24th December 2022
Remember Pearl Harbor!
The injunction that screamed from recruiting posters during WWII still brings together citizens of West Haven, Connecticut (and surrounding boroughs) for a modest ceremony every 7th of December, the anniversary of the 1941 Japanese sneak attack.
Because of rain, this year’s commemoration was held indoors at the Veteran’s Museum. It furnished an occasion to observe how elements of theatre help participants “remember” events of which they have no first-hand knowledge. For those who go every year, the event marks the passage of time (“it’s December again) while simultaneously promising to stop time in its tracks (“we’ll never forget!”). For theatre people it’s a study in the flawed technology of induced emotions.
In The Empty Space, Peter Brook described a banquet he attended in Stratford-on-Avon to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.
“…a list of people from Who’s Who assembled round Prince Philip, eating smoked salmon and steak. Ambassadors nodded to one another and passed the ritual red wine. I chatted with the local M.P. Someone made a formal speech and we listened politely—and rose to our feet to toast William Shakespeare. At the moment the glasses clinked—for not more than a fraction of a second, through the common consciousness of everyone present, and all for one moment concentrating of the same thing—passed the notion that four hundred years ago such a man had been, and that this was what we were assembled for.”
Brook goes on to complain that because we know so little about ritual behavior such moments of communal understanding are frequently blotched: the desired awareness is difficult to produce and almost impossible to prolong.
At the Veteran’s Museum, I found myself in company with eight elderly men wearing nylon bomber jackets describing their service in Vietnam; a few municipal officials; a clergyman; a bugler and squads of West Haven police and firemen in dress uniform.
The chairman welcomes us.
There’s an opening prayer.
The colors are presented by a police honor guard.
A local woman sings The Star-Spangled Banner and does quite well. This is no mean feat as the American anthem is notoriously difficult to sing, especially a cappella.
The mayor being indisposed, a city councilman speaks briefly. He reminds us that 2403 died at Pearl Harbor, including 49 civilians who were hit by some of the quarter-million anti-aircraft rounds that had to fall to earth somewhere.
One of the Vietnam veterans lays a ceremonial wreath. Because the event is indoors in cramped quarters, this means lifting the wreath on its stand and moving it forward about two meters.
There follows a solemn moment: the reading of the names of the 18 Connecticut servicemen who died in the attack, each time followed by the ship or airfield where he died and his hometown. After each name, a fireman strikes a chrome-plated bell kept by the Department for this purpose, the sound mixing with the sound of rain on the metal roof and a third sound, of unknown origin, that resembled the crumbling of paper.
Finally, a retired serviceman plays “Taps” on the bugle.
The chairman thanks us for coming, and then it’s over.
Setting off the solemnity of the whole are parenthetical moments that are purely spontaneous and “in the moment”: the chairman thanks the organizers; regretting only that the local Boy Scout Troup is unavailable to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. He praises the museum and invites us to view the exhibits before we disperse.
The museum turns out to be of a piece with the commemoration: weapons, maps, medals and military equipment in glass cases. Uniforms of various periods on white, department-store mannequins that somehow suggest that the original wearers of the uniforms were both cute and fashionable.
The event was underwhelming, but I don’t regret going. With my co-memorialists, I’d done my best to invest a scant hour with deeper meaning. We’d witnessed our own seriousness, harnessed our behavior to the task of evoking an appropriate feeling—or at least an awareness. In my case, at least, these feelings, if attained, would be unearned: I’d never been to Pearl Harbor even as a tourist. I’d never been to war, never been in the military. I was writing a play about the Pacific War and doing my best to research my subject. I wanted to feel something. I was an audience member first and foremost. Everything I saw and heard was painted in basic shades of theatre, which is why I write about it in a theatre magazine.
For the aging Vietnam veterans in attendance, better informed, the feelings must have been quite different.
Eighty-two years ago, ostensibly in a time of peace, many men (and some women) died on warships that burned or capsized or at airfields and port facilities that were bombed and strafed. Eighteen of them were from my state. The ceremony did little to summon the horror of that day, but wasn’t that the point? Don’t we appreciate the magnitude of events better when we can’t quite grasp them, even in imagination?
Brook states the problem this way:
Goodwill, sincerity, reverence, belief in culture are not quite enough: the outer form can only take on real authority if the ceremony has equal authority—and who today can possibly call the tune? Of course, today as at all times, we need to stage true rituals, but for rituals that could make theatre-going an experience that feeds our lives, true forms are needed. These are not at our disposal…. we have lost all sense of ritual and ceremony—whether it be connected with Christmas, birthdays or funerals—but the words remain with us, and old impulses stir in the marrow.
To Brook’s complaint—at least as concerns Pearl Harbor Day—the municipality of West Haven, Connecticut can bravely reply, “we’re doing our best.”