War letters humanize history on the Performing Arts Center stage

Mary Steenburgen confirmed to star in Wednesday's production of "If All the Sky Were Paper."

Actor Gary Cole, columnist “Dear Abby," playwright Andrew Carroll, actress Laura Dern; president of Chapman University Daniele Struppa, the late actor Ken Howard, and director John Benitz. —Courtesy Andrew Carroll

Updated June 30, 10:30 am. 

In a world of social media, emails, and text messaging, Andrew Carroll is one of the few who still seek out good old-fashioned letters. War letters to be exact, and he has collected thousands since his project began in 1998. The play “If All the Sky Were Paper” is the latest product of Mr. Carroll’s collecting efforts, and it makes its Island debut at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center this Wednesday, July 6.

Mr. Carroll, also the New York Times best-selling author of “Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters” and “War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars,” which was adapted into an episode of PBS’s “American Experience,” first became interested in letters when his family’s home burned down in his sophomore year of college. “The worst thing was losing all the letters,” Mr. Carroll told The Times in a telephone interview. “The books, the furniture could be replaced, but the letters were gone forever.”

A distant cousin of Mr. Carroll’s, a WWII veteran named James Carroll Jordan, heard about the fire and the loss of the letters through the family grapevine, so he sent Mr. Carroll a letter he’d recently rediscovered, written to his wife in 1945.

“It was this absolutely riveting, graphic account of what it was like to walk through a Nazi concentration camp,” Mr. Carroll said. “Prisoners were still dying, and it was happening in front of him. I’d read accounts of the Holocaust, but this was so intense and so personal, and it made the war real.”

Mr. Carroll thanked his cousin and offered to return the letter, to which the sender replied, “Keep it; I probably would have just thrown it out anyway.” That comment struck Mr. Carroll. “It seemed to me, even though I wasn’t a history buff, that we were losing something as a nation,” he said.

Thus began Mr. Carroll’s quest. In November 1998, he reached out to advice columnist and keeper of America’s letters “Dear Abby.” That Veterans’ Day, the “Dear Abby” column encouraged Americans to save their war letters, with Mr. Carroll’s Post Office box attached. “It was like the floodgates opened,” Mr. Carroll said. “Thousands upon thousands of letters started coming in, from every war in our nation’s history. They were so incredibly well-written, like real works of literature. They were these gripping accounts of warfare, and they brought it to life and made it very human and very personal.”

Mr. Carroll was so inspired by the letters, he traveled to all 50 states, and 30 countries across the globe, seeking out letters from all places — and all eras — that had been touched by American conflict. “I had harrowing and humorous experiences,” Mr. Carroll said. When he flew out of Iraq, the flight just before Mr. Carroll’s was hit by a missile. In Afghanistan, the hotel he booked was bombed by the Taliban just prior to his arrival. In Russia, he encountered a scary hangover after getting drunk with a Russian archivist, toasting their two countries. “The trip had a lot of stories that brought these letters to life,” Mr. Carroll said.

Those stories would found the grounding narrative of “If All the Sky Were Paper.” In 2008, John Benitz, a theater professor at Chapman University, called Mr. Carroll to propose turning his letters into a play. “I’d been doing readings of the letters, and it was moving to hear the letters read aloud, but what was missing was that narrative arc to make it human and relatable,” Mr. Carroll said. Mr. Benitz workshopped the play, helping to develop Andrew Carroll the narrator, whose journey carries the audience through the letters in the play.

“The narrator almost serves as the audience, where he’s experiencing this as it’s happening,” Mr. Carroll said. “His reactions to the letters give them context, so the audience can know what happened to the soldier after he wrote the letter.”

With that context, the letters are the stars of the play. They range from warm to disturbing to laugh-out-loud funny. “We wanted to show the full scope of human emotions these troops and these families go through,” Mr. Carroll said.

One of the more humorous letters in the play was written by a 22-year-old American POW named Kurt Vonnegut in Dresden in 1945. Vonnegut would later go on to write “Slaughterhouse-Five,” partially set in Dresden, but he had forgotten writing the 1945 letter until Mr. Carroll contacted him. Like all the letters in Mr. Carroll’s collection, Vonnegut’s was previously unpublished.

Though not all letters were penned by future acclaimed authors, many possess a stunning literary quality. “If All the Sky were Paper” takes its poetic title from a line written by a 14-year-old Polish boy in a Nazi concentration camp. Mr. Carroll has come to think of these letters as ”America’s great undiscovered literature.” “Without intending to, these people composed these little masterpieces,” he said.

When read aloud, the letters are especially moving, encapsulating far more than a lesson in our nation’s history of combat. “They’re not about war, they’re really about the human experience and human nature,” Mr. Carroll said. “These troops witness the worst of humanity, but they also see the best of human nature, and acts of courage and selflessness, heroism and love and mercy and compassion.”

And while the play may end on an antiwar note, its focus is more than a plea for pacifism. “The play isn’t heavy-handed in its message; we really just wanted to show people how beautiful these letters are,” Mr. Carroll said. “I hope it will inspire them to go home and look through their attics, their basements, their closets, to see if they have something tucked away. The overall purpose of this project is to make sure these letters are preserved. I want to emphasize to people: This is what’s still out there.”

“If All the Sky Were Paper”: Wednesday, July 6, 7:30 pm, Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. A special benefit for Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse and the Dukes County Veterans Services Veterans Grant Fund. Tickets are $50 general admission, $100 premium seating, and $25 for veterans. For tickets and more information, visit mvplayhouse.org.