LAW AND THEATER
ARE YOU NOW OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN (PART II: THE PLAY)
Last week, I talked a little about the background for Eric Bentley’s play “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been: The Investigation of Show Business by the Un-American Activities Committee 1947-1956.” Today, I’ll discuss the play itself.
“Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” focuses on the actual testimony provided by witnesses before HUAC. Other than a few explanatory notes between the witnesses, all of the dialogue comes directly from hearing transcripts. In particular, Bentley focuses on the testimony of the following witnesses:
- Sam G. Wood – Film director and producer; first president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals
- Edward Dmytryk – Film director; member of the “Hollywood Ten”
- Ring Lardner, Jr. – Journalist and screenwriter; member of the “Hollywood Ten”
- Larry Parks – Actor
- Sterling Hayden – Actor and author
- José Ferrer – Actor and director
- Abe Burrows – Humorist, author and director
- Elia Kazan – Director and actor
- Tony Kraber – Singer, actor and director
- Jerome Robbins – Producer, director and choreographer
- Elliott Sullivan – Actor
- Martin Berkeley – Writer
- Lillian Hellman – Playwright
- Marc Lawrence – Actor
- Lionel Stander – Actor
- Arthur Miller – Playwright
- Paul Robeson – Singer and actor
Some of these witnesses willingly name names. Others are more reluctant. And some refuse outright. The testimony is, for the most part, in chronological order. Bentley does a very good job of picking the key moments of the testimony, demonstrating the growing desperation of the witnesses. As Larry Parks points out, just being called by the committee was a sign that your career was in jeopardy; it took some deft maneuvering on the part of some of the witnesses (Ferrer, Kazan, Robbins) to preserve their careers.
Obviously, the witnesses who refuse to name names emerge as the heroes of this piece. Some of the high points are: Hellman’s letter to the committee, stating that she “cannot cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions;” Lionel Stander telling the committee that “I am not a dupe, or a dope, or a moe, or a schmoe;” and Paul Robeson’s entire testimony. Arthur Miller may have had the greatest revenge on HUAC. His wife, Marilyn Monroe, stayed by him through the ordeal; his contempt of Congress charge was eventually overturned by the courts; and he wrote “The Crucible,” one of the classic works of 20th century American Drama.
Neophyte Lawyer’s Review
This is a difficult play to review. I have read and re-read it several times over the past few weeks. The version I have is not an acting version, so there are no stage directions or anything like that; it is just the text. I have no idea exactly how to stage it.
It also doesn’t really follow a traditional structure, with a beginning, middle and end. It doesn’t conclude as much as it just stops. And, as it is comprised solely of testimony before the committee, there is not a lot of action. Granted, the words are compelling, but I’m not sure how an audience would react to two hours of people sitting down and reciting lines to each other.
On the other hand, as I said, the words are compelling. And the structure of the play may actually work in its favor. The question that I keep coming back to as I read the script is: How would I (or anyone) react in this situation, especially considering the apparent randomness of the consequences?
Some of those who refused to testify were unable to work in the industry for years, if ever. Lillian Hellman, for example, was out of the industry until 1965. On the other hand, Dalton Trumbo worked under pseudonyms or through fronts throughout the 1950s, in what appears to be the worst-kept secret in Hollywood at the time.
Larry Parks was the first of the “unfriendly” witnesses to name names. Yet he wound up on the blacklist anyway. Edward Dmytryk and Elia Kazan initially refused to name names, but both eventually did. Both men’s careers were “rehabilitated” fairly quickly.
“Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” is, if nothing else, a thought-provoking piece of theater. It is disturbing to think that these people’s lives and livelihoods were ruined, even though they did nothing illegal. Despite the lofty ideals of the First and Fifth Amendments, it was possible to be “guilty” for your beliefs alone.
I give “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” a solid eight mockingbirds on the infamous “Mockingbird Scale.” There are no easy answers here, which is a good thing.
For another view of life under the blacklist, I highly recommend downloading Tony Kahn’s riveting radio program “Blacklisted” (available either at the iTunes store or here). Kahn’s father, screenwriter Gordon Kahn, was on the blacklist from 1947 until his death in 1962.