The Autumn Garden dramaturgy: the 1940s

Table of Contents

The Forties

The forties are pretty well defined by World War II. US isolationism was shattered by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt guided the country on the homefront, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower commanded the troops in Europe. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz led them in the Pacific. The successful use of penicillin by 1941 revolutionized medicine. Developed first to help the military personnel survive war wounds, it also helped increase survival rates for surgery. Unemployment almost disappeared, as most men were drafted and sent off to war. Shopping downtown Houston in 1940's, Rice Hotel in background The government reclassified 55% of their jobs, allowing women and blacks to fill them. First, single women were actively recruited to the workforce. In 1943, with virtually all the single women employed, married women were allowed to work. Japanese immigrants and their descendants, suspected of loyalty to their homelands, were sent to internment camps.

Sailor with cow -There were scrap drives for steel, tin, paper and rubber.  These were a source of supplies and gave people a means of supporting the war effort. Automobile production ceased in 1942, and rationing of food supplies began in 1943. Victory gardens were re-instituted and supplied 40% of the vegetables consumed on the home front. In April, 1945, FDR died, and President Harry Truman celebrated V-E Day on May 8, 1945. Japan surrendered only after two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States emerged from World War II as a world superpower, challenged only by the USSR. While the USSR subjugated the defeated countries, the US implemented the Marshall Plan, helping war-torn countries to rebuild and rejoin the world economy. Disputes over ideology and control led to the Cold War. Communism was treated as a contagious disease, and anyone who had contact with it was under suspicion. Alger Hiss, a former hero of the New Deal, was indicted as a traitor and the House Un-American Activities Committee began its infamous hearings.

Returning GI’s created the baby boom, which is still having repercussions on American society today. Although there were rumors, it was only after the war ended that Americans learned the extent of the Holocaust. Realization of the power of prejudice helped lead to Civil Rights reforms over the next three decades. Nurse in front of typical 40s car. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights, entitled returning soldiers to a college education. In 1949, three times as many college degrees were conferred as in 1940.  College became available to the capable rather than the privileged few.

The 1940’s were dominated by World War II. European artists and intellectuals fled Hitler and the Holocaust, bringing new ideas created in disillusionment. War production pulled us out of the Great Depression. Women were needed to replace men who had gone off to war, and so the first great exodus of women from the home to the workplace began. Rationing affected the food we ate, the clothes we wore, the toys with which children played.

After the war, the men returned, having seen the rest of the world. No longer was the family farm an ideal; no longer would blacks accept lesser status. The GI Bill allowed more men than ever before to get a college education. Women had to give up their jobs to the returning men, but they had tasted independence.

1949 in Particular


The Western powers pledge cooperation as Moscow breaks the U.S. nuclear monopoly and communists take over China.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) created by a treaty signed at Washington April 4 joins the United States, Canada, Iceland, Britain, France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, and Portugal in a pledge of mutual assistance against aggression within the North Atlantic area and of cooperation in military training, strategic planning, and arms production.

“We have evidence that in recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR,” President Truman announces September 23. The Soviet Union (Russia) in August explodes its first atomic bomb, using virtually all the plutonium it has on hand. U.S. plans for the bomb had been smuggled to the Soviet Union by such spies as Klaus Fuchs. The first working atomic clock is built.

The People’s Republic of China is proclaimed at Beijing (Peking) October 1 with Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) as chairman of the central people’s administrative council, Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai), 51, as premier and foreign minister.

Civil war looms in Korea, reports a UN Commission September 2. North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung asks Soviet premier Josef Stalin for help in taking over South Korea; Stalin rejects the request.


United Automobile Workers (UAW) at General Motors plants accept a slight wage cut as a business recession produces a decline in the cost of living.

U.S. unemployment reaches 5.9 percent, up from 3.8 percent last year, and Wall Street’s Dow Jones Industrial Average falls to 161 at midyear, down from 193 a year earlier, but while most consumer prices drop, housing and healthcare costs increase.

A new minimum wage act signed into law by President Truman October 26 amends the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, raising the minimum hourly wage from 40¢ to 75¢ for certain industries engaged in interstate commerce.


U.S. auto production reaches 5.1 million and catches up after 20 years with the 1929 record.


Computers were developed during the early forties. The digital computer, named ENIAC, weighing 30 tons and standing two stories high, was completed in 1945.

John Mauchly and John Presper Eckert build the BINAC (Binary Automatic Computer). It is the first electronic stored-program computer in the United States, storing data on magnetic tape. BINAC goes into operation in August.


Harvard Law School announces October 9 that it will begin admitting women.

Communications and Media

The 15-year-old Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposes a “Fairness Doctrine” on radio and television stations to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of public importance.” Many U.S. cities and towns have only one or two radio and TV stations, and their owners have licenses that give them monopoly power to deny airtime to viewpoints they oppose. The FCC prohibited editorializing on the radio 8 years ago, some station owners will simply stifle discussion of controversial issues lest they be obliged to air dozens of different views, and right-wing elements will be especially outspoken in their attacks on the doctrine.

The Department of Justice charges American Telephone & Telegraph with having monopolized the telephone instrument market in violation of the Sherman Act of 1890. AT&T may be a “natural monopoly,” the department says, but the manufacture of telephones is by no means a natural monopoly. It asks the company to break its Western Electric division into three separate companies so as to permit competition in telephone instrument production and installation.

Radio was the lifeline for Americans in the 1940’s, providing news, music and entertainment, much like television today.  Programming included soap operas, quiz shows, children’s hours, mystery stories, fine drama, and sports. Kate Smith and Arthur Godfrey were popular radio hosts. The government relied heavily on radio for propaganda. Like the movies, radio faded in popularity as television became prominent. Many of the most popular radio shows continued on in television, including Red Skelton, Abbott and Costello, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Truth or Consequences.


See Binder for Books Lists of the 40’s

The decade opened with the appearance of the first inexpensive paperback. Book clubs proliferated, and book sales went from one million to over twelve million volumes a year. Many important literary works were conceived during, or based on, this time period, but published later. Thus, it took a while for the horror of war and the atrocities of prejudice to come forth. Shirley Jackson wrote The Lottery to demonstrate how perfectly normal, otherwise nice people, could allow something like the Holocaust. In The Human Comedy, William Saroyan tackles questions of prejudice against the setting of World War II. Richard Wright completed Native Son in 1940 and Black Boy in 1945, earning acclaim, but government persecution over his communist affiliation sent him to Paris in 1945. Nonfiction writing proliferated, giving first-hand accounts of the war. The first edition of Dr. Benjamin Spock‘s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care is considered by some to have changed child rearing.

Books That Define the Time

Theater and Film

The forties were the heyday for movies. The Office of War declared movies an essential industry for morale and propaganda. Most plots had a fairly narrow and predictable set of morals, and if Germans or Japanese were included, they were one-dimensional villains. Examples are Casablanca, Mrs. Miniver, Lifeboat, Notorious, Best Years of our Lives, Wake Island, Battle of Midway, Guadalcanal Diary, and Destination Tokyo. Citizen Kane, not fitting the template, was one of the masterpieces of the time. Leading actors were Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Stewart, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner. Walt Disney‘s career began to take off, with animated cartoons such as Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). During the war years, the studio produced cartoons for the government, such as Donald gets Drafted (1942), Out of the Frying Pan into the Firing Line (1942) and Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943).

The theater, turned slightly to abstractionism. Thornton Wilder‘s The Skin of our Teeth (1942) was bizarre and difficult to understand but won the Pulitzer Prize. Tennessee Williams wrote of self-disillusionment and futility in the Glass Menagerie (1945) and Streetcar named Desire (1947). In contrast Musical Theater was reborn, with Agnes de Mille‘s technique of dancing in character in Oklahoma (1943). Carousel (1945), and Annie get your Gun (1946).

Marc Blitzstein: Regina. This opera is based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes.


At the end of the war, only 5,000 television sets, with five inch black & white screens, were in American homes. By 1951, 17 million had been sold. The Original Amateur Hour, a revival of a popular radio show, was the first top-rated show in 1948 . Milton Berle’s slapstick comedy, Texaco Star Theater, was credited with creating the demand for televisions. Its greatest rival was Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town.

The sitcom made its appearance in January, 1949, with The Goldbergs.


CBS introduces improved long-playing vinyl plastic phonograph records. RCA introduces small 45 rpm LPs that require large spindles. Stereo components (amplifiers, turntables, speakers) enjoy a sales boom. The first LP record catalog is published in October by Cambridge, Mass., record shop proprietor William Schwann, whose 26-page listing of 674 entries from 11 companies will grow in 25 years to list some 50,000 LPs in a book of more than 250 pages.

Popular songs: “The Hokey Pokey” by Detroit-born songwriter Larry Laprise, 36; “Melodie d’Amour” by French songwriter Henri Salvador; “Bonaparte’s Retreat” by Pee Wee King; “Mañana” by former Benny Goodman guitarist Dave Barbour and his wife, Peggy Lee; “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” by Sammy Fain, lyrics by Bob Hilliard; “I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine” by Mack David; “Scarlet Ribbons (for Her Hair)” by New York composer Evelyn Danzig, 47, lyrics by Jack Segal (the song will languish until Segal mentions it to Harry Belafonte in 1954); “Mona Lisa” by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans; “Huckle-Buck” by Andy Gibson, lyrics by Roy Alfred; “Daddy’s Little Girl” by Bobby Burke and Horace Gerlah; “The Harry Lime Theme” by Anton Karas (for the film The Third Man); “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by U.S. songwriter Johnny Marks, 40, who has adapted a verse written in 1939 by his brother-in-law Robert May for a Montgomery Ward promotional comic book. Former Portsmouth, Va., church choir singer Ruth Brown (née Weston), 21, records “So Long”/”It’s Raining” to begin a notable rhythm & blues career.

Like art, music reflected American enthusiasm tempered with European disillusionment. While the European émigrés Bueno Walter, George Szell, Bela Bartok, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, and Nadia Boulanger introduced classical dissonance, American born composers remained more traditional, with Aaron Copland‘s Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944). William Schuman wrote his symphonies #3(1941) through #7(1949).

At the beginning of the decade, Big Bands dominated popular music. Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman led some of the more famous bands. Eventually, many of the singers with the Big Bands struck out on their own. Bing Crosby’s smooth voice made him one of the most popular singers, vying with Frank Sinatra. Dinah Shore, Kate Smith and Perry Como also led the hit parade. Be-Bop and Rhythm and Blues, grew out of the big band era toward the end of the decade. Although these were distinctly black sounds, epitomized by Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Woody Herman.

New Inventions: whirlpool bathtub, silly putty, nylon diapers, KitchenAide dishwasher, frozen dinners, the slinky,

Nobel prizes

Top grossing films (U.S.)






Samson and Delilah








Jolson Sings Again




Sands of Iwo Jima




I Was a Male War Bride

20th Century Fox



The Stratton Story





20th Century Fox



Mr. Belvedere Goes to College

20th Century Fox



Little Women




Neptune’s Daughter



Academy Awards:

Best Picture: All the King’s Men – Rossen, Columbia

Best Director: Joseph L. MankiewiczA Letter to Three Wives

Best Actor: Broderick CrawfordAll the King’s Men

Best Actress: Olivia de HavillandThe Heiress

Best Supporting Actor: Dean JaggerTwelve O’Clock High

Best Supporting Actress: Mercedes McCambridgeAll the King’s Men

Golden Globe Awards:

Best Picture: All the King’s Men

Best Director: Robert RossenAll the King’s Men

Best Actor: Broderick CrawfordAll the King’s Men

Best Actress: Olivia de HavillandThe Heiress

Best Foreign Language Film: The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Biciclette), Italy


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