To judge by his latest work, Mark Braswell would seem to have grown up hearing war stories on his old man’s lap: Paying the Price, premiering Monday as part of the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage New Play Festival, recounts in detail his father’s World War II stint as an Army Air Corps tail gunnerand prisoner of war. But the fact is, the 45-year-old Braswell never heard his father, Maurice, tell his stories of fear and heroism until just recently.
“My dad never talked about the story, because it was very painful,” says Braswell, who lives in Alexandria. “And to think that it was painful for 50 years….I’m sure I can never imagine what it was like to see your friends on the B-17 next to you getting blown up.”
Growing up, the Braswell kidsMark, his brother, Ed, and their sister, Susanhad seen their father’s medals. And they had always felt the weight of his silence, so much so that they had carried their curiosity into adulthood. Finally, in 2001, Ed started prodding. Maurice was nearing 80: “If you don’t tell this story,” Ed told him, “your kids will never know. Your grandkids will never know.”
Their father started talkingand soon he started writing. He’d kept a log detailing every mission he flew. He still had all the pictures and news clips and commendations. He had sharp recollections, but writing them out was a painful, protracted process. “It brought back too many emotions,” says Maurice, now 80 and living in Fayetteville, N.C.
But he put it all down. He detailed brutal missions flown out of Italy: Allied raids on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, his crash and capture on his 41st mission, in the summer of 1944. And he wrote of his time in a prison camp in Bucharest, where the kindly attentions of Princess Catherine of Romania sustained his morale. He called the book Flaming Arrow: WWII As Seen From a B-17. “These stories tend to get romantic, and I wasn’t trying to get romantic,” says Maurice. “I didn’t want to get sentimental or bitter about it.”
He would leave the romanticizing to Mark, who already had three musicals and as many musical revues to his credit. After the book was printed and bound in November 200140 copies, mostly for family members, fellow churchgoers, and golfing buddiesMark started developing the narrative into a play, putting it together mostly in the hours after his day job as a lawyer in the federal courts system. Earlier this year, friends read the script and encouraged him to add music, so he expanded the story and wrote six songs.
Maurice served as a consultant”he’s my dramaturg,” Mark saysmaking sure the stage version remained true to his experience. He parsed three drafts, having Mark rework scenes and add new details.
The play is narrated by a 79-year-old man who, with coaxing from a Greek chorus, conjures up a 19-year-old going off to war. The story follows the young man during training, on his missions, and through his capture and release.
Mark subtitled the play A True Story of Patriotism. The angle he took on the story”the cost of freedom for Americans,” he saysseems not to have been in his father’s mind as he wrote. “I was really amazed Mark had taken my prose and turned it into a patriotic play,” says Maurice. The elder Braswell says he was just telling a plain story for his childrenabout the “death, dying, and destruction” he’d seen, about everything he hates about war. Dave Jamieson