Beim's Use of People Setting and Props

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The Deserter is a depressing play. Within two scenes in one short act, the audience is introduced to a soldier, slowly realizes that this soldier is going to be shot for desertion, and then watches as the soldier is led off stage at the end to die. On the surface, this all appears very simple. In fact, Beim notes the simplicity of the plot in the notes on the play in the preface of his Six Award Winning Plays. Beim says, ‘‘Eddie Slovik, The Soldier, is brought to a deserted chateau in France by a guard, given his last rites by a priest and led off to his execution.’’ Within this deceivingly simple premise, however, Beim carefully uses his characters’ names, his setting, and his props to magnify the ominous mood created by the main character’s impending death.

One of the first things that is noticeable about the play is that the soldier has no name. Although Beim admits that the character is based upon the real-life person, Eddie Slovik, the soldier is listed only as ‘‘The Soldier’’ in the printed cast of characters. In addition, the only two characters that the soldier comes in contact with, the sergeant and the priest, never refer to the soldier by name. For example, when the play starts, the soldier asks for a paper and pencil. The sergeant replies, ‘‘The Corporal went to get you some. You want something to eat?’’ For the rest of their discussion, the soldier is referred to only as ‘‘you.’’ Likewise, when the priest arrives to give the soldier his last rites, he says to the sergeant, ‘‘I’d like to be alone with the prisoner.’’ From this point on, the priest only refers to the soldier with terms like ‘‘you,’’ ‘‘son,’’ or ‘‘boy.’’

While one could argue that Beim does not use names because he is trying to keep his characters talking in an informal fashion, other clues in the story point to Beim’s deliberate use of an anonymous identity for the soldier. Namely, the other two characters, the priest and the sergeant, both have names. When the priest first enters, he tells the sergeant, ‘‘I’m Father Murray.’’ Also, even though the sergeant is not mentioned by name throughout most of the play, at the end the soldier reveals that he does know the sergeant’s name. The soldier says, ‘‘Thank you, Sergeant Garrel.’’ So why does Beim keep the doomed soldier anonymous? His impending death sentence wipes out the necessity for a name. The soldier, who had a name in life, is shortly going to be dead, so his name is not important. By making his soldier anonymous, however, Beim is also suggesting the anonymity of war, specifically the World War II of the setting and the Vietnam War that was recently over when he wrote the play. These two wars resulted in massive casualties, so many that it is sometimes hard to keep track of the names of the lost. This anonymity is one of the horrors of war that Beim hopes to underscore with his play. As a result, Beim uses the anonymity of his character to amplify the mood, or emotional quality, of the play.

Besides his deft use of character names, or lack of character names, Beim also underscores the deathly qualities of war through his setting. The play takes place in an empty house, a deserted setting. Emptiness is also commonly used to suggest death, especially when the empty setting is one that should not be empty. In other words, the European country house that the characters are at has obviously been...

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deserted. Given the circumstances of World War II, the inhabitants most likely fled from the Nazi terror or were killed before they could flee. In either case, the owners are long gone, casting an ominous feeling over the place. The coldness of the house underscores this idea. When the soldier and the sergeant first arrive, the soldier says he has a cold, and the sergeant tells him ‘‘there’s no place to light a fire here.’’ The soldier, however, points out the fireplace. The sergeant replies, ‘‘Well, there ain’t no wood. Besides, we ain’t gonna be here long, anyway.’’ The fact that they are not even going to be there long enough to light a fire amplifies the mood of impending doom in the play. In addition, the lack of firewood, in a climate that is obviously prone to harsh winters, supports the idea that this house is a dead place that has not been used by anybody in a while.

The play takes place in winter, which is another deliberate move on Beim’s part. The real-life Eddie Slovik was also shot in winter, so one could write this off as Beim being true to his historical material. However, just as Beim chose to make his soldier character anonymous for greater effect, he could also have chosen to set the play in a different season if it better suited his purpose. Setting the play in winter makes sense, given the dark mood of the play. The season of winter has strong symbolic meaning. A symbol is a physical object, action, or gesture that also represents an abstract concept, without losing its original identity. Winter is technically just the concrete amount of time that humans measure on a calendar to indicate the season. However, winter has long symbolized death, since it is the end of the natural cycle for many plant life and animals. Most trees lose their leaves in the fall and remain barren all winter. Certain animals hibernate in a death-like sleep during the winter season and, in general, the natural world appears to die, awaiting spring for its rebirth. Writers, philosophers, and others have traditionally made use of this natural cycle to associate winter with death. Since The Deserter has a grim mood that reflects the soldier’s impending death, it makes sense that Beim chooses to keep the play set in winter.

Beim’s choice of props also make sense. At first glance, it appears that the play uses very few props, which is true. However, each prop is used to great effect, further amplifying the grim mood of impending doom. Most of the major props are introduced right away. The first prop being sheets in the room. The stage notes indicate the following: ‘‘The furniture in the room and the French windows are covered with dust cloths.’’ Although it is early morning, these cloths on the windows render the room completely dark. In addition, the fact that the furniture is covered means that it has not been used in a while. This further underscores the idea that the house is a dead place that has not been used in a while. The sheet-covered furniture and windows are apparent to the audience even before the soldier and the sergeant enter.

When these two characters enter, the next two props, candles and guns, are introduced. Before the first candle is introduced, the room is completely dark. Darkness, like winter, is often used symbolically to suggest death. It appears that this is Beim’s intent. The stage notes indicate the following: ‘‘(A SOLDIER enters the room, handcuffed and unarmed, followed by a SERGEANT, armed with a pistol and a rifle. The SERGEANT carries a lighted candle.)’’ The fact that the soldier enters the room in complete darkness is significant because he is already marked for darkness or death. The sergeant, on the other hand, carries a source of light, which is often used symbolically to suggest death’s opposite— life. Thus, the sergeant, who is not facing a death sentence is allowed to carry the symbol of life.

On a similar note, the sergeant’s guns further underscore the idea of the soldier’s impending death, since guns are used to take life. This is especially true since the soldier’s execution is carried out by rifle. The sergeant’s life-giving candle offers the soldier a brief reprieve—‘‘About an hour,’’ as the sergeant notes—but only long enough for the doomed soldier to write his letter to his wife. In fact, the soldier’s letter is another major prop that is used to great effect. Throughout the first scene, Beim has had his soldier explain his reasons for deserting to the sergeant. In the process, the audience starts to feel sorry for the soldier. The letter helps amplify the audience’s sympathy for the soldier. ‘‘There’s only been one good thing in my life and that was you,’’ writes the soldier. ‘‘I never thought I could be so happy on this earth. Your love has made everything worthwhile for me.’’ The letter shows the soldier, a former criminal, to be a good man, who was finally getting his life back on track, but who now is going to be punished for doing what he believes was right. ‘‘I would do it again. This war is a terrible thing,’’ writes the soldier. The letter is also important because it is the soldier’s last. When his wife receives it, her husband will already be dead. Because of this, the letter, like the other props, amplifies the grim mood in the play.

In the end, even though Beim’s play is short and simple in concept, it packs a lot of punch by creating a grim mood of impending death. Through its use of character names, setting and props, Beim hooks his audience and forces them to see the horrors of war, something that he experienced himself in World War II. In fact, like Eddie Slovik, and like the soldier character that Beim created to represent Slovik, Beim was unsure about the morality of his role in the war. Beim says in the preface to his Six Award Winning Plays, ‘‘I had qualms about bearing arms and killing my fellow man. ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ the Bible said. How ironic that morality can be twisted to suit the times.’’ In his own time, with the Vietnam War just recently over, Beim wrote The Deserter, which ultimately uses a grim mood to make a statement about this twisting of morality that takes place during times of war.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on The Deserter, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.

The Needs of the Individual Citizen

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Beim’s one-act play The Deserter is set during the final months of World War II and concerns an American soldier who is about to be executed for deserting his unit and refusing to fire his gun at the enemy. With one hour to spare before the execution takes place, the soldier, as he is identified in the play, reveals much about his life history leading up to the act of desertion. He speaks first with the sergeant who keeps guard over him, and then with a military Catholic priest who is brought in to take his last confession. Based on the soldier’s dialogue with these men, as well as the contents of the letter he writes to his wife, the reader is provided with enough information to piece together a basic outline of his life. Through this process of self-revelation, the soldier describes his encounters with various societal institutions, including the nuclear family, the economic system, the Catholic Church, the mass media, and the military. Beim thereby portrays a series of conflicts between the individual and society, as played out in the soldier’s encounters with these institutions. In this condensed dramatic narrative, Beim demonstrates that the soldier’s ‘‘crime’’ of desertion is the result, not of a character defect in the individual, but a failure of society to uphold a morally and ethically consistent system of values and to provide adequately for the needs of individual citizens. Beim thus implies that society has failed the individual through a system of faulty institutions.

The first societal institution encountered by the soldier is that of the nuclear family. Through the soldier’s descriptions of his childhood and family life, Beim demonstrates the ways in which the institution of the family has failed to adequately provide for the well-being of the child. The soldier explains that his parents neglected and abused him and his brother when they were children. He tells the sergeant, ‘‘My parents were rotten. They were no good,’’ adding, ‘‘they never cared about me or my brother.’’ He later says that his parents used to drink and fight a lot. The soldier attributes his youthful criminal behavior to these failings on the part of his parents to properly raise and nurture him as a child. Through the soldier’s account of his unfortunate childhood, Beim demonstrates that the societal institution of the nuclear family, purportedly responsible for the care and upbringing of children, fails to account for children whose parents are unwilling or unable to properly raise and nurture them.

The soldier’s acts of theft while still a child are attributed to the failure of the economic system, as well as the failure of the nuclear family. He relates a series of robberies, arrests, and incarcerations undergone by himself and his brother. While he indicates that his acts of theft were partly due to neglect on the part of his parents, the soldier also implies that his parents were poor and did not have enough money to feed their children sufficiently. He explains that he and his brother were never adequately fed, as a direct result of which they committed their first acts of robbery. He tells the sergeant, ‘‘My brother and I never used to have enough to eat. That’s why we started stealing in the first place. Just to get something to eat.’’ When the sergeant comments that there are other ways of obtaining food besides stealing (such as working to earn a living), the soldier responds by pointing out that, as a child, he was not in a position to earn his own living. Thus, the soldier’s family background of poverty is demonstrated to be in part responsible for his criminal behavior. Beim thereby implies that a societal system of economic inequality and inadequate assistance for the poor, particularly for poor children, is largely to blame for the soldier’s crimes.

The failure of the economic system to adequately address the needs of the individual is further indicated by the struggles of the soldier and his wife to maintain financial stability. The soldier tells the sergeant that he and his wife ‘‘ain’t got nothing, and we both worked hard.’’ This admission indicates that even those willing to work hard for their living often find that they are barely able to make ends meet. Further, their financial struggles are exacerbated when he is drafted into the army. He explains that they had finally earned enough money to get a nice apartment and plan to have a child when he got drafted. Because he was not paid enough by the army to maintain their moderate economic gains, his wife was unable to afford their apartment and had to move out. In addition, their furniture, which had not been fully paid for yet, was taken away from them. The failure of the economic system is further indicated by the soldier’s concern about getting a military pension. He hopes that his wife will receive his military pension after he is executed but assumes that the nature of his crime will disqualify her for these benefits. Through these details of the soldier’s financial concerns in regard to his wife, Beim indicates that the economic system often fails to ensure financial stability for many of its citizens. In addition, the economic system fails to account for people such as the soldier’s wife, who is too ill to support herself financially without the assistance of her husband.

The soldier relates a series of encounters with the Catholic Church that had a strong effect on his life. As with the family and the economic system, it seems that the church failed to accommodate his individual circumstances in life. He explains that he and his wife were not allowed to get married in a Roman Catholic Church because his parents had baptized him in the wrong church. He comments that he does not know how it happened that his parents did this, but says that the priest refused to marry them because of it. In this instance, the soldier was again failed by his family in ways that were completely beyond his control. He asserts that he has always been a Catholic and that his wife, though not a Catholic, had attended Catholic church with him and agreed to provide their children with a Catholic upbringing. The refusal of the priest to marry them, despite the soldier’s deep religious faith and genuine efforts to live up to the ideals of the church, indicates an institution that places rigid institutional policies above the specific circumstances of the individual.

As well as the failure of the nuclear family, the economic system, and the church to adequately address the needs of the individual, the soldier indicates that even the institution of the mass media failed to adequately prepare him for the realities of war. He comments that he and his wife used to go out to the movies several times a week, and that these movies misrepresented the experience of war. In the letter to his wife, the soldier tells her ‘‘This war is a terrible thing.’’ He describes the dead bodies strewn along the road when the Allied troops first rolled into Germany, asserting ‘‘It’s not like in the movies, I’ll tell you that.’’ The soldier further comments to the sergeant that, in movies, a man who is about to be executed is always granted a pardon at the last moment and allowed to live. He realizes, however, that this is not something he can hope for in reality, observing, ‘‘I guess it’s too late for any kind of pardon.’’ By indicating the discrepancy between representations of war in movies and the realities of war, Beim suggests that society fails to provide its citizens with a realistic understanding of war.

In addition to the aforementioned institutions, The Deserter explores the ways in which military policy is often in conflict with the concerns of the individual citizen. The soldier fully admits to having failed to fire his gun at the enemy and deserted his unit to avoid participating in combat. But, he struggles in the last hour of his life with conflicts between the values he has been taught by the Catholic Church and those of the military. His deeply held religious values are in conflict with the requirements made upon him by the military. He explains to the sergeant and to the military priest that a priest by the name of Father Hart taught him that killing another human being is wrong, regardless of the circumstance. The military priest contradicts this message when he tells the soldier that God does not want his enemies to win the war, and that, therefore, it is his duty to God and country to obey the commands of his military superiors. The soldier repeatedly asserts that he is confused by these conflicting messages. Beim contrasts the teaching of one priest, Father Hart, with those of the military priest to demonstrate the failure of both the church and the military to present a consistent system of values and morals according to which the individual citizen may live.

Despite his difficult childhood, the soldier maintains a strong system of personal values by which he tries to live. This system of values includes a strong work ethic, loyalty to loved ones, compassion for other people, religious faith, and a prohibition against killing. The soldier’s strong work ethic is indicated by his efforts to work hard so that he and his wife can afford to have a child and support a family. Because of his strong sense of loyalty to his wife, he expresses the utmost concern for her financial, physical, and emotional well being, even as he is being lead off to his own death. His sense of compassion for other people is demonstrated through his sympathy for the sergeant given the unpleasant task of guarding a condemned man, as well as for the twelve men on the firing squad whose duty it is to execute him. His deeply held belief that killing is wrong prevents him from shooting his gun at the German soldiers. The soldier’s Catholic faith remains strong throughout his life, and his last moments are devoted to making a final confession to a Catholic priest before being lead off to execution.

Through the character of the soldier, Beim thus demonstrates that the values of the individual, even when noble, are often in conflict with the dictates of societal institutions. In the final moments before his execution, the soldier comes to an understanding that he is being executed as a means of making an example to warn other soldiers against desertion. He comments to the priest, ‘‘I guess they had to make an example of someone and I am an ex-con, so why not me?’’ Beim here suggests that the execution of the soldier represents a failure of society to provide adequate opportunities for individual citizens.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on The Deserter, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.


Critical Overview