First produced in 2002, Ben Pleasants' Contentious Minds dramatizes the Hellman-McCarthy feud as bitterly ideological and deeply personal. Hank Willow's review for the Hollywood Investigator serves as context- rich introduction to Pleasants' compelling theatrical work, representing one of the most prolonged and bitter politico-cultural conflicts of the late 20th century, serialized, with Ben's support, here, on the mmcentenary blogspot.
CONTENTIOUS MINDS: NEW PLAY PITS STALINIST LILLIAN HELLMAN vs. MARY McCARTHY
by Hank Willow, staff reporter [March 7, 2002]
A new play targets Hollywood writers and intellectuals who tried to suppress news of a European genocide!
Shockingly, these holocaust deniers also threatened to blacklist other writers who tried to expose and stop this ongoing holocaust -- Stalin's holocaust!
That's the topic of Ben Pleasants's Contentious Minds: The Mary McCarthy/Lillian Hellman Affair, which recently completed its run at Hollywood's Lillian Theatre. Pleasants's play dramatizes a series of encounters between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman between 1946 and 1982, the two women arguing about men, art, and politics -- with McCarthy accusing Hellman of lying to cover up Stalin's genocide.Before writing Contentious Minds, Ben Pleasants wrote the similarly themed and structured The Hemingway-Dos Passos Wars. In it, Ernest Hemingway urges the leftist writer John Dos Passos not to expose Stalinist murders in the Spanish Civil War.
(Stalin-backed Communists were fighting a "civil war within a civil war," murdering their Trotskyite, anarchist, and democratic allies -- an event that would inspire George Orwell's anti-Stalinist satires:Animal Farm and 1984.)
In an exclusive interview with the Hollywood Investigator, playwright Pleasants explains: "Both plays deal with the same subject: the coverup of Stalin's crimes in America by writers like Hellman and John Howard Lawson, who attacked writers like Dos Passos and Koestler when they attempted to bring forward the murders of their friends, and the torture and execution of others writers in the USSR, like Babel, Bulgakov, and Gorky."
Contentious Minds reminds audiences that HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) was founded in the 1930s to investigate American Nazis -- and that HUAC was supported by American liberals and Leftists, including Hellman -- until it turned its attention to Communists a decade later. Liberal support for HUAC -- even from Hollywood screenwriters! -- is one of the uncomfortable truths that Contentious Minds forces its Hollywood audiences to confront.
Contentious Minds exposes the irony Hellman being celebrated today as a victim of HUAC -- when she was one of its initial supporters.
Pleasants adds: "After the HUAC, Hellman and Lawson were placed on Mount Rushmore as martyrs. They should be remembered as gangsters who attacked Dos Passos and James T. Farrell and Koestler, writers who addressed Stalin's crimes and charged [Hellman and Lawson] with lying and complicity [with Stalin]."
Why did Pleasants choose this now obscure area of history -- the 1930s Hollywood Left, Stalin's murders, the Trotskyite/Stalinist rift -- as a topic for two plays? He explains: "I'm attracted to the subject because no one else will say anything."
Although the heroes in Pleasants's plays (Dos Passos and McCarthy) are accused of being Trotskyites, Pleasants adds: "I have no sympathy for either side...
"Mary McCarthy became a Trotskyite because she was sleeping with two of the editors of thePartisan Review, and was drawn into the mess when James T. Farrell (Studs Lonigan) asked McCarthy if she supported a commission headed by John Dewey to investigate Trotsky's death. She agreed in theory, but ended up on the letterhead of the group Farrell was sponsoring.
"Before McCarthy could chide Farrell for using her name, she started getting anonymous calls and threats in the middle of the night from Stalinists like John Howard Lawson, telling McCarthy not to support the investigation of Trotsky's death, and warning her that her own career would suffer -- that she would be blacklisted. And that got her started."
In The Hemingway-Dos Passos Wars, Pleasants interjects a libertarian message into the play. A minor character tells the audience: "We didn't get any grants for this play. ... You can do this stuff when you don't get money from the government. You can do anything!"
Pleasants explains: "I raise my own money with no strings attached. Producers call me frequently about doing my plays. I just need to meet them face to face. Face to face is always better than email. I prefer letters rather than email. Email plays so nicely into the state. Before long, they'll rewrite it for us. I'm sure they do that in China."
Still, Pleasants does not call himself a libertarian. "I am an anarchist. I am completely anti-state. Governments would never support a play like this because it brings up issues like the Samuel Dickstein matter. He was the US Representative from New York City who created the HUAC to go after German-American Bundists. HUAC was supported strongly by the Left, passed in Congress by 340-42 votes, and had the support of the CPUSA.
"What interests me today is why this is not known. Art supported by government rots the artist's soul. It's nothing more than the plutocrats' message."
The HUAC still touches raw nerves in Hollywood, as demonstrated by the controversy over the special Oscar awarded to Elia Kazan (a friendly witness at the HUAC) in 1999, and which was opposed by Daily Variety's Army Archerd, Steve Erickson, and many others.
Yet despite this emotional atmosphere, Contentious Minds dares to tell its Hollywood audience that, on the scale of evil, Stalin's genocide dwarfs the brief prison terms suffered by the Hollywood Ten.
How did Hollywood react to Pleasants's message?
Says Pleasants: "When Contentious Minds was in rehearsal, we heard from Variety and NPR. We were informed that Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail) was doing a play about Hellman and McCarthy this summer in San Diego at the Old Globe, to open on Broadway in the fall. Both Variety and NPR wanted advance copies of Contentious Minds, and to see it in preview. I refused both requests.
"Variety reviewed Contentious Minds, defended Hellman and questioned the veracity of what I wrote. NPR's Iris Mann (who was once directed by Hellman in The Children's Hour as a girl of ten or so) came on opening night to sniff it out, and decided to do nothing. The L.A. Times's Don Shirley told my PR people flat out that they would not review it. I was glad they missed it. When they reviewed my Hemingway play, they put Dos and Hem on the side of the rebels -- which would mean they were fighting for Franco!"
"But, it goes with the territory, as Chomsky says."
As for the L.A. Weekly, their critic wrote that the play "may contain both the most thrilling and squandered theatrical idea to come along in some time: the legendary rift between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman. Here's a drama potentially straddling and smearing the chalk line between fact and fiction. Unfortunately, in Pleasants's prodigiously researched work, the monumental figures merely name-drop and cat-fight. Jennifer Gundy's McCarthy and Melissa Jones' Hellman fail to connect. Stephanie Stearns plays a narrator with more charm than either of the central characters, which encapsulates the problem of Denise Gillman’s staging."
Ironically for a "left alternate" paper, the L.A. Weekly seemed not to have appreciated that the "name-dropping" and "cat-fighting" was whatContentious Minds's playbill describes as its Russian Constructivism, a technique used by Soviet playwright Sergey Tretakov to broach ideas for discussion. Instead of advocating a single position, characters argue opposing sides, hoping that audience members continue debating after the play. Quoting Tretakov: "The theatrical show is replaced by the theatrical blow, by the immediate processing of the audience."
Pleasants dedicates Contentious Minds "to Robert Conquest, who, single-mindedly, mapped the vast terrain of Stalin's terror network, making it possible for former Soviet citizens to find out, not only the final resting places of their murdered families, but also the names of their murderers!"
Contentious Minds's just completed production at the Lillian Theatre starred Jennifer Gundy (Star Trek: Voyager, South of Sunset) as Mary McCarthy, and Melissa Jones (Spin City, Primetime Glick) as Lillian Hellman. Also featured were Stephanie Sterns and Ronald E. Wingate.
Ben Pleasants has written for the L.A. Times, Herald-Examiner, L.A. Free Press, L.A. Vanguard, L.A. Reader, and Los Angeles Magazine. His other plays include Lenin in Love.
Ben Pleasants is a playwright and author of Visceral Bukowski: A Walk Through the Sniper Landscape of American Letters.
Hank Willow is a Los Angeles based tabloid reporter who investigates Hollywood scams and Tinseltown's occult underbelly. Read about his adventures in tabloid journalism in Hollywood Witches.
|Contentious Minds is now available on YouTube.|