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CONTENTIOUS MINDS: NEW PLAY PITS STALINIST LILLIAN
HELLMAN vs. MARY McCARTHY
by Hank Willow, staff reporter
[March 7, 2002]
[HollywoodInvestigator.com] 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
Lillian Hellman had been
a screenwriter (Watch
on the Rhine), better known for her plays,
who remained a fervent defender of Stalin through to her death in 1984.
Mary McCarthy was a leftist -- but anti-Stalinist -- critic and writer
of a Catholic Girlhood). The two literary lionesses' decades-long
clashes culminated on October 18, 1979, when McCarthy said on PBS's Dick
Cavett Show: "Every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'and'
and 'the.' " Hellman filed a libel suit against McCarthy, Cavett,
and the Educational Broadcasting Corp.
The suit ended with Hellman's
death, before reaching trial. McCarthy died five years later, in
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
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. I see no difference between
Stalin and Trotsky. They were both murderers. If Trotsky had
won, he would have taken out Stalin in the same manner.
"Mary McCarthy became a Trotskyite
because she was sleeping with two of the editors of the Partisan
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.
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
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
Erickson, and many others.
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
How did Hollywood react to
Says Pleasants: "When Contentious
Minds was in rehearsal, we heard from Variety and NPR. We were
informed that Nora Ephron (Sleepless
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
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's 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 what Contentious 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 adds that Tretyakov,
although a Stalinist, was eventually executed by Stalin.
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!"
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.
Although an anarchist, Pleasants's
independence from the liberal arts establishment resembles that of libertarian
and conservative artists who are also independently publishing and producing
in a diversity media and genres: film, literary
and heavy metal.
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