A Compelling Cast of Characters at Guild Hall in East Hampton
By Dawn Watson
A little fear goes a long way when it comes to stripping away freedoms.
Prompting one of the darkest chapters of this nation’s history, the powers-that-be at the House Un-American Activities Committee—an authoritarian group within the United States House of Representatives that reigned a campaign of investigative terror over the nation for four decades—knew it and used the threats of imprisonment, financial failure and “blacklisting” in order to force U.S. Citizens to testify under oath and “name names” of their friends and colleagues. Formed in 1938 and eventually disbanded 40 years later, the combative committee targeted thousands of Americans from all walks of life, whether or not they had committed any crimes, and wielded its considerable subpoena power as a weapon.
Those targeted were compelled to testify and coerced into naming names. Among the most high-profile of those interrogated for suspicion of disloyalty, subversive activities against this country, or having communist ties included members of the Hollywood and cultural elite, such as Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, Charlie Chaplin, Leonard Bernstein, Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Jose Ferrer, Larry Parks, Budd Schulberg, Lionel Stander, Ring Lardner and Gary Cooper, to name a few.
Now, approximately 80 years after its formation and 40 years after HUAC’s dismantling, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?,” written by Eric Bentley in 1972 in response to its dreadful reign, has been revived. Directed by Harris Yulin, the riveting drama will stage as a concert reading at Guild Hall in East Hampton on Saturday, September 9. Assembled directly from the transcripts of some of the more revealing hearings, the play uses the actual words spoken by Mr. Stander, Ms. Hellman, Mr. Parks, Mr. Kazan and Mr. Ferrer, as well as those uttered by Richard Nixon and other HUAC members.
Sure to be included in the dramatic dialogue will be Mr. Parks’ popular response to the panel, to be read at Guild Hall by Matthew Broderick.
“Don’t present me with the choice of either being in contempt of this committee and going to jail or forcing me to really crawl through the mud to be an informer,” he said. “For what purpose? I don’t think it is a choice at all. I don’t think this is really sportsmanlike. I don’t think this is American. I don’t think this is American justice.”
Hellman’s powerful statement, which she read from a open letter directed to John S. Wood, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, will surely also be presented. Mercedes Ruehl and an unnamed performer who will replace actor Richard Kind — called away at the last minute — are set to portray those roles during the reading at Guild Hall.
“I am most willing to answer all questions about myself. I have nothing to hide from your committee and there is nothing in my life of which I am ashamed … But … I am not willing, now or in the future, to bring bad trouble to people who, in my past association with them, were completely innocent of any talk or any action that was disloyal or subversive,” she directed. “To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions … I was raised in an old-fashioned American tradition and there were certain homely things that were taught to me: To try to tell the truth, not to bear false witness, not to harm my neighbor, to be loyal to my country, and so on. In general, I respected these ideals of Christian honor and did as well with them as I knew how. It is my belief that you will agree with these simple rules of human decency and will not expect me to violate the good American tradition from which they spring.”
Revisiting the drama now seems particularly relevant considering today’s political climate, according Yulin.
“This one seems sort of clear in terms of the reasoning,” he says. “The times threw it into my mind’s eye.”
The Guild Hall reading is packed with considerable bold-faced talent, including stars James Earl Jones, Mr. Broderick, Paul Hecht, Peter Riegert, Ms. Ruehl, Barry Scheck, and Mr. Yulin. It also features Rob Anthony, Ebon Moss Bachrach, Dan Becker, J. Stephen Brantley, Andrew Botsford, Matthew Conlon, Peter Connolly, Rob DiSario, Gerard Doyle, Andrew Feuerstein, Josh Gladstone, Ed Kassar, Isaac Klein, Paul McIsaac, Joe Pallister, Max Samuels, Christian Scheider, Sawyer Spielberg, Eric Svendsen and more.
Getting the casting right for all 28 parts was critical, says Yulin, as will be managing such a large troupe of actors. But the hardest part of directing the piece will come in instilling some of the real-life characters with humanity.
“As an actor, you try to not be judgmental. Particularly for this piece, I’m hoping to present everybody not as villains and heroes but as complex and interesting human beings,” he says.
Portraying Kazan, Mr. Gladstone has his work cut out for him. The Academy Award-winning director infamously named names, effectively ending the careers of many colleagues and casting his reputation in poor light. But Gladstone, who is highly regarded by his peers, says that he is looking forward to working with one of the most inspiring ensembles ever assembled on the East End of Long Island.
“The acting prowess that will be working on the Drew’s stage is extraordinary, as befits a play of historical import all too relevant in today’s political climate,” he says.
Mr. Botsford’s screenwriting character also turned on his contemporaries, he reports. But the East End-based actor still relishes the opportunity to participate, as do his fellow cast members Mr. Pallister and Mr. Becker.
“It’s a fascinating play with no original material from the playwright, only the actual questions and testimony and other exchanges from the HUAC hearings, which seem eerily timely now,” he says.
Pallister, playing an FBI agent/Sergeant at Arms, agrees.
“I’m so very honored to be a part of the seriously talented group they’ve assembled,” he says. “It’s a very timely piece, given the political climate change we are all enduring.”
Portraying Ferrer, one of the few who refused to cooperate, will be a thrill, says Mr. Becker.
“Hollywood actors and writers were advised to cite the First-and-Fifth Amendments but were abandoned by the industry and jailed,” he reports. “Many very well known performers and writers feared for their careers and livelihoods. And many named names.”
Ringing the bell for patriotism, it’s very likely that the audience in East Hampton will hear the words of Mr. Stander, who could perhaps be credited for prescience these many years later.
“I know of a group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the Constitution of the United States by depriving artists and others of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness without due process of law,” he said. “[This is] a group of ex-Fascists and America-Firsters and anti-Semites, people who hate everybody including Negroes, minority groups and most likely themselves … These people are engaged in a conspiracy outside all the legal processes to undermine the very fundamental American concepts upon which our entire system of democracy exists.”
The powerful speech was directed not at his fellow testifiers but at those leading the HUAC-led witch hunt.
Guild Hall in East Hampton will present a concert reading of “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” at Saturday, September 9, at 8 p.m. Learn more at www.guildhall.org