STAGES OF DOUBT: AN ANALYSIS OF THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION IN AMERICAN THEATRE – PART 6 - Final

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It's been fifty-five years since Oswald's three shots rang out in Dallas and their echoes still reverberate throughout our nation. In that time, the conspiracymongers have accused 42 groups and 214 individuals of involvement with the murder of JFK and have put forward the names of 82 “assassins.”

I've no doubt in the years to come additional transgressors and villains will be placed on those lists, and new titles added to catalogue of “Assassination Dramas.”

The suspicions, paranoia and dissemblance of some have seemingly diminished the gravitas due the assassination of John F. Kennedy, while the shallowness and gullibility of others have rendered their historical awareness the death of America's 35th president to the level of a National Enquirer headline. For many the idea of a conspiracy is not a matter of study, evidence or plausibility, it is a matter of faith.

Not long ago I was at a pool party, when a casual remark on my part disparaging Oliver Stone's JFK brought on an onslaught by another guest.

Let's call him Don.

Don defended Stone, his film and ranked Garrison as the greatest American since Honest Abe.

Needless to say he was strident in his insistence that Oswald was innocent and that a vast and malevolent conspiracy was behind it all. As with all “True Believers” facts are meaningless, and I began to feel like Michael Palin facing John Cleese in the “Argument Clinic.”

Finally I put to him, “What proof, what evidence, would it take to convince you that Oswald was guilty?”

He snapped back, “There isn't any, because he's not!”

And there you go. The same mindset that denies the holocaust ever happened, insists FDR knew of the pending attack on Pearl Harbor, that NASA faked the moon landing, maintains 9-11 was an inside job, that Barack Obama was not a US citizen, that Hillary operated a child brothel in the basement of a pizza parlor, that the “deep state” is undermining Donald Trump's presidency and believes that the plays of Shakespeare were actually written by some guy named Rollo Gobermouche.

University of Miami political scientist and conspiracy theory researcher Joseph Uscinski warned that “Conspiracy theories are becoming part of our national dialogue.”

The danger here is all too present in our society. The maxim to “question authority” is sound, but to outright dismiss authority is fraught with peril. Hence the cancerous concept of “Fake News” and the hazardous inclination to put one's trust in the opinions of personalities and reject those of the experts.

That everyone is entitled to their own opinion is one of the bedrocks of this nation, but that foundation will be irrevocably damaged if we come to accept that everyone is also entitled to their own “facts.”

Sadly, it is as Eric Hoffer observed that one of humanity's great failings is that most people can only be completely certain about that which they know absolutely nothing about.

In her seminal book Virtues of the Mind (1996) Linda Zagzebski lists the barriers to sound inquiry and judicious appraisal as gullibility, close-mindedness, lack of thoroughness, rigidity, negligence, carelessness, prejudice, obtuseness and insensitivity to detail. These “intellectual vices” are the hallmark of the conspiracy minded.

There are those who readily point to the fact that the most recent polls suggest that over 2/3 of the country believe that some conspiracy was behind the events in Dallas as if this in some way establishes the historical facts. But to quote Robert Ingersoll “- majorities count for nothing. Truth has always dwelt with the few.”

Today the Assassination has become the great national Rorschach test for Americans. They look at the events that occurred on November 22nd, 1963 in the city of Dallas, and what they perceive tells you more about them than the ink blots. The ink blots never change.

And the ink blots say, “Oswald. Only Oswald. Nobody else but Oswald.”


  • Howard Brennan, a forty-five year old steam fitter had been standing across the street from the Book Depository on Friday November 22nd to watch the presidential motorcade.  Looking up he saw a man in the window of the sixth floor holding a rifle, just as the motorcade turned onto the street, the shots that killed the president immediately followed.  In the confusion afterwards it was Brennan who first directed the police to the Book Depository and provided them with a description of the man in the window, the information he provided would be broadcast over both channels of the Dallas Police radio.  Twenty-three minutes later, Patrol Officer J.D. Tippit pulled his squad car to a stop near the intersection of Patton and Tenth Street to question a man who matched the Brennan's description of the shooter. It was Lee Harvey Oswald. Witnesses observed Oswald fatally shooting Tippit before fleeing the scene. At Oswald's third lineup Brennan would claim he couldn't be sure Oswald was the man he had seen in the sixth floor window prior to Kennedy's assassination.  He would later confess before the Warren Commission that he had recognized Oswald as the man he saw in the window, but feared if he came forward as a witness that he would be placing his family in danger.
  • For my comparison review of JFK and Parkland see: TheTVolution.com/2015/04/parkland-and-jfk-two-views-of-the-assassination
  • For a fascinating debunking of the film JFK go to McAdams.posc.mu.edu/jfkmovie.htm
  • The “magic bullet” is only “magical” to those having no experience with firearms.  If you want an education in what bullets do once fired, I recommend you watch The Magic Bullet, Episode 2 from the first season of Forensic Files.
  • It should also be noted that Robert Caro, after 36 years of intense research into Lyndon Johnson, stated he found no indication whatsoever of an assassination plot.

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

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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


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

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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


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

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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.

…continue reading