Stages of Doubt: An Analysis of The Kennedy Assassination In American Theatre – PART 2


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Ernest Kearney

Writer, Registered Critic


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

1967 saw the Broadway opening of the ponderous The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. Running over four hours, the work imagines the trial that would have ensued if Jack Ruby's shot had missed. At the center of the first act, the case against Oswald is laid out using excerpts from the transcripts of the Warren Commission. The second act has Oswald taking center stage where he rails at having just been a “patsy” in a plot by the CIA. The audience was invited to be the jury.

Despite having Ralph Waite and other Broadway heavy weights in its cast the show was poorly received and closed after nine performances. Today the play is only of interest for being penned by Leon Friedman and Amram Ducovny the father of The X-Files' David Ducovny.

The Red Devil Battery Sign is a later work by Tennessee Williams, and one the fans of the writer would rather see forgotten. Indeed, its inclusion in this article is based mainly on its author rather than the work's contribution to the mythos of the Kennedy assassination.

Set in the cocktail lounge of a seedy downtown Dallas hotel, shortly after the murder of a political figure with only the most oblique references identifying him as Kennedy, the play is a muddle of familiar Williams' themes. At the center of the piece is one of Williams' stock characters, a neurotic, sexually soaked, heroine searching for salvation in the arms of some flawed savior. Referred to only as the “Downtown Woman,” she has fled from her father, a corrupt Texas politician and her powerful husband, president of the multinational Red Devil Battery Company whose flickering billboard outside continually coats the bar in a red hue.

Trapped inside the hotel by those in league with her father and husband, she has documents that would expose those behind the recent political murder and their plot to usurp control of the government.

Her hope of redemption arrives in the person of King Del Rey, a successful mariachi band leader whose career came to a halt when he was disabled by a brain tumor.

From there the play plunges into a jumble of threats from menacing off stage agents, a prolonged death scene on stage, family betrayal, sexual dysfunction, Chicago hoodlums, and a marauding pack of howling, semi-civilized street dwellers.

In 1975 a production with aspirations of New York opened in Boston featuring Claire Bloom as the Downtown Woman, and Anthony Quinn as King Del Rey. But even this injection of star power couldn't rescue the play from its flaws and it closed after two weeks.

The play, often considered Williams' worst, is surfeit with fractured poetry and a crushing sense of confusion best expressed in a line of the “Woman Downtown's” dialogue: “Nobody knows nothin'.”

One recent theatre critic described it as “a paranoid mélange of apocalyptic nightmare and fluttery panic, as if Blanche Dubois had been plunked into the latest Oliver Stone film;” Which perhaps makes it a fitting epitaph for the death of Camelot on Elm Street in Dallas.

Dennis Richard bears out the old adage, “fact is stranger than fiction,” in his absorbing Oswald: The Actual Interrogation.

From the time he entered the Dallas police headquarters on Friday, November 22nd at 1:58 pm until his shooting by Jack Ruby on Sunday, November 24th at 11:21 am, Lee Harvey Oswald would be interrogated four times by Captain John William Fritz, head of the Dallas Homicide and Robbery Bureau, for a total of approximately twelve hours. Richard based his play on the notes and testimonies of those who were present. The work had its West Coast Premiere in 2011 at Write Act Repertory Theatre in Hollywood and drew heated criticism from reviewers more revealing of their unawareness of the event's history than any failing on the part of Richard's play. One critic faults the actor portraying Oswald for “blustering in the face of mounting evidence against him.” He condemns the actor's performance that “gives the impression of a slightly crazed liar.”

Both “blustering” and “slightly crazed liar” aptly describes Oswald's conduct during his interrogations.

One reviewer reacting to the fact that a judge arraigned Oswald in the Dallas station's interrogation room instead of a court decries it as “redefining the term kangaroo court." This reviewer is apparently unaware that such arraignments are permissible and common in Texas, and of the steps the Dallas authorities took to ensure Oswald of legal representation. The president of the Dallas Bar Association, H. Louis Nichols, even met with Oswald in his cell following his arrest to assure he was aware of his right to counsel and to offer to find a lawyer for him if he wished. Oswald brusquely declined, stating that he only wanted John Abt, the New York chief counsel for the American Communist Party to defend him. Calls made by Oswald to Abt's Manhattan office as well as those made on his behalf failed to reach the lawyer.

Oswald: The Actual Interrogation shows the many contradictions and lies Oswald made during his interrogations, and details the body of evidence connecting him to the murder weapon and placing him on the sixth floor of the Book Depository at the time of the shooting. What surprises most of those who see the play is learning that there were fifteen eye witnesses that linked Oswald to the shooting of JFK and the murder of Police Officer J.D. Tippit, and that Oswald had been positively identified in four separate lineups by six out of seven witnesses. Had he lived to reach a courtroom, Oswald's conviction would have been, as one detective put it, “a cinch.”
In addition, Richard captures the petulance and insolence Oswald displayed throughout his time in custody of the Dallas Police. Assistant District Attorney William Alexander who was present when Oswald was charged with the murder of Police Officer Tippit later told reporters, “He's the most arrogant person I've ever met. I got the impression he enjoys being in the spotlight.”

Hardly the behavior one would expect from an innocent man charged with murdering the president of the United States.

Witnessed by the World (2013) by Ronnie Cohen & Jane Beale is original in both its concept and plot. Joan, a seasoned investigative reporter, is struggling with a script she's penned about Jack Ruby. She's reached out to Ira a young established Hollywood screenwriter whose career has recently faltered and he agrees to assist Joan with her problem script. Joan has had a long obsession with the assassination and is using the script to publicly expose those that she has learned were behind the murder of JFK. To the young jaded screenwriter the assassination is something they taught in history class. This allows the playwrights, in essence to lecture their audience on the “errors” of the Warren Report under the disguise of the older reporter explaining them for the benefit of her younger partner.

The script within the play puts forth one of the favorite speculations of the CT adherents, that Ruby was conned into killing Oswald by the Mafia. In representing Ruby as a pawn of the mob, the playwrights disregard Ruby's repeated assertions that he shot Oswald on sheer impulse. While in police custody, Ruby even expressed amazement at the good luck that enabled him to do it; “If I had planned this I couldn't have had my timing better.” The notion that Ruby was a hit man for the mob is also refuted by his own behavior. First there is the inconvenient fact that the morning of Sunday the 24th in the Dallas Police Station's basement was not the first opportunity Ruby had to shoot Oswald. The owner of a pair of strip clubs, Ruby vigorously sought to put himself in the good graces of the police and was often scurrying about the station giving out sandwiches or passes to his clubs. The Friday night of the assassination, Ruby was at the station mingling with the throng of reporters when just after midnight the door to the interrogation room opened and detectives lead Oswald out into the corridor. Ruby, with the .38 caliber snub-nosed revolver he always carried in his coat pocket, watched as Oswald passed by right in front of him. Here was a perfect opportunity, for all he knew, perhaps his only opportunity, for Ruby to carry out his “hit.” Yet he did nothing. It wasn't until the following Sunday, when mere happenstance, brought Ruby to the station just as Oswald was being transported to a more secure facility, that Ruby saw the smirk on Oswald's face, and snapped. He pulled out his revolver and rushed at Oswald shouting, “You killed my president, you rat son of a bitch!” The single shot he fired into Oswald's abdomen proved fatal but it could just as easily have not. A scrupulous assassin would have aimed multiple shots at the “target's” head. Like Oswald did.

Again, critics attending this show exhibited a superficial understanding of the subject they wrote on.

One such reviewer, perhaps an early detractor of “fake news,” bemoaned how “The mainstream media ridicules “conspiracy theorists,” before proclaiming, “Many reputable writers and investigators, including the 1960s District Attorney of New Orleans, James Garrison, meticulously and logically disputed the Warren Report's conclusions.”

Seldom does one come across statements so thoroughly wrong in all its parts.
First off, the CT community has few - very few – “reputable writers and investigators;” serious historians and scholars, almost without exception, support the findings of the Warren Report establishing Oswald as the lone assassin.

It also appears this reviewer, like many, naively mistook Oliver Stone's star studded three hour plus JFK as actual history. Loosely adapted from On the Trail of the Assassins, Jim Garrison's 1988 spin of his failed prosecution of Clay Shaw, Stone's JFK can most accurately be described as a blatant distortion of a judicial persecution.

The depiction of Garrison as a Christ like figure only nobler is perhaps the most outrageous fabrication Stone foists on film audiences. Garrison was viewed by friend and foe alike as a troubled and unethical man, and even members of his own staff reproached him for his “attempts to intimidate and bribe witnesses.”

Stone's skill as a filmmaker are undeniable though, and those skills are nowhere more apparent than in JFK's suspense filled climax with Garrison remaining in the courtroom, refusing to leave until finally a verdict is reached. The truth is a bit more prosaic. After being sequestered to begin their deliberations, the jury ordered coffee and picked a foreman. The court was then informed they had reached their verdict on the charges against Clay Shaw.

Not guilty.

It had taken 54 minutes.

Garrison had not been in court for the closing arguments, but in his office. He flew into a rage when he learned of the verdict.

Nothing in Garrison's case, JFK or Cohen and Beale's play has ever “meticulously and logically disputed the Warren Report's conclusions.”

The plot of Witnessed by the World takes some clever twists after Ira brings the script to the attention of a heavy weight producer, which in turn brings it to the attention of the very people Joan hopes to expose. But the play suffers from certain choices that undercut the main character's believability as an investigative reporter.

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