STAGES OF DOUBT: AN ANALYSIS OF THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION IN AMERICAN THEATRE – PART 3


Ernest Kearney

Writer, Registered Critic, Better Lemons


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

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

In an interview about what motivated her to write Children of Camelot, first time playwright Nakisa Aschtiani displays a remarkable naïveté. “I was watching a program about the JFK assassination on the History Channel,” she explains, “and I noticed how everyone called Oswald the killer even though he never stood trial, and I thought that someone should write about it.” If being oblivious to having re-invented the wheel wasn’t bad enough, the 35 year old investment banker then let slip that research was not her strong suit. Talking about Jackie Kennedy who she has as a character, Aschtiani confesses, “I did read a couple of autobiographies and biographies, sometimes just stopping at a random page.”

Opening in 2015 at the Moth Theatre, the play has Oswald facing trial after surviving Jack Ruby’s attempt to silence him. The most egregious misstep in Children of Camelot was not due to the playwright’s lack of experience, but her selection to make the play’s protagonist the author/lawyer Mark Lane, establishing his “character” as the only attorney courageous enough to act in Oswald’s defense.

Mark Lane often cast himself in the role of the “crusading reporter” in real life as well. It was a case of miscasting too. Lane’s principal claim to fame arises from his 1966 book, Rush to Judgment, bemoaned by Dallas Morning News reporter Hugh Aynesworth as having “almost single-handedly invented the lucrative JFK conspiracy industry.” Lane’s book was bloated with half truths, outright lies, and preposterous accusations discrediting the Warren Report. It was also a runaway best seller, and Lane’s fraudulent claims still hold sway over the opinions of an ill-informed public.

To report Lane’s escapades and relate his questionable conduct after Dallas would require more pages than I intend to expend here, so I will limit myself to just the most notorious.

In 1978 for a monthly retainer of $6,000, Lane was hired by Jim Jones to represent the People’s Temple in Federal Court against a “Government conspiracy” and their allegations that church members were being held against their will in the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, better known as Jonestown, in the South American country of Guyana. Lane travelled to the compound and returned to emphatically dismiss the reports as lies, contending they were part of a propaganda campaign against the Temple conducted by a the CIA, FBI and the U.S. Post Office.

At his own insistence, Lane accompanied Rep. Leo Ryan and NBC correspondent Don Harris when they flew to the compound to investigate the conditions, which resulted in the November 18, 1978 mass suicides/murders of Jones and 915 of his followers by cyanide poisoning. Lane only survived by escaping into the jungle. He later wrote a book on the experience, The Strongest Poison, in which he claims to have heard the firing of automatic weapons as U.S. military forces executed survivors of the massacre; hardly a suitable choice for the heroic protagonist of one’s play.

Aschtiani’s play includes a angry confrontation between the widowed Jackie and Marina, wife of the assassin, and it is in unleashing that anger that the soft-spoken Marina finds the strength to tell Lee Harvey when she visits him in his cell of her agreeing to testify for the prosecution. These scenes have merit and would have played better if the writer had a deeper appreciation reflecting the history and the participants with some accuracy.

Rob Urbinati’s Mama’s Boy explored the assassination through the bizarre personality of Marguerite Oswald, mother of Lee Harvey. It is hard for those unfamiliar with this self-described “mother in history” to appreciate her likely influence in the tragedy that unfolded in Dallas. Perhaps a quick insight by one who met her would help. Bob Huffaker was a reporter for CBS who had witnessed Oswald’s murder by Jack Ruby. A scant few days after Oswald’s secretive burial he arranged a phone interview with Marguerite Oswald. He later wrote, “Having seen Marguerite Oswald’s son murdered before my eyes, I dreaded intruding upon his mother’s grief.” At the end of the interview he no longer saw Marguerite as the bereaved mother.

“But she turned out to be aggressive and full of tough rhetoric and I found myself feeling little sympathy,” he confessed. “I hung up the phone shaking my head at Marguerite Oswald’s dizzying logic. Her coldness struck me. She seemed without grief, filled instead with outrage—icy, edgy, and spoiling to argue.”

Combative and self-pitying, obsessed with making money from the tragedy, it was obvious to all those who encountered her that she was relishing the attention.

Urbinati’s 2015 play opens on the period of Oswald’s return to America three years after having defected to the Soviet Union. He is back in Texas, with Marina his Russian born wife and living with his older brother Robert. But hope of a quiet reunion is shattered with the arrival of the boys’ mother Marguerite. Urbinati’s play is not a history lesson, but the tale of a family spinning out of control towards a fate that will imprison them forever in the historical flow of events.

The events of the first act will be known to those who lived through the history or have even a casual knowledge of the assassination, but viewed through the dysfunctional domesticity of the Oswalds places them in a new light. The second act will prove unfamiliar and disturbing to most. Here Urbinati shows Marguerite after her son’s murder by Jack Ruby, conducting a crusade to prove her son’s innocence, arguing that he was an agent working for the secret service. At one time even declaring, “Lee Harvey Oswald, my son, even after his death, has done more for his country than any other living human being.”

Urbinati‘s Mama’s Boy is firmly rooted in fact and in displaying Marguerite candidly serves to place the crimes of her son in a bitter sad context.

…to be continued

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