Hemingway

I think the first time I became aware of Ernest Hemingway was in the wake of his death. In 1961, my dad took me by L to the Bryn Mawr, a discount movie theater on Chicago’s north side, to see a reissue of Gone With the Wind. I guess I had just turned eleven. I was already a movie enthusiast, but I remember thinking GTTW tedious. (I haven’t watched it since.) We were on our way to the stairs up to the L to take us home to Evanston when my dad saw a headline on a paper on the newsstand by the doors to the station. I can’t remember the exact words, but the essence was that Hemingway was dead.
My dad was pretty quiet as we climbed the stairs. I may have asked about that, and I think he may have said that Hemingway was a writer who had written a lot of stuff he had liked.

Later, I saw some of my father’s early attempts at short stories and the Hemingway influence was palpable. (He chose not to pursue writing fiction. He put all his attention to writing PR for universities and supporting his family. Since I was in that family, I appreciated that.)

My dad would not have been mistaken for striking a Hemingwayesque kind of figure. Thin, balding, kind but not given to expressing his emotions. He had a suspicion of people who strutted and postured (which Hemingway did compulsively). Some of this, I’m guessing, had to do with experiences in the army during WWII where he saw lots of bullies and moral idiots pushing around people who didn’t have the rank to stand up to them. (He did a number of things in the army, including typing transcripts of courts martial, writing for papers distributed to those in the service, a little translating while in France. He saw no combat, but after the war was stationed in a French town and was shocked and scarred by the violence some of the French took on each other to settle wartime scores.)

But I could see a connection between him and the writer he admired. Hemingway may have often been a gasbag in person, especially when he had too much to drink or was hitting on a woman, but the best of his writing reflects the stoicism of a midwest WASP upbringing, and my dad, too, was a stoic midwest WASP. (My mom was a Pittsburgh Jew, and I have always been thankful for the mix of his reticence and her explosiveness – well, thankful for those influences on my work. My mother’s explosiveness in person when I was a kid was sometimes enough to drive me from the house.) Sometimes his stoicism was dangerous. If he didn’t feel well, he wouldn’t complain. A few times, my mother overcame his reluctance and dragged him to a hospital, and the doctors told her she might well have saved his life. (Of course, this is what she told me, but he didn’t contradict her.)

These thoughts come to mind because of (you guessed it) the Burns-Novick PBS documentary, Hemingway. I suppose a lot of people who write for their livings will do as I couldn’t help but do – compare my ideas of what a writer should be and do with what Hemingway was and did. On the one hand, he promoted an image that tipped into the embarrassing. On the other hand, some of those sentences nearly bring me to tears. It’s wrenching to find that someone who could write wisely could also live so foolishly and wastefully.

But his obsession with writing – to him it was life and death – is something I can’t claim I can (or would want) to match. Writing seems often to have been torture to him. For me it is a pleasure and a relief. I love finding stories to tell, I love sharing them with others, I love reading and watching the stories others come up with. Hemingway felt competitive with other writers. I find the company of others who share this enthusiasm brings me great pleasure.

Saturday I finished a two-day intensive of teaching playwriting. My basic lecture on technique. I taught three hours Friday night and about another five on Saturday. Anticipating the class (and guessing how long it would take), I couldn’t help but wince at the work ahead. Once online with the group, though, the time sped by and I was so grateful to have their company. Grateful, too, that the assignments they wrote overnight were so good and gave evidence that the theory I asked them to assimilate was something they not only grasped but ran with.

I don’t imagine I have written anything to compare to Hemingway at his best. (Well, he did try to write a play and it wasn’t any good. Yes, my plays are way better.) But I don’t envy him. His life collapsed into agony and self-destruction. I mostly am enjoying myself. I can’t wait to tell or read the next story.

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Remembering Preston Jones

In the mid-1970s, I was assigned a piece by an in-flight magazine distributed on American Airlines. The story focused on three playwrights who first came to the theater community’s attention in regional theaters. The three playwrights were David Mamet, Marsha Norman and Preston Jones. I interviewed all three by phone.

I was friendly with Mamet from our days working with some of the same people in Chicago, so that was easy. The interview with Norman was the beginning of a relationship, which has continued to the present, as we both serve on the Dramatists Guild Council, and I interviewed her again for my book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing. My only contact with Preston Jones was the phone call for the article, and he didn’t say very much.

I think he didn’t say very much because I was calling from New York, and not too long before he had made his Broadway debut as a playwright and been shot down by the New York critics. The debut was an unusual one – three plays performed in rep under the title Texas Trilogy. The plays had been enormously successful in Texas and around the country before the New York run. My hunch is that a call from the place that had slammed the door on him was no his idea of pleasure. I don’t have a copy of the article handy, but I remember barely squeezing three or four quotable sentences out of him.

As it happens, Texas Trilogy didn’t last long enough in New York for me to see any of the plays. I gather he wrote a few more plays before he died at age 43 in 1979. I didn’t get to see those either.

I have finally caught up with one of them via a TV production dating from 1980. The Oldest Living Graduate is a portrait of an aging and cranky landowner in a small Texas town in 1962. Colonel Kincaid graduated from a Texas military academy and saw action in WWI, an experience that remains vivid in his memory. (Several of those who were students with him at the academy were killed.) Now, stuck in a wheelchair, he is in a permanent war with the modern world, and he is having a particular struggle with his son, Floyd, who wants to convert a chunk of the family property into luxury lake front homes for rich people. Kincaid is not exactly a lovable character. He is a racist and he is impossible to the people with the unlucky task of looking after him. What keeps us engaged is that occasionally he reveals a gentler, poetic side.

I don’t think it’s a lost masterpiece. It is constructed so programmatically that much of its plot is telegraphed. But the best passages are reminiscent of another Texas dramatist, Horton Foote, in that they provide what feels like an authentic sense of the cadences and perspectives of a small town in that state. It is an affectionate but clear-eyed view of people unashamed of their insularity, and I would guess that one would encounter people similar to these characters on a visit to certain towns in Texas today.

I can particularly recommend the TV production now available through Amazon Prime. Directed by Delbert Mann (one of the legendary figures of the golden age of live television in the Fifties and the Oscar-winning director of the film Marty), the cast is astonishing – Henry Fonda, George Grizzard, Cloris Leachman, Henry Dean Stanton, John Lithgow, Penelope Milford, David Ogden Stiers and a very young Timothy Hutton. Grizzard won a well-earned Emmy for his performance as the colonel’s wheeler-dealer son, but the dazzler for me is Leachman. Those who know Leachman primarily from the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Young Frankenstein may be surprised by how she utterly disappears into the role of the colonel’s beleaguered daughter-in-law. In fact, it took me a minute to realize it was Leachman on the screen. (Another staggering performance from her worth digging up is in a TV movie called The Migrants written by Lanford Wilson. She looks as if she stepped out of a Walker Evans photograph. Film buffs will also remember that she won an Oscar for her searing performance in The Last Picture Show.)

The production was shot live in a Dallas theater in front of an audience, and the actors do well both projecting to the house and maintain sufficient restraint to meet the requirements of television. It’s not a great American play, but it’s a valuable one.

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Encountering Rose Franken

Continuing to wander through obscure corners of American playwriting, I have stumbled across a forgotten phenomenon.  A writer named Rose Franken created a character who appeared first in a series of stories for Redbook, then in a series of eight novels, then as the leading figure in a Broadway play, then as the lead in two movies, then as the title character for a radio series, and then at the center of a short-lived TV series.  Her name was Claudia.  Indeed, one of my students tells me that her mother named her after the character.

I’m not going to make exaggerated claims for this material, but something about the character obviously made a big impression on readers at the time.  Claudia is a sensitive but not well-educated woman who marries a slightly older and more sophisticated architect.  They are happily married, but the combination of her lack of sophistication and her spontaneity leads her into various scrapes.  Though Franken denies much of a tie between the character and herself, reading Franken’s autobiography, When All is Said and Done, I keep finding links between her experiences and her heroine’s; including the fact that both Claudia and husband David and Franken and her second husband retreated from the city to run a farm in Connecticut.

In her memoir, Franken (yes, distantly related to Al) tells story after story on herself in which she blunders impulsively into good fortune, and more than a few in which following hunches paid off.  Perhaps you remember the character of Penny in You Can’t Take It With You started writing because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to her house.  I wonder if Kaufman and Hart took inspiration from the fact that, according to Menken, that is exactly how her writing career started.  She sat down at this felicitous typewriter and began to knock stuff out, mostly for the amusement of her first husband (a doctor).  He thought it was good and he encouraged her to seek a publisher.  She opened the phone book and started sending out her first novel.  It was rejected by everyone until she was reduced to one last choice — Scribner’s.  She marched into their offices and asked to see Charles Scribner and instead was foisted off on some underling who promised to read her stuff.  The underling was the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, and he published her book and stayed a friend for the rest of his life.

Then she thought she’d write a play.  She sat done and wrote for three days, one act per day.  The play was called Another Language and, though she ended up loathing the producer for his underhanded dealings, it was a hit and was sold to the movies.  (The film stars Helen Hayes.)  Along the way, she discovered an amateur actress and insisted she be in the play.  When the film was made, that actress made her screen debut.  Which is how Margaret Hamilton found her way to Hollywood.

Franken decided to try to adapt her Claudia stories to the stage in a play called Claudia.  John Golden offered to produce it.  Gertrude Lawrence wanted to play it, but Franken said no, she wanted an unknown.  Oh yes, though Franken had never actually directed anything, she persuaded Golden to let her make her directing debut.  So Franken held auditions and found an actress whose major credit had been understudying Emily in Our Town.  Golden thought she was nuts but gave way.  Dorothy Maguire opened in Claudia in 1941 at the Booth Theater.  The show was a huge hit (722 performances) and Maguire was a star.  (Franken also discovered Maguire’s standy-by, who then opened the touring cast and had some luck herself — Phyliss Thaxter.)  When the 1943 film was made, Maguire played the part again, and then in again in the sequel, Claudia and David.

Please understand that I’m not claiming that Franken is a lost American master, but I’ve read the scripts of Another Language and Claudia and they hold up better than most of the scripts I’ve read from the time.  And I’ve read some of the Claudia short stories, and it’s easy to see why newlyweds bonded with the character and followed her year after year.  I’m two-thirds of the way through Franken’s autobiography, and, though I occasionally catch her unpersuasively claiming niavete, most of it rings true.  And throughout there are little encounters with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Eugene O’Neill, Sidney Howard, etc.

The autobiography was published in 1962 and much of it is about how wonderful her second marriage was.  So it was a surprise to read the obit of her second husband, William Brown Meloney, and discover that they must have divorced shortly after the book came out.  I am a little surprised by how much this disappointed me.

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Both Your Houses

I was determined to witness the moment when Joe Biden overtook the Orange Thug in Pennsylvania. I plopped down on the sofa in the living room under the illusion that this might happen at 2AM (which is about the time I usually go to sleep). I didn’t want to watch TV nonstop, so I thought I’d knock off another play in my ongoing tromp through American dramatic writing of the past.

As it happened, the next play on my plate was Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses. Never heard of it? It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1933. You’ve probably heard of Maxwell Anderson, though, right? The guy who wrote some of those attempts at verse plays about English royalty. Sounds like a lot of fun, right?

Well, Both Your Houses is a surprising work. Not a verse play. It is about an idealistic young Congressman named Alan McLean who comes to Washington DC and discovers, to his dismay, that much of the business of government is based in corruption and payoffs to people who only occasionally think of their responsibility to the people. He decides to fight the corruption around one particular bill, and, though he has his innings, he finds the system is designed to frustrate reform.

I’m guessing this sounds familiar. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, right? Both Your Houses, as I say, dates from 1933. Mr. Smith, the classic Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart, from 1939. My friend, the film historian Joseph McBride, who wrote the definitive biography of Frank Capra, tells me that this is not accidental. Mr. Smith is an unacknowledged adaptation of Both Your Houses. Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to Anderson’s play but gave no credit to Anderson in the credits. The screenplay is credited to Sidney Buchman and the story to Lewis R. Foster. No mention of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that preceded it. Kinda stinks.

But, to be fair, Buchman and Capra added stuff that wasn’t in Both Your Houses, particularly the relationship between Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur. Both Your Houses is sharp and rigorous, but as I read it I had no emotional investment in anybody’s relationship. Alan McLean was indeed the hero, but he was also a charmless pain-in-the-ass. I was on his side because he was right, not because I had any particular affection of him as a character. (His sidekick, a woman nicknamed Bus, was a lot more fun, but there’s no romance there.) Both Your Houses is admirable and surprisingly cynical, but …

But Mr. Smith grabs you emotionally and doesn’t let you go. The developing love story is deeply affecting, and the sight of Jimmy Stewart fighting to the point of exhaustion on the Senate floor is one of the great images in film history.

Contemporary audiences tend to think of Mr. Smith as a rah-rah patriotic film, but in fact it offended a lot of Washington when it premiered. Even Capra-sized, the view of casual corruption in the legislature was pretty strong stuff. It took for the film to reach a general public to be embraced and loved.

Anyway, I alternated between reading Both Your Houses and checking out the TV. And grabbing the odd nap. And then it was nearly 5AM and the Pennsylvania drama wasn’t finished. At this point, I decided to haul my weary tail to bed. I woke up at about 11AM to find that the moment I hoped to witness happened about two hours earlier.

The news that our contemporary Jimmy Stewart has prevailed against the most corrupt, vicious asshole in presidential politics (beating even Richard Nixon for the title of chief villain among presidents) … Yeah, I know Stewart was a conservative, but he was also a genuine hero and had integrity, and I think he’d be better casting for Biden than Carrey.

Oh God, I get to hope realistically for this country for the first time in years.

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Election Day Distraction

Don’t know if it’s true for anybody else, but I’m just trying to get this day out of the way. Latest avoidance tactic, an hour or so at the City Diner with my dog at my feet, reading some chapters in Jan Herman’s biography of William Wyler, A Talent for Trouble, about Wyler shooting Mrs. Miniver and trying to find his place in the war. The analogy is inexact, but I sometimes feel as though we’re living through our version of the Blitz – trying to adjust to a general threat to all and still hold onto decency.

Yesterday, I finished watching Fred Wiseman’s four-and-a-half-hour documentary, City Hall. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of the Wiseman films I’ve seen (and am very aware there’s quite a bit I haven’t). City Hall joins In Jackson Heights (his film on that neighborhood in Queens) and his epic about the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, as my three favorites of his. Each in its way, without tub-thumping, is about democracy. In both Ex Libris and City Hall, we see endless meetings of people in office uniforms sitting in flatly-lit rooms around conference tables discussing points of policy, strategizing procedure, speaking in full paragraphs. Sometimes the ear goes a little dead, but the people on the screen stay engaged and most are informed by moral passion. And then Wiseman takes us out into the community where the decisions made around those tables have real-life impact on the citizens. There are also occasional flat-out gorgeous shots of the skyline and the parks and the residential areas in contrast to the banality of the office scenes, reminding us that the work in these cramped rooms is taking place within the larger context of the beauty and exuberance of the city. (Ex Libris takes us to a variety of neighborhoods around New York City, City Hall jumps around from neighborhoods of pristine row houses to places where the residents are kept awake by rats.)

OK, 4 ½ hours is a long time to go (or not to go) in one sitting, and I didn’t. And I’m guessing that, when it is finally run on PBS (one of the funders), most people will record it to DVR and watch in installments. But, no, it shouldn’t be chopped up into episodes. It is important to be aware constantly of its size because a city is a big fucking place, and all the stuff we watch is happening pretty much simultaneously. I watched it by renting it through Film Forum for 48 hours for $12.00. Well worth it. (And I’m happy to have sent some change into FF’s coffers.)  Link: Film Forum — City Hall

As for reading, mostly I’m bouncing between the Wyler biography, an oral history of the directors of the “Golden Age of Television” called The Days of Live: Television’s Golden Age as seen by 21 Directors Guild of America Members by Ira Skutch, and reading or watching older American plays.

I’m afraid it was inevitable that this brought me to the film version of Marc Connelly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Green Pastures. The genesis of the play was in the work of a white writer named Roark Bradford who, in his 1928 book, Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, said his work was based on the preaching of Black preachers in poor parishes teaching the gospel by drawing on imagery that would have been familiar to their parishioners. So a day in heaven is pictured as a fish fry, etc. Green Pastures was an enormous hit for its time, running for a long time on Broadway and maintaining its popularity through touring. It was twice presented to overwhelming response on The Hallmark Hall of Fame in the 1950s. With its huge cast and chorus, it also offered employment for years to countless Black performers, most notably Rex Ingram, who is a strong presence in three leading parts (including “de Lawd”) and made a career of performing in different productions. (He also played the genie in The Thief of Baghdad and Jim to Mickey Rooney’s Huckleberry Finn.)

But, yipes. With the exception of Ingram and Eddie Anderson as Noah, everybody is presented as child-like and simple. For all the good intentions, it is agonizingly condescending.

This reminded me of another theatrical retelling of the Bible I saw years ago in London, the National Theatre’s production of The Mysteries, written by Tony Harrison (adapted from traditional texts) and directed by Bill Bryden. This was an environmental production made up of three full-length pieces: The Nativity, The Passion and Doomsday. As some critic whose name I can’t recall observed about the production, it existed simultaneously in three time periods. The first, the Biblical times when the stories take place. The second, the period just before the arrival of Shakespeare when local craft guilds in English towns would embrace the responsibility of retelling the story in terms related to their work and lives. And the third, the present (a/k/a 1985), with folk-rock music and counter-cultural influences still holding on beyond the 1960s. The show was videoed and is available on YouTube with what appear to be German subtitles. Allow me to recommend one particular link in which the actors portray the butcher’s guild telling the story of Abraham and Isaac. After they finish the sequence, featuring muscular, stirring language and wrenching performances, they pull out their long, straight butcher’s knives and dance, and the climax of the dance is a transformation that is theatrical gold. This happens a little after four minutes into this link, and I urge you to watch it. More than 30 years after I first saw it, this makes me gasp.  The day I spent at this show easily is among the dozen most exciting things I’ve seen in my life.

There is a palpable distinction between the ersatz folk material of Green Pastures and Harrison/Bryden’s Mysteries. The transformation of the stories of the Bible aren’t reduced in The Mysteries but inspire awe, and the guild members the actors play, though not sophisticated, are viewed as possessing collective genius that inspires eloquence. Anyway, if it took enduring Green Pastures to remind me of The Mysteries (and to have the pleasure of sharing it with you), then I suppose it was worth it.

And I’ve managed to get through more than an hour of this day writing this.

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Two Contrasting Plays

I continue my casual tromp through plays of the past, alternating reading from an anthology of early Pulitzer Prize-winners and an anthology of postwar African-American plays.

The two most recent plays I’ve encountered, by coincidence, are about flawed Black authority figures. The Amen Corner (published in 1954, premiered in 1965) by James Baldwin is about a pastor named Margaret facing a mutiny in her Harlem church.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning In Abraham’s Bosom by Paul Green (premiered in 1926 at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, a company founded by playwright Susan Glaspell where Eugene O’Neill did early work) is about a Black fieldworker named Abe in the south whose drive to start a school triggers violence by local whites.

As I say, both leading characters are drawn as flawed. Margaret’s religious rigidity not only leads to her being overthrown but losing her family. Abe’s obsession, which includes his propensity to strike out physically at family and foe alike when frustrated, leads to destruction of his family and his own death. One can admire both characters’ commitment to their goals while being dismayed at the collateral damage they cause. I am reminded of the title character in Ibsen’s Brand, another uncompromising obsessive whose purity of purpose proves self-destructive.

A key difference between The Amen Corner and In Abraham’s Bosom is that Baldwin was a Black writer and Paul Green was white. Baldwin’s stepfather was a preacher with whom he was frequently in conflict, so it’s reasonable to suppose there are autobiographic elements in his play. The son in The Amen Corner wants to be a musician and his mother tries to block him, much as Baldwin’s stepfather tried to put obstacles in the way of Baldwin’s interest in exploring the theater. Paul Green was raised in North Carolina and found himself sympathetic to Black communities (not something calculated to make him popular with many of his neighbors) and this led to his trying to write honestly about the South, alternating between writing plays about white and Black communities. Before Black writers began to find a place on Broadway in the Fifties, Green was among those progressive whites attempting to write dimensional Black characters and raise awareness of American racism in the American commercial theater. (He co-wrote with Richard Wright the first stage dramatization of Wright’s Native Son, which has recently been supplanted by a warmly-received new version by Nambi E. Kelley.)

I was also struck by the resemblance between In Abraham’s Bosom and Deep are the Roots, a 1946 play by Arnaud d’Usseau and James Gow (a pair of white writers). In Deep, a Black WWII veteran returns as a hero to his Southern hometown. When, as in Abraham, his plans for the future turn out to be different than those the white hierarchy of the town have in mind for him (they want him to run the local poorly-funded school for Black students), he becomes a target of their resentment and barely escapes with his life. (Deep was a substantial hit on Broadway. It was directed by Elia Kazan and ran more than 500 performances. Usually a success of that consequence would have triggered a pickup for a film version. But, surprise, Hollywood refused to touch the subject matter.)

I don’t claim that any of these are particularly strong plays. And reading In Abraham’s Bosom induces cringes, with all of the dialogue for Black characters rendered in labored dialect. But thematically, I found them fascinating.

I just looked at my Pulitzer anthology to see what the next play I’m to read is. Skipping over the plays I’ve already read or seen (including O’Neill’s long and torturous Strange Interlude, which I saw in revival on Broadway with Glenda Jackson), and the next one will be … Marc Connelly’s Green Pastures. Uh, OK.

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TROUBLE IN MIND — Alice Childress

I continue to read plays from the past I’ve never gotten to see. Mostly, as I’ve said before, I’m alternating between an anthology of plays that won the Pulitzer Prize early on and an anthology of post-war plays by Black writers.

Finally caught up with Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress. It’s been going through something of a revival in recent years. I see it was produced at the Arena Stage and Yale Rep and that, when we get to the other side of the pandemic, it’s scheduled for a New York production by the Roundabout.

Originally produced off-Broadway in 1955, the play concerns rehearsals for a play called Chaos in Belleville. A number of Black actors have been hired to appear in what is apparently a play about a racial incident in the South written by a white writer to be produced and directed by a white guy whose background is mostly credits in Hollywood. (There are rumblings that he is hoping to avoid catching the attention of investigators, probably a reference to the HUAC bullies’ habit of hounding showbiz liberals as a way of getting themselves into newspapers.) Not surprisingly, some of the actors find that the script doesn’t ring true to them. The dilemma: how to challenge what’s false without pissing off the Hollywood director and losing the job.

This reminded me of the way the Communist Party glommed onto the case of the Scottsboro Boys. Some became convinced that the Party would actually prefer the Boys to be found guilty so that they would have martyrs to help with Party recruitment. (There’s a fascinating but kind of lousy movie that parallels this story called Trial, featuring Glenn Ford as an idealistic attorney hired to defend a Mexican youth on a murder charge, Arthur Kennedy as the guy who uses the case to raise money for the Communist Party, and Juano Hernandez – playing the first Black judge in a Hollywood movie – trying to keep himself from being exploited for propaganda purposes during the proceedings.)

What I find particularly intriguing about Trouble in Mind is how a play more than 60 years old deals with the ever-pertinent question of dubious allies. There’s a quote from Jane Addams’s speech called “The Modern Lear” that stays with me: “In so far as philanthropists are cut off from … the code of ethics which rule the body of men, from the great moral life springing from our common experiences, so long as they are ‘good to people,’ rather than ‘with them,’ they are bound to accomplish a large amount of harm.” She was writing about George Pullman, the 19th century Chicago industrialist who began by trying to pose as a benefactor to his employees and ended up being stunned and hurt when they turned against him (for good cause) and called a strike (the Pullman Strike of 1894) which ended up crippling the country for months. (I wrote a play about this called American Enterprise.) This idea of “good to” vs. “good with” has stayed with me.  The Hollywood director thinks he is being “good to” his mostly Black cast …

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Another obscure Pulitzer Prize-winning play

Continuing my lackadaisical progress through Pulitzer Prize-winners of the past, hit Hell-bent Fer Heaven by Hatcher Hughes. As the “fer” in the title suggests, this is a play written in dialect about hill people in the South (reportedly based on a branch of Hughes’s family). And yes, it is troublesome to plow through the dialect. It reminds me that Shaw wrote the first few speeches of Eliza in Pygmalion in dialect and then tossed in a stage direction writing, “Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.” After that, Eliza’s lines are written in plain English and he trusts to the actress to supply the accent. I wish Hughes had done so. For that matter, there are significant corners of our literary history that could do without this cutesy attempt to replicate accents and mispronunciations. It’s usually hard to decipher and almost always comes off as condescending.

Anyway, Hell-bent Fer Heaven is a kind of hillbilly Tartuffe. A religious hysteric named Rufe, believing that God justifies anything he wants or does, tries to steal his brother Sid’s fiancee and get the brother killed by an easily-manipulated lunkhead. It depends on everybody around him being incredibly gullible or stupid. Why this was chosen by Columbia University for the Pulitzer over The Show-Off by George Kelly, who knows. Unless the fact that Hatcher Hughes was teaching at Columbia at the time. Nah, that’s way too cynical.

If you’re willing to accept that everybody onstage is dumb and you can put up with the dialect, you might see how the play could hold the stage in an exuberantly crude way. It helps that there’s a rattling thunderstorm, a dam blown up by dynamite and flooding on a Noah scale happening in counterpoint. And I suppose a story of evil done in the name of religion always has relevance. Even now, you think?

Bit of trivia: George Abbott played Sid, the good brother, in this on Broadway, sometime before he established himself as a director-writer. Apparently it was made into a silent movie, though I haven’t found it yet. Given that the silent film of Miss Lulu Bett was pretty good, I’d be curious.

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SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING — today

Watched the British postwar classic, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, written by Alan Sillitoe and directed by Karel Reisz, starring Albert Finney, Rachel Roberts and Sally Anne Field. The central character is Alan Seaton, who works as a machinist in a bicycle factory in Nottingham just as the Sixties are beginning. As is common with “angry young men” stories (a trend launched by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger), the central figure is disaffected from society and acts out, mocking authority figures, drinking and fucking a lot. At the time, this was viewed as being in revolt against the oppressive Establishment that sustained a social system in which class lines were rigidly drawn and enforced. You could be smart and talented as hell, but if you didn’t have the right accent (as Henry Higgins noted many years before), your prospects were few. Reisz was quoted as saying he thought of Arthur, for all of his high spirits, as ultimately a sad figure. But audiences then saw Finney as a rakish, attractive, sexy character, determined to grab as much life in the present as possible.

As I watched the film (admiring it greatly), it occurred to me that today’s Arthur wouldn’t wear a mask.

In fact, a lot of the “rebel” figures in the films and plays of the Sixties probably are way more interested in personal freedom than in advancing the cause of a more just society. Does Benjamin in The Graduate ever give any indication of giving a damn about anyone else? (And I say this as a big fan of The Graduate.) On the other hand, it’s because Murray cares about his nephew and Sandy in A Thousand Clowns and wants to keep them in his life that he summons the courage to compromise and go back to a job he hates.

We seem to have a hit a point at which we are re-evaluating our hits and classics. Actually, this isn’t new. I remember Studs Terkel pointing out Jack Nicholson’s abusive behavior with the waitress in Five Easy Pieces, a scene that commonly elicited cheers from the audience. Terkel was right.

In The Wild One, someone asks Brando’s character what he is rebelling against, and Brando responds, “What do you got?” Another film of the era is titled Rebel Without a Cause. It occures to me that if you can’t articulate not only what you’re against but what you are for (and what you are willing to do about it), you’re likely to be a Trump voter, voting out of resentment rather than in the hope of something that will benefit someone more than yourself.

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Terrence McNally

I had the pleasure of knowing Terrence McNally from his off-off-Broadway period. Because I worked free in those days, I played keyboard for the 1973 production of his play WHISKEY at St. Clement’s on West 46th Street. Kevin O’Connor directed. It was about a group of alcoholic country-western stars and their horse (Whiskey). Quite a cast for off-off: Charlotte Rae, Beeson Carroll, Susan Browning, and Michael Sacks. As I recall, there is a fire in the hotel and they all perish, except the horse. And there’s some suspicion that the horse set the fire.

Mostly I knew Terrence from our encounters at the Dramatists Guild Council. Being a member of the Council has been one of the thrills of my life. The group is made up of many of the leading playwrights, composers and lyricists of our time, and to be in the same room once a month figuring out ways to be useful to our colleagues offers an opportunity to see these folks doing work they love and believe in deeply. (I sometimes found myself sitting next to Edward Albee, who would occasionally mutter ironic commentary. Edward would sometimes be the lone dissenting voice on a vote, just because he was suspicious of anything that passed unanimously.)

I have two particular non-Guild memories:

In October 2001, not long after 9/11, I was in Chicago. My play, then titled IMMORAL IMPERATIVES (I’ve since given it what I think is a better title, STAY TILL MORNING), was running in an off-Loop theater where I was a resident writer. I heard Terrence was coming to town to participate in a production of the musical version of Durrenmatt’s THE VISIT (with a score by Kander and Ebb). I may be wrong about this, but I was under the impression that this was the first time he was going to work with a Chicago company. Though I live in New York, I’ve long identified myself as a Chicago playwright (most of my plays have been developed and premiered there), and I thought, as a self-appointed representative of the community it would be appropriate to invite Terrence to dinner. We met at a restaurant on Lincoln Avenue. He was curious about the politics of the Chicago theater scene. I offered my opinion that Viola Spolin, Paul Sills, the Compass and Second City were the spark that started the movement. He talked a little about getting to know Elaine May when their double bill, ADAPTATION and NEXT, ran off-Broadway.

The meal over, I thought I’d show him some of the residential housing of the Ranch Triangle area of Old Town. It’s a neighborhood that never fails to charm me as I stroll past block after block of modest architectural delights. I couldn’t claim to be a close friend of Terrence’s, but he had lost someone close to him recently and he started to talk about coping with that and about the good the walk in this particular neighborhood was doing him. I felt the best thing I could do was shut up and listen.

We found ourselves near Second City. I suggested we go in so that he could see where a lot of our friends had started their careers. I showed him the photos of the various famous alumni when they were young. As we were standing in the lobby, a guy I knew a little as a pianist at Second City came over to say hi. He asked if we had plans for later that night. He had a little show that was being done in the small theater at Chicago Shakespeare and he would love it if we would be his guests. (I’m guessing he recognized Terrence.) Terrence quietly asked me if we wanted to see something by this guy, and I said, “I think he’s talented. Why not?” So we cabbed over to Chicago Shakes and watched a show called HAMLET, THE MUSICAL, featuring Jack McBreyer as Hamlet and Alexandra Billings as Gertrude. The conceit is that some second-rank forties songwriters made a musical out of HAMLET. Terrence and I laughed our asses off. After that, I dropped him at his hotel and I thought it had been a pretty damn perfect evening. (The composer of the show, by the way, was Jeff Richmond, who later wrote the musical version of MEAN GIRLS with his wife, Tina Fey.)

My other memory is a smaller one. For some reason, one evening (I can’t remember what year) I was walking west on West 23rd Street and looked through the window of a diner. Sitting at a table were Terrence and Wendy Wasserstein. They spotted me and waved me in, and the three of us spent an hour or so talking playwriting stuff. I remember thinking that it was cool to see celebrated colleagues hanging out. That was a lot of the romance of New York to me – the conversations over coffee with other people passionate about the same things. I didn’t know till way later, when I read Julie Salamon’s biography of Wendy, that in fact Terrence and Wendy were dating at the time. Yes, we playwrights are real good observers of people.

Aside from the many fine plays he gave us, what I admired most about Terrence was his persistence. Through good fortune and bad, he kept writing, and he kept writing about what he wanted to write about. And he helped change the theater. When he started writing, he was writing about what the mainstream thought was fringe subject matter. By the end of his career, the mainstream had moved to him. He hadn’t compromised a millimeter.

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