Are you now or have you ever been a Marxist, an anarchist, a supporter of Black Lives Matter, a democratic socialist or a member of the Radical Left including holding membership in the Democratic Party?
It’s interesting how the lexicon of red-baiting has shifted over the years. No one knew better than Eric Bentley about how badly the body politic can be poisoned by the calculated use of red-baiting. Bentley, who passed away in August, was educated at Oxford and Yale (where he earned his Ph.D.) and is the author of 11 books on the theatre. In addition, as a playwright, he wrote (and often produced) 9 plays. Had he lived just a little while longer, he would have celebrated his 104th birthday today.
Besides being a theatre critic for the New Republic and other publications, Bentley was a collaborator with and translator for Bertolt Brecht. As an author, essayist and playwright, his death last month marked the passing of a unique and challenging presence in the American theatre.
In his 1972 play, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been: The Investigations of Show-Business by the Un-American Activities Committee 1947-1958, Bentley employed a technique that we now refer to as “verbatim theatre” by taking the official transcripts of the HUAC proceedings and fashioning them into a drama. Although verbatim theatre is now the popular term of choice for the form that he chose, it actually had its genesis in the Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s which was part of the job creation project initiated out of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. They called it “Newspaper Theatre” because the playwrights and actors actually grabbed verbatim headlines from across the U.S. and developed them into dramas on numerous subjects.
Although red-baiting is an old playbook, denouncing political opponents by calling them anarchists/commies/Marxists/pinkos, etc., without further argument or indeed any argument, the old logical fallacy is alive and well with contemporary red-baiters and Donald Trump has been using the trope with renewed hyperbolic fervor.
At the core of Mr. Bentley’s work on the stage was the promotion of Marxist playwrights including Brecht, Sean O’Casey and many other writers, artists, intellectuals and cultural workers who were indiscriminately swept up and persecuted in the long witch hunt of accusation now popularly referred to as the McCarthy Period, although it began much earlier than McCarthy and, as we see clearly now, has lasted much longer. In fact, Hallie Flanagan, the director of the Federal Theatre Project, was one of the first witnesses to be called by HUAC in December of 1938.
Bentley was a gay man who was neither a communist nor a Marxist (he often chafed at both labels) but he vigorously and passionately condemned anti-communism nonetheless when it came out of thoughtless and ignorant rants.
He was often wryly playful in his observations about a serious subject. He noted that George Bernard Shaw often called himself a communist but certainly was not one. Bentley’s biography of Shaw, published in 1947, garnered high praise from the playwright who called it “the best thing ever written about me.” Charlie Chaplin denied he was a communist but was called one anyway. Bentley believed Brecht was not caught up in the witch-hunt of anti-communist hysteria in the 1940s as deleteriously as others because he had already written some of his most famous work before that time and enjoyed a vocal international following. He also knocked biased reviews of Sean O’Casey’s play, The Star Turns Red, saying it was criticized because “the star turns red.” As if Bentley was saying to his critic colleagues, “What, you thought it was going to turn blue maybe?”
Are You Now or Have You Ever Been is the dramatized version of Bentley’s massive research on the subject contained in, Thirty Years of Treason, Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938 – 1968 (Viking Press, 1971). This 991 page collection of transcripts from the period is required reading for anyone interested in the topic and contains, in various turns, all of the tragedy, evil mindedness, and comic absurdity of the persecutors and the eloquent defenses of democracy, free speech and free thought from major and minor artists of the period who stood their ground courageously in some cases while others saw the earth crumble beneath them. The contrast between the persecutors and the defendants, as Bentley makes eminently clear, is not because of his editing but because of the political juxtapositions that the two sides were locked into.
Playwright Lillian Hellman, in her statement to the Committee, famously abstains from answering her inquisitors by noting that, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions” while Ring Lardner, Jr., one of the founding members of the Screen Writer’s Guild, dryly observed under questioning when asked to name people in the union who he knew to be communists or communist sympathizers, said: “I could answer that just the way you want, but I would hate myself in the morning!”
His flippancy cost him one year of his life in a federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut, where, ironically, he was housed with J. Parnell Thomas, the former congressman who was chair of HUAC for a period of time and subsequently was found guilty on charges of fraud and embezzlement while on the federal payroll!
Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, was called by subpoena to appear before the Committee in June of 1958. After spending time fending off questions with regard to his political affiliations, his interrogators moved on to his work as producer of the NYSF and soon found themselves deep in the weeds.
When asked if he was “injecting anything into the plays that could be considered sympathetic to the beliefs of Communism or the Communist philosophy,” Papp answered that Shakespeare did write, “To thine own self be true…” and suggested, “Maybe some of these plays might be considered propagandistic.”
The exasperated chair of the Committee, Richard Arens, who was also their acting counsel and a former aide to Senator McCarthy, exploded with a tirade directed at Papp. Arens sputtered: “We are not concerned with the plays, and you know we are not, and there is no suggestion here by this chairman or anyone else that Shakespeare was a Communist. That is ludicrous and absurd. That is the Commie line. The inquiry of this Committee is solely with reference to the extent to which Communists have used their prestige in the theatre to promote Communists; and for you to twist this testimony, in the presence of the public press here, to give an implication that the Chairman is trying to elicit information from you that Shakespeare was subversive, or this committee is investigating Shakespeare, investigating that type of thing, is not only ludicrous, but it is highly unfair!”
But it was left to the African American singer, actor, athlete, scholar and lawyer, Paul Robeson to provide the HUAC with its most focused and forthright push-back in defense of civil liberties. His testimony in front of the Committee is as relevant today as it was back then. A recording of Mr. Robeson’s testimony survives and can easily be accessed on YouTube here.
Today, we are witnessing a new youthfully driven social and political activism in the streets, on podcasts and in public meetings and celebrations across North America and around the world that is stimulated by the same urgency as past movements; a desire for profound change.
Anti-Black/BIPOC racism, systemic discrimination, police brutality, anti-Semitism, LGBTQ+ persecutions, Islamophobia, xenophobia, the woeful neglect of extreme climate change in the corridors of power, and the rampant disparities in economic inequality and the resistance to a strong, resilient, free public health care system that is not manipulated by private insurance companies or Big Pharma – these are all barometric readings that demand to be analyzed and heeded.
As Eric Bentley proved with such eloquence and grace, the reason that artists have been attacked with such ferocity over the years is because they are the ones who have looked at the gauge and interpreted the readings and meanings of these events in so many life affirming artistic and poetical forms.
Now, with the same urgency no less than in Bentley’s day, it is important that we keep our eyes on the prize and not be divided by the racists and the red-baiters. I always liked that scene in Spartacus where the Roman slaves, rather than identify one of their leaders, all claimed to be he: “I am Spartacus!”, “I am Spartacus” they all proclaimed one after another. I saw that movie when I was 12 years old and had no idea who had written those words. Now I know and everyone knows that Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, was paying tribute to his comrades who refused to name names and would rather go to prison than renounce their principles.
Unlike the high priced donor dinner parties and initiation fees at Mar-a-Lago – Trump’s Florida “official residence” and his sanctuary after fleeing New York City – the current progressive movement is free to join and everyone is welcome. As the Staple Singers reminded us in their rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s song:
“People get ready, there’s a train comin’ You don’t need a ticket, you just get on board!”
Folks have come too far down the road to let anyone turn them around now. Like never before, artists and athletes are taking centre stage by organizing events, signing letters and petitions articulating demands and joining protest marches. From his seat on the aisle, Eric Bentley’s spirit rises to lead a standing ovation.