By Joseph Heller
Published as a novel in 1961, Joseph Heller’s hilarious and tragic book Catch 22 is widely admired as a cult classic of American Literature, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide. The action is set in an US World War II airbase on the island of Pianosa off the Tuscan coast. We follow Yossarian, a B25 bombardier, through the absurd military machinations that he becomes convinced are more life-threatening to him than any actions perpetrated by the German enemy. Although set in WWII, the portrayal of anti-government feeling, commercial trading and many anachronisms throughout the book place the novel’s themes in the 1950’s with a background of McCarthyism and the Vietnam War.
The drafted Yossarian and his colleagues battle to stay alive and to preserve enough sanity to return home whilst their publicity-obsessed commander keeps raising the number and hazard level of missions they must fly. Yossarian tries many tactics for staying grounded but runs into a form of Catch 22 each time…
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
Thus with this atmosphere of apparently logical irrationality, Catch 22 brilliantly depicts the brutal insanity of war using bitter, stinging humour to satirise the pervading military bureaucracy.
Heller himself served as a B25 bombardier on the Italian front during the war and flew 60 combat missions. He considered himself statistically lucky to have survived since the mortality rate was 5% on each mission. Far from the rational fear of dying or the fatalist approach portrayed by many of his characters, Heller enjoyed his military service, citing his youth at the time, the glamour and adventure and the vast improvement that enlisting made to his financial status. After publishers contracted Heller to write the novel based on his first chapter submission in 1953, Heller knew the book would be published and therefore worked slowly to create “the best book I could possibly write on that subject at that time”.
The film version of Catch 22 was directed by Mike Nicholls and counts Alan Arkin, Jon Voight, Orson Wells, Art Garfunkel, Martin Sheen, Bob Newhart and Anthony Perkins among the cast. It made Heller a millionaire.
Heller created this stage dramatisation of his classic satire in 1971 which allows actors multiple opportunities to portray the unforgettable characters from the novel seen through the eyes of Yossarian. Milo Minderbinder, Colonel Cathcart, Clevinger, Lt. Colonel Korn, Nurse Duckett, and Major Major all make an appearance in this cynically funny play.
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