Big Game Theater

The House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee. The blandness of its name is one more proof of the banality of evil. On top of the appalling use of “American” as a legal term, there’s that chilling catchall term “activities”–it’s as if the committee meant to exclude nothing from its predations but thought itself. Ironically, for two decades this House committee practiced the most un- American activity of all, a witch- hunt, in its paranoid attempt to uncover a communist conspiracy.

Set up in the 1930s as an investigative body with anti-New Deal proclivities, HUAC was charged with gathering information for proposed legislation. In two decades it spent $750,000, but it never initiated a successful bill. Yet it soon earned a nasty reputation for intimidating, harassing, vilifying, and censoring its chosen enemies (most of whom, not coincidentally, were Jews or other minorities).

HUAC’s targets were invariably nonconformists with a buried leftist past or a desire to upset the status quo–union leaders, actors, intellectuals, artists. These dupes, the committee proclaimed, were fellow travelers who hoped to use the entertainment industry to persuade God-fearing American citizens to love Joe Stalin (one of HUAC’s first targets in 1938 was ten-year-old Shirley Temple).

At HUAC hearings due process was sacrificed to a divide-and-conquer strategy. The “witnesses” were given no chance to confront their accusers. If they had nothing to hide, HUAC reasoned, they shouldn’t fear to testify. If they took the Fifth Amendment, they were concealing treason and should go to jail for contempt of Congress. Only by naming names could Americans prove their loyalty.

But if the HUAC kangaroo court was bad politics, it was also illuminating theater. It still is–in Big Game Theater’s gripping Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, a searing docudrama assembled by translator and playwright Eric Bentley and cunningly staged by Anna D. Shapiro. Bentley’s devastating re-creation focuses on HUAC’s ham-handed search for “communist influences” in show business from 1947 to 1956 (the year President Eisenhower declared the U.S. Communist Party illegal). The title refers to the “$64 question” (as the committee wryly put it) about whether an individual had communist affiliations, a nonrhetorical question that could ruin your life no matter how you answered it.

Bentley weaves together the often dramatic conflicting testimony given by HUAC’s “friendly” and “unfriendly” witnesses and the electric, gavel-pounding exchanges between prosecutors and prey to provide 22 profiles in courage, cowardice, or compromise. Emerging from behind a scrim, the witnesses are summoned to a platform center stage (Mark Netherland’s huge congressional seal), where they bare their souls before the five-man tribunal. Shapiro has skillfully coached the inquisitors in their verbal torture–their threatening volleys, rapid-fire grilling, and bullying behavior. All but draped in the flag, they huddle behind their huge curved desk (clad in H.G. Douglas’s hideous period suits), as if ready to hurl the first stone.

Inevitably the sorry spectacle reveals character like a human litmus test. Witness the committee’s squirming coconspirators. Sam G. Wood (Martin Duffy) was the producer who gleefully informed on the “Hollywood Ten”–artists who happened to be members of the studios’ enemy, the militant Screen Writers’ Guild (nothing like mixing business and patriotism). Below Wood were frightened rabbits such as the too-affable Broadway fixture Abe Burrows (Don Tieri), his testimony full of panic and non sequiturs, and screen actor Larry Parks. Scott Adsit painfully contrasts Parks’s wavering, incoherent reluctance to testify (“This is not sportsmanlike”) with his frenzy of name listing. Jose Ferrer (David Shapiro) trips over himself trying to ingratiate himself with the committee and to rationalize his savaging of former friends. Choreographer Jerome Robbins (Mark McDonough) cites the chaos of the 30s as the reason he didn’t know he’d fallen into the maw of Moscow; he proves he’s converted by destroying his associates.

It gets worse. Elia Kazan receives a $500,000 contract–the day after he testifies against his fellow artists. Adophe Menjou labels as “Reds” anyone who applauds Paul Robeson’s concerts of Soviet songs. In a new twist on the old “the devil made me do it” excuse, Sterling Hayden (Peter Brown) blames his shrink for the treachery he commits. And the mentally unstable Martin Berkeley fingers 163 people in a virtual orgy of scapegoating.

Inevitably, the doomed bravery of the “unfriendly” witnesses triggers the strongest performances. The blacklisted Ring Lardner Jr. (Loren Lazerine) wryly recalls how he, sent to jail for his communist sympathies, met J. Parnell Thomas, HUAC’s third chairman–who was jailed for padding his congressional payroll. (Truman later pardoned Thomas, though he never pardoned any of HUAC’s victims.) Lillian Hellman (Lauren Katz) fires off her famous letter of defiance that includes the line, “I cannot cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” Arthur Miller (Lazerine) refuses to rat on innocent friends; he too is cited for contempt but goes on to write The Crucible, the best revenge.

All too rarely does the committee get a taste of its own tactics–but in these reversals you can almost taste the poetic justice. Jeff Still is hilarious as Lionel Stander, a pile-driving, table-turning witness who bullies back when he accuses HUAC of being the real subverters–of the Bill of Rights (a document that a 1791 HUAC would no doubt have found subversive). Still’s bravura bit is a triumph of bulldozer acting.

Tony Smith’s Paul Robeson is a life force and a half. Barely concealing his impatience with his inferiors, the famed black performer admits his crime–he sang out loud about how his people were not free–then goes on to ask, “Now do you also want to check my ballot to see how I vote?” For telling the truth, Robeson had his passport revoked (it was restored in 1958). If they could have gotten away with it, HUAC would have ripped out his voice.

That was then, this is now–a generation later. Europe may be freer, but American artists are still muzzled. If history repeats itself and Jesse Helms and his ignorant ilk usher in a new McCarythism, it’s good to know that Are You Now or Have You Ever Been is here to take us back to the future.