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Notes From Underground 

Listening to letters read onstage isn't as compelling as reading them yourself

Wednesday, Mar 16 2005
In 1953, Dalton Trumbo found himself in a particularly sticky predicament. Not that he was new to sticky predicaments: One of the most respected and highly paid Hollywood screenwriters of the 1940s, with a string of hits -- including Tender Comrade starring Ginger Rogers and the Spencer Tracy vehicles A Guy Named Joe and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo -- to his name, Trumbo had in 1947 been indicted along with nine other actors and writers, collectively dubbed the "Hollywood Ten," for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Trumbo went to prison, after which he was blacklisted by the studio system. Unable to find work and beset by mounting debts, he spent the following decade writing screenplays at cut-rate prices under pseudonyms, sometimes asking other writers to act as "fronts" by lending their names to his scripts in order to sell them.

But in 1953, when one of these fronts unexpectedly died while Trumbo and his family were living in self-imposed exile in Mexico City, Trumbo was faced with the unenviable task of convincing the deceased writer's family to give him -- a stranger who had served time in a federal prison, been shunned by the movie industry, and was living in Mexico to boot -- the profits on the sale of a screenplay that didn't even bear his name on the cover. To most, this would seem an impossible feat, but as luck would have it, the man who could reputedly turn out a fully polished 150-page Hollywood script in a week was also an extremely persuasive letter writer.

Christopher Trumbo -- the writer's son, now in his 60s -- reveals his father's epistolary genius in his own play, Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted. Based on some 13 years of correspondence between the senior Trumbo and a wide array of recipients, ranging from family members and fellow writers to the principal of his daughter's elementary school and an employee at a local telecommunications company, Trumbo not only paints an affectionate portrait of a remarkable writer and an outspoken human being, but also refocuses our attention on a murky period of 20th-century American history.

Whether outlining his uncompromising political views (as a member of the Communist Party in the mid-1940s, Trumbo believed in freedom, brotherhood, and the struggle against Fascism, but he didn't care much about Marx; as a screenwriter he campaigned fervently for union rights), griping about cash-flow problems, or explaining the delights of masturbation to his college-age son, Trumbo combined in his vivid correspondence the stern rhetoric of, say, Winston Churchill with dangerous Lenny Bruce-style wit. Even as creditors breathed down his neck and right-wing America denounced him, the writer maintained his wicked sense of humor. "I have received your letter warning that I am now in jeopardy of being placed in bad standing for non-payment of dues," wrote Trumbo to the treasurer of the Screenwriters' Guild during the blacklist period. "I thought it rather loud and more than ordinarily witless, but to deny you these qualities would be to silence you altogether; and that, for constitutional reasons alone, I should not like to see happen."

Samuel Johnson thought plays were better read in private than staged in front of an audience. The reverse and equally eccentric idea, of making letters -- usually intended for the eyes of a solitary reader -- the subject of a public performance, often yields unsatisfactory results. Take Jerome Kilty's 1957 two-person piece Dear Liar, for instance. Built around the clandestine correspondence of George Bernard Shaw and his actress muse, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the play's dreary narration and lengthy chunks of regurgitated letter-reading seem to suck all the sparkle out of what must originally have been a fiery affaire de plume. In another example, Aileen Atkins' 1992 play Vita & Virginia, about the relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, infuses the correspondence-based text with some semblance of dramatic action, but the stiffness of the staging still inhibits any real conflict or conversation.

In many ways, Trumbo feels even less dramatically satisfying than productions I have seen of Atkins' or Kilty's plays, which at least attempted to create dialogue between the two characters onstage through the mouthpiece of their letters. Two-time Tony Award winner Brian Dennehy as Trumbo and co-star William Zielinski, who plays the writer's son and the show's narrator, barely engage with each other at all in Trumbo, reciting most of their words directly to the audience from bound leather scripts, as if reading a sermon. Peter Askin has proven himself a highly visual, physical director in the past with productions like Eve Ensler's The Good Body (which premiered at ACT last year), but the opposite is true of his efforts on Trumbo. With his vital presence and commanding voice, Dennehy spurs Trumbo's bucking prose off the page, like an expert rider on a rodeo horse. But condemned to sit behind a desk for the entire show, the actor looks more like someone wheelchair-bound or buried up to the waist in sand from a Beckett play than the Great Red Scourge of the American public. Zielinski, though unhampered by the furniture, also clearly suffers from motion sickness.

That Christopher Trumbo has placed himself onstage in his own play is not only slightly narcissistic, but also leads to a decidedly lopsided portrait of his father. Ring Lardner Jr., a longtime friend of Trumbo père, once described the screenwriter with a contradictory list of adjectives: "wise, funny, greedy, generous, vain, biting, solicitous, ruthless, tender-hearted, devious, contentious, superbly rational, altruistic, prophetic, shortsighted, and indefatigable." Christopher's play, on the other hand, does little to show us anything of his father's dark side. The only villains in Trumbo are those in documentary footage of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, which intermittently flashes across the two screens flanking the stage. (Ronald Reagan's appearance at one point made the audience hiss the night I saw the show.)

Since premiering in New York in 2003, Trumbo has featured a rotating roster of A-list actors, including Nathan Lane, Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Harris, Tim Robbins, Chris Cooper, and Alec Baldwin, all of whom, like Dennehy, have performed with text in hand. When I asked one of the show's PR managers why the actors in Trumbo hold scripts onstage, he told me in an e-mail that the playwright "wanted to make sure that the audience didn't get drawn into the 'fantasy' of theatre" and instead appreciated the letters as "authentic" historical documents. The problem with this explanation is that Trumbo is being marketed as theater -- with the star in the title role as a major selling point -- not as a public reading. Askin's static mise-en-scène is obviously meant to help the talent manage the scripts more comfortably, but ultimately it smacks of laziness. No matter how worthy Trumbo's life and epistolary skills are of exposure, you can't throw a bunch of letters up onstage, have them read aloud by a famous actor, and expect theatrical magic.

There is real magic in those letters, though. If nothing else, the production makes you want to read Trumbo's correspondence for yourself and find out more about the man who would eventually go on to pen The Brave One, Spartacus, Johnny Got His Gun (based on his own novel), and Roman Holiday, as well as pick up two Oscars -- both for scripts written under pseudonyms during the blacklist years. The San Francisco Public Library's copy of Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962, edited by Helen Manfull, can be found at the third-floor page desk, call number BT7705L. Borrow it. You won't be disappointed.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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