Commentary Magazine


Broadway's Missing Communist:
Theater Without Candor

While the Communists have never been numerous in this country, it is a commonplace that their influence anywhere is out of all proportion to their numbers. It is also true that, while the failure of the Communists to attract the American “proletariat” has been abysmal, they have been distinctly more successful with the professional classes. And with no group, it seems to me, have they done so well as with the theatrical profession.

There are various reasons for this. One, obviously, is that theater people are very easily carried away with enthusiasm. And, though there are other things to be enthusiastic about in this life besides Communism, few of these can combine, as Communism does, the appeal to enthusiastic generosity with an appeal to precisely the opposite impulse: for if we shout with joy at the idea of shaking our chains off, we sigh with relief at the idea of having them clamped back on again. The double appeal corresponds to the double nature of men in general and theater people in particular. The latter tend, even more than the rest of the population, to combine a vast quantity of “democratic” good will with an equally vast ambition to have prestige and be in cahoots with those who have even more. Most actors wish to be “stars,” and what happens when they get their wish? On the one hand, they express a dogmatic faith in their public (the public which elects them and keeps them in office as it were), and on the other they are arrivistes, patronizing the best hotels, eating at the best restaurants, riding only in taxis, living behind squads of agents and secretaries.

On the one hand, then, the impulse to kiss everybody and burst out crying from sheer love of mankind; on the other, the impulse to exact from the world a preposterous over-valuation of one’s own importance; this doubleness is evident not just in “left-wing” actors and producers but also in many of the famous “left-wing” playwrights of the period. (“Left-wing,” in quotation marks, means “calling themselves left-wing but actually in the Communist orbit and therefore, consciously or not, dominated by Communism.” I shouldn’t dream of denying that, without quotation marks, the word takes in a lot of non-Communist and even anti-Communist territory.) From which we may conclude that if the Stalinist brand of pseudoradicalism had not existed, someone with a shrewd grasp of theater psychology would have had to invent it. (I am reliably informed that when Ilya Ehrenburg was in New York he would eat only at the Chambord and I doubt if that was because it was near the Third Avenue El. It was more likely his historic mission to prove that the International and the International Set are not only compatible but identical.)

However this may be, on Broadway, over the past quarter century, Communism has been the only political force with any real spread, any real staying power, even perhaps with any firm identity. Not that this is ever admitted, least of all by the Communists. Few production outfits wear their party card on their sleeve; few plays openly confess to a Communist author or a definitely Communist idea. But the party has been, and remains, much more active on Broadway than most people assume. A visitor to this country just recently might have gathered from at least one liberal journal that none of the theater people then being questioned about their politics had ever had anything to do with Communism except in the fevered imaginations of “witch hunters.” Little jokes were made about the absurdity of suspecting the funny men of the entertainment world of such ideas and activities. But the joke here was on the liberal journals, as anyone acquainted with the facts well knew.1

A stranger to New York might take a little time to find professed Communists in the theater (and this was the case long before the Smith Act may be said to have driven Communism underground). What he would have found then, and could without much trouble find today, is Communists professing to be progressives, anti-fascists, or possibly even sympathizers. How far the “line” has drifted from the Communist Manifesto may be gauged from the fact that I have heard some of these people explain at length why the explicitly pro-Communist utterances of Brecht are today much less à propos than many a piece of non-Communist writing which contains, say, a word against war or in favor of the “common people.” If such writing has a great established name attached to it—anyone from Jefferson to Sholom Aleichem—so much the better, but even a bit of Kitsch will do, for the requirements, after all, are “warmth” and “love of humanity,” which, in the implied definition, are found more abundantly in Edgar Guest than they are in Baudelaire.

Sentimentality has always served to fog all the issues, and was therefore denounced by earlier Marxists as “petty bourgeois.” But sentimentality is the characteristic weapon of Marxism in its Stalinist phase, as the most cursory glance at Stalinist literature will confirm. At this point, Kitsch becomes, for the rest of us, doubly suspect; even the names of Jefferson and Sholom Aleichem become suspect when they are the merest aliases.

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First, there are professed Communists; second, Communists professing progressivism and many other nice-sounding “isms”; third, and most numerous in the theater, there are the unconscious sympathizers. In the 1930’s it was possible for unconscious sympathizers to sympathize with all aspects of Communism. A shocked silence would descend upon gatherings of “non-Communists” if some intruder referred to the Moscow Trials as a frame-up. The Soviets today cannot command such wholehearted support, but in nothing is the power of their propaganda so marked as in its influence upon persons who not only are not Communists but also quite consciously dissent from Communism. For example, the Communists’ insistence on social injustice in the United States, their methodical reiteration and exaggeration of the same facts and allegations, creates even in Americans pretty much the mentality of the Russian in the story who, when he heard an American criticize the Moscow subways, replied, “Well, what about the Negroes in the South?” The sting is taken out of every criticism of Russia by an appeal to what is in itself a fine impulse—the impulse to set our own house in order rather than spend the time sounding off against other people.

At the very time that the Communists admitted having framed Rajk and many others, I received an ad for John Wexley’s book on the Rosenbergs in which much more scrupulous treatment than Rajk ever got is represented as among the foulest barbarities of our time. And Arthur Miller, apparently desiring to break free from a Stalinism which he had never admitted being in bondage to in the first place, can only condemn Soviet policy as “cultural barbarism” if he quickly adds that America isn’t very much better, the evidence for the equation being that Mr. Miller’s own “liberty has been suppressed.” What Mr. Miller defined flatly in a press release as suppression of liberty was actually the refusal of a single employer to give him a single assignment. Mr. Miller had a play running on Broadway during the very season in which he said his liberty had been suppressed; and his income as a playwright must obviously be far beyond what most writers have earned in any country in any age.

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There is no better evidence of the continued influence of the Popular Front mentality among non-Communists than in Broadway plays about politics. There was one last winter (1955-56), for example, in which, though a sympathetic portrayal of a refugee from Communism indicated the author’s independence, one of the principal assumptions of the story was squarely in the Stalinist tradition. This was the assumption that American life is currently poisoned by persecution mania. If a government employee’s wife, long before she married him, and in fact as a schoolgirl, joined the Communists for a very short time, he is ruthlessly dismissed from his job today: such is America, 1956. But, in sober fact, one of the reasons the play (The Innkeepers by Theodore Apstein) failed is that the author’s assumptions about life in America today were news that had not yet reached his American audience. It is only behind the Iron Curtain that audiences believe Howard Fast’s play Thirty Pieces of Silver, with its picture of the American as Judas, to be a representative picture of American life today. It was there that I myself was asked how many fascist parades I see in Manhattan per month and also when I last saw a lynching (presumably from my windows on Riverside Drive).

A character is missing from American plays that touch on Communism: the Communist hero. All and sundry are suspected of Communism, but only villains and clowns are guilty of it. Communists on stage—in The Love of Four Colonels, The Prescott Proposals, The Great Sebastians—are always (a) foreigners and (b) cut out of cardboard. The feeling of having been falsely accused being the archetypal sentiment of living in the 20th century (classically imaged by Kafka), the false accusation of Communism has become the stereotype of political drama—from The Crucible (by implication) to the more recent Time Limit.

On two occasions, I felt the temptation to rewrite a play, putting the missing Communist in the niche that plot and theme evidently left for him. Both times, his absence was the principal flaw in the structure. In Robert Ardrey’s Sing Me No Lullaby we were asked to believe that things are made so hot in America for citizens who were once Popular Fronters that the very heat forces them to become out-and-out Communists: life having become impossible for this young man in witch-hunting America, he feels compelled to flee to Red China. The author could have avoided talking a lot of nonsense by making the young man a Communist.

The other example is Anastasia by Marcelle Maurette and Guy Bolton. Anastasia is the Czar’s daughter, but obviously that doesn’t make either her or the authors happy, for they have depicted the White Russian émigrés as a corrupt and repulsive lot. Where is she off to at the end? And why can’t she have that nice young man who has loved her so long and so well? A neat solution is at hand if only we were permitted, through the young man’s torn trench-coat, to descry a party card. Why should she be the missing princess if he can’t be the missing Communist? Ilya Ehrenburg would approve, for Anastasia and her Communist lover could then re-enter Moscow, and continue the great work from the Muscovite equivalent of Chambord.

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I Leave it to sociologists to figure out why something a good deal less coherent was put before us. Students of dramaturgy may perhaps conclude that a new, though somewhat Pirandellian, pattern is evolving. In the new drama, the Missing Communist will resemble Signora Ponza of Right You Are in that you will spend the first part of the evening wondering who he is, and the second discovering that he isn’t. He isn’t who you thought he was and he isn’t anyone else and he obviously couldn’t have done the things he was accused of doing because, well, if you must know, he doesn’t exist. The man who exists has quite a different name and isn’t a Communist at all. He’s progressive, of course, and a good anti-fascist, and, yes, if you insist—we’re among friends here after all—he’s, well, let’s say a sympathizer. The term fellow-traveler is not in my vocabulary. . . .

In all of which, art and life are one. For the Communist hero is missing from American life too. If Alger Hiss had been a Communist, and had courageously kept his secret through all the vicissitudes we know, what a hero he would be! But the man has hardly even heard of Communism. Take a look at him: how could he be a Communist? If Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been Communists, bow their comrades would have had to admire the heroism of their refusal to confess! Everything for the Cause! But, instead of heroes, they are victims, and Communist authors will only be able to compare them with other victims like Dreyfus, not with heroes like Zola. And since some kind of Zola can always be cooked up (as he also was no Communist), I predict in the near future an attempt at a revival of interest in the Dreyfus case. But my main point is that the Hiss and Rosenberg cases are dramas manqués, and that the manqué element is the same as in Broadway plays touching on the Communist theme.

Is this all very arbitrary and baffling? Or is there a pattern here which we can get the hang of? I incline to the second conclusion. If there is an element of the mysterious to the story, we cannot assume that it is wholly fortuitous. For, in this realm, mystification is a method, a fine art, practiced for definite ends and on a gigantic scale. In a famous speech which another hand later made the basis for the most outspoken Communist play ever written, Lenin said: “We must be able to . . . resort to various stratagems, artifices, illegal methods, to evasion and subterfuges. . . .”

Do we prefer to think he didn’t mean it? That the Russian has been mistranslated? That I have torn the remark from a context which says exactly the opposite? Or was Lenin really in favor of evasion, and did evasions multiply in geometric progression, until for millions of men, Communist or not, they became standard practice? I italicize “Communist or not” because though there may be reason to mystify and deceive one’s own fellow-travelers, the main task is to mystify and deceive the outside, non-Communist world.

So I hope no one supposes that I am writing all this to make it seem that the playwrights I mentioned are Communists or fellow-travelers. My argument has more force on the assumption that they are not.

Postscript

When I wrote that Anastasia and Sing Me No Lullaby seemed to leave a niche for a Communist hero, I had no notion of implying that they seemed to their authors to leave such a niche, much less that, in earlier drafts than those performed, the niche was actually filled. But in one of the two cases, this proved upon inquiry to be so: Marcelle Maurette wrote me that in her French original Anastasia’s lover was a Communist and that Anastasia did return with him to Soviet Russia. Robert Ardrey wrote me, on the other hand, that in no draft was his persecuted left-winger a Communist.

No one who accepts the general point of my statement will be surprised to learn, further, that the absence of the Communist from the final version of Anastasia and from Mr. Ardrey’s play has more political significance than his presence in the earlier Anastasia. Miss Maurette says—and I believe her—that she is not interested in politics, and made the lover a Communist for dramaturgic reasons—a striking contrast with the Prince, his rival and opposite number. But surely the reasons for suppressing this feature and damaging the dramaturgy in New York must have been political? For America is the place where one must not be candid about Communism.

Mr. Ardrey, for his part, had no conscious impulse to create a Communist at all. Quite the contrary. He tried to live the American myth of innocence à la Miller. The reality, as he saw it, was unjust suspicion, for in the Garden of Eden all suspicion is unjust. But finding, as he must, that there is some Communism around too, he has to blame this on the suspicion!

Lillian Hellman’s Lesbian, in The Children’s Hour, is not a Lesbian till anti-Lesbianism “makes” her one, and Mr. Ardrey’s Communist is not a Communist till anti-Communism “makes” him one. Guilt, then, rests wholly with Senator McCarthy and such, and playwrights linger in Eden quite a while after Adam left.

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Footnotes

1The only reason why this passage is vague is that I have not written it in order to bring accusations against particular individuals. If the truth of it were questioned, however, I should have to change my tune.

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