Arthur Miller’s War, part 5– “What happens in Wilmington at night”

Wilmington town limits in the 1920s. Photograph by Louis T. Moore. From the Louis T. Moore Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

Wilmington town limits in the 1920s. Photograph by Louis T. Moore. From the Louis T. Moore Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

This is the fifth post in a 7-part series on the great American playwright Arthur Miller’s sojourn in Wilmington, N.C., during the Second World War.

On another evening when they were in downtown Wilmington, N.C., Arthur Miller and his audio engineer, Johnny Langenegger, spied a cluster of cabdrivers standing on a street corner next to the city bus station.

The playwright already had an eye for a good scene, and he recognized an opportunity. In a hand-written transcript that I found at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, I read Miller’s instructions to his sound engineer:

“Record, Johnny. These are the boys who ought to know what happens in Wilmington at night.”

At the bus station, Miller talked with a group of cab drivers about their passengers’ attitudes toward the war.

Their conversation was far-ranging. They talked about fascism and democracy, and they discussed what would be at stake if the United States went to war with Nazi Germany and its Axis allies.

Remember, this was November of 1941. Germany had already invaded Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Greece, the Soviet Union and North Africa.

The Battle of Britain, waged largely in the skies over the English Channel and over England itself, had come and gone.

Japan had already invaded China and Indochina. The Soviet Union had invaded Poland, Finland and the Baltic States. Fascist Italy had already invaded Albania, France, Egypt, Greece, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

War among the European colonial powers had also raged across North Africa, including in Ethiopia, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Syria, the Sudan, Kenya, Eritrea and British and Italian Somaliland.

But the U.S. was not yet at war. The nation would not enter the war until the month after Arthur Miller’s visit to Wilmington, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

In addition to discussing the war’s significance, Miller and the cab drivers also talked about the home front. They especially discussed the ways that war preparations had already changed Wilmington.

For instance, the drivers described the anxieties of the city’s new arrivals, particularly their worries over the housing shortage.

The cab drivers made one thing very clear to Miller: they held little nostalgia for the sleepy little river city of the 1930s.

A surge in the numbers of drunks and prostitutes in Wilmington didn’t seem to bother them in the least. Instead, they were far more annoyed by the traffic jams and crowded streets.

But they did not blame the new shipyard or the new army base north of the city, Camp Davis, for the traffic. No, in their eyes, the problem was that local drivers drove far too slow, and the city needed more and bigger roads.

In fact, the cabbies felt that all of old Wilmington moved too languidly.

They told Miller that the seaport’s slow-moving Southern ways thwarted the wartime boom’s spirit and opportunities.

The shipyard was bustling. Soldiers and civilians alike had money in their pockets, and the city’s new defense workers yearned for more fun and entertainment– and no wonder, after the Great Depression.

The taxi drivers looked forward to seeing more nightclubs, dance halls and bars in the city.

From the vantage of the cab stand, the city’s whole conception of time itself was shifting: everything moved faster than before the war, and everybody was more hurried.

A city bus driver, R. E. Piner, echoed the cabbies’ observations. When Miller interviewed him at the bus station, Piner explained that the war boom “just makes people be right on the minute all the time.”

Not everybody, Piner acknowledged, could keep up.

“A lot of people just can’t seem to work in like that,” he said. He told Miller that many locals found the hectic pace disconcerting, adding, “Ladies can’t drive downtown anymore.”

* * *

To be continued– tomorrow, part 6– “Looks like Christmas every night” 

2 thoughts on “Arthur Miller’s War, part 5– “What happens in Wilmington at night”

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