A Veteran's Protest Play – Why The March of the Bonus Army Now?
Six actors use text and period music to illuminate a little known US historical event when WWI veterans during the Depression marched on Washington to demand a bonus they were promised, but never received. Playwright Isaac Rathbone and Director Cindy Rosenthal discuss why this moment in history matters today and the creative process in creating The March of the Bonus Army.
Cindy: This play tells a true story that is generally not taught in American history classes. Can you summarize what the Bonus Army was?
Isaac: Sure. In 1932, thousands of World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand adjusted compensation, or “bonus payments,” for their service time. During the War, civilians were paid higher wages than the men fighting overseas. Sadly, their lobbying efforts fell on deaf ears, as the US Army forced them out and killed some of them. There was such pride and patriotic fervor showered on these men in 1917, yet they were tragically abandoned as the years went on.
Cindy: What drew you to this specific event in our history? Why?
Isaac: It is an event that had a profound impact, however, as you mentioned, it is not widely known or even taught. As the United States has become involved in a constant string of international conflicts, the next wave of veterans continues to be challenged by the same issues veterans faced 100 years ago.
Cindy: As 2014 marks the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I, we are presenting a play about the plight of some veterans involved in that conflict. Why is this play so important to present now?
Isaac: As we now have the luxury of hindsight, we’re able to see how catastrophic yet incredibly dynamic those four years actually were. Researching the war and the following years, the ripple effects of World War I impacted not just international politics, but everything from race relations to art, music and literature. The Bonus Army is one of these ripples—it was one of the first times that the American public became aware of the struggles that some veterans go through when their military service is over. There was no real concept of “compensation” for veterans before and it helped pave the way for historic policy changes like the GI Bill.
Cindy: Not only is the subject of the play relevant to today’s veterans, it also highlights the right to demonstrate peacefully. The eviction of the Bonus Army conjures up modern sentiments of the Occupy Movement.
Isaac: Absolutely. The Bonus Army set up a massive, yet highly organized, tent city outside Washington. They lived and demonstrated peacefully. The reason for their violent eviction was the fear that they were staging some kind of Communist revolution, which was entirely untrue. Now, move forward in time eighty years, and we have a similar situation with Occupy Movement and their treatment and eviction.
Cindy: One of the elements that I’ve found fascinating about this moment in history was the fact that The Bonus Army was integrated and protestors of all races lived peacefully together.
Isaac: Yes, it was shocking to read that these Bonus Army veterans lived together in peacetime, but were segregated during wartime. The country was even more divided over race during that time period and the undercurrents of those issues are in the play. They are not the pervading issues at hand, but they show just how progressive this movement actually was for the time period.
Cindy: Do you believe this event is relevant to our veterans today?
Isaac: Absolutely. Our society tends to shy away a bit from what happens after the soldiers come home. Our country asks these men and women and their families to sacrifice a lot. So when a war is declared “over,” it’s never really over. And if our society chooses to fight in these conflicts, they must be dedicated to every single aspect of investment in peace and recovery.
Cindy: How did this play end up where it is now, and how did you get there?
Isaac: We were originally presented with the idea of creating something in conjunction with the 2012 Presidential Debate that was held at Hofstra University. There was an event called “Expressions of Democracy” that presented historical figures and stories throughout the day, and we wanted to present a truly American Story.
Cindy: Can you describe your process?
Isaac: I try to do as much historical research that relates to character as I can. The story is already there. What to present in terms of details needs to be figured out, but for the most part the dramatic events are literally written in stone. When I research the history, I make sure it relates to character as much as possible. So essentially, I’m looking for the human element and reactions to the events that have taken place.
Cindy: Why did you choose the particular songs for this play?
Isaac: The songs are almost all classic “Americana” pieces. Each has to convey a certain emotion at a particular point in the play, whether it’s dramatic or playful. A lot of these songs are a part of our culture and resonate historically. I also wanted pieces that a group of contemporary actors could learn and play live. So much of the Great Depression was about making something out of nothing, and that also included music and entertainment. So it’s imperative to the spirit of the play for the cast to be able to pick up a pair of spoons, a washboard and a ukulele and start playing.
Cindy: Almost all of the characters are named after geographic locations. Why did you make that decision?
Isaac: The play covers a lot of ground. Historically and geographically. I felt that it was important to make this more of a universal story about the Bonus Army and not about one single soldier’s journey. Our leading character Portland is a symbol of 20,000 demonstrators, rather than one single individual. It’s important that the one constant in the play is our country.