Politics make strange bedfellows, and in the 1950s, there probably was not a stranger mix of politics and bedfellows than that surrounding a renowned playwright, an Academy-Award winning director and perhaps the biggest Hollywood star that ever lived — Marilyn Monroe, who every woman wanted to be and every man wanted to be with.
The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) also played a key role.
When Jack Canfora’s play “Fellow Travelers,” opens as a world premier at Bay Street Theater on May 29, it will delve into the intertwined lives and political differences of playwright Arthur Miller, director Elia Kazan and Monroe.
“The two men were best friends and there were 10 years where they didn’t speak to each other,” said Canfora in a recent phone interview.
The catalyst for their falling out came in 1952 when Kazan, a former communist, agreed to testify before the HUAC where he “named names” — 17 in all, including that of playwright Clifford Odetts whose career was effectively ended by the committee. Though Kazan reasoned he wasn’t doing any harm because all of the names he relinquished had already come out, Hollywood in general and Miller in particular disagreed. Kazan’s career was forever tarnished by the episode.
Despite not speaking in the years that followed, Kazan and Miller were still very much communicating with one another through their work. Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible,” a fictionalized version of the Salem witch trials, was an allegory for McCarthyism and the danger of making false accusations. Kazan’s 1954 Academy-Award winning film “On the Waterfront” tells the story of longshoreman Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) who stands up totestify against corrupt union bosses and as a consequence is considered a traitor by his fellow workers. Though the film is based on a script Miller had written in 1951, it sent the message that Kazan had no regrets about his decision to speak to the committee.
And Marilyn Monroe’s role in the story?
“Marilyn is the fulcrum,” explained Canfora. “She and Kazan were friends and lovers, and then she married Arthur Miller. Though she’s not the central character, it was she who brought them together through reconciliation.”
Canfora has a lot of ground to cover in “Fellow Travelers,” which travels from 1951 to 1963 in a space of two hours.
“It was daunting for me,” confessed Canfora. “I’ve written 12 plays, two on real paper. This one was written using biographies. As a playwright, I’m trying to put words in Arthur Miller’s mouth.”
Because the play is based on historical events — and highly contentious ones at that, Canfora explains that he researched his subjects extensively to ensure he had a real sense of his character’s voices.
“At the end of the day, it is a work of fiction and I take creative license,” Canfora said. “You try to be as respectful and true as you can be, and represent them as well as you possibly can and be fair to them — not to paper over their imperfections, but be realistic.
“I was aware of Kazan and I knew it was a controversy and he named names. Like most people I was appalled,” he added. “Not that I’m not appalled still, but the situation was fraught and the pressure all these people were under is difficult for us to fully appreciate. Not to justify what Kazan did, but I was provided with a context in which to understand what happened.”
“The pure, simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
That’s certainly an understatement when it comes to Marilyn Monroe, a complicated woman who is the catalyst in the play, which begins with Kazan and Miller taking a trip to Hollywood to pitch a screenplay. That’s where they meet Monroe who is not yet a big star.
“Kazan starts an affair with her and Miller falls in love with her,” said Canfora. “The stereotype of the time and one that persists is she’s the quintessential dumb blonde. She was not well educated, but she was savvy and intuitively intelligent about psychology and behavior.
“I hope I do her justice. People will have opinions about it, no question. It’s incumbent on me to be respectful. That doesn’t mean reverent, but I did my best to capture these people as flesh and blood human beings.”
“At the end of the day, I have to stop worrying and put it out there.”
Canfora was inspired to write “Fellow Travelers” after seeing a documentary about Miller, Monroe and Kazan.
“I was always struck by how powerful the story was. I decided that night I wanted to write a play,” said Canfora. “I ordered Kazan’s biography, his memoir and Miller’s autobiography and I spent probably a good three months reading, researching and taking notes. I continued to reference these works as I started writing. Most of the events took place in real life, even some of the dialogue.”
It’s interesting to note that Miller, like Kazan, had dealings with the HUAC. In 1954, shortly after “The Crucible” opened, the committee denied Miller a passport to travel to London for the opening of the play there. In 1956, he was called to testify and, unlike Kazan, refused to name names.
One sleazy (and very telling) side note: The committee’s chair — Frances E. Walter — told Miller before the hearing that the whole thing could go away if Miller arranged for the senator to have his photo taken with his new wife, Marilyn Monroe. Miller declined.
If you find that any of this story sounds familiar, Canfora won’t disagree.
“Lots of people keep saying the play is timely. Maybe that’s why it ended up being produced now,” he said. “People say it’s never been this bad, but maybe it’s always been this bad.”
“They say history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.”
“Fellow Travelers,” is directed by Michael Wilson and stars Wayne Alan Wilcox, Vince Nappo, Rachel Spencer Hewitt, Mark Blum and Jeffrey Bean. The play runs May 29 to June 17 at Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. To purchase tickets and subscriptions, call the box office at (631) 725-9500 or purchase online at www.baystreet.org.The first preview on May 29 is a “Pay What You Can” performance. A limited amount of “Pay What You Can” tickets are available at the box office at 11 a.m.