The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A two-act play, Mister Roberts is set aboard a navy cargo ship on the Pacific Ocean during World War II. As the play begins, the setting reveals a typical cargo ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, shortly after dawn. The ship’s crew is sleeping; in fact, there is no sign of life, a condition the play explores. As the drama unfolds, each member of the crew struggles with, and overcomes, the figurative absence of life: the tediousness, dissatisfaction, and monotony of life aboard the ship. The central action of the play evolves from the interplay between Lieutenant Roberts and the tyrannical Captain to the interplay between Lieutenant Roberts and the crew, who try to find life in the midst of boredom.

Roberts is frustrated with his role as cargo officer, delivering toilet paper and toothpaste while other men are participating in combat. Disillusioned with his noncombat duty, Roberts writes letters to the Bureau of Naval Personnel requesting a transfer to a destroyer ship. As he says, “I’m sick and tired of being a lousy spectator. I just happen to believe in this thing. I’ve got to feel I’m good enough to be in it—to participate!” However, his incessant letters put him on a collision course with the eccentric Captain, who wants to use Lieutenant Roberts’s skills as a cargo officer to advance his own career. Jealous of Roberts’s relationship with the crew, his demeanor, and his educational background, the Captain takes...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan use several dramatic devices to universalize the experiences of the reluctant crew. In essence, this play is a study of character and the heroic virtues of men like Roberts, Pulver, and Doc, as well as members of the crew, who are ordinary human beings but who rise to heroic stature through a series of simple actions.

In addition to a character study, Mister Roberts includes the symbolic use of objects to define the characters and conflict. One prominent symbol is the Captain’s “revered” palm tree, the “trophy” the crew earned for “superior achievement for delivering more toilet paper and toothpaste than any other navy cargo ship.” While the Captain admires the trophy, caring for it almost as if it were a child, the crew despises it because it epitomizes the futility of their role in the war and their hatred for the Captain. While they cannot openly defy the Captain, they subtly display their attitude through the tree. In the first scene, one member of the crew spits tobacco on it. Later, as the radio encourages the crew to stamp out the enemy as if it were a “malignant tumor,” Roberts, in a major act of defiance, grabs the palm tree and throws the “malignant growth” overboard. His action intensifies his conflict with the Captain but resolves his conflict with the crew when they hear of it. When Roberts leaves the ship at the end of the play, the crew rewards his action by giving him a brass...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

USS Reluctant

USS Reluctant. Navy cargo ship operating in the Pacific Ocean during the last months of World War II. It is a typically dull, navy blue color, with the same lettering, equipment, and rigging as any other cargo ship listed in the navy’s register. The name of the ship is the first of several clues to the inhabitants on board. The crew is even reluctant to call the ship by name, referring to it as a “bucket.”

The Reluctant could be any ship sailing to any number of islands in the Pacific Ocean. The author has also chosen fictional names for the islands that are indicative of the general state of mind and attitude of the crew, for example, Tedium, Apathy, Monotony, and Ennui. This helps the author to illustrate the boredom and isolation the men feel. This also lends some insight into the behavior of the crew.


Deck. Main deck of the ship where the crew carries out its dreary purpose of loading and unloading cargo, performing routine maintenance, and standing watch against an enemy which will never be close enough to encounter. It is because they have no real enemy to fight that the crew has unanimously nominated the captain as their sworn enemy. They spend much of their time on deck planning, like bored children, various schemes to aggravate him. When the tedium becomes unbearable, they also are not above taking jabs at each other. When the ship is in port, Mister Roberts spends most of his time on deck, supervising the activities of the crew and dealing with the captain. In describing the activities of the crew while on deck, the author is...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

World War II
Mister Roberts begins a few weeks before V-E Day, which would place it some time during April 1945, when World War II was drawing to a close. Throughout the early months of 1945, Germany’s position became more and more hopeless, as the invading Allied armies penetrated deeper into the country. In March, Allied armies advancing from the west reached the German city of Cologne, and in April, the Rhineland and the Ruhr were captured by the Allies. Meanwhile, the Russians were advancing from the east, and on April 23, 1945, they reached the northern and eastern suburbs of Berlin. German leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. On May 2, Berlin was captured, and on May 7, Germany surrendered unconditionally (as the crew of the AK-601 hear over the radio in Mister Roberts). In Britain, the royal family, as well as Prime Minister Winston Churchill assembled at the balcony of Buckingham Palace and greeted the huge crowds that had gathered in the streets to celebrate the end of war (this is the celebration the AK-601 crewmen hear described over the radio).

After V-E Day, the war in the Pacific against Japan still had to be won, but it had been apparent since the spring of 1945 that Japan could not resist for much longer. The USS Virgo, the model for the AK-601 in Mister Roberts, played a role in the Pacific war, carrying U.S. Marine Corps equipment and becoming a unit of the Fifth Amphibious Force that was preparing for the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. American forces under General MacArthur captured the Gilbert Islands in November 1943, and the Marshall and Admiralty Islands fell in early 1944.

The Philippines were re-taken in stages, with American troops entering Manila, the Philippine capital, in February 1945. U.S. forces also advanced relentlessly in the Pacific, capturing Iwo Jima in March. The Virgo, with Lieutenant Heggen aboard, was stationed off Iwo Jima at this time, replenishing destroyers.

In mid-June, American forces captured the island of Okinawa, in the Ryukyu Islands. The Virgo, with Heggen still aboard, anchored in Okinawa for fifteen days and went to general quarters (a condition of readiness when naval actions are imminent) thirty-two times for air-raid alerts. It is at some point during the battle for Okinawa that Roberts, in the play, is killed by a Japanese suicide bomber.

By the time Okinawa was captured, American forces had complete dominance in the air, and Japan’s factories and industries were steadily being destroyed by heavy bombing raids. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States called upon Japan to surrender or to face devastation of its homeland. On August 6, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing thousands of people. Exact estimates of the death toll vary, but the city of Hiroshima in the 2000s puts the number of dead by December 1945 at about 140,000. (Thousands died of injuries and illness caused by radiation in the months that followed the dropping of the bomb.) Immediately after the blast, four square miles of the city were reduced to rubble. Two days later, Russia declared war on Japan. The United States dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, on August 9. The day after this bombing, the Japanese asked for peace, and on August 14, Japan officially surrendered.

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Symbolism as a technique involves using an object, event, or person to represent an alternate meaning. For example,...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1940s: The United States and Japan are at war. When the war ends in 1945, Japan submits to American occupation. Some Japanese...

(The entire section is 258 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

• Research how U.S. troops in the early 2000s cope with the boredom that can occur when they are inactive for long periods during...

(The entire section is 111 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

• In 1955, Mister Roberts was made into a movie, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda as Mister Roberts, Jack Lemmon as...

(The entire section is 45 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Brown, John Mason, Review of Mister Roberts, in Saturday Review, March 6, 1948, pp. 24–26.


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(Great Characters in Literature)

Cohn, Victor. “Mister Heggen.” Saturday Review of Literature 32 (June 11, 1949): 19. A brief but interesting consideration of Heggen and his work published not long after Heggen’s suicide in May of the same year.

Leggett, John. Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974. Leggett’s book is primarily a biographical study of Thomas Heggen and novelist Ross Lockridge (both suicides) rather than a critical work on Mister Roberts, it is indispensable to understanding Heggen’s state of mind when he wrote the novel.

Schulberg, Budd. “Taps at Reveille.”...

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