Making a List

Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted offers a timely, if timid, lesson.

Dalton Trumbo was a member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers whose careers were ruined during the McCarthy era because they stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee. After his bluntly hilarious non-cooperative session with the committee -- re-enacted in Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted -- Trumbo could no longer get work in Hollywood. He spent ten months in prison, and upon his release -- hearing rumors of confiscated passports and concentration camps being planned for Communist sympathizers -- he went into exile in Mexico. There he eked out a living selling screenplays to be produced under other writers' names. He won Oscars for two of them: Roman Holiday and The Brave One. And eventually, though it was never officially rescinded, the blacklist faded away.

I don't think it's an accident that Curious Theatre director Chip Walton chose to stage Trumbo at this point in America's history. We have a president who responded to a horrifying terrorist attack by upending the normal rules of diplomacy and starting a war on a country uninvolved in that attack, a war that will have repercussions for decades to come. As George Orwell observed in 1984 and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, conflict overseas is a useful tool for creating acquiescence to repression at home -- and it helps to have a compliant mass media owned by a handful of corporations. Already, the laws protecting our civil liberties are being bent and set aside; already, immigrants and Americans of Middle Eastern descent are looking over their shoulders, and some have been imprisoned; already, librarians and bookstore owners find themselves harassed, and university students are encouraged to monitor their professors' words in the classroom. In U.S.-run prisons overseas, guards whisk abused prisoners out of sight when the International Red Cross comes to visit. Some of these prisoners are tortured. Some die. And Republican apologists compare these events to a fraternity hazing. But those who remember the murders, disappearances and tortures that stained the history of Latin America during the 1970s and '80s wonder if these practices -- winked at or encouraged by the Nixon and Reagan administrations -- may some day come home to roost.

The opening scene of Trumbo promises a lot. Jamie Horton is simply magnificent in the title role -- American in that eccentric, outspoken, wise and wily way that no citizen of another country could imitate. (In the coming weeks, at least three more actors will play the role of Trumbo: John Ashton, Louis Schaefer and Marcus Waterman.) "This is the beginning of an American concentration camp," Trumbo thunders to his interrogator. Later, from the pieced-together letters that make up this play, we learn how fully the writer understood the danger of accommodating evil and how he judged those producers and directors who cooperated with the blacklist while privately deploring it. It's impossible not to admire Trumbo's courage and directness, his willingness to use the correct adjective for McCarthy and his goons: fascist.

Jamie Horton in Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted.
Todd Webster
Jamie Horton in Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted.

There are a few moments in which grief breaks through the facade of righteous wrath. In one, Trumbo writes to the principal of his youngest daughter's school about the harassment the child has suffered from her schoolmates because of his political activities. The letter is full of pain, and it vividly shows McCarthyism's human toll.

The political elements are the play's primary strength, but there are other gems: a lecture aimed at a tradesman Trumbo feels has overcharged him, a hilarious description of the proper way to criticize a novel (which should ensure that the novelist never writes again). Best of all is a missive about masturbation, sent to his son away at college. But other segments, like a long sentimental rant in which the phrase "I have seen American faces" is repeated, are simply snorers.

Trumbowas put together by Dalton's son, Christopher, who uses a narrator to summarize the story and link the letters. Unfortunately, Christopher's writing has none of the energy and inventiveness of his father's. Chris Reid, who plays the narrator, is a thoughtful, sensitive actor, but on opening night, he seemed to have trouble finding his focus and remembering his lines.

This is certainly a worthwhile evening of theater -- for Trumbo's letters, for Horton's extraordinary performance. But it's also a bit of a copout. At this moment, New Yorkers can attend a play called Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, about the prison in Cuba where 585 men of Middle Eastern extraction currently exist in a legal black hole. Guantanamo may not be brilliantly written, but it takes on one of the key issues of our time. In Denver, it seems the best we can do is rehash crimes that have receded safely into history. Christopher Trumbo's script even downplays his father's lifelong hatred of war. And asked a couple of pointed questions about the play's contemporary relevance during a talk-back following the show, the author was evasive.

Where are Trumbo's courage and moral clarity now that we so desperately need them?

 
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