Critical Essay on Mister Roberts
Mister Roberts began its fictional life as a novel, but after the success of the book, Heggen became aware that it had the potential to be turned into a successful play. The story of how Mister Roberts metamorphosed from novel into play is a fascinating one and is told in John Leggett’s imaginative biography of Heggen and Ross Lockridge, Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies, and in co-playwright Joshua Logan’s memoir, Josh: My Up and Down, In and Out Life.
Not entirely confident of his own abilities to write the play he had in mind, Heggen at first turned to his friend, novelist Max Shulman, for assistance, and the two men agreed to collaborate. Shulman was aware that the novel was a series of largely unconnected episodes and that a play needed a real plot, with some dramatic tension. He thought this could be accomplished by creating a challenge to the Captain’s authority that the men could use to blackmail him. So he invented an incident in which the Captain was discovered with a native girl in his quarters. Nothing even remotely like this occurred in the novel, and when they completed the first draft, Heggen was aware of what a poor effort it was. Shulman’s agent agreed it was inadequate, as did producer Leland Hayward, who was interested in a dramatization of Mister Roberts and had asked to see the draft. Hayward complained that Shulman and Heggen had veered so far from the original book that the spirit of it had been lost. At Hayward’s request, Heggen agreed to work on a new version, this time on his own. He sent the first act to Hayward, who thought it had promise but was, like the novel, a series of fragments, without any connecting links. He decided to put Heggen in touch with Logan, who was a highly successful director of many hit plays, including the famous Annie Get Your Gun.
Logan read Heggen’s draft, and for the most part agreed with Hayward, but there was one scene which he felt Heggen had got exactly right: the scene in which the Captain has just refused to grant his men a liberty as they arrive at Elysium. In the novel, the Captain suddenly and inexplicably changes his mind and allows the liberty, and the entire incident lasts only for a paragraph. But in his draft for the play, Heggen had expanded this incident into what became the central moment of the play: the pact that the Captain strikes with Roberts, which happens because of Roberts’s devotion to his men and his desire to secure them a liberty. The Captain will allow the liberty only if Roberts writes no more transfer requests. Logan saw that Heggen had created a dramatic scenario that would work on stage, and this enabled him to visualize the entire play. Logan then thought up the substance of the second act: how the crew would start to dislike Roberts because they thought he was angling for a promotion, and then they would by chance discover their mistake and in a burst of gratitude would hold a drunken contest to pick the best forgery of the captain’s signature. (In the novel, Roberts simply receives an order to return to the United States for reassignment, without any subterfuge on the part of the crew. No explanation is offered as to why the official order comes through, after so many requests have been refused.)
Logan had all this in mind before he met Heggen, and when the two did meet, he soon convinced Heggen that he was the man who could turn Mister Roberts into a successful play. For three months during the fall of 1947, they worked together, Heggen staying at the Connecticut home of Logan and his wife. They would start work at about five in the afternoon and work through the night until about six in the morning. According to Leggett, ‘‘Logan’s strength was conceptual, seeing Mister Roberts in scene and narrative, while Tom’s was in character and dialogue.’’ Together they came up with a number of incidents not in the novel, including Roberts’s bribery of the port director with whiskey taken from Pulver, which leads to the hilarious...
(The entire section is 1650 words.)