Yes, this is a time of evil, a time where we see elected officials prostituting themselves before a dictator obsessed by Russia. But there was another time in American history when elected officials did the very same thing: the 1950s, when the ravings of a lunatic Senator held the nation in thrall with accusations of Communist influence. It was the Red Scare, and Senator Joe McCarthy was the dictator who spread disinformation and baseless accusations. I will leave it up to psychologists and politicos to ascertain why the Congress and a large proportion of the American public are so susceptible to outright lies that are nothing short of treasonous. Mass brainwashing is nothing new, and the parallels of today with the 1930s (Make Germany Great Again) are startlingly clear. One does not have to watch TV horror shows to see masses of brainwashed zombies on the streets.
All this is made starkly clear in a play currently being performed here in Tucson at Invisible Theatre. It’s opening night was Oct. 21.
There are many ancient Greek antecedents to the European epistolatory novel tradition, which began in the 18th century. In this case we have a play, based entirely on real life, told through a series of letters. The result is entertaining in the sense that each letter, which can be thought of as a vignette, is a self-contained exposition with elements ranging from comic to tragic. The letters were selected by Christopher Trumbo, son of the play’s star, Dalton Trumbo.
The problem with this is that the letters do not create an overarching theme, which is ostensibly about the personal tragedy of Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted by Hollywood movie studios in the late 1940s because of his supposed Communist links. Particularly egregious was a lengthy letter about the book Sex Without Guilt, which Dalton sent to Christopher as Chris began his college days. The entire letter was on the subject of masturbation and the highly disputed Biblical injunction against it. This jarring departure from the thrust of the play merely served to delay its climax.
If one can remove the dross from the play, it has an important message. “The blacklist was a time of evil,” stated Dalton. “There were no heroes or villains, there were only victims.” Dalton, a screenwriter, was one of 10 movie industry employees who notoriously became known as the Hollywood 10. They were barred from working in their chosen field, and jailed, although by 1960 it had become known that Dalton wrote the screenplay for the Kirk Douglas movie Spartacus and other films. It took until the early 60s for the other nine people to be reinstated. There is a 15-minute short documentary from 1951, in which each of the ten made a speech denouncing McCarthy. It is on the internet and worth watching in advance of seeing this play.
The play is ably performed by David Alexander Johnston as Dalton, and Damian Garcia as Christopher. Due to the epistolary nature of the play, they have no back-and-forth dialogue. This raises the demands placed upon the actors, as there is no opportunity for personal interaction. Both, however, meet the challenge in delivering a powerful message, just as relevant today as it was in the 40s and 50s. Remember when the dictator speaks now of a Red Wave coming on Nov. 3, it’s not the Republican party he is referring to. McCarthy was right, but he got the timing wrong. It was not 1947. It is 2020.
Photo Credit: Tim Fuller
TRUMBO: RED, WHITE AND BLACKLISTED is at Invisible Theatre. Due to the virus situation only about 22 patrons are allowed to see a performance, so tickets must be purchased in advance. Patrons must wear masks during the performance. InvisibleTheatre.com