On Stage: a new generation's un-American activities | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: a new generation's un-American activities 

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The interrogators themselves called it "the $64 question," in joking reference to the TV game show of the day: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?" Members of the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee--HUAC, as it came to be known--asked the question of a stream of witnesses during a ten-year period starting in 1947. It was the era of the cold war and Korea, an era when politicians found that a good way to make national reputations for themselves was to proclaim their intention to weed out "communist influences" in the arts--and an era in which artists found themselves challenged to submit to HUAC's inquiries about themselves and their friends, or to defy HUAC on constitutional grounds. The result of the latter action was frequently the derailment or destruction of their careers, as film and TV producers set up a blacklist to deflect governmental harassment and public disapproval.

Those days seem long gone. Certainly the events of that period are increasingly forgotten as new generations come through an American educational system wary or incapable of discussing controversial issues. Anna Shapiro and Tom Bell, both 24, recall hearing virtually nothing in high school about the anticommunist inquisition of more than 30 years ago. Bell and Shapiro are artistic codirectors of Big Game Theater, a small Rogers Park-based company entering its second season with Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, Eric Bentley's docudrama based on the HUAC investigation of "communist influences" in show business. Shapiro directs the play; Bell, one of the 17-person cast, plays HUAC staff investigator Richard Arens. Preparing the production, which opens Friday, was more of a learning experience than they anticipated.

"A lot of people in the cast didn't know what had happened before they did this play," says Shapiro, who selected the play. "When our dramaturge was starting to do research, he said it was like it had never happened. It was almost impossible to find the books on this time--he had to cross-reference and cross-reference to track down information." Adds Bell: "A lot of this stuff is before our time, of course. But it opened my eyes to realize how little they taught me about this stuff in school."

First produced in 1972 by the Yale Repertory Theatre at Yale University, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been was one of a number of dramatic, literary, and scholarly works on the HUAC era that came out during and just after the years of the presidency of Richard Nixon, whose political career was launched during the HUAC period after he successfully labeled his opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas "pink right down to her underwear." The play was put together from HUAC hearing transcripts by Bentley, a critic and playwright, who made a point of saying, "No words are attributed to anyone which he or she did not write or speak." But Bentley's exercise in "Theater of Fact," as the docudrama form was dubbed by 70s critics, faded from view in the 1980s. In a decade of conservative backlash, public discussion of the HUAC period faded away.

Now, of course, pundits proclaim that the cold war is over. But Shapiro and Bell find a troubling relevance in this depiction of those political battles. "They were trying to silence artists," says Shapiro of the conservative politicians who led the anticommunist charge, "and it's happening again now." The issue in 1950 was Communist Party membership; today, it's obscenity. The real target in both cases, Shapiro and Bell believe, is unorthodoxy and dissent.

"The government is trying to shape what artists present and people see," says Bell, "to take a vision away because it's not the vision they want people to have." He and Shapiro believe attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts, efforts to prohibit flag burning as a form of protest, and stepped-up prosecution of allegedly obscene art are all part of a climate whose effect is to chill free expression.

"If the government brands something as bad and then associates certain artists with that thing, a lot of people in the country will cease to listen to those artists," says Shapiro. "This play shows what the government is capable of doing. The HUAC hearings weren't just something organized by a group of fanatics. They were for a reason, and they served a purpose--to get people whipped up into a pro- American fervor. Anybody who questions the way things are being done is then squelched."

If Big Game's production of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been is guided by a belief in political parallels, the play itself is firmly rooted in the HUAC period through myriad details--turns of phrase ("I'm a curious kind of schmo," says one witness) and frequent references to personalities and issues of the day. Focusing specifically on "the investigation of show business," as Bentley puts it, the play is littered with names, some still famous, some forgotten. Among the real-life HUAC witnesses who appear as characters are actors Jose Ferrer, Sterling Hayden, Zero Mostel, Lionel Stander, and Ronald Reagan (who claimed in 1951 that "Red propagandists . . . threatened to throw acid in the faces of myself and some other stars" ); writers Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Ring Lardner Jr., and Abe Burrows; choreographer Jerome Robbins; and black actor-singer-athlete-activist Paul Robeson. Bella Abzug, later a member of Congress herself, crops up as an attorney for one witness. But less well known today are columnists George Sokolsky and Westbrook Pegler, movie producer Sam G. Wood, film director Edward Dmytryk, actor Larry Parks, and many other figures depicted or referred to in the script.

"When we first started working on the script, we didn't know who a lot of these people were," says Shapiro. "We talked to people's parents and their parents' friends, and got hold of the complete hearing transcripts. Some of the cast went to the Museum of Broadcast Communications to watch tapes of the hearings." In playing people who are well-known, such as Zero Mostel and Lionel Stander, Shapiro says, "We didn't want to do an impersonation, we wanted to give an impression. We thought it was important to give a sense of how the person really was, so audiences couldn't say, 'You young kids have no idea what you're doing.'"

After Are You Now or Have You Ever Been opens, Shapiro heads to Yale University to begin studying for a master's in directing (she has a BA in theater from Columbia College, where she and Bell first met as students). But the company she cofounded will continue, she says, with two other plays planned for this season. Like this one, she says, they'll be big-cast productions with a political edge: "We have a mission. It's simple. We're sick of going to theater that has nothing to do with what's going on today."

Are You Now or Have You Ever Been opens Friday, August 24, and runs through September 23 at Big Game Theater, 1257 W. Loyola, with performances Fridays through Sundays at 8 PM. Tickets are $10. For reservations call 262-1132.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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