Mister Roberts (1948), a play by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan, had a successful three-year run on Broadway from 1948 to 1951. It was adapted from Heggen’s novel of the same name, which was published in 1946.
Mister Roberts takes place on a U.S. cargo ship that supplies the troops in the Pacific during the final months of World War II. Life on board is monotonous and tedious, and the men are frustrated and bored. They hate the tyrannical captain but feel great affection for Mr. Roberts, one of the officers. The play is mainly about Roberts’s attempts to get transferred to combat duty, his relationship with his men, and his conflict with the captain. It also abounds in comic incidents, many of which originated from Heggen’s real experiences aboard the USS Virgo (AKA-20), on which he served as a lieutenant from 1944 to 1945. Captain Randall of the Virgo really did have potted palm trees set proudly on his bridge, just as the fictional captain in Mister Roberts does, and these trees really were dumped overboard (by Heggen, as the story goes). As in the play, the crew of the Virgo spied on nurses in the showers, and in late 1944, Captain Randall forbad shore leave for his men the first few days the Virgo was back in San Francisco.
One of the more enduring plays to emerge from the World War II era, Mister Roberts shows, with a light touch, a side of war that is often forgotten—not the excitement or the heroism of battle, but the boredom of the men assigned to less glamorous work, where one’s enemies are as often as not the officers who hold power over them, rather than the soldiers or sailors of the opposing forces.