Fifty years ago tomorrow, the United States declared victory in Europe. To honor the event, CBS Radio broadcast the premiere of Norman Corwin's "On a Note of Triumph" (with an original musical score by Bernard Herrmann), a dramatic rumination on the nature of war and warriors. On Monday, Beverly Hills' Theatre 40 will commemorate the anniversary of V.E. Day, and simultaneously host a fund-raiser for itself, with a special one-night-only performance of the piece, directed by Corwin.
"When it appeared to the Pentagon and White House that victory was imminent in Europe, CBS asked me to have something ready; they gave me three or four weeks," recalls Corwin, 85, who was then a writer-producer-director at CBS in New York. "But it turned out to be longer, delayed by the Battle of the Bulge. On May 7, I was roused at 5 in the morning in L.A. They told me, 'The armistice has been signed, be ready to go.' So we recorded the piece. It turned out to be a false armistice. But the next day, they did it for real."
A fickle armistice was the least of Corwin's problems.
"It was a difficult piece to write," acknowledges Corwin, a Westwood resident, "because we knew it wouldn't be a complete victory--the war would continue in Asia. And at the time, Japan was still very strong. But Hitler was such a formidable, nasty enemy in Europe; the fight was so bitter. So it was definitely cause to celebrate, but not to celebrate by dancing in the streets. A limited triumph. I knew we'd win World War II--it was just a matter of time. And it was quite a relief because now we could release all of our military forces on Japan."
How Corwin dealt with the subject was left up to him.
"Nobody at CBS asked me, 'What approach will you take?' They said, 'You have an hour. We will preempt prime-time.' " Corwin sighed. "What do you say about a war that ain't over, (in which) sons and brothers will still die? I didn't want it just to be a military paean, so I thought about what had been done--and why. What had been learned, and what lay ahead in terms of responsibility? So the structure became a response to a question raised by the fighting men: 'Who have we beaten? What did it cost to beat them? And will it happen again?' "
A cast of 21 will act out vignettes related to the war: the bombing of London, the surrender of France. The piece ends, Corwin notes, with a prayer. At the time of its initial broadcast, the play was so overwhelmingly popular that it was rebroadcast a week later, and subsequently made mandatory listening for every German prisoner of war in America.
"It's really hung around," says Corwin, who's taught writing at USC since 1980. "A few years ago, to my surprise, there was an announcement that the recording would be piped into all the Santa Monica schools."
On Monday, local radio station KNX will carry a rebroadcast of Theatre 40's performance of the piece, just as it did 50 years ago.
The writer, whose "Norman Corwin's Letters" was published a few months ago, appears to regard the play's longevity with genuine amazement. "It was serendipity," says Corwin, whose numerous honors include a Peabody Medal, a P.E.N. Award and induction into the Radio Hall of Fame. "CBS gave a writer like me the freedom to write--the first time they ever heard it was when it was on the air. I was also lucky to be challenged, to be offered this thing. How many times does a man get an opportunity to speak to millions of people about an event?"
Actor Walt Beaver, who essayed Abraham Lincoln in Corwin's play "The Rivalry" at Theatre 40 in 1992, will play the narrator; he was a GI in Italy when he first heard "On a Note of Triumph" 50 years ago.
"It was broadcast five days (after V.E. Day)," says Beaver, who served as chairman of the theater department at Cal State L.A. from 1956-82. "I also heard it five years later at USC and it was still exciting. The work that Norman and Orson Welles were doing seemed futuristic, avant-garde. When I first heard the piece, I expected it to be about the exploits of Generals Patton, Eisenhower, MacArthur and the rest of them. But it's really about the soldiers in the rank. He exercised the right to promote the foot soldier, the ones who fought the war.
"Although the piece stands by itself," Beaver continues, "I think it has special meaning for people who lived through it, who experienced those events. It's more than a commemoration. It's a statement of tremendous idealism."
\o7 "On a Note of Triumph" plays at 8 p.m. Monday at Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Drive\f7 , \o7 on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. Tickets: $25 (includes reception following the performance). Information: (213) 466-1767\f7 .