LAW AND THEATER
THE CASE OF JOE HILL (PART II: THE PLAYS)
I went through the background to the Joe Hill saga last week. Today, I’ll discuss the two plays based on Joe Hill’s trial: “The Man Who Never Died” by Barrie Stavis and “Salt Lake City Skyline” by Thomas Babe.
First off, the similarities. Both of these plays firmly take the position that Joe Hill was innocent, framed by the powers-that-be for a crime he didn’t commit. In each, Joe Hill eventually comes to the conclusion that his death will be more beneficial to the union movement than his exoneration. In fact, both plays don’t just turn Hill into a martyr; both make him into a Christ-like allegory. In “The Man Who Never Died,” one of Hill’s union colleagues gives a speech lining Hill and Jesus. In “Salt Lake City Skyline,” the character Jerusalem Slim informs Hill that it would be better for the union if Hill were to die. Just to make sure the audience gets the point, Hill explains that the term “Jerusalem Slim” is I.W.W. slang for Jesus.
Both also make use of Joe Hill’s songs. In “Salt Lake City Skyline,” the characters occasionally break out into choruses of “Rebel Girl,” arguably Hill’s most famous song. “The Man Who Never Died” uses more of Hill’s songs, often having characters sing them at protests and labor meetings (which is how they were used at the time). Interestingly enough, Stavis chooses not to use “Rebel Girl,” which Hill composed while in the Utah State Prison awaiting execution.
Finally, both use Hill’s alleged alibi, that he was shot by a jealous husband, as a starting point. In “Salt Lake City Skyline,” she is Elizabeth Dawson, wife of a wealthy local. Her son John becomes Hill’s protégé, demonstrating that the I.W.W.’s message will carry on, despite Hill’s death. In “The Man Who Never Died,” the mystery woman is Martha Weber, a working-class woman.
As in the real case, in both plays Hill refuses to name either the woman or her husband, in order to protect her reputation. In “Salt Lake City Skyline,” Elizabeth is willing to come forward, until Hill specifically orders her not to. In “The Man Who Never Died,” Hill eventually does name Martha and her husband Henry. But by then, the Webers have disappeared, spirited away (and presumably disposed of) by the Copper Barons who have framed Hill for murder.
The primary difference between the two plays is their scope. “Salt Lake City Skyline” starts with Hill’s trial, and ends with his execution. It also condenses the time frame. Hill is executed almost immediately after the trial; the appeals process is cut out entirely. There is also very little discussion of any alleged conspiracy to frame Hill. It is just assumed that since Hill is a labor leader and a member of the I.W.W., everybody wants him dead.
“The Man Who Never Died” begins prior to the murder, showing Hill and other I.W.W. leaders leading protests in an unnamed “Western city of the United States.” It also includes several scenes where the political and economic leaders plot to frame Hill for the murder, kidnap (and kill) his alleged alibi witnesses, and ensure his execution. It also goes into more detail about Hill firing his defense attorney and the appeals to both the Utah Supreme Court and the Utah Board of Pardons. Finally, it does not end with Hill’s execution. Rather, it ends with Hill’s funeral (moved from Chicago to the aforementioned unnamed “Western city of the United States”) and the reactions of the powers-that-be to the public outcry to Hill’s execution. Again, the message is that the union movement will survive this miscarriage of justice.
Neophyte Lawyer’s Reviews
Although both of these plays have their moments, they are both somewhat unsatisfying for me. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that the playwrights start with the assumption that Hill is innocent. I think it would make for more dramatic tension if the audience didn’t know for sure whether Hill committed the murders or not. By clearly taking the position they do, the characters in both plays are rather two-dimensional. There are good guys and bad guys, and neither are overly nuanced.
“Salt Lake City Skyline” is the weaker of the two, in my opinion. The characters seem to be even more two-dimensional than in “The Man Who Never Died.” It is also much shorter (the script has 38 pages of dialogue), which means that it can’t really go into too much detail about any aspect of the case. None of the relationships in the play really resonated with me, with the possible exception of Hill and the Judge. The Judge, in fact, may be the most sympathetic character in the play.
I give “Salt Lake City Skyline” four mockingbirds out of ten. In all fairness, I should admit that part of my aversion for this play might come from the fact that John Lithgow originated the role of Joe Hill. As fine an actor as Mr. Lithgow is, I’ve been a little creeped out by him ever since his performance as Dr. Emilio Lizardo/Lord John Whorfin in the oft-overlooked classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Yes, I can be that shallow.
“The Man Who Never Died” is much better written, reflecting Stavis’ extensive research. The acting edition of the play contains 112 pages of notes on the life of Joe Hill, the Hill case, Hill’s songs, and photographs. It’s really more like a master’s thesis with play attached.
All of this research may, in fact, be the chief drawback to the script. It is clear that Stavis came to admire Joe Hill. It is equally clear that Stavis was convinced of Hill’s innocence, and used this play to tell Hill’s story. The problem is that much of the dialogue in the play seems very over-written and florid. Some scenes just don’t read well on the page. There are no stage directions instructing the villains in the piece to twirl their mustaches, but one gets the sense that such an action would not be out of place. I think that this might only be a problem for readers of the script; if this show were to be performed, good direction and a strong cast might well be able to overcome the flaws in the script.
I give “The Man Who Never Died” five mockingbirds out of ten. It is somewhat more nuanced than “Salt Lake City Skyline,” and it gives audiences a better understanding of who Joe Hill was, what the case was about, the deficiencies in the trial, and Hill’s legacy.