It’s in the Mail
Published May 20, 2009
“If all the sky were paper, and the seas of the world an inkwell, I could not describe my suffering to you.” It’s a soul-jarring line from a powerful letter smuggled out of a German concentration camp by a 14 year-old Polish boy during World War II. It’s also just a small fraction of what Andrew Carroll calls “the world’s great undiscovered literature.” For the past decade his Legacy Project, an all-volunteer effort he began in November of 1998 to preserve the letters and emails from war veterans and their families, has collected 85,000 pieces of correspondence from every conflict in America’s history. “The whole reason I started the project was because my childhood home burnt down, and I lost all my own letters,” says Carroll. As a result, the humanity behind these letters has prompted him to edit a handful of bestselling anthologies, including War Letters, which was later made into a PBS special, and Behind The Lines. While researching the latter title, the Washington, DC-born author traveled to 40 countries in the fall of 2003, tracking down correspondences from foreign combatants and civilians in places like Sarajevo, Hanoi, Kabul, and Baghdad. In Iraq, two serendipitous things occurred. First, a young man in Baghdad named Ammar asked Carroll, “Why do you focus on war letters?” Then, while he was waiting for his outbound flight at Baghdad International Airport a DHL plane was hit by a missile. “It just made me think there’s a larger story here about the journey to find these letters,” says Carroll, whose new play “If All The Sky Were Paper” premieres Tuesday at Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theatre.
Directed by John Benitz (What I Heard About Iraq), the spartan production—no big lights, set designs, or music—enlists six actors (including a Spalding Gray-like narrator) to embark on an emotional journey through 40 excerpted letters dating from the Revolution to the frontlines in Afghanistan and Iraq. Highlights (if that’s what they can be called) include a post-WWII correspondence between an American pilot and a Japanese soldier who lived in the village he’d bombed and a terse message from a German housewife during WWI demanding that her husband be granted a brief leave of absence – so they could have sex. (“I just can’t live like this any more,” she pouts to his commanding officer.) There’s even a rare missive—rare because the Slaughterhouse Five film crew lost his other war letters and photos–from a 22-year-old Kurt Vonnegut after he escaped a POW camp following the firebombing of Dresden. “These letters are completely unexpected, there’s a lot of humor, and each has a very distinct voice you’re not prepared for,” says Carroll, who plans for the production to evolve as audience members bring their own letters to future performances. “I realize there’s a bit of war fatigue going on right now, but these letters really aren’t so much about war as the human condition.”