Humanity in No Man’s Land: A Veterans Day Journey

With current events highlighting the divisions in our country, this Veterans Day Douglas Taurel seeks to reunite us by living in the past. But it’s not what it sounds like. As the Library of Congress kicks off its centennial anniversary of U.S. entry into World War I on November 11th, Taurel will be on hand in the Coolidge Auditorium to perform his acclaimed solo show The American Solider and premiere his latest play, An American Soldier’s Journey Home: The Diary of Irving Greenwald. Turns out we have a lot in common with people from 100 years ago.

Taurel, an actor/writer known for his appearances on series like Mr. Robot and Nurse Jackie, has always had a great affinity for telling veterans’ stories. He’s spent the better part of a decade crafting The American Soldier, a collection of monologues culled nearly verbatim from letters that span the Revolutionary War into the present day. I was privileged to be one of the first to write about the play, interviewing Douglas during his Off-Broadway run in 2015 (directed by Indie Theater Hall of Famer Padraic Lillis) before he took it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Since then, the show has undergone an exponential evolution, leading Taurel to various tours around the country, an Amnesty International Award nomination, a performance at Washington D.C.’s illustrious Kennedy Center, and so much more.

We can best strengthen our bonds by listening, Douglas believes, starting with narratives from the other 1% – our veterans. “Only 1% of our population is serving in the military right now,” he clarifies, “which is why a lot of guys and girls are being redeployed, because the country is basically self-imposing a draft on them. This is where PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] gets really intense, because we don’t have enough support. We’re not connected to the military anymore, yet we’re asking the military to do everything for us. There are people who are hurting, but nobody seems to have time to listen to them. So it’s a blessing to be able to use my craft to help people who have a hard time expressing their voice.”

Actor/writer Douglas Taurel. Copyright Peter Hurley Photography.

Building on this foundation, Taurel has discovered a new way to bring voices together – through a play focused on a single individual, Irving Greenwald, who served in the Army’s 77th Sustainment Brigade during World War I. Famously known as the Lost Battalion, the troops of the 77th suffered casualties of nearly two-thirds of their men during an October 1917 attack in France’s Argonne Forest. Greenwald survived, returning home to father three children (though he died young in 1937), and his 465-page wartime diary provides the foundation for Taurel’s Journey Home.

“He’s a fascinating character,” Taurel says of Greenwald. “He became a runner during the war, dodging shrapnel and fire, hoping to deliver messages. He’s very different from my other guys in The American Soldier, who are kind of like warriors – more muscular and world-weary. Irving was just such a romantic.”

Originally, the Library of Congress had wanted Douglas to incorporate Greenwald’s diaries into The American Soldier, which examines the effects of PTSD through the words of veterans and their families. We hear from small children, bereaved fathers, 1940s alcoholics, Vietnam-era cynics, estranged wives… But upon researching Greenwald, Taurel knew he’d stumbled upon another kind of story altogether.

“The Library of Congress had heard through the grapevine of The American Soldier,” he recalls, “and they wanted me to celebrate the World War I centennial through their Veterans History Project. They sent me a lot of World War I diaries and asked if I would create a play. Create a play? I read through some of them and was like, ‘This is impossible.’ But Irving’s was amazing. It’s one of the few that the Library of Congress has digitized from that era. The whole of his diary, he talks about his wife Leah and baby Cecilie, who hasn’t been born yet, who he misses and is hoping to get back to. I started reading it and falling in love with this guy.”

World War I soldier Irving Greenwald is the basis for AN AMERICAN SOLDIER’S JOURNEY HOME. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Digital scan of Greenwald’s war service diary. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Not only was Greenwald a devoted family man, he was also a first-generation Jewish-American totally committed to his faith. His diary entries include constant prayers to God and worries about the suffering of his platoon’s loved ones on the homefront: “I am deeply affected and saddened when I think of all the mothers and wives who gave up so many brave soldiers for this cause, and of all the mothers I heard so many boys cry out to in the trenches, dying in no man’s land.

Doing research on his protagonist, Taurel deduced that Irving’s parents were most likely Eastern European immigrants who arrived the U.S. during the 1880s, encountering a hostile and overtly anti-Semitic population that offered the children of such people two choices: Assimilate or get out! Suddenly Douglas realized he’d unearthed a complex issue at the core of this play.

“This is much more about immigration than being a soldier,” he notes. “Irving’s generation of [Eastern European] Jews wanted to be American as quickly as possible. They were even willing to go to war against their beliefs, against their religion – that’s the point to which they wanted to be American. They wanted to show America that Jews could also fight. Irving said, ‘I think it’s a sin that Jews are forced to fight on the Sabbath’… but he never once speaks ill of the United States for drafting him.”

Though Douglas agrees that Greenwald’s decency and empathic nature appealed to him more than anything else, working on the character for Journey Home has also enabled the actor to explore his own Jewish roots (making the title pretty significant on all levels). “My father was Jewish and my mother was Christian; she was a Baptist,” he explains of his childhood. “And my dad one day goes, ‘You have a choice to make. You can either be Jewish or Christian.’ Growing up in Texas, I saw being Jewish wasn’t easy, you know what I mean? So out of laziness and a personal [desire] to assimilate into the world around me, I chose to be Christian. But I threw away Judaism. So creating Irving from the page to the stage has been ironic in many ways. Because here I am researching a religion and community that my father came from.  His parents, my grandparents, left Syria for Argentina because of being persecuted, and then he and my mother came to America to give themselves and his future family a better opportunity, like Greenwald’s parents. The beauty of theater, it shines a clean mirror up to ourselves and life!”

Seeing anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic attitudes on the rise since last year’s election, it’s clear the themes Taurel touches in Journey Home are chillingly relevant. However, like its predecessor, the play isn’t intended as a political hill to die on, but an open door, inviting us to see what we all share in our imperfect history. One thing he’s learned in his American Soldier tours is that, performing in both liberal and conservative parts of the country, audiences continually have the same responses to his material. They’re grateful that Douglas is starting this conversation, and they wish our splintered society could come together on common ground again, as Americans and fellow humans. Irving Greenwald’s century-old statements still stand.

Douglas will soon spread his stories to an even wider viewership, as he’s working on a webseries adaptation of The American Soldier which will be sponsored by Thomas Edison State University in Trenton, New Jersey, and hosted on the Military Times site. The series aims to show the modern-day struggles that military veterans encounter after returning home and attempting to reclaim their identities in civilian life; the first season is set to begin production in early 2018.

“Every time I think this is it [for The American Soldier], I just keep doing it,” Taurel observes. “For 2018 I’m already booked at The Citadel in South Carolina, Union County Performing Arts Center in New Jersey for five nights, West Point, Ole Miss, the University of New Hampshire, and the Library of Congress is going to bring me back on Memorial Day weekend. It’s just one of these things that’s taken me on a journey as an artist. I feel like I’ve found a mission [and a reason] why I am an actor.”

Taurel’s double bill on Veterans Day will certainly contribute to this mission, with new challenges and dimensions layered into his craft. And one more distinction sets this performance apart – Irving Greenwald’s daughter Selma (who first preserved her father’s diary for the Library of Congress by painstakingly typing all the handwritten entries) will be in attendance at the 11AM show to see his World War I tale brought to life.

“It’ll be an eerie, powerful special moment for me,” Douglas says of having 96-year-old Selma in the audience. “I’m going to meet a living connection to World War I, at the Library of Congress, when it will literally be 100 years from when her father was serving.” And, he adds, “What Irving Greenwald’s story should tell us is how all immigrant communities, now and then, have done so much to make this country great. They have been critical to the success of our country and have always stepped up to fight for what we believe in. That is what I hope people take away.”

We have an enormous amount to learn from history, and colossal work ahead of us if we want to unite for the good of future generations. But with good storytellers like Douglas Taurel out there, hope survives. And with luck and love – so does humanity.

 

 

Douglas Taurel performs AN AMERICAN SOLDIER’S JOURNEY HOME at 11AM and THE AMERICAN SOLDIER at 2PM on Veterans Day, Saturday November 11th, in the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium. Visit douglastaurel.com and theamericansoldiersoloshow.com for more information on the shows. Follow Douglas on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 To learn more about the Veterans History Project and the World War I centennial celebrations at the Library of Congress, go here and here.

Jaime Lubin is the Managing Editor of Honeysuckle Magazine. Her profiles on art and culture have appeared regularly in The Huffington Post and Observer, as well as Billboard and Irish America magazines among other publications. Also an actress, producer, and singer, Jaime most recently performed in LCK Productions’ and The Cnnekt’s “Femininity: Friend or Foe?” at The Duplex. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram  (both @jaimelubin).

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