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Whose Nation Is It Anyway? Performing "GI American" Through World War II Soldier Shows

Caldwell-O'Keefe, Jennifer Riley
Degree Grantor:
University of California, Santa Barbara.Theater Studies
Degree Supervisor:
Cabranes-Grant Leo
Place of Publication:
[Santa Barbara, Calif.]
University of California, Santa Barbara
Creation Date:
Issued Date:
Theater history, Military studies, and Gender studies
Special Services
Greatest Generation
Military entertainment
Amateur theatricals
United States military
American identity

The title of my dissertation refers to the subjective perception of national identity and the military's conscious effort to shape this identity through amateur theatricals performed by and for soldiers. The United States military during World War II structured the intricacies of entertaining 16 million soldiers through Special Services. Amateur theatricals, or soldier shows, were a significant part of this morale program. These World War II entertainments ranged from Irving Berlins' This Is The Army on Broadway to minstrel and variety shows and obscure impromptu drag shows featuring impersonations of Carmen Miranda. This entertainment campaign affected and reflected how these men and women envisioned themselves and their homeland. Yet, there is little existing scholarship about World War II soldier shows, and none analyze amateur theatricals as a body of work or assess soldier shows' significant contribution to American national identity. My dissertation documents this genre and, because of my interdisciplinary approach, bridges a gap between military studies, performance studies, gender studies and theatre history. I argue that the military's "GI American" value system lauded individual subjugation to national interests as the foundation of appropriate United States citizenship and the unique participatory nature of the amateur theatricals were the ideal medium to instill these ideals. Utilizing historical evidence obtained through archives around the country including scripts, military and civilian memos, programs, unit histories, interviews, and photographs, I also conducted interviews with soldier show performers and analyzed their personal collections of letters, photographs and memorabilia. Soldier shows portrayed "GI American" characteristics which defined a specific embodied vision of a good United States soldier, and by connection--a good United States citizen. A little over 15.5 million soldiers returned home - all of them shaped by the military's morale program. This military influenced vision of themselves and their country had a growing exponential impact on those around them. These men and women of the so called "Greatest Generation" have held much political, social and cultural power in our country. Therefore, our contemporary understandings of American identity in terms of gender, race, sexuality, class and ability are intimately connected with soldier theatricals.

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