Commentary Magazine

A Life, by Elia Kazan


A Life.
by Elia Kazan.
Knopf. 864 pp. $24.95.

Elia Kazan’s claim to attention is based mostly on his part in a few decades of American entertainment. In the 30’s he was a member of the Group Theater, which he left to become a well-known director on Broadway. Between the mid-40’s and the early 60’s he was associated with the Actors’ Studio and with some highly praised American playwrights, including Thornton Wilder, Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. He worked in Hollywood in the last years of the studio system directing a number of films, a few of which exploited “serious” themes, including polite anti-Semitism among middle-class Americans (Gentleman’s Agreement), the spoiling of innocence by success (A Face in the Crowd), and union corruption among New York dock workers (On the Waterfront). Later he turned to writing novels on various topics of suburban angst.

In the midst of this modest career, in 1952, an accident of politics gave Kazan’s reputation a tinge of notoriety. He had earlier become attached to what he calls “the movement”: “. . . the surge of hope and confidence and determination that took over from the Great Depression, the anti-monopoly-capital movement, the anti-colonialist movement of the 30’s and 40’s.”

In the cases of Kazan and several of his friends this meant membership in an active Communist cell, whose objective was to indoctrinate the American people and use the New York theater as an instrument of Soviet foreign policy. This quixotic chore was later extended by certain writers and directors to Hollywood.

Kazan, unusually gifted with common sense (a rare quality in his profession at any time), soon left the party and its artistic minelaying to his sillier colleagues. But when, in the early 50’s, Congress became alarmed by these people and their sympathizers, a number of them, including Kazan, were summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to testify and “name names” of left-wing activists and fellow-travelers. Refusal meant blacklisting and career damage, which Kazan was not prepared to accept. He became one of the “friendly witnesses,” and his left-wing friends damned him for it.

Now, nearing the end of a long life—he is almost eighty—Kazan has published an extensive apologia pro vita sua. It is a somewhat overweight book, justified by Kazan’s claim that he was “the most successful director at work in America from the mid-40’s through the early 60’s.” Joshua Logan, who died last July, might have disputed this judgment, but there is no point in caviling over show-business hyperbole. A more interesting question is who was Kazan to rate the furious and vindictive ostracism which followed his HUAC testimony? We know that he was not a grand political figure. Was he at least a seminal creative talent in his profession, who had let down the side?

To achieve such status, Kazan would have to stand in the same class with, say, Max Reinhardt, Erwin Piscator, or Stanislavsky. But these comparisons are ridiculous. The Group Theater and the Actors’ Studio did have some influence—much of it pernicious—on American theater and, much later, on a few people in Britain and Germany. But that was largely through the work of Lee Strasberg; Kazan makes it clear that he thought the Group, and Strasberg, narrow and self-indulgent in their approach.



The way he tells it, Kazan’s own success in the theater rested on a talent for personal and social deviousness combined with ruthless arrogance, plus an ability to handle egregiously childish stars sensibly and sympathetically. He also had the good luck to direct premieres of some of the most famous plays of wartime and postwar American theater, including The Skin of Our Teeth, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, and a number of other successes that appealed to the peculiar American taste for emotional catharsis. Finally, he was associated with some of the best “star” talent: not just Strasberg disciples like Marlon Brando but eccentric figures like Tallulah Bankhead and such top mainstream actors as Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and Fredric March.

He is painstaking about his limitations: a good but “not a great” eye, a lack of flair for humor—“What I need, I steal”—and a total dearth of the cultural scope and sensibility required to deal with classics. This weakness was brutally exposed during his brief and disastrous spell as a director of Lincoln Center’s would-be repertory company. By his own account Kazan also had no taste for Shakespeare’s poetry or for that of anyone else, and none for music, either. The fact is that he was a very good journeyman director who, in one of those unpredictable turns of show-business fate, became fashionable for a while. His writing, like his directing, was part and parcel of an archetypical American success story in which energy and drive overcame the handicaps of an immigrant boyhood and a limited talent.

A Turkish Greek, Kazan was born in Constantinople in 1909 and was brought to the United States just before World War I. This “family” part of his story is told in mechanical and rather soporific prose. It is only when Kazan gets into the nuts and bolts of his theatrical work that the book becomes really interesting, mainly as a craftsman’s description of how to handle difficult actors (deviously, larding them with flattering hypocrisy tempered by anger), and as a practical guide to working with prominent playwrights. Much of this material should be required reading for any student who intends to go into the theater and has not yet learned how thoroughly the profession is infected by pretentious nonsense.

Yet Kazan himself, for all his common sense, is not immune to the political form of this affliction. Despite his 1952 performance in Washington, he retains a “commitment” to a vaguely left-wing stance. Although it would not be fair to place too much emphasis on the politics of this book, neither is it correct to say, as Kazan himself did in a newspaper interview, that there are only 40 political pages out of 800. A Life is suffused with political feeling and posing.

Kazan is unapologetic about the exposure of his “friends” to the Committee, noting that they were pro-Soviet, and could not claim ignorance of the horrible things that were going on under Stalin. “Hell,” he writes, “we all knew, and some even thought it justified.” Quite rightly his instincts told him it was pointless to sacrifice his career so that such people could operate in secret. But late in life, he has changed his mind—in a way. He now supposes that “human beings” and “politics” can somehow be separated, so that if there is a choice between “politics” and not “hurting human beings,” the proper decision is to avoid the hurt. He affects qualms of conscience at having failed to do that.

This comes close to the famous remark by E.M. Forster: “. . . if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Yet when Kazan found himself, as he puts it, “on a great social griddle, and frying,” it was not just because of betrayed “friendship,” but for having exposed the fans of a regime that had itself slaughtered tens of millions more “human beings” than the Nazis murdered during the Holocaust. By some insane twist of logic, his friends had placed loyalty to that regime above the elected authority of a democratic government. Their foreign loyalty was inimical not only to American democracy, but—as the book shows, describing American Communist treatment of artists—to Kazan himself.



Kazan does not fail to recognize the species of people he was dealing with. He pins them down neatly as those “whom the waves of thought and art in the 40’s, when they retreated, left stranded. . . . Now, in the light of a cold morning, those dreams are troubled when they exist at all, and on the beach lie the remains of that other time.” Nor has the tribe disappeared from the American landscape. Kazan, as well as anybody, should be able to recognize the new forms its “dreams” have taken—Sandinismo, the African National Congress, the irredentist fanatics of the Middle East, etc.—and see how these “causes” still hypnotize figures like Marlon Brando, Vanessa Redgrave, and others of their ilk.

What then is he doing, courting such a crew? His musings might be construed as a Tartuffish attempt to have it both ways, but the closest he comes to a real explanation is rather less amusing:

Why had I posed [sic] as a left-oriented liberal for so long? I’m embarrassed to confess that it was for no real reason. It was only because, in that position, I was “in.”

This is more revealing than Kazan may intend; it suggests that his so-called “friends” and the “human beings” who were hurt by his testimony had better reason to loathe him than they knew.

Kazan makes great play with candor in this book, primarily through a scattering of unpleasant confessions (like the one just quoted), plus a great deal of banal exhibitionism over his sex life. Even so, the worst of his faults—lechery, hypocrisy, sexual revenge, duplicity, abuse of his authority as a director, selfishness, arrogance—are shown in a manner calculated to inspire more envy or affection than censure. The most damning admission, that all he wanted from his political color was to be “in,” is like the weary shrug of a very old man. Who, after all, is going to hold any of this against him now? That is why, for all its parading of sins, large patches of this baggy, motley costume of a book read less like confession than manipulation. Perhaps it is that quality which finally explains the remarkable survival and success of Elia Kazan.



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