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


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.

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

Leave a comment