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


Ernest Kearney

Writer, Registered Critic


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

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