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Didactic Dramas: Antiwar Plays of the 1930s

The interwar peace movement was arguably the largest mass movement of the 1920s and 1930s, a mobilization often overlooked in the wake of the broad popular consensus that ultimately supported the U.S. involvement in World War II. The destruction wrought in World War I (known in the 1920s and 1930s as the “Great War”) and the cynical nationalist politics of the Versailles Treaty had left Americans disillusioned with the Wilsonian crusade to save the world for democracy. The antiwar movement drew on many tactics honed in earlier suffrage campaigns, including the use of pageants and plays. Circulated by the New Deal-sponsored Federal Theatre Project (FTP), these play synopses suggested the range and diversity of antiwar sentiment in the 1930s. The FTP vetted hundreds of scripts and prepared lists of plays for the use of community theaters. Antiwar dramas were among the most popular, with themes of religious pacifism, moral motherhood, and condemnation of war profiteering.

Frank H. Streightoff

David Whitlock

Stereotyped plotting and characterization, but the dialogue is good on the whole. Only fair emotional action. The method is trite with a few pretty effects, but none worth using. First act is promising. All acts are too short.


The Whitlocks, a family of traditional war-makers (munitions salesmen), renounce a son who is opposed to war. The SON becomes a scientist and later an ambulance driver in a war which follows the defense propaganda and war-scarce publicity of the munitions makers here and abroad. The son is killed in action by shells made by his father’s company. The tide turns away from the Whitlock tradition of war, and profits in munitions. A tragic ending for the elder Whitlock. The new generation intends to use the factories to make fabricated dwellings.

Production Notes:

Type: Drama—modern

Cast: 9 characters—2M, 7F

Sets: 1—dining room

Direction: Easy

Production: Simple

Costumes: Modern

Source: National Council for Prevention of War

532 Seventeenth Street, N.W.

Washington, D.C.

10 cents the copy


True Davidson and Mrs. J. Eisman

Salesmen of Death


Scene 1 is laid in the study of Professor Manhood. The Professor is trying to impress on his young son Jack the futility of physical force to settle problems. Using as an analogy a recent incident in the son’s life, he makes the point that if nations did not possess armaments they would not resort to war.

Scene 2 gives a vivid picture of the machinations of Armament Makers and Salesmen in bringing about war.

Scene 3 has Jack Manhood, now a boy of eighteen, in the office of a newspaper which he owns and publishes. He has taken his father’s early teaching to heart and is outspoken in his condemnation of the war which is in progress. His father, who was evidently a pacifist in theory only, enters and remonstrates with his son, imploring him to change his attitude. He stubbornly resists. A Munition Manufacturer offers to buy his newspaper at a fabulous price. He scorns the offer. His brother Bob, proudly displaying his new uniform, arrives and tries to persuade him to enlist. He refuses. At length a Policeman arrests him for treasonable utterances. His newspaper is suppressed.

Scene 4 is laid in Jack’s cell in jail. He sleeps and has a dream in which he hears revealing conversations between Alexander and Aristotle, Napoleon and his Attendants in exile, munition makers and soldiers, the burden of which is that the makers of armaments scheme continually to goad nations into war.


Florence Luscomb and Myriam Sieve

One Word in Code


Two adjoining countries, Trentia and Framanland, are on the verge of hostilities. Both are fully armed with all the newest machinery of war. They are particularly well equipped with paraphernalia for gas attacks from the air. At a meeting of the cabinet of Trentia the ministers discuss the situation. They agree that victory has become solely a question of which country strikes first. The Air Minister reports his fleet of airplanes in readiness to start for the enemy capital at a moment’s notice, on receipt of a code word from him. The Prime Minister signs the declaration of war, the air minister at the same moment telephones the code word to the commander of the fleet. At three o’clock their airplanes will be over Parlingdon, the capital of Framanland, and in half an hour afterwards the city will have been destroyed and its inhabitants annihilated. As the prime minister paces up and down his office awaiting the hour of three, appalled by the thoughts of the horrors his order is about to inflict on innocent women and children, His wife enters. She reads him a letter from their son who is abroad at college. The letter discloses that a youth World Fellowship League which has been working for peace, has arranged a demonstration, that ten thousand students from all parts of the country are to meet to seek a peaceful solution of the difficulties between the two countries, that their son is to be the principal speaker at that meeting and that it takes place that day at three o’clock in Parlingdon, the city which the prime minister’s order has doomed. At this moment the clock strikes three and the minister is overcome with remorse and despair at his inability to prevent the death of his own son.

Izetta Winter Robb.


War on Trial.

A forceful, dramatized expose of the futility of war and the havoc it wreaks upon mankind and civilization. The characters are symbolic as well as the entire action. In the cause of peace it should be widely produced. It has an indisputable appeal.


The people bring to trial Mr. De La Guerre before the three justices Humanitas, Concord and Gesundheit. Mr. Pax, the prosecutor, opens the trial with a scathing recital of the defendant’s lurid deeds. He is opposed by the counsel for the defense, Mr. Jingo. After the examination of the witnesses Armament, Dr. Medico, a Journalist, and Mr. Workman, all of whom testify against de la Guerre, the three justices find him guilty on all charges against humanity. Upon the advice of the people they sentence him to eternal exile—No More War!


Copenhaver, Cronk and Worrell

The Way of Peace.

This is a symbolic pageant which can be made a colorful production, though rather lengthy and verbose.


The Prophet summons the Nations of the world that they may see the effects of peace and war. They enter to the strains of solemn music. The Nations having grouped themselves around the Prophet, Happiness enters to gay music, bringing Mothers and Children of many countries. They play games, laugh merrily and present a picture of the contentment that peace brings. Suddenly the gay music stops, a bugle call is heard followed by a military march and crashing chords to denote the entrance of WAR. Mothers and children pantomime terror. Passage of time. Funeral march. Maidens enter with funeral wreaths. Mourning mothers walk in groups across platform. Crippled Soldiers appear. The horrors of war are vividly depicted. Motherhood appeals to the Nations of the Earth. Each in turn denounces war. The Prophet summons consecutively, Militarism, Science, Industrialism, Education and the Arts, and demands that they abolish war, but each is found to be the slave and not the master of war. Christianity appears and promises peace. She frees Militarism, Science and the others from the domination of war and consecrates them to the service of peace. The Nations having thus learned the way to real peace dedicate themselves to her worship in a paean of praise.


Marsters E. York.

Wooden Soldiers.

This short play is admirably constructed. The dialogue is natural, the characters lifelike and the action smooth. Though relying on sentiment for its appeal it is nevertheless very effective peace propaganda.


Mrs. Hughes, a guest at the home of Mrs. Kempton has bought a set of wooden soldiers to send to her son David as a present on his seventh birthday. Mrs. Kempton, on seeing the wooden soldiers exclaims impulsively “Oh, don’t give him those.” In answer to Mrs. Hughes' surprised query, she explains that boys become enthusiastic over toy soldiers and toy guns only because their parents encourage them to do so by stories of the glory of past wars and the glamour of a soldier’s life. Mrs. Hughes accuses her of being unpatriotic. While they are discussing these matters Mrs. Hughes opens a snap-shot album which is lying on the table. She admires the picture of a boy therein, who reminds her of her own boy as a baby. On the next page is a picture of the same boy playing with wooden soldiers. “Oh, yes! Admits Mrs. Kempton ”we gave him wooden soldiers on his seventh birthday.“ On the following page the same boy is seen playing with a toy rifle. Mrs. Kempton sadly confesses having given him the rifle on his tenth birthday. On the next page a young man of twenty-two in military uniform carries the story a step further. Mrs. Hughes turns another page and sees a picture of a grave with a white cross. Suddenly she exclaims ”Not David, O God, not David" and walking to the fireplace she drops the wooden soldiers into the flame.

Source: Plays from the Federal Theatre Project Anti-War Playlist, mimeograph copies available at Library of Congress—Federal Theatre Project Collection.

See Also:Against Isolationism: James F. Byrnes Refutes Lindbergh
"An Independent Destiny for America": Charles A. Lindbergh on Isolationism