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


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Ernest Kearney

Writer, Registered Critic


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.”

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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.]