The production is a fundraiser for The Mighty Pen Project, to help them continue and expand their work with military veterans.
Ash Griffith | August 9, 2018
Since its origin, the renowned franchise M*A*S*H has had many iterations. These include the original 1968 novel (and its 14 sequels), the film starring Donald Sutherland, and the 11-season CBS television series starring national treasure Alan Alda. Now it also has a live reading performance to add to its repertoire, as The Mighty Pen Project performs three episodes from M*A*S*H’s second season at Richmond Triangle Players’ Robert B. Moss Theatre.
Originally conceived as a novel by Richard Hooker called MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, M*A*S*H eventually became one of the most popular (and longest running, until Frasier) television series of all time. The franchise follows the stories of doctors “Hawkeye” Pierce, “Trapper” John McIntyre, and Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan as they navigate the Korean War from a mobile army surgical hospital (MASH unit). The series began airing during the Vietnam War, and while it’s known for being a comedy, it’s one of the best examples of a dark comedy in modern television, due to the way it approached starkly serious situations and events in very realistic, human ways.
The Mighty Pen Project was created in 2014 by local author and playwright David L. Robbins, who worked with the Virginia War Memorial to create the initiative. The Mighty Pen Project provides writing instruction and continued support to our veterans, helping them to tell their stories. The idea to produce episodes of M*A*S*H as live readings was originally put into action two years ago, and now it returns for another season.
The performances at Robert B. Moss Theatre are a fundraiser for The Mighty Pen Project, with goals of both supporting it locally and hopefully bringing it to other cities. The choice of M*A*S*H is apt; the stories the series tells are a perfect tie-in to the support of veterans. However, these stories could be told anytime, so why now?
“One of the things this TV show can remind us of is compassion,” Robbins said. “America is at its best when its compassionate. We have been known for running into world trouble spots, for putting out the fire. Even when it’s awful, and it’s trying, and there are sacrifices on all sides, America is at its best when it’s compassionate.”
One of the biggest themes in every iteration of the M*A*S*H franchise has been community — looking out for your fellow humans, regardless of who they are. With today’s current rocky interpersonal climate in every direction, community is certainly what we need right now.
“The watchword we need to keep in front of us as Americans is compassion,” said Robbins.
M*A*S*H’s eleven-year run lasted through the 70s and early 80s, so despite the series’ positive messages, it goes without saying that not all of it stands the test of time today. Robbins realizes that this is the case. “The show has some cultural touchstones that might make you wince,” he said.
The first that comes to mind is the character of Klinger. Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger, portrayed by Jamie Farr, was the series’ representation of Americans who wanted nothing to do with being drafted into the Korean War. However, the way the series chose to represent this was by depicting Klinger as a man who would do anything to get sent home, even crossdressing in an attempt to pass himself off as gay.
Homosexuals were considered mentally ill at this point in the military’s history, and with quite a few young people claiming (falsely or not) to be gay in order to avoid the Vietnam draft, Klinger’s character had a resonance for viewers watching the show in the early 70s. Unfortunately, this resonance was played for laughs in the form of a stereotype that made an impression on America for decades after the show ended. (Indeed, Klinger memes were everywhere during Trump’s initial push for a transgender military ban.)
Despite his recognition that some of the show’s standard tropes — not only Klinger but also the sexism directed at Houlihan and her nurses — come across poorly today, Robbins still argues that M*A*S*H holds up because of the way it talks to us as humans, and the way it has the power to connect us and bring us together.
“There is a timelessness [to M*A*S*H] because of its humanity,” Robbins said. “When I teach, I teach that all stories ever told must be understandable by every human being who has ever lived. I may not understand how to fly a spaceship, but I understand fear and rage and loneliness. When stories capture humanness, they capture something we recognize.”
Thus far, the Mighty Pen Project has only covered M*A*S*H’s first two seasons on television. Nine more seasons and a film may seem like a lot left to cover, but Robbins confirmed that he would love to touch on all of them through the Mighty Pen Project at some point. This led to an obvious question: from one huge fan of the series to another, what is his favorite episode?
“Colonel Flagg,” said Robbins, referring to the season two episode that introduces Flagg to the 4077th. “I was so thrilled when we got that one [for the show]. Then probably the episode when they learn that Henry’s helicopter crashed. That was heartbreaking. But for a laugh you can’t do better than Colonel Flagg.”
Fellow fans of the ever-competent Colonel Flagg are sure to be as ecstatic as I am to know that one of the episodes featured in this year’s run will feature this excellent recurring character.
More important than any individual episode, though, is Robbins’ desire to bring the community together and help support our veterans. “We’re helping and supporting a community of people who did not delegate, who did not pass the buck off to someone else,” he said. “They raised their hands. I want the city of Richmond to raise their damn hands and support this community of veterans. Do something, because this is a community of people who said, ‘I’ll go.’”
Certainly the 4077th would have agreed that we need more compassion for our veterans. While not all of M*A*S*H has translated well into the 21st century, the idea of supporting each other and lifting each other up will sure as hell always stand the test of time.
M*A*S*H Staged Readings for The Mighty Pen Project premieres at Richmond Triangle Players’ Robert B. Moss Theatre, located at 1300 Altamont Ave. in Scott’s Addition, on Monday, August 13th. The series will run for eight performances on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays through Tuesday, August 28th. Tickets are $20, and can be purchased at rtriangle.org.