russian Revolution. At home it spawned the surveillance state – the Espionage Act, which imprisoned people such as Eugene Debs, who was imprisoned for being antiwar. It later led to the Palmer Raids. As one of our leading dissenters, who publicly, bravely opposed the Iraq War, how do you feel about World War I?

ROBBINS: As any student of history will tell you, there’s a direct relation between the House of Morgan and the British pound and the shoring up of the currency that had a lot to do with our involvement in that war. Our bullet points in history say it was the assassination of [Austro-Hungarian Archduke] Ferdinand that led to the war, that’s the scenario we were taught. Certainly, that had an effect, but our involvement with that war had to do with other things that aren’t taught to us in our history books.

@THIS STAGE: President Woodrow Wilson is often held up as a great liberal icon for a new internationalist world order, the League of Nations and so on. And Johnny deals with some of these platitudes. What do you think of Woodrow Wilson?

ROBBINS: I don’t think much about Woodrow Wilson. [Laughs.]

@THIS STAGE: Johnny isn’t the first WWI play The Actors’ Gang has mounted.  In 2008 The Gang revived Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead. In 2004 The Gang presented Embedded, a scathing anti-Iraq War satire you wrote. Why is it important for your theater to present antiwar, anti-militarism plays?

ROBBINS: It’s important for any arts organization to stand in defiance against propaganda. As we saw with the Iraq War, the manipulation of media and public opinion and the outright lies of the Bush administration led to an unnecessary waste of human lives and potential and a depletion of our resources. It seems to me like a responsibility The Actors’ Gang has, to tell stories that are relevant to the here and now, and we will always try to maintain a connection with our audience and the world as it is. They ask important questions and try to inspire dialogue on important issues that have potentially disastrous consequences.

(Photo by Ashley Randall.)

@THIS STAGE: The Gang has also presented a stage version of George Orwell’s 1984. Do you see an affinity between Winston Smith and Joe Bonham as underdogs resisting an all powerful state?

ROBBINS: Not necessarily. I do see a correlation in what Orwell wrote in the War is Peace chapter, about the nature of war, post-nuclear bomb, that for me was incredibly prescient and probably the most accurate representation of why we are in a seemingly perpetual war against an undefeatable enemy. Orwell wrote that the nature of war changed after WWII – because of the nuclear bomb it would no longer be a contest about annihilation. Instead, it became about depleting one’s own society’s resources to keep the power structure intact.

@THIS STAGE: Playwright Trumbo was the leftwing screenwriter who in 1947 became one of Tinseltown’s outcast artists known as the Hollywood Ten, later helping break the Blacklist when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger gave Trumbo screen credit for the 1960 epics Spartacus and Exodus. Tell us how you feel about Dalton Trumbo? What’s your favorite Trumbo movie?

ROBBINS: Exodus and Spartacus are two of my favorites. I find him to be a very human writer who understands human nature and [who is] able to tell stories that are larger than they at first appear to be. …The way he writes about events in life with such humanity – he does it in such a simple way it’s quite beautiful.

@THIS STAGE: The only feature Trumbo directed was his 1971 adaptation of Johnny. What did you think of it?

ROBBINS: It’s an interesting movie, quite experimental in nature. I’ve always admired those who take chances. I felt inspired by the idea that he did that film at that age [65]. He was perpetually young in the sense that his eyes were open and living life in an experiential way that you oftentimes associate with a younger man.

@THIS STAGE: Tell us about The Actors’ Gang’s upcoming shows?

ROBBINS: Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a brilliant play written by Italian playwright Dario Fo [first produced 1970 in Italy]. I got to know Dario in the last years of his life; he became a mentor to me. He came to see our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when it was in Milan and wrote the most beautiful letter to us…

The first play I ever read that made me think I could write plays was Accidental Death of an Anarchist. It’s fast, funny, very satirical and strong in its look into corruption within law enforcement… He was satirizing and calling attention to something that’s become all too common in police departments in the U.S. So we thought it was a very timely play and screaming out to be done.

I co-wrote The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer with Adam Simon in 1986, a satire about a young farmer made into a patriotic symbol through use of the media. It talks about the connection between business interests that profit off of war and the stronghold they have over the mass media. It also talks about celebrity culture, something at the time I was starting to deal with as an actor working in movies. A lot of those same anxieties and concerns still exist and, in fact, multiplied. Talks about the artificiality of that and the cynical use of celebrity to manipulate opinion.

@THIS STAGE: What do you think of the recent sending of explosives to notable people, including actor Robert De Niro, who’d publicly denounced Trump at the Tony Awards ceremony?

ROBBINS: [Vocal exasperation.] Well I think we’re in the middle of an unholy mess. And I feel the president’s rhetoric is very dangerous. I don’t see how it comes out well, quite frankly. I feel that division being stoked by Trump, division that had already been firmly in place, is what I believe to be a strategy to keep people in power who don’t have the best interests of the public at large. The strategy has existed since the deregulation of the airwaves – what we see is an intended consequence of the lack of regulation on the airwaves. It used to be that anyone who had a license to broadcast had a certain responsibility to the public they were serving. And political agendas were not allowed.

Elimination of the Fairness Doctrine [during the Reagan era] paved the way for a propaganda machine that has been for the last 35 years to divide the public, to ensure the longevity of agendas that were counterintuitive for people to support… It’s something I noticed back then. It’s in Bob Roberts [a 1992 film satire written/directed by Robbins who acted opposite author Gore Vidal] and my early work. What we have in Trump is someone who is a naked representation of that deception. What’s stunning to me – it’s not Trump, because it was bound to happen – but it’s that so many people have bought into it. That’s what’s truly frightening.


Johnny Got His Gun is playing now through November 10th at The Actors’ Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232. Performances run Thursday – Saturday 8:00 pm with select Sunday 2:00 pm matinees. Johnny Got His Gun has been extended through November 14; for details visit www.theactorsgang.com for tickets and more information.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/.