Mr. Roberts

    • Mister Roberts (novel), a 1946 novel by Thomas Heggen
    • Mister Roberts (play), a 1948 play by Heggen and Joshua Logan
    • Mister Roberts (1955 film), a film directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy
    • Mister Roberts (1984 film), a TV film
    • Mister Roberts (TV series), a 1965 TV series
    • 1948 Tony Award for Best Play


    Lieutenant Doug Roberts
    The Captain
    Ensign Pulver
    Lieutenant Ann Girard
    Shore Patrol Officer


    Mister Roberts is aboard a US cargo ship, the USS Reluctant working in the Pacific during the Second World War. He'd do anything to leave the quiet of the ship to join in the "action". Trouble is, the captain of the ship, is a bit of a tyrant, and isn't willing to sign Roberts' transfer requests. Also on board is Ensign Pulver, who avoids work as best he can, whilst living off the riches of his buying and selling. Roberts and the crew are in constant battle, even over the smallest of disagreements.




    • Aboard a US Navy cargo ship—the USS Reluctant during WWII
    • Serving somewhere in the Pacific Ocean
    • Last year of the war 1945-46
    • Not a fighting ship


    • What determines a HERO
    • Taking a Stand for something you Believe in-Rebellion vs. Conformity
    • The Tedium of War
    • Sacrifice
    • Rank vs. Respect

    What is significant about the genre of drama?

    • Stage Directions
    • Interpertation of the text by actors and directors
    • Meant to be performed in front of an audience 


    • Mr. Roberts (also known as Doug Roberts or Lt. Roberts)
      • A bright, college educated officer who is afraid “The War” is passing him by 
    • The Captain
      • Antagonist, authoritative. He lacks compassion for his crew
    • Doc
      • The sage, a wise older man gives advice and insight to the younger sailors
    • Ensign Frank Pulver
      • Laundry and Morale Officer, has no morals, avoids war, work and conflict. He idolizes Mr. Roberts. Provides comic relief to the play.
    • The Crew
      • Represent the common sailor/soldier

    Mister Roberts Summary


    Sea Bird Adventure

    Mr. Roberts: Play, circa 1948


    Act 1, Scene 1

    Mister Roberts takes place aboard the U.S. Navy cargo ship AK-601, operating in the Pacific. It begins a few weeks before V-E Day. Just after dawn, as the sleepy crew ignores the reveille call, Roberts reports to Doc that the previous night he observed a Navy task force stretching for miles on the horizon. He shows Doc a letter he has written requesting a transfer to combat duty. He writes these letters every week, but the captain never approves them. Dowdy tells Roberts the men must be given a liberty (time ashore), which they have not had for over a year, since the captain always denies their requests.

    The men straggle onto the deck. Insigna discovers he can spy on the female nurses as they shower in the hospital on the island. The men all rush to see, using their binoculars. Mannion and Insigna get into a fight, and Roberts realizes he must get some shore leave for the men, to ease their frustration and boredom. The captain cancels the movie that night because a man was on deck without a shirt, a violation of orders.


    Act 1, Scene 2

    Roberts tells Pulver his plan to get the men ashore. He has offered a quart of whiskey, which Pulver had been hoarding in a shoebox, to the Port Director, whose job it is to decide where the ship goes next. Pulver is dismayed because he has invited one of the nurses onto the ship, and now he has no alcohol for her. Doc solves the problem by making fake Scotch out of Coca-Cola, iodine, and hair tonic. Roberts teases Pulver that he is afraid of the captain and never carries out any of the pranks he thinks up, such as putting marbles in the captain's overhead so they will roll around and keep him awake at night. In a conversation with Doc, Roberts repeats his desire to see combat. He knows the war is nearing its end.


    Act 1, Scene 3

    As the men load up a Navy ship with supplies, Roberts disobeys the captain's orders not to give out any fresh fruit. He also allows the men to remove their shirts. The captain summons Roberts, but Roberts sends word he is busy. The outraged captain comes on deck and picks a quarrel. He criticizes the wording in Roberts' transfer request and tells him not to write any more. He orders the men to put on their shirts, but they refuse, until Roberts tells them to do so. The captain tries to punish Roberts, saying that he will be confined to his room for ten days, but he backs down when he realizes that Roberts is indispensable to the running of the ship. The men are delighted to have observed Roberts getting the better of the hated captain.


    Act 1, Scene 4

    Pulver brings the nurse Miss Girard onto the ship. He pretends to have seen combat action and to be the executive officer. He tries to take her to his cabin, but on the way, they run into the men. Insigna makes a remark that reveals the men have been spying on the girls. Miss Girard verifies with a pair of binoculars what has been happening and promptly leaves, saying she has promised to help the girls put up curtains. The men are disappointed that their sport has ended, but Roberts cheers them up by announcing that they are going to Elysium Island, where they will have shore leave.


    Act 1, Scene 5

    As the ship approaches Elysium, the men eagerly anticipate getting off the ship. But the captain announces that because of cargo requirements and security conditions, there will be no liberty.


    Act 1, Scene 6

    In the captain's cabin, Roberts demands to know when the crew will be allowed to go ashore. The captain replies that the only way the crew will get liberty is if Roberts stops writing letters requesting a transfer. The captain hates Roberts but needs him. If Roberts leaves the ship, the captain will not be able to attain promotion to the rank of commander. Roberts at first refuses to go along with the captain's plan, but eventually agrees to it. The captain also gets him to promise not to talk back to him in front of the crew, or to tell anyone of their meeting.


    Act 2, Scene 1

    It is 3:45 A.M., and the men straggle back from shore leave. Some are drunk, while others have been injured in fights that resulted after they gate-crashed a dinner-dance for Army personnel. Roberts deals with them mildly, allowing some of the men to go back ashore. He is pleased with them because they have bonded as a crew. After more trouble ashore, the captain is ordered to report to the island commander.


    Act 2, Scene 2

    The captain tells Roberts they are being kicked out of the port. He orders the men to work harder and hints to Roberts that he might get a promotion if he does a good job. He gives Roberts some orders, which Roberts obeys, to the consternation of the men. Dolan produces a bulletin that says there is an urgent need for experienced officers aboard combat ships. But Roberts is reluctant to sign the letter Dolan has typed for him. The men do not understand why.


    Act 2, Scene 3

    The crew think that Roberts has buckled under to the captain because he wants a promotion. He has also put Dolan "on report," a disciplinary measure, which has further upset the men. Roberts begs Doc to transfer him to the hospital on the next island, but Doc refuses. After they hear an announcement on the radio that the war in Europe is over, they call for a celebration. Pulver tells of his latest scheme, to throw a firecracker under the captain's bunk. He goes to the laundry room to test it, and there is a tremendous explosion. He returns, unhurt but covered in soapsuds. Roberts wants to make another firecracker, but Pulver says he has no more materials. He is disappointed that he has let Roberts down.


    Act 2, Scene 4

    The men are cold towards Roberts. He apologizes to Dolan and takes him off report, but the men remain unfriendly. After the men exit, Roberts takes the palm tree from the container and throws it over the side. The captain enters, notices the absent palm tree, and orders the crew to battle stations. He demands to know who did the prank and guesses it was Roberts. Roberts denies any knowledge of it, and the captain gets so worked up he makes himself ill. After Roberts leaves the captain/s cabin, the men once more treat him with respect.


    Act 2, Scene 5

    Roberts has gained his transfer, but he does not know how. Dolan tries to convince him that one of his old letters was finally approved, but Doc reveals that the men wrote a letter for him, forging the captain's signature. The men enter and give him a going-away present, a brass medal shaped like a palm tree, attached to a piece of gaudy ribbon.


    Act 2, Scene 6

    Some time has elapsed. The men are reading their mail. Pulver reads a letter from Roberts, dated three weeks earlier. He is aboard a destroyer that has been subject to four air attacks at Okinawa. He is happy to be in the war at last. He keeps the "medal" his men gave him on his desk, saying he would rather have it than a Congressional Medal of Honor. Pulver then reads another letter he has received from a friend who serves on the same ship. The letter informs him that Roberts is dead, following a Japanese suicide attack. Pulver throws the palm trees over the side, goes to the captain's cabin, and announces what he has done. Then he challenges the captain about why there is to be no movie that night.


    Study and Discussion Questions


    Act 1:1

    1. How does the author establish a sense of humor in Scene 1?

    Ensign Pulver provides a comic element describing his sexual conquests

     “get him a job as a fountain in Radio City” (page 345)


    2. What feeling does Roberts sight of Naval task force leave him with?

    Roberts feels left out and left behind in the War effort.


    3. Why does Roberts’ wording of his transfer request inspire much discussion?

    “I feel that my continues service aboard can only reduce my usefulness to the Navy and increase disharmony aboard this ship” (Page 347)

    The words “disharmony aboard this ship” could lead to a major issues among the men and a possible mutiny.


    4. What does the palm tree represent to the Captain? To the Crew?

    The Captain-accomplishment and approval from the Commander, a reward, success

    The Crew-Captain is a suck-up. The palm tree is the Captain’s prized possession so the crew hates it because they hate their Captain.

    “Our Captain’s palm tree! Our trophy for superior achievement! The Admiral John J. Finchley award for delivering more toothpaste and toilet paper than any other Navy cargo ship in the safe area of the Pacific.” (Page 346)


    5. Why does the crew need a “liberty”?

    Liberty is a vacation or R and R (rest and relaxation). The crew has been working non-stop without a break for over a year. They need to get away from the Captain and each other. The crew is over-worked and bored and fighting among themselves.


    6. How is spotting the nurses an example of the crew’s sense of boredom and tedium?

    Men see the nurses through binoculars and over-react to seeing women. They begin to fight over the binoculars.


    7. How does the Captain punish the crew? Is he too harsh? Why?

    A man has been seen on deck without a shirt (against the rules and Captain’s orders), so the Captain cancels the evening movie for the entire crew. This is extremely harsh as it is the only entertainment the crew has. The movie is their only reward for hard work and escape from the tedium of their work.


    Act 1:2

    1. Why does Pulver try to hide Roberts’ letter?

     Pulver wants to avoid conflict on the ship

     He is an officer, but he is lazy and doesn’t want more work

     Pulver likes his friendship with Roberts and Doc and wants to maintain it


    2. What does Pulver do to make his room more welcoming for the nurses?

    Tidies and cleans the room, provides refreshments and puts out pillows from home.


    3. Why would soldiers/sailors keep such reminders of home?

    Keeps the connection to home alive. Reminds them of better times and comforts them while they are far from home.


    4. What is Roberts’ impression of Enign Pulver?

    Roberts likes him, but feels Pulver is young, immature, disorganized, lazy, lacks motivation and convictions.


    5. What does the scene between Roberts and Doc on pages 364 and 365 reveal about Roberts?

    Roberts quit med school to enlist in the Navy.

    He wants to be in a situation or circumstances where he will have the opportunity to be a hero.

    Roberts feels his job on the cargo ship is worthless to the war effort.


    6. Who is the real enemy aboard the ship?


    The men work all the time and have no time off. They live in close quarters with little appreciation and no distractions. They are bored, tense and in conflict


    Act 1: 3

    1. What is the source of the conflict between Captain and Roberts?

    The source of their conflict is the struggle for POWER. Roberts cares about the men, the Captain does not. The sailors aboard ship respect Roberts and despise the Captain


    2. Since the source of conflict is not really oranges and shirts, what is the argument about?

    POWER STRUGGLE. The Captain follows rules to the letter and Roberts bends the rules as needed for the men.


    3. How do you know who won the argument and is the real leader on the ship?

    Roberts is still the leader. The Captain orders Roberts to his room for 10 days, but then realizes he can’t run the ship without him. Roberts ends up going ashore to the island hospital to get the nurses. He has avoided the Captain’s “punishment”.


    Act 1:4

    1. How is scene 4 humorous? Find 3 humorous elements in the scene?

                Sailors placing a bet about which nurse has a birthmark on her butt

                Sailors can’t wait to get to Elysium to increase the population. (have sex)

                Pulver is asked if he has seen any action, meaning military fighting action and he responds about his sex life.


    2. Why are things looking up at the end of scene 4?

    Roberts has arranged for the sailors to go to the next port, the island of Elysium and get several days of Liberty. Elysium is a paradise. Roberts bribed the Port Director with a bottle of scotch. Roberts signed the letter “Compliments of the Captain”. Roberts is working all the angles.

    Act 1: 5, 6

    1. How does the crew react to their chance at Liberty?

    At first the crew reacts with disbelief and then the crew is over-joyed. Excited and happy to be getting off the ship.


    2. How does the Captain use liberty to manipulate Mr. Roberts?

     The Captain allows the crew to have liberty, BUT Mr. Roberts must give up some of his own “personal liberties”.

    The Captain puts his own personal gains above and before the crew.

    Roberts must STOP talking back to the Captain in front of the crew and Roberts must STOP writing transfer request letters.

    Roberts makes a “Heroic Sacrifice”. He gives up his dream of leaving the ship any time in the future (a transfer) for the crew.


    Act 2:1

     1. How does the crew spend their liberty?

     The crew spends their liberty on Elysium Island drinking, partying, having sex and fighting.


     2. Find 3 humorous events that occurred during liberty.

     Men are so drunk coming back from liberty they are hauled onto the ship in the cargo nets

     Dolan steals the Admirals goat and brings it back to the ship

     Pulver holds up 7 fingers-indicates he had sex with 7 women on liberty

     The crew goes to the French Consul because they think it is a “cat house” whore house and throw furniture and people out the window.


    3. How did the liberty relieve the tension on the ship?

    The crew bonded over the experience and act as 1 instead of 167 individuals


    4. Why is the liberty ended and who is responsible for the crew’s behavior?

     The Island Commander cancels the liberty because the crew has been so rowdy. The incident at the French Consul (considered part of France, a foreign country) puts an end to liberty.


    Act 2:2

    1. How does Mr. Roberts show his obedience to the Captain?

    Roberts honors his agreement with the Captain that they had made before the crew got liberty. When the Captain gives Roberts an order he replies “Aye, Aye, Sir.” Also when Roberts gets the opportunity to request an automatic transfer from the ship (he no longer needs the Captain’s permission) he refuses to sign the new letter. Roberts gave the Captain his word he would no longer request a transfer if the crew got a liberty on Elysium Island. 


    2. What do the men hope Mr. Robert’s next transfer request does to the Captain?

     The crew hopes the transfer request will destroy the Captain. “the Old man is hanging on the ropes from the working-over the Admiral gave him. All he needs to flatten him is one more little jab. And here it is. Your letter.” …”Go on sign it, Mr. Roberts. He’ll take off like a bird.”


    3. What good news does Dolan believe he is bringing to Mr. Roberts?

     A new order from the Nay Bureau guarantees that Mr. Roberts can get transferred from the Cargo Ship to a Combat Ship. Any officer with 24 months of sea duty can automatically request and be granted a transfer to a Combat Ship. Mr. Roberts has 29 months of sea duty. He does not need the Captain permission to transfer any longer.

     4. Why does the crew think Mr. Roberts is trying for a promotion?

    When Mr. Roberts refuses to sign the new transfer letter, the men assume he is staying so he can get a promotion. They do not know that Roberts is a man of his word and sacrificed future transfer request for their liberty on Elysium.


     Act 2:3

     1. What evidence is there of Roberts falling out with the crew?

     The crew is basically given Roberts a hard time and not following his orders or requests.


     2. How does the news of the end of the war in Europe effect Roberts? The Crew?

     Mr. Roberts begins to panic with the news of VE day. He feels he has missed his chance to contribute to the war. The crew is happy and excited that the war is coming to an end.


     3. How does Pulver plan to celebrate VE (Victory in Europe) day?

     Pulver plans on celebrating VE day by placing a firecracker under the Captain’s bunk.


     4. What was the result?

    The firecracker was made in the laundry room from detergents. It explodes in the laundry and suds/bubbles overflow everywhere. The firecracker explosion also blows up all the supplies and

     Mr. Roberts becomes depressed when they cannot make another one.