Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings blazed new dramatic trails when What Price Glory? premiered in 1924. Postwar cynicism was at its height; America had had enough of the “glory” of war. The play’s depiction of the ugly truth of war and its effect on humankind was an instant success, playing for 435 performances. Certainly the timeliness of the production contributed to its popularity: Finally, the experience of the soldier could be truthfully and realistically portrayed. Anderson and Stallings wrote What Price Glory? not to advocate, criticize, or satirize any political, social, or cultural institution or group; instead, they responded to the public’s demand for reality, for a glimpse into the American Expeditionary Force as it truly was. This shift in American attitudes had not been recognized by the authors of the time, at least not in the realm of drama. (Thomas Boyd’s Through the Wheat, 1923, makes a strong argument for an awareness in fiction, at least.)
One might expect that veterans of the “war to end all wars” would look upon any realistic portrayal of their experiences favorably. However, many top-ranking U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officers objected to what they saw as stereotypes in the play, specifically in the characters’ frequent use of profanity. Stallings based Flagg upon an officer he had met in the war who had commanded an American company at the bloody battle of Belleau Voop; the subject, however, vehemently denied any connection between himself and Flagg’s violent swaggering.
The key to the success of What Price Glory? lies in its realistic portrayal of the human tragedy of war. If that realistic portrayal must use crude language to be accurate and true, then the author must not hesitate to employ it. Such a rejection of the societal contrivances normally found in early twentieth century drama made What Price Glory? the unique and provocative play that it was in 1924—and has continued to be.