LAW AND THEATER
ARE YOU NOW OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN: THE INVESTIGATION OF SHOW BUSINESS BY THE UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE 1947-1956 (PART I: BACKGROUND)
For my next “Law and Theater” project, I’m tackling Eric Bentley’s “Are You Now or have You Ever Been: The Investigation of Show Business by the Un-American Activities Committee 1947-1956.” In the future, I’m planning to address another of Bentley’s plays, “The Recantation of Galileo Galilei.”
Before I discuss the background events, I thought I’d address a question some loyal readers of the Law and Theater section of Black’s Blawg might have. Namely, how do I go about selecting the plays I review here? Why not discuss “Inherit The Wind,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” or plays like that? After all, “A Case of Libel,” “The Man Who Never Died,” “Salt Lake City Skyline,” and now “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” are hardly well-known plays.
That’s kind of the point, actually. My personal tastes in plays tend to run toward the more obscure. One of my hopes in taking on these shows is to perhaps convince the readers of these ramblings to take a chance, head off to the library, and track down some of these titles. Or, perhaps, there will be a production of one of these shows nearby.
And don’t worry. I’ll get to shows like “Inherit the Wind,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” and the like. Eventually. Have patience.
Eric Bentley is a well-respected critic, editor, translator, singer, and playwright. He is one of the pre-eminent experts on Bertold Brecht, and has translated many of Brecht’s works into English. He has also written a number of critical works on the theater itself, starting with The Playwright As Thinker in 1946.
Bentley is a member of both the American theatre Hall of Fame and the New York Theater Hall of Fame. He is also a Fellow in the American Academy of Art and Sciences.
The House Un-American Activities Committee
The House Un-American Activities Committee (or HUAC) was established as a special investigating committee by the House of Representatives in 1938. It became a “standing,” or permanent committee, in 1945. The mandate of the standing committee was to investigate suspected threats of subversion or propaganda that attacked “the form of government guaranteed by our Constitution.” HUAC quickly turned its attention to an investigation of suspected communist infiltration in American society.
In October 1947, HUAC began investigating the motion picture industry. After calling a number of “friendly” witnesses, who reported on suspected communists in the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild, the committee turned to the “unfriendly” witnesses. Nineteen potential witnesses stated that they would not cooperate with the committee. Eleven of the nineteen were called before HUAC. Ten of them again refused to cooperate (The eleventh witness, Bertold Brecht, eventually did answer the committee’s questions). These quickly became known as the “Hollywood Ten,” and were charged with Contempt of Congress.
In November 1947, film industry executives met at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. On November 25, they issued the so-called “Waldorf Statement,” declaring that the Hollywood Ten would be fired or suspended, and would not be re-hired until they had been cleared of the contempt charges and had sworn that they were not members of the Communist Party.
This began the period of the Hollywood Blacklist. Originally including only the Hollywood Ten, it eventually expanded to include over 300 actors, directors, producers and writers. Some left the country and worked overseas. Some writers worked under pseudonyms or through “fronts,” people not on the blacklist who agreed to turn in scripts under their own name, and funnel the profits to the real authors.
Throughout this period, HUAC continued to hold hearings and call witnesses. Some named names, such as actors Larry Parks, Adolphe Menjou and José Ferrer, directors Edward Dmytryk (the only one of the Hollywood Ten to name names) and Elia Kazan, and choreographer Jerome Robbins (who named more names than any other HUAC witness). Others did not, including Ring Lardner, Jr., Dalton Trumbo, Lillian Hellman, Lionel Stander, Arthur Miller, and Paul Robeson.
The first cracks in the blacklist began appearing in 1957 and 1958, when blacklisted actors, writers and composers were hired openly for work on television shows (mainly on CBS). In 1960, Dalton Trumbo was given screenwriting credit for the movies Exodus and Spartacus. Although the blacklists officially came to an end by the mid-1960s, their effects were long-lasting. Many careers were irreparably ruined. Many others succumbed to depression, alcoholism, suicide, and premature strokes and heart attacks.
NEXT WEEK: ARE YOU NOW OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN (PART II: THE PLAY)