JOAN OF ART: An Old Fashion Musical, Puppets, Whales and Books (yes they still exist)

The 1952 MGM song and dance classic that immortalized Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds is considered by everyone one of cinema’s greatest. A true classic. Adapted for the stage in 1985 by the film’s legendary creators Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Singing in the Rain comes to The Soraya thanks to a lavish new production by McCoy Rigby Entertainment before it moves to the La Mirada Theatre.

This will be one antic-laden spectacle as Hollywood history is made when silent film transform into talkies.

The show is choreographed by Spencer Liff who has earned two Emmy Nominations for Outstanding Choreography for his work on the hit Fox TV show So You Think You Can Dance. As always McCoy Rigby entertainment casts their show with the top notch people many who have performed on Broadway. I’m seeing it Saturday night and can’t wait.

The show runs at the Soraya on April 12th at 8pm, Saturday April 13 at 3pm & 8pm and Sunday April 14th at 3pm. To purchase tickets or for more information go to TheSoraya.org or call 818-677-3000.

Now I for one love to read…Not on a Kindle and not on my iPad, but books. I love to read books so I was so happy to hear that this weekend The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books has returned. Since 1996, this event has become a world renowned experience gathering writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, musicians and emerging storytellers like no other. There will also be signing areas where various authors will sign for about an hour.

 

Today over 150,000 people attend, making it the largest festival of its kind in the United States. How cool is that?

The Festival of Books runs Saturday, April 13, 2019 from 10am-6pm and Sunday April 14th from 10am -5pm. On Friday at 7m there is a Book Prize Ceremony at Bovard Auditorium, USC Campus.

General Admission to the Festival and Newstory is free. There are certain additional special presentations and conversations which even though free, there is a service fee charged.

The event takes place on the University of Southern California campus located near the historic Exposition Park.

For more information visit Events.LATimes.com/FestivalOfBooks

I don’t know about how you all feel about puppets, but I just love them. I also love the musical Les Miz so I happy to report that LES MIZ and FRIENDS!: A PUPPET PARODY will be at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood every Friday and Saturday until May 11th.

A human production of the Broadway classic ‘Les Miserables’ is overturned by a bunch of foul mouth puppets who throw a revolution of their own. Both a loving tribute and a brutal deconstruction of the beloved musical, ‘Les Miz and Friends!’ will delight the show’s lovers and haters alike.

Full of irreverent humor, parody and original music, improvisation and no-holds-barred attacks on musical theatre this production is definitely not for kids.

The Hudson Theatre is located at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. Los Angeles. To purchase tickets go to LesMizAndFriends.com.

And now for something completly different. One of the most majestic creatures in the ocean is here in Calfornia and you have an excellent chance of seeing it. I’m talking about WHALES…

One of the most amazing sights in nature is that of majestic whales swimming and playing on the ocean’s surface leaping out of the water and slapping their mighty tales. On this 2.5 hour cruise of the shores of Newport Beach you may see giant blue whales during the summer and fall months or the annual grey whale migration that brings tens of thousands of grey whales along the coast during the winter and spring months. Huge pods of several species of dolphin are very common, as are the resident sea lions.

You might also get glimpses of killer whales, sharks and many other marine creatures. This is an event for anyone that loves these sea creatures. I know I do and can’t wait to go on Sunday.

For information go to NewportWhales.com. The cruises go on through September 30, 2019.

So most importantly whatever you choose to do this weekend, make it a fun one.


STAGES OF DOUBT: AN ANALYSIS OF THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION IN AMERICAN THEATRE – PART 5

To read Part 1 of this series, please click here.

To read Part 2 of this series, please click here.

To read Part 3 of this series, please click here.

To read Part 4 of this series, please click here.

Chicago’s Assassination Theater began in 2015 with a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign providing the world with one more reason to rue the internet. Playwright Hillel Levin rehashes a similar stew of the half-baked theories that Oliver Stone served up in JFK, but Levin incorporates information supplied by James Files. Presently serving a fifty year sentence for the murder of two police officers, Files has been claiming since 1994 that he was hired by the mob to kill Kennedy. He maintains that Oswald was brought into the conspiracy to be the fall guy, and that Jack Ruby was the hit man assigned to kill Oswald to keep him “quiet.” That Levin discounts the findings of the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassination each of which dismissed any mob connection to JFK’s killing but accepts the word of a convicted killer is somewhat mind numbing. Files’ story itself falls apart almost immediately. For example, he claims Oswald drove him around Dallas for five days prior to the assassination. As Oswald clocked in at work each of those days at the Book Depository and was observed by his supervisor and co-workers we must assume either Files is lying or the entire Texas School Book Depository staff is part of the conspiracy. Then there is the question of why the mob silenced Oswald to keep their involvement secret but have let Files “rat” them out for the last 24 years. Levin’s Assassination Theater is two hours of preposterous claims, the most preposterous of which is that the mob not only arranged the killings of JFK and Bobby Kennedy but was behind Giuseppe Zangara’s 1933 assassination attempt on Franklin Roosevelt. I’m surprised Levin didn’t reveal the mob had a hand in rubbing out Julius Caesar.

Another advocate of the mob theory is Playwright William Mastrosimone. Mastrosimone who wrote the 1992 CBS miniseries Sinatra, contends that during their meetings, Frank Sinatra spilled the beans to him about the mob’s involvement. In 2013 Mastrosimone shared what he’d learned from ‘Ol Blue Eyes in Ride the Tiger. Notice was not paid.

Playwright Daniel Henning’s 2016 work, The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) is another of the better crafted plays concerning the assassination, even if one that still lacks in historical verity. Henning, founder director of Los Angeles’ The Blank Theatre, like Garson’s MacBird! harkens back to Shakespeare for his play’s binding concept, but unlike Garson, chose to endow his offering with the gravitas of Greek drama.

Selecting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for his template, Henning skillfully overlaid the events of March 15, 44 B.C.E. with those of November 22, 1963. RFK is Mark Antony with a Boston twang, and JFK walks in the shadow of the doomed Gaius Julius Caesar.

Henning hems closer to Shakespeare’s characterization of Brutus in depicting Johnson as a reluctant conspirator drawn into the murderous plot by a Machiavellian J. Edgar Hoover.

Nor does the playwright shy away from employing large sections of Shakespeare’s verse intact and reframing some of the best known lines to fit his needs, going as far as to have the dying JFK lament, “Et tu, Lyndon?”

While Henning is a talented playwright which explains the strength of his piece, he is also widely regarded as an “expert on the JFK assassination” a distinction given him by those who apparently aren’t.

Henning is very well versed in the Mythos of the assassination, he may even be an expert on that subject, but having a great treasury of rumors, second hand reports and misconceptions on an event is a far cry from having an expertise of the actual history.

For Example, Henning opens his piece with a presentation of the “Dramatis Personae” as each of the characters converges on stage, into a kind of Greek Chorus-chorus line, and identifies themselves with a snippet of background information.

It’s here, at the very beginning, where Henning’s errors and oversights begin. He has John Connelly, the Governor of Texas who was wounded while riding in the same limo as Kennedy, state that he is “convinced beyond any doubt that I was not struck by the first bullet.”

In this seeming dismissal of the so-called “magic bullet theory” put forth by the Warren Commission Henning is cherry picking his history.

Disgusted at being used by those bellowing a conspiracy brought down Kennedy, Connelly went before the press in 1966 to put his views on the public record. “I am convinced,” he stated, “beyond any doubt that I was not struck by the first bullet, but just because I disagree with the Warren Commission on this one finding does not mean I disagree with their over-all findings.”

Connelly never questioned the Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone, he simply maintained that he fired four shots, not just three.

Henning has Lady Bird describing herself as coming from a wealthy family who owned newspapers and radio stations. This statement is half true. She did come from wealth, but her father Thomas Jefferson Taylor made his fortune from land investments and retail merchandising. There were no newspapers or radio stations.

It was Lyndon Johnson, in 1943 while still just a congressman, who bought his first radio station, KTBC, and did so under Ladybird’s name. Johnson would acquire many more radios and TV stations, making him arguably the richest man ever to occupy the White House but every sale was under Ladybird’s name.

This is a stunning error for Henning to have made, in that he claims to have written his play after being inspired by Robert Caro’s monumental 3 volume biography of LBJ in which Johnson’s acquisition of his media empire is well covered.

Henning filmed his play in 2017 using many of the same actors from its L.A. premiere including Time Winters as LBJ/Brutus and Tony Abatemarco as Hoover/Cassius each of whom gave excellent performances on stage. The combination of a fine cast and Henning’s well crafted, if factually flawed script, is reason enough to look forward to the film finding distribution.

…the final post of this series


STAGES OF DOUBT: AN ANALYSIS OF THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION IN AMERICAN THEATRE – PART 4

To read Part 1 of this series, please click here.

To read Part 2 of this series, please click here.

To read Part 3 of this series, please click here.

One of the wilder interpretation of the history of the assassination must surely be The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald Or, The Most Unnatural Murder and Dastardly Assassination of John F. Kennedy by that Bloodthirsty Villain Lee Harvey Oswald (or someone else), as represented by our best hand-carved Marionettes and life-like Mannequins of Choicest Linden Wood.

Conceived, written and directed by Vít Horejš and performed by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre, this 2017 production at La MaMa Experimental Theater was part Howdy-Doody Show part Greek Tragedy with nine puppeteer-performers, a chorus of a dozen demonic ventriloquist dummies and a cast of over 50 Marionettes.

The whimsy one normally expects from puppetry was apparent in portraying the John Kennedy puppet a knight in shining armor, Jackie as a royal princess, and Joe Kennedy a King. Lyndon Johnson was depicted as a cook, John Connelly in cowboy regalia and Castro as a boasting spirit with an insanely long beard.

Oswald was more recognizable, garbed as seen in the infamous photo taken in the backyard of their home on Neely Street by Marina, with Oswald holding the rifle that would kill Kennedy and the pistol that was used to kill Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit some 45 minutes after the assassination.

The work touched on numerous conspiracy theories but committed to none of them, nor did it limit itself to the events at Dallas, but explored the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King as well.

The focus of the production seemed to be that as the characters on stage were manipulated by the puppeteers so destiny moved the historical figures towards their historical fates.

A assortment of musical productions have endeavored to capture the essence and consequences of the assassination. In 1983 Leslie Bricusse and Allan J. Friedman opened One Shining Moment: A musical Celebration of John F. Kennedy. Destined to be reworked often up through 2012 the multi-media production used actual footage to display the Kennedys world from the start of his presidential bid until November of ’63.

In 1997 Dublin, Ireland saw the opening of JFK: A Musical Drama, music by Will Holt, with book and lyrics by Holt and Tom Sawyer. The hope was to take the show to the Great White Way, which was not an impossibility as in 1970. Holt and Gary William Friedman were the talents behind the hit show The Me Nobody Knows, one of the first rock musicals to reach Broadway.

The show opened with the widowed Jackie informing the audience that she intended to tell them the story of her husband, before the historians “get it wrong.”

The musical concerned itself with the struggle of the three Kennedy sons – Joe, John and Bobby to live up to their father’s ambitions for them. Later their struggle would be to break free of those ambitions. The play hints that John’s fate was sealed by his decision to withdraw from Vietnam, a favorite myth put forth by the conspiracymongers.

What the CT community point to in substantiating their claim that Kennedy was ready to pull the US forces out of Vietnam is an interview with Walter Cronkite on September 2, 1963 in which Kennedy made the following statement:

“I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the Government [of South Vietnam] to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it.”

You’ll find this quote in scores of pro-conspiracy books and hear it in the film JFK, but you are never given the complete quote, Kennedy goes on to say:

‘But I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. I know people don’t like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort. Forty-seven Americans have been killed in combat with the enemy, but this is a very important struggle even though it is far away.”

Would Kennedy have pulled us out of Viet Nam if he had lived is impossible to say, but prior to his assassination there was no indication on his part that he intended to do so.

JFK: A Musical Drama offered an array of historical characters on stage other than the Kennedy clan; Bull Connor, Medger Evers, LBJ, Fidel Castro, Nixon and others. After a good deal of reworking it crossed the pond to Broadway in 1998. Critics found it so scant on dialogue many regarded it more of a operetta than a musical. The show did not find favor and soon closed, inspiring one Irish wag to quip “Can you remember where you were when they shut JFK?”

But the most distinctive as well as the most insightful musical involving the assassination must go to Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins with book by John Weidman. This 1990 show was concerned not with just the story of JFK, but with the phenomenon of political violence in this country. To that end it presented the history of the men and women who assassinated a U.S. President or made the attempt. Some like John Wilkes Booth are well known to most Americans others like Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, Giuseppe Zangara and Samuel Byck are not.

The final scene takes place on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository where a hesitant and undecided Lee Harvey Oswald is confronted by the ghost of Booth and other assassins who entice him slowly to the window and convince him that pulling the trigger on his Mannlicher-Carcano is the answer to all his pain.

Photo: The cast of “The Magic Bullet Theory.” Credit: Amani/Wood Photograph

L.A.’s Sacred Fools Theater offered a “Dr. Strangelove” redo on the events in their 2012 black comedy The Magic Bullet Theory by Terry Tocantins and Alex Zola. This misconceived mixture of political murder and merry mayhem began with Charlie Harrelson appearing before the Warren Commission with the truth about the assassination of JFK. The father of actor Woody Harrelson, Charlie Harrelson killed US District Judge Jon H. Wood. During a six hour standoff with Texas police prior to his arrest the coked out Harrelson threatened suicide and claimed to have murdered JFK. He admitted later that the statement was made in “an effort to elongate my life.” Nevertheless he became a favorite suspect for the CT community. Tocantins and Zola took a Monty Python approach to the overabundance of conspiracy theories, presenting bumbling glassy knoll shooters, a dim-witted Oswald and clichéd Mafia hit men who all but sweated ragu sauce. The punch line of this show was that JFK’s shooting wasn’t so much the result of a conspiracy as a boo-boo.

…to be continued


Stages of Doubt: An Analysis of The Kennedy Assassination In American Theatre – PART 1

Over the half century since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, the public has been inundated with the ink of upwards of 2,000 publications confronting or concerned with the findings of the Warren Commission. These range from Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment the first publication (1966) to bedung a susceptible public with spurious claims of a conspiracy and cover-up to Vincent Bugliosi’s 1,632 page encyclopedic Reclaiming History (2007) which lays to rest once any questions or doubts about the assassination for all but the most fanatical and dogmatic of conspiracy theorists (henceforth referred to as “CT”).

Hundreds of documentaries of course have delved into the assassination though few approached the subject with the consideration and conscientiousness it merits.

And numerous featured films such as Clint Eastwood’s Line of Fire (1993) and William Richert’s Winter Kills (1979) have employed the assassination in various manners as the catalyst to their story’s plotline.

These films have generally fallen into the categories of “action-adventure” or “thriller,” but there have been exceptions. Robert Dyke’s Timequest (2000) offers the unique storyline of a scientist (Ralph Waite) who as a child watching Kennedy’s funeral becomes obsessed with the grieving Jackie, causing him to dedicate his life to building a means of time travel so that he can return to 1963 and save Jackie from the pain of her husband’s murder by preventing it. He succeeds in this and by revealing to Bobby the conspiracy against his brother’s life changes history. But now, without the impetus of witnessing Jackie’s grief, the scientist’s own destiny is altered and his life takes an entirely different course. One of the film’s high points is the alternative history Dyke conjures up resulting from the assassination being foiled which includes JFK dropping Johnson from the ticket for his second term and replacing him with Martin Luther King Jr.

Regrettably the majority of films concerning the assassination, regardless of their genre, are as disconnected from reality as Dyke’s sci-fi, and far less entertaining.

An exception to this, one of the very few, is director Peter Landesman’s Parkland (2013). A former war correspondent, Landesman delved into the chaos surrounding the assassination and the two days that followed, by setting his story in the trenches with those who were there. His film featured strong performances by Zac Efron as Dr Charles Carrico, the 28 year old resident in charge of Parkland Hospital’s emergency room where the mortally wounded Kennedy was brought, Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder whose life was forever changed by 486 frames of an 8-millimeter film, and James Badge Dale as Robert Oswald, Lee’s older brother who never doubted his younger sibling’s guilt.

The theatre, too, has undertaken to address and investigate the tragic events of Dallas, with the results of these reflecting the diversity of approaches such as only can be devised for and delivered from the stage.

Surprisingly, the first attempt by a dramatist to delve into the murder of America’s 35th president was a British playwright whose work to this day remains one of the strongest on the subject.

Michael Hastings was among that cluster of writers and playwrights – John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Harold Pinter and others – who rose to prominence in the United Kingdom following World War II and were known collectively as the “angry young men.”

The youngest of them, Hastings was the last to win recognition as a talent worthy of note.

He did so with Lee Harvey Oswald: A Far Mean Streak of Indepence [sic] Brought on by Negleck [sic], produced in 1966 at the Hampstead Theatre Club. It was Hastings’ first commercial and critical success.

The unwieldy title is taken from a passage that appears in an account Oswald wrote about the period he lived in Russia. Written in the third person, his description of himself reveals more than the dyslexia that plagued him throughout his life; “Lee Harvey Oswald was born in Oct 1939 in New Orleans, LA. The son of an Insurance Salesman whose early death left a far mean streak of indepence brought on by neglect.”

For convenience later productions were generally billed simply as Lee Harvey Oswald.

Hastings immersed himself in the historical record, reading the Warren Report and pouring over the supporting evidence contained in its 26 volumes. His play relies heavily on testimonies taken from its 552 witnesses, especially those of Oswald’s overbearing and unbalanced mother Marguerite, and his Russia born wife Marina.

As Shakespeare encased his voice of history in “Chorus” for Henry V, Hastings embodies the investigating tribunal appointed by President Johnson in the single character of “the Commission.”

With “the Commission” constantly injecting questions, Hastings leads us down a patchwork rabbit hole constructed from extracts taken from the Warren Report. Hastings reveals Oswald as terrorized by his own sense of insignificance, and enraged at the world for refusing to acknowledge him. Oswald saw himself as someone meant for greatness. When the Warren Commission counsel asked Marina what she thought induced her husband to kill the president, she answered, “He wanted in any way, whether good or bad, to do something that would make him outstanding, that he would be known in history.” Hastings’ Oswald would finally claim, from the Book Depository’s corner window, the greatness he believed was due him.

In 1967, the assassination arrived on an American stage with the satirical MacBird! by Barbara Garson, which has the distinction of being the first to re-work the tragic events in a Shakespearian mold.

Garson turned to a wide assortment of the Bard’s works Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Othello and even Richard II to supply her with the linguistic stenciling she needed, but for overall structure and plotting she stayed with the Scottish play, hence JFK became John Ken O’Dunc, RFK Robert Ken O’Dunc, and LBJ the murderous titular MacBird!.

Initially staged at anti-war rallies and college protests, the work eventually attracted backers who opened it at New York’s The Village Gate Theatre where it ran for a year. This success was due in part to Garson’s clever writing with its serviceable faux Iambic pentameter, but some credit must go to the show’s talented cast of young newcomers which included Rue McClanahan as Lady MacBird, William Devane as Robert Ken O’Dunc and Stacy Keach as MacBird.

As in Shakespeare’s tale, Garson opens with three witches, but hers were cloaked in the personas of the radical left with Witch #1 an old Wobbly, Witch #2 a militant black activist, and Witch #3 a nubile coed and budding feminist.

Making his professional acting debut as Witch #2 was Cleavon Little who seven years later would enter comedy Valhalla portraying Sheriff Bart in the Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles.

Kennedy’s demise is facilitated by the ambitious MacBird in his rise to power, who then sets out to appease the people by implementing “the Smooth Society” which he assures them:

“…has room for all;
for each, a house, a car, a family,
A private psychoanalyst, a dog,
And rows of gardens, neatly trimmed and hedged.”

But Macbird’s interest quickly turns towards the international scene, and bending uncooperative nations to his foreign policies by military force if necessary.

When faced with growing opposition to his overseas interventions, the dialogue Garson gives MacBird, echoes the casual eloquence Johnson was capable of.

“Our force shall only force them to be free.”

MacBird

“I believe there is a light at the end of what has been
a long and lonely tunnel.”

President Lyndon Johnson
(September 21, 1966 – speaking of the conflict in Viet Nam.)

Ironically, in this first theatre work to question Oswald’s guilt and cast a shadow over the findings of the Warren Commission, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was not the central conspiracy of the piece. A committed anti-war activist, the conspiracy at the core of Garson’s MacBird! is LBJ’s obsession to send American boys to fight and die in Viet Nam.

Garson, who ran as the Socialist Party candidate for the vice presidency in the 1992 Presidential election, is on record that MacBird! was a work of satire and that she was not seriously suggesting Lyndon Johnson had any part in a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy.

In 2006, Garson admitted in a Washington Post interview, that after decades of arguing the absurdity in believing Johnson was in any way complicit in JFK’s death, she had given up.

Afterwards, whenever people would approach her to asked if she thought Johnson played a significant role in killing Kennedy she’d answer “If he did, it’s the least of his crimes.”

…continue reading

The picture was taken by Dallas freelance photographer James “Jim” MacCammon barely 80 minutes after gunshots reverberated through Dealey Plaza. MacCammon photographed 24-year-old Oswald as he emerged from the Texas Theatre into the bright midday sun, sandwiched between Patrolman C.T. Walker and, still chewing his cigar, Detective Paul Bentley. Although MacCammon contacted news agencies, including LIFE, his remarkable photo went unpublished until TIME ran it three months later in February 1964. Internal records show that Time Inc. shared that picture and others MacCammon made with the FBI. Eventually, in late 1964, three MacCammon photographs appeared in volume 20 of the Warren Commission’s documentation. “It was always like a lecture,” remembers Mary MacCammon, the photographer’s daughter, who was in the 4th grade at the time. “He always wanted us to know the story of what happened when Oswald was arrested.” The MacCammon photo of Kennedy’s assassin essentially disappeared for more than 40 years, until the New York Times included it in Detective Bentley’s obituary on July 27, 2008. The photo credit line read, Jim MacCammon, courtesy of Howard Upchurch. But this time, unlike when TIME ran the photo in 1964, the picture appeared in color. Howard Upchurch, a Dallas-area Kennedy assassination researcher, had befriended a man who in 1963 worked at MacCammon’s favorite Dallas photo lab and kept a color print of the MacCammon picture. Years later he gave it to Upchurch, who showed it to me in the 1980s and later loaned it to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. MacCammon, who died in 2005, captured a moment that says so much about the soon-to-be-accused assassin and why so many still do not believe Oswald was the sole killer of President Kennedy and the killer of Dallas Police officer J.D. Tippit. As reported at the time, when police led him out of the theater, Oswald shouted: I protest this police brutality and I am not resisting arrest! Oh? Moments earlier, as cops approached him, Oswald suddenly punched Officer Nick McDonald in the face, drew a revolver from his waistband and tried to shoot him. McDonald jammed his hand on the gun and prevented it from firing as other officers pummeled Oswald to the floor, sat him in a seat and cuffed him. (MacCammon took a picture of that moment, too, but the image is too dark to reveal much.) [Ed’s note: The TIME-LIFE Picture Collection discovered several duplicate negatives in our search for MacCammon’s photographs. We’ve reproduced one of them below.]


Novel Entertainments – Part 3

This is a three part series.

To read Part 1 of this series, which discusses the recent production of The Picture of Dorian Gray that was performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, please go to Novel Entertainments – Part 1.

To read Part 2 of this series, which discusses the recent productions Creation (Pictures for Dorian Gray) by the Gob SquadThe Woman in Black at the The Pasadena Playhouse, and The Turn of the Screw, by noted playwright-screenwriter Jeffry Hatcher, please visit Novel Entertainments – Part 2.

Intriguingly, The Actors’ Gang has brought us a new production of Johnny Got His Gun, the 1938 award-winning anti-war novel from legendary screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo – Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Roman Holiday (1953), Spartacus (1960), and Exodus (also 1960). Trumbo directed his own film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun in 1971, and has himself become widely known through the recent biopic starring Bryan Cranston (2016).

The novel is an excruciating tragedy, a dark, anti-war satire about a patriotic young American in WW1 (it was published two days after the declaration of war in Europe, more than two years before the United States joined World War II). It’s the story of Joe Bonham, a duty-bound volunteer, who enters the war to the rousing hoopla of “Over There” which repeats and repeats the Civil War rallying cry:

“Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.
Johnny, show the Hun, you’re a son-of-a-gun.
Hoist the flag and let her fly
Yankee Doodle, do or die.
Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.
Yankee to the ranks from the towns and the tanks
Make your Mother proud of you
And the old red-white-and-blue.
Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun…”

“Johnny get your gun” became a slogan encouraging enlistment in the army in 1917 as American entered the War to End all War. Most recently the lyric was used by the rock band Ladyjack, as an ironic protest. But Trumbo’s past tense use of the cry says it all: Johnny got his gun and see what that got him?

Joe – the “Johnny” who got his gun in the novel was, by a horrific artillery shell attack, rendered blind, deaf, and mute, even losing his arms or legs. In the book, trapped in what’s left of his now limbless body, unable to communicate with the world around him, he recalls his earlier life and attempts to overcome the tremendous obstacles that stand between him and contact with the rest of humanity. After learning he can pound out Morse code with his head against the bed rail, the outer world’s indifference to his consciousness forces him, in desperation to find a way out, to end his life.

Trumbo’s film version succeeds because his adaptation lets us see and hear the doctors and nurses, so we understand that they’re only keeping Joe alive to study the effects of such mutilation on a mangled human body. The doctors are convinced he’s a vegetable, unable to feel pain, without memory or hope. Trumbo’s elegant, heart-wrenching narrative, puts the lie to that medical diagnosis. It presents the reality of Joe’s situation in stark black and white and his memories in color.

The Actors’ Gang production, directed by artistic director, Tim Robbins, from an adaptation by Brandley Rand Smith, is in effect a solo performance, with eight actors functioning like a Greek chorus. They echo words and voices in Joe’s mind’s ear. They move choreographically, sometimes in military formations, sometimes as leaves blown on the wind, generally as remembered characters, but sometimes as mere impulses in Joe’s memories. But unlike the novel, The Gang’s script/production is really narrative drama brought to life as agitprop theater. It mimics rather than dramatizes – at least until that magic moment when a nurse with her finger spells out “Merry Christmas” on Joe’s chest. Suddenly, he has real communication, his first since his war wounds rendered him what was then insensitively called “a basket case,” and the script springs to life, beginning to achieve what the novel does so profoundly – let us experience the horror of war.

What is ultimately so devastating in the book and the film is the continued indifference to Joe’s inner needs and the service to which the world around Joe puts what’s left of his body – his life, even when the nurse and a soldier discover his ability to communicate. They deny his own best interest with the same arrogance as the politicians and general who sent him into their useless war.

That the Actors’ Gang, with all reverent homage to Trumbo’s novelistic efforts, fails so completely as a stage work, is unfortunately an opportunity missed. What is lost in the Brechtian approach Robbins uses in staging the piece is the real drama. When Jow, four to five years into his post-War experience is finally able to communicate with the outside world, he is thwarted at every turn. Using his Morse code technique, he tells his caregiver he wants to be displayed around the nation as an emblem of the reality of war. “It’s against army policy” is the excuse, drawn on his limbless, torso. But in the Gang’s production, we never really grasp the outside world’s take on Joe. Where the Dorian production gives us mostly exterior, this Johnny locks us into the interior. That the essentially human tragedy of the novel is lost in the staged political message is a dramatic miscalculation!

***

Last but certainly not least, Kenneth Ludwig’s adaptation of Murder On The Orient Express at the La Mirada Theatre. It’s based on that most famous of Agatha Christie’s novels (whose play, The Mousetrap, is the only show in London that’s been running longer than The Woman In Black (since 1952, 65 years). The Hercule Poirot mystery was first published as a novel in 1934 (originally, in the US, as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post under the title Murder in the Calais Coach). The story, (one of 33 in which Hercule Poirot is a character) was inspired by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case of 1932 – at the time considered “the biggest story since the Resurrection.”

On his way from Istanbul to London on the swanky Express in the Calais Coach and its adjoining dining car, an American gangster is found murdered in his locked compartment with nine telltale knife wounds and a broken watch. As Poirot, at the begging of the train’s general manager, sets out to identify the killer, the train gets stuck in an avalanche of snow.

So he does what the detectives in Agatha Christie novels always do – interview everyone with even the slightest access to the dead man, comparing everyone’s statement for inconsistencies, oddities, and lies. He follows the clues, looking for a motive. He reconsiders the clues again and again, with an open mind, and fearless in the face of truth. The script and the novel follow the tried and true Christie formula.

But perhaps unique in Christie’s work is the unexpected drama of Poirot agonizing over a criminal dilemma. That he comes down on the side of the angels is, perhaps, a tragedy of ethics? Certainly, it shatters his devotion to legal absolutism, and after more than two dozen novels, it forces him to face his so easy convictions, painfully reducing his certainty about his role in life. Welcome to humanity, Hercule! The recent TV adaptation (with David Suchet) and the two films versions (one with Albert Finney – the most recent with, and by, Kenneth Brannagh) emphasize this internal issue.

The tone of the Ludwig’s adaptation used in the La Mirada production is lighter, playing the story for its humor and theatricality, not for the emotional reality. It’s a matter of style. Playwright, Kenneth Ludwig, is a popular American stage-crafter (Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy for You, Moon Over Buffalo, and many others), with a string of awards and successes. He created this script for a 2017 presentation at The Old Globe (reportedly, at the request of the Agatha Christie estate). It is both efficient in the telling and entertaining in performance. This Poirot is charmingly effective as the driving force, and all characters are drawn with a comic precision that is probably more what novelist Christie had in mind. The emphasis on Poirot’s internal agony is the fortunate product of our culture’s craving for “relevance” and “profundity.” A sort of political correctness required for art today which in this case is to the advantage of the novel.

As this survey hopes to demonstrate, a well-written novel is a compelling journey into and through a fully integrated world. It’s either an extended, totally immersive read you can pick up and put down and contemplate at will, or it’s a page turner you can’t.

But the theater is a very different art form. Each viewing is a one-time experience in a single sitting. The dramatis personae are right there in the same room, living through the series of happenings before your eyes and sharing it with us, the patrons?

That’s what makes live theater so special. You’re there when and where the adventure – emotional and intellectual – takes place. It exists only, as Shakespeare tells us, “in the two hours’ traffic of the stage.”

Laugh, cry, groan, leave! It’s over. It’s memory.

And each time, a very novel experience.


Novel Entertainments – Part 2

This is a three part series.

To read Part 1 of this series, which discusses the recent production of The Picture of Dorian Gray that was performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, please go to Novel Entertainments – Part 1.

In a short run recently at Red Cap, co-presented with Center Theatre Group, the members of The Gob Squad fashioned Creation (Pictures for Dorian Gray). It’s a fascinating thematic exploration of The Picture of Dorian Gray by the seven-member, Anglo-German “arts collective” based in Berlin.


In the program the Squady quotes Wilde from the preface to the novel: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Which speaks to the endless reflections of looking into the mirror, which is what The Portrait is for Dorian. So, as one of the members told me, the work is based on Dorian’s reaction to first seeing the portrait of himself, his contemplation of what he sees – and what he makes of it as it ages and he doesn’t.

There is no attempt to bring its story, even its characters, to life. It’s not an adaptation. But it is theatrical, albeit more didactic than dramatic. All seven members of the Gob Squad are self-identified as middle-aged. They employ three local actors over eighty and three in their twenties to assist in making their Dorian-esque exploration of youthful hopes and beauty versus the elderly value of memories and experience – the dreams of youth in the light of the value of aging. Beginning with an Ikibana floral display which they put under a heat lamp to see the effects, they continue discussing the theme and creating examples using the young and the elderly singing and in confessional self-revelation.

It was an intriguing astringent amongst a group of dramatized novels, related to but with no attempt at capture the novel on stage.

***

Another offering in Pasadena this fall (at The Pasadena Playhouse) is Susan Hill’s acclaimed novel, The Woman in Black. It’s one of those English Christmas stories of ghostly gothic horror set in the very early years of the 20th Century. Written in 1983, it was dramatized in 1987 and presented in London’s West End in 1989 where it’s still (almost 30 years on) playing eight times a week. Mostly to tourists, I suspect.

Hill’s book tells the tale of a young lawyer who encounters horrific visions in an isolated windswept mansion set amidst the eerie marshes and howling winds of England’s forbidding North Coast. Brought to the stage by virtue of Stephen Mallatratt’s minimalist two-characters script, it is now touring the US in a re-creation of the London production. And it’s come for Halloween. Good timing. We colonials like our ghosts in their proper time slot – on All Hallows’ Eve or Dia de Los Muertos. Generally, we want our Christmas stories warm and toasty, infused with the exhilaration of a brightly wrapped present, not served on a plate of misty gloom with spine-tingling chills and startling thrills.

In the Playhouse production two excellent American actors (Bradley Armacost and Adam Wesley Brown) successfully capture a handful of the book’s idiosyncratic characters with consummate skill, and the technical production, the design, lighting, and special effects all work to create the novel’s mood. It is all one could ask for.

But as a piece of spooky stage drama? Adapted from a novel? Well, the play-within-a-reading concept seems at odds with itself. For this viewer, it never really achieves the “scary” heights the book provides, and the theatrical promos promise. Indeed, it seems that the brilliance of the theatricality and the clever direction work against it.

In the most recent film of the novel, Daniel Radcliffe played Arthur Kipps the central character, as a young troubled lawyer, whose unease was affecting his career. So, his journey to the haunted house was meant to give him a reboot. Hah! In this stage version Arthur Kipps is a middle-aged man (not the youngster of the novel) needing to share the horrors of his past with friend and family (so the action is in flashback). He’s written it down, and he starts the evening by reading it us. That he’s hired a never-named actor to help him with his presentation provides a wonderfully entertaining, charmingly humorous opening that leads the two of them to “act out” what Kipps has written down. This cleverly tips its hat to the prose origins of the story. Yet the rollicking entertainment of the opening sets an expectation of comedy. And as the tale unfolds, the stage script frequently breaks in on the intended mood of otherworldly eerie-scary. It shatters the illusion, mostly because the humor doesn’t flow from the tale but reminds us that the tale is being enacted on a stage.

The result is a production greatly to admire but ultimately a less than effective transmogrification of a top-notch ghost story into a spooky coup de theatre.

***

Another classic piece of ghostly English prose brought to the stage this fall in Los Angeles is another two-character reduction, this time of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, by noted playwright-screenwriter Jeffry Hatcher (screenwriter of the sublime Mr. Holmes and the lavish The Duchess). There are three characters if you believe you see the lady in Black.

Of the handful of adaptations viewed for this writing, even with its less than effective production values, this was the most satisfying – because the script hones to the intent of the novel and the actors were so convincing. Both actors made the experience of the novel’s legendary ambiguities palpable.

But it’s Hatcher’s script that, even if reduced to a handful of characters, quite successfully captures the tone of the novel, reducing the action to its essentials. Hatcher vividly brings key passages to life in mostly short effective scenes that sweeps the audience into and through the story. Like The Lady In Black, it takes place in a house haunted by past horrors. This time it’s about a young governess determined to care for two young children, but in over her head. Is the naughty boy playing a spooky game intent on driving her mad? Are there two spirits haunting the house, jealous of the governess’ presence? Is the all too knowing creepy housekeeper working to maintain control over the house by driving her bonkers? The questions, as per the novel, remain long after the curtain calls. And the mood lingers in the memory.


Novel Entertainments – Part 1

Ever read a book and wish you could experience it, live? That’s what playwrights are in business to do, isn’t it? But how can the hundreds of pages of a novel be captured in “the two hours’ traffic of the stage?” With nearly 600 pages, The Cider House Rules by John Irving needed two plays (well, one play in two parts for a five-hour encounter) to do it justice. The movie version reduced it to just over two-hours, leaving out so much, but wonderfully capturing the essence of Irving’s intent. Shakespeare worked mostly with short stories and historical accounts, not whole novels – a chapter of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, one of the tales in Boccaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a section of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. But The Bard was mostly interested in plot points and character, not mood, tone, or style.

And most theater-goers in the 16th/17th Centuries hadn’t read the story or poem that was crafted from the “best sellers” or important literary works available in their day. Today, books are often evaluated before publication for their dramatic potential with an eye to the commercial value they bring to a project. (“Everybody’s read it.” “They’re dying to see it on stage!” “It’ll sell like hot cakes.”) And the dramatizations are usually (too often, perhaps) evaluated for their “faithful” representation of the source.

Of course, in the limited a space of a theater, with less than a tiny portion of the army of collaborators that’s scrolled at the end of a film, what can you do? Obviously, it ain’t easy. We’ve had five (and a sixth “inspired by”) such productions in Los Angeles this fall. Let’s look at how they fared.

Let’s begin with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, recently presented in a relatively large-scale, rather complex production at Pasadena’s popular classical repertory theater, A Noise Within.

There is a mythic conceit at the center of Oscar Wilde’s late-Nineteenth Century novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. A trope that taps “into a root of Western folklore” according to the author of a recent study of the poet John Gray, who is believed to be the real Dorian Gray.

The conceit of the tale is the painted image of a beautiful young man that suffers the corrupting ravages of age while its living subject physically retains the bloom of youth. Hence, the vanity of beauty is made visibly dramatic by a Faustian bargain – a bargain that leads the living Dorian Gray to regret the deal he made, for it brings him a loveless life and the corruption of his soul. With this conceit, Wilde the novelist sets out to plumb the cost to the spirit of rampant narcissism. Originally made available to the public as a homoerotic magazine serial, the critical reception to Dorian Gray was typically Victorian – the wit and the writing were praised but it was deemed “unclean,” “poisonous,” “heavy with the mephitic odors (noxious vapors) of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” Sometime later, Wilde “cleaned up” the prose, extended the tale by a few chapters, and published it as a novel. That was 1890.

Five years later, 1895, Wilde was defending himself in a court of law against the charge of “gross indecency,” for which the main exhibit against him was his novel. He insisted that The Portrait of Dorian Gray was “a highly moral book decrying the pursuit of pleasure devoid of empathy or personal responsibility.” Does that mean that by portraying the sin of vanity as it inevitably corrupts the soul, one is forearmed against the commission of that particular sin? Isn’t that like showing you the effects of excessive fatty food intake as a cure for the ills of obesity?

It is with a deep appreciation of Wilde’s intent that one of the Southland’s most talented directors, Michael Michetti, has created his own stage adaptation of Dorian Gray. Originally produced at the Boston Court in Pasadena, Michetti’s newly revised adaptation, in a no-holds-barred, visually fascinating production aptly achieves the homoeroticism of Wilde’s work.

Okay, but does Michetti’s unquestioned artistry (and A Noise Within’s restrained-lavish production elements) succeed in creating an effective stage work? In this case, it depends upon what one thinks is the purpose of the novel. Michetti, as director, has an abundance of theatrical ideas, filling the stage with Wilde’s wit, strident music, and a wide-ranging cast of Victorian characters. At the center is, of course, the handsome youth, Dorian Gray. But there is also a loquacious Wilde stand-in, Sir Harry Wotton, the enlightening goad to Dorian’s tragedy. Do these two characters give us a satisfying performance version of the novel’s essence?

Unfortunately, except for a stunningly-staged finale, the real drama, the raison d’etre of the novel, seems veiled behind the verbal onslaught of Wilde’s notorious wit and some over-wrought modern dancing.

While director Michetti fills the stage with movement and adaptor Michetti with a full evening’s helping of the Wildean excess, “the mephitic odors of moral and spiritual putrefaction” – the corrosive effects of vanity on the soul – seems to get lost in the theatricality.

Even more than Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an internal drama – the soul as the battlefield between social values and naked impulse, the need to hold on to one’s youth being at odds with the richness of experience and age. In Michetti’s version, what seems to be lacking is the interior of the character. We are given a blank picture frame instead of being able to see the painting age, as Dorian’s soul is increasingly devastated by the corruption of immortality.

Michetti, the ever-inventive director, has a penchant for countering expectations. In Michetti the adaptor’s version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (also for A Noise Within, but many years ago) he eliminated the Ghost of King Hamlet. Why? Because, I think, Michetti the director wanted us to believe the dead monarch was not a ghost, but a deep-seated construct within the psyche of young Hamlet. So, his Hamlet is both characters, speaking the lines of the revengeful spirit facing a mirror (or really any reflective surface, for that matter). An intriguing idea that didn’t always work.

Oscar Wilde, the novelist, is exploring the internal agony of Dorian’s external vanity, but in Michetti’s Dorian Gray, it’s largely (not completely) missing – presented off-handedly, an observation here or there, buried in directorial business, or presented enigmatically in a Martha Graham-esque dance with extensive narration read from the novel. How much more moving would it be, how much more dramatic to hear – in private moments – Dorian speaking to himself, first recognizing, then denying, eventually trying to manage, finally being overwhelmed by the inner corruption that forces him to put a violent and tragic end to the conceit. But where Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a tragedy, Michetti’s Dorian is melodrama.

Of course, there is a more contemporary way of handling Wilde’s novel. It would require some modest changes to the plotting, but it would realize the hidden drama – Oscar Wilde confronting his own beliefs. What adaptor every worried about a little dramatic license? By positioning Sir Henry as the central character and Dorian as the object of Henry’s influence – just as Salieri, the lesser composer in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, sets Mozart, the better composer, on the road to destruction – it would allow the book’s deeper concerns to be dramatically realized. Sir Henry would for all intents and purposes be Oscar Wilde, the narrator/novelist, living through the experience he’s relating. And like Dr. Dysert, in Shaffer’s Equus – a tame if wise psychiatrist, trying to cure the very pagan passions (in a young patient) he only wishes he was brave enough to experience – such a dramaturgic approach would allow the audience to experience the tragedy Wilde’s novel give us.

Either approach would allow the stunningly-staged climax to bring Wilde’s confrontation with the dangers of beauty to a more successful conclusion. Destroying the Picture of Dorian Gray would be the only way out.


Creating Mass Movements — Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

In these turbulent and twisting times that find so many bewildered and baffled, suckered punched by the events of the last two years, I find myself in this punishing period for our nation oddly consoled by a soothing sense of déjà-vu.
Yes, Trump’s victory via that Three-Card Monte constitutional encumbrance called the Electoral College left me as bumfuzzled as a hoe-wacked goose, as his election was about as unexpected and unpleasant as finding a spitting cobra inside a box of Cracker Jacks as your secret prize.
However, in the days that followed, I felt a curious calmness creep over me, and it struck me that I recognized the dynamics at play.
Not that I’ve had prior experience of a long-established democratic system rending itself apart, or of a society being sucked down into the toxic swill of the most recidivistic and repugnant aspects of its national character.
I had watched as Trump infected the body politic, from the GOP convention to the November election, like a particularly viral strain of the French Pox. I had watched as his malevolent, blustering, vainglorious and clownish campaign bloated up into a “crass-roots” crusade fueled by his rabble-rousing duplicity and squalor and constant mudslinging in 140 character smears.  And while I had never beheld such an excremental engine as the Trump candidacy, I had studied the blueprints that built it.
I had read Eric Hoffer.
As far as foreseeing what the future holds, Jean Dixon, Criswell of “Plan Nine” fame and Nostradamus were a pack of third-rate wankers.
Eric Hoffer was the real deal, and his first work, a thin volume published in 1951, should be mandatory reading today.
The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, runs just over 150 pages, and consists of 125 brief commentaries distributed into 18 short chapters.
It’s a book one can read in an afternoon; it’s a book that explains why individuals would fly airliners into our buildings and how an inadequate, Pecksniffian nonentity finds himself in the White House.
When Hoffer died in 1983 at the age of 84, America lost one of its few native son philosophers and the world lost one of its most original and prescient thinkers.
How Hoffer came to that station is a narrative hued with the tincture of classic American mythos.
Much of Hoffer’s life story derives from his own reports, particulars of which over the years have been challenged by biographers and historians.
But when one lives up to the myths woven around oneself, then they transubstantiate into “history” and, whatever myths Hoffer cloaked about himself, his life excelled them all.
His birth date is uncertain and the tales he told of himself over the decades often conflict, but certain details are constant in each retelling.
He was born in the Bronx.
His parents were recent immigrants from the Kaiser’s imperial Germany.
He was orphaned at an early age.
Still, it is even possible that none of that is true and that, rather than having been born here, Hoffer came, illegally, into this country some time before the Great Depression.  This would account for attitudes towards and treatment of immigrants being a recurring theme in his work as well as explaining why he spoke with a distinct German accent throughout his life.
Hoffer told how he used the $300 insurance money from his father’s death to travel to Los Angeles, where he said he spent the next 10 years on Skid Row: reading, occasionally writing, and working at odd jobs; including as a migrant field hand in California’s central valley.
He acquired a library card and spent countless hours in both the Downtown and Hollywood libraries.   His claim that he taught himself Hebrew, botany and chemistry could be dismissed in someone of lesser stature.  But his recounting of reading Michel de Montaigne’s Essays and the world they opened up to him seems validated in his adoption of Montaigne’s personal, pithy and aphoristic heavy style as his own.
Also, like Montaigne, Hoffer’s study was that of man.
Hoffer’s life emerges from the mists of self mythology in 1934.
His internment that year in a federal transient camp, set up by California where any jobless drifters who crossed into the sunshine state were detained and put to work on state projects, is documented, and his own account of that period is included in his book The Ordeal of Change which is arguably the strongest narrative writing of his career.
It is of interest to note that in the enormous amount of unpublished writings and notebooks, Hoffer left at his death, there is nothing that predates his arrival in California in 1934.
In 1941, Hoffer moved to San Francisco where he would remain the rest of his life.  There, he took work on the docks as a longshoreman and began writing his first book.
Ten years later Margaret Anderson, a New York editor with Harper & Row, received an unsolicited manuscript by an author neither she nor anyone else, at that time, had ever heard of.
The work bore the sober title of Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.
Anderson expected to read the first page and set it aside.
By the second paragraph she knew she wasn’t setting it aside.
Hoffer pronounced his theme in the opening preface:

“All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance.   All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.”

It would be Anderson, while working as the book’s editor, who suggested the addition of “The True Believer” to the title.  Hoffer accepted the suggestion and dedicated the book to her.
At its publication in 1951, Hoffer lived by himself in a single room he rented in the Chinatown section of San Francisco.  His room held a few articles of clothing, a bed, two chairs and writing supplies.  There was no telephone, no radio, no television.  It would remain that way until his death.
Seemingly overnight the unknown, barrel-chested, balding longshoreman was hailed for the staggering insights of his book and stamped by the media as “the Longshoreman Philosopher.”
But Hoffer’s impact reached beyond the hype.
In Britain, Bertrand Russell praised Hoffer, and in America the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in speaking of The True Believer said, “This brilliant and original inquiry into the nature of mass movements is a genuine contribution to our social thought.”
Hoffer continued to work as a longshoreman even after the success of his work.  When he left the docks, it was to accept an adjunct professorship at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1959, it was divulged that Hoffer had another admirer of note.
Two years before the farewell address where he aired his concerns of the threat the “military-industrial complex” posed to our democracy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower(Ike) gave voice to another warning for our nation, in a letter to a dying veteran.
Terminally ill Robert Biggs, who had served in World War II, wrote to Eisenhower venting his concerns, admitting, “I felt from your recent speeches the feeling of hedging and a little uncertainty.”
He longed for the firm leadership of command that he’d known during the war, the lack of which he found disturbing.
He closed his letter with a confession, “We wait for someone to speak for us and back him completely if the statement is made in truth.”
Today Biggs would receive a standard White House form response like hundreds of others that are mailed off daily, consisting of a “thank you” and the president’s automated signature.
But Eisenhower sat down and composed a reply.
A reply which reflected the turmoil of his term: Joseph McCarthy had paralyzed the country with his claims of Communist sympathizers at all levels of the government and had infiltrated the nation’s schools and industries, and the John Birch Society had branded Ike a tool of the Soviets, all the while making inroads into the Republican party.
To Biggs, Eisenhower wrote:

“I doubt that citizens like yourself could ever, under our democratic system, be provided with the universal degree of certainty, the confidence in their understanding of our problems, and the clear guidance from higher authority that you believe needed.   Such unity is not only logical but indeed indispensable in a successful military organization, but in a democracy debate is the breath of life.”

Eisenhower recommended The True Believer to Biggs, then goes on to explain that the book:

“… points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems — freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.”

In warning Biggs of the danger in wishing “for someone to speak for us,” perhaps Eisenhower was recalling this passage from Hoffer’s book:

“Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of the ardent young Nazi, ‘to be free from freedom.’ It was not sheer hypocrisy when the rank-and-file Nazis declared themselves not guilty of all the enormities they had committed. They considered themselves cheated and maligned when made to shoulder responsibility for obeying orders. Had they not joined the Nazi movement in order to be free from responsibility?”

In his letter, Eisenhower acknowledges this “irksome burden” but he is quick to point out its blessing; “But while this responsibility is a taxing one to a free people it is their great strength as well–from millions of individual free minds come new ideas, new adjustments to emerging problems, and tremendous vigor, vitality and progress.”
Eisenhower closes his reply praising Biggs for “pondering these problems despite your deep personal adversity.”
In the post war America, it was difficult to accept that the right-wing fascist and left-wing Marxist were interchangeable.
But Hoffer argued:

“All mass movements, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, and intolerance… A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.”

At the close of his life, Hoffer had ten more titles to his name including The Passionate State of Mind (1955), and The Ordeal of Change (1963), which he considered his best work.
But it is The True Believer for which he is best remembered, and 21st century readers can distinguish Hoffer’s paradigm in Islamic terrorists such as Hezbollah and al Qaeda, right-wing, evangelical fundamentalists groups such as the World Church of the Creator, Zionist militants such as the followers of Meir Kahane, organizations of both black and white supremacists and a host of other groups.
Citizens of today’s troubled America sitting down with the book would be stunned at how Hoffer’s words provoke a reverberation so precise in echoing both the roots and allure of Trumpism.
When placed beside Trump and his political movement, Hoffer’s commentary takes on the appearance of reversed engineered prophecy.
In the beginning there was Trump trumpeting the ridiculous allegation regarding Obama’s birth certificate:

“I have people that have been studying [Obama’s birth certificate] and they cannot believe what they’re finding… I would like to have him show his birth certificate and, can I be honest with you, I hope he can. Because if he can’t—if he can’t, if he wasn’t born in this country, which is a real possibility…then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics.”
“The fact is, if you’re not born in the United States, you cannot be president…”
“An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud.“

You have Trump’s assault on any press media or news outlet refusing to kowtow to his public image or challenging his contrived assertions:

“The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people. We have to talk to find out what’s going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.”
“And I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake. A few days ago, I called the fake news the ‘enemy of the people,’ and they are, they are the enemy of the people.“

Hoffer would observe:

“It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.”

It is the true believer’s ability to ‘shut his eyes and stop his ears’ to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacle nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence.
All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world.
Trump “interpose[d] a fact-proof screen” as a masquerade of “alternative facts,” yet he raged at the media:
They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name. Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.
A feature in the make-up of a “True Believer” is holding others to a higher code of conduct than they do themselves or their leader, so Trump never needs to identify his “extremely credible source” who denounced Obama’s birth certificate a “fraud.”
Trump lashed out unendingly at those forces plotting against him:

“We have losers. We have people that don’t have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain.”
“Our enemies are getting stronger and stronger by the way, and we as a country are getting weaker.”
“The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary – but also at many polling places: SAD.”

Hoffer would retort:

“The enemy—the indispensable devil of every mass movement—is omnipresent. He plots both outside and inside the ranks of the faithful. It is his voice that speaks through the mouth of the dissenter, and the deviationists are his stooges. If anything goes wrong within the movement, it is his doing. It is the sacred duty of the true believer to be suspicious. He must be constantly on the lookout for saboteurs, spies and traitors.
Propaganda … serves more to justify ourselves than to convince others; and the more reason we have to feel guilty, the more fervent our propaganda.”

Trump promised those who came to his rallies:

“I think that I would be a great uniter. I think that I would have great diplomatic skills. I think that I would be able to get along with people very well. I’ve had a great success in my life. I think the world would unite if I were the leader of the United States.”

Hoffer:

“It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises. What has to be judged is its corporate organization for quick and total absorption of the frustrated. Where new creeds vie with each other for the allegiance of the populace, the one which comes with the most perfected collective framework wins.”

“Sadly,” Trump lamented, “the American dream is dead. But if I get elected president, I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.”
Hoffer:

“There is no more potent dwarfing of the present than by viewing it as a mere link between a glorious past and a glorious future. Thus, though a mass movement at first turns its back on the past, it eventually develops a vivid awareness, often specious, of a distant glorious past. Religious movements go back to the day of creation; social revolutions tell of a golden age when men were free, equal, and independent; nationalist movements revive or invent memories of past greatness.”

Trump positioned himself as able to fix all the wrongs of the country just by the force of his personality.

“So I deal with foreign countries, and despite what you may read, I have unbelievable relationships with all of the foreign leaders. They like me. I like them. You know, it’s amazing.”
“We’ll have companies pouring back into our nation. I mean, it’s going to be — you know, it’s going to be beautiful.“
“You know, I’ve had a lot of wins in my life, and I know where I’m coming from, and I know where I’ve been, and I know how to get the country to where people really want to see it.”
“Hey, I’m a nationalist and a globalist. I’m both.”

Other than the claim, “Only I can fix it,” Trump offered no detailed programs, but when he spoke to his base, where the rest of us heard words fluttering about as meaninglessly as cards flung in a child’s game of 52 pickup, his supporters found revelations and reassurance.
Hoffer diagnosed the difference:

“Crude absurdities, trivial nonsense and sublime truths are equally potent in readying people for self-sacrifice if they are accepted as the sole, eternal truth. It is obvious, therefore, that in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.  If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable.
For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute, and they must have the feeling that by the possession of some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique they have access to a source of irresistible power. They must also have an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future. Finally, they must be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking. Experience is a handicap.
A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness, and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves”

To those immune to Trump’s political paroxysm, his constant display of a fractured ego seeking to mask a glaring defectiveness of character beneath hyperbolic pronouncements were reminiscent of a cartoon coyote intoning of himself “Super genius.”
“My IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.”
“I’m very smart. My life has proven that I’m smart. I mean, I’ve had a life of success and I’ve had a life of victory.”
“I’ve been winning all of my life. . .  My whole life is about winning. I always win. I win at golf….   My whole life is about winning. I don’t lose often. I almost never lose.”
“To be blunt, people would vote for me. They just would. Why? Maybe because I’m so good looking.”
“I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far. Nobody’s ever been more successful than me. I’m the most successful person ever to run.”
“I think I am actually humble. I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”
It was difficult to understand how his supporters were so readily able to accept his self-aggrandizing when so ludicrously over the top, to the rest of us it seemed like dialogue plucked from Monty Python routines.
Hoffer had commented:

“The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.
The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.
The frustrated follow a leader less because of their faith that he is leading them to a promised land than because of their immediate feeling that he is leading them away from their unwanted selves….  The True Believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure.”

The final question most asked of Trump’s devoted supporters is, ‘Why?’
Yes, both parties failed in fielding a candidate capable of communicating a vision or program that would inspire and unite a great people.  That accounts for what drew many to his standard at the outset.  But what is it now that binds his base to him despite a run of broken promises and failures:

  • Mexico is not paying for a wall that the country shouldn’t build.
  • He didn’t fully repeal and replace Obamacare with “something even better.”
  • He’s alienated our allies and emboldened our foes.
  • He didn’t enact new ethics reforms on special interests.
  • He didn’t make two and four year colleges more affordable but instead cut student aid.
  • He didn’t label China a currency manipulator but nearly plunged us into a trade war.
  • He didn’t ban Muslims from entering the country.
  • He didn’t expel Syrian refugees.
  • He didn’t expel the “Dreamers”; though he is still threatening to despite the country’s objections.
  • He didn’t sue the women accusing him of sexual misconduct.
  • He didn’t arrest Hillary.
  • He didn’t defeat Isis in a week.
  • He didn’t release his tax returns

And Trump just declares:
“Eventually we’re going to get something done and it’s going to be really, really good.”
Why?
Why would anyone see in that sad, arrogant little naffin, a leader?
Again, Hoffer has much to say on that topic.

“It has often been said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the faults of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from their sense of inadequacy and impotence.
The permanent misfits can find salvation only in a complete separation from the self; and they usually find it by losing themselves in the compact collectivity of a mass movement.
Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

So much of Trump’s rhetoric and persona is rancid with racism and xenophobia, describing Mexicans as rapists, criminals, “bad hombres,” declaring at his rallies he doesn’t want Syrian refugees or Muslins coming “over here,” his obsession with building his wall.
There’s one aphorism in The True Believer that reflects on these attitudes that accounts for so much of Trump’s support, it is one of Hoffer’s insights that has the most troubling resonance for me.
Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.
There is little of optimism to be found in The True Believer, but then Hoffer was trying to Illuminate the interaction of individuals within a society that fosters insurrections, rebellions, Jacqueries, terrorism and dictatorships, not write fairy tales.
On the whole, Hoffer counsels caution with hope, writing in The True Believer:
When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them.
In The Ordeal of Change, one of his later works, Hoffer still offers little in the way of hope.  But he does offer us reasons to at least have hope of “Hope.”
Hoffer lists the distinctly American virtues:

“…a superb dynamism, an unprecedented diffusion of skills, a genius for organization and teamwork, a flexibility that makes possible an easy adjustment to the most drastic change, an ability to get things done with a minimum of tutelage and supervision, an unbounded capacity for fraternization.”

Contrary to the fear mongering of Fox News and Trump’s dire cant, the demise of most democracies are not a result of external enemies breaching their walls or the mongrelization of their culture by an influx of the “outsiders.”
The death of a democracy begins when its people forget their history.
And a people without a history cannot have a future.
There will be a cost to this nation for neglecting its institutions and people until conditions had deteriorated to where Trump’s candidacy was possible.  But Trump will eventually travel the same path as “the Know-Nothings,” Father Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice, the Share the Wealth movement of Huey Long, and McCarthyism.
The challenge before us is not defeating Trump and his Crusade of Deplorables.  The challenge is for the people of this nation to recommit to those principles forged at its founding.
For in the end, America will fail when Americans have failed her.
To read Eisenhower’s letter in full, click HERE.
Reprinted with permission from TheTVolution.com.