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

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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Stages of Doubt: An Analysis of The Kennedy Assassination In American Theatre - PART 1

Over the half century since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, the public has been inundated with the ink of upwards of 2,000 publications confronting or concerned with the findings of the Warren Commission. These range from Mark Lane's Rush to Judgment the first publication (1966) to bedung a susceptible public with spurious claims of a conspiracy and cover-up to Vincent Bugliosi's 1,632 page encyclopedic Reclaiming History (2007) which lays to rest once any questions or doubts about the assassination for all but the most fanatical and dogmatic of conspiracy theorists (henceforth referred to as “CT”).

Hundreds of documentaries of course have delved into the assassination though few approached the subject with the consideration and conscientiousness it merits.

And numerous featured films such as Clint Eastwood's Line of Fire (1993) and William Richert's Winter Kills (1979) have employed the assassination in various manners as the catalyst to their story's plotline.

These films have generally fallen into the categories of “action-adventure” or “thriller,” but there have been exceptions. Robert Dyke's Timequest (2000) offers the unique storyline of a scientist (Ralph Waite) who as a child watching Kennedy's funeral becomes obsessed with the grieving Jackie, causing him to dedicate his life to building a means of time travel so that he can return to 1963 and save Jackie from the pain of her husband's murder by preventing it. He succeeds in this and by revealing to Bobby the conspiracy against his brother's life changes history. But now, without the impetus of witnessing Jackie's grief, the scientist's own destiny is altered and his life takes an entirely different course. One of the film's high points is the alternative history Dyke conjures up resulting from the assassination being foiled which includes JFK dropping Johnson from the ticket for his second term and replacing him with Martin Luther King Jr.

Regrettably the majority of films concerning the assassination, regardless of their genre, are as disconnected from reality as Dyke's sci-fi, and far less entertaining.

An exception to this, one of the very few, is director Peter Landesman's Parkland (2013). A former war correspondent, Landesman delved into the chaos surrounding the assassination and the two days that followed, by setting his story in the trenches with those who were there. His film featured strong performances by Zac Efron as Dr Charles Carrico, the 28 year old resident in charge of Parkland Hospital's emergency room where the mortally wounded Kennedy was brought, Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder whose life was forever changed by 486 frames of an 8-millimeter film, and James Badge Dale as Robert Oswald, Lee's older brother who never doubted his younger sibling's guilt.

The theatre, too, has undertaken to address and investigate the tragic events of Dallas, with the results of these reflecting the diversity of approaches such as only can be devised for and delivered from the stage.

Surprisingly, the first attempt by a dramatist to delve into the murder of America's 35th president was a British playwright whose work to this day remains one of the strongest on the subject.

Michael Hastings was among that cluster of writers and playwrights - John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Harold Pinter and others - who rose to prominence in the United Kingdom following World War II and were known collectively as the “angry young men.”

The youngest of them, Hastings was the last to win recognition as a talent worthy of note.

He did so with Lee Harvey Oswald: A Far Mean Streak of Indepence [sic] Brought on by Negleck [sic], produced in 1966 at the Hampstead Theatre Club. It was Hastings' first commercial and critical success.

The unwieldy title is taken from a passage that appears in an account Oswald wrote about the period he lived in Russia. Written in the third person, his description of himself reveals more than the dyslexia that plagued him throughout his life; “Lee Harvey Oswald was born in Oct 1939 in New Orleans, LA. The son of an Insurance Salesman whose early death left a far mean streak of indepence brought on by neglect.”

For convenience later productions were generally billed simply as Lee Harvey Oswald.

Hastings immersed himself in the historical record, reading the Warren Report and pouring over the supporting evidence contained in its 26 volumes. His play relies heavily on testimonies taken from its 552 witnesses, especially those of Oswald's overbearing and unbalanced mother Marguerite, and his Russia born wife Marina.

As Shakespeare encased his voice of history in “Chorus” for Henry V, Hastings embodies the investigating tribunal appointed by President Johnson in the single character of “the Commission.”

With “the Commission” constantly injecting questions, Hastings leads us down a patchwork rabbit hole constructed from extracts taken from the Warren Report. Hastings reveals Oswald as terrorized by his own sense of insignificance, and enraged at the world for refusing to acknowledge him. Oswald saw himself as someone meant for greatness. When the Warren Commission counsel asked Marina what she thought induced her husband to kill the president, she answered, “He wanted in any way, whether good or bad, to do something that would make him outstanding, that he would be known in history.” Hastings' Oswald would finally claim, from the Book Depository's corner window, the greatness he believed was due him.

In 1967, the assassination arrived on an American stage with the satirical MacBird! by Barbara Garson, which has the distinction of being the first to re-work the tragic events in a Shakespearian mold.

Garson turned to a wide assortment of the Bard's works Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Othello and even Richard II to supply her with the linguistic stenciling she needed, but for overall structure and plotting she stayed with the Scottish play, hence JFK became John Ken O'Dunc, RFK Robert Ken O'Dunc, and LBJ the murderous titular MacBird!.

Initially staged at anti-war rallies and college protests, the work eventually attracted backers who opened it at New York's The Village Gate Theatre where it ran for a year. This success was due in part to Garson's clever writing with its serviceable faux Iambic pentameter, but some credit must go to the show's talented cast of young newcomers which included Rue McClanahan as Lady MacBird, William Devane as Robert Ken O'Dunc and Stacy Keach as MacBird.

As in Shakespeare's tale, Garson opens with three witches, but hers were cloaked in the personas of the radical left with Witch #1 an old Wobbly, Witch #2 a militant black activist, and Witch #3 a nubile coed and budding feminist.

Making his professional acting debut as Witch #2 was Cleavon Little who seven years later would enter comedy Valhalla portraying Sheriff Bart in the Mel Brooks' classic Blazing Saddles.

Kennedy's demise is facilitated by the ambitious MacBird in his rise to power, who then sets out to appease the people by implementing "the Smooth Society" which he assures them:

"…has room for all;
for each, a house, a car, a family,
A private psychoanalyst, a dog,
And rows of gardens, neatly trimmed and hedged."

But Macbird's interest quickly turns towards the international scene, and bending uncooperative nations to his foreign policies by military force if necessary.

When faced with growing opposition to his overseas interventions, the dialogue Garson gives MacBird, echoes the casual eloquence Johnson was capable of.

“Our force shall only force them to be free."


“I believe there is a light at the end of what has been
a long and lonely tunnel.”

President Lyndon Johnson
(September 21, 1966 – speaking of the conflict in Viet Nam.)

Ironically, in this first theatre work to question Oswald's guilt and cast a shadow over the findings of the Warren Commission, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was not the central conspiracy of the piece. A committed anti-war activist, the conspiracy at the core of Garson's MacBird! is LBJ's obsession to send American boys to fight and die in Viet Nam.

Garson, who ran as the Socialist Party candidate for the vice presidency in the 1992 Presidential election, is on record that MacBird! was a work of satire and that she was not seriously suggesting Lyndon Johnson had any part in a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy.

In 2006, Garson admitted in a Washington Post interview, that after decades of arguing the absurdity in believing Johnson was in any way complicit in JFK's death, she had given up.

Afterwards, whenever people would approach her to asked if she thought Johnson played a significant role in killing Kennedy she'd answer “If he did, it's the least of his crimes.”

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The picture was taken by Dallas freelance photographer James "Jim" MacCammon barely 80 minutes after gunshots reverberated through Dealey Plaza. MacCammon photographed 24-year-old Oswald as he emerged from the Texas Theatre into the bright midday sun, sandwiched between Patrolman C.T. Walker and, still chewing his cigar, Detective Paul Bentley. Although MacCammon contacted news agencies, including LIFE, his remarkable photo went unpublished until TIME ran it three months later in February 1964. Internal records show that Time Inc. shared that picture and others MacCammon made with the FBI. Eventually, in late 1964, three MacCammon photographs appeared in volume 20 of the Warren Commission's documentation. "It was always like a lecture," remembers Mary MacCammon, the photographer's daughter, who was in the 4th grade at the time. "He always wanted us to know the story of what happened when Oswald was arrested." The MacCammon photo of Kennedy's assassin essentially disappeared for more than 40 years, until the New York Times included it in Detective Bentley's obituary on July 27, 2008. The photo credit line read, Jim MacCammon, courtesy of Howard Upchurch. But this time, unlike when TIME ran the photo in 1964, the picture appeared in color. Howard Upchurch, a Dallas-area Kennedy assassination researcher, had befriended a man who in 1963 worked at MacCammon's favorite Dallas photo lab and kept a color print of the MacCammon picture. Years later he gave it to Upchurch, who showed it to me in the 1980s and later loaned it to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. MacCammon, who died in 2005, captured a moment that says so much about the soon-to-be-accused assassin and why so many still do not believe Oswald was the sole killer of President Kennedy and the killer of Dallas Police officer J.D. Tippit. As reported at the time, when police led him out of the theater, Oswald shouted: I protest this police brutality and I am not resisting arrest! Oh? Moments earlier, as cops approached him, Oswald suddenly punched Officer Nick McDonald in the face, drew a revolver from his waistband and tried to shoot him. McDonald jammed his hand on the gun and prevented it from firing as other officers pummeled Oswald to the floor, sat him in a seat and cuffed him. (MacCammon took a picture of that moment, too, but the image is too dark to reveal much.) [Ed's note: The TIME-LIFE Picture Collection discovered several duplicate negatives in our search for MacCammon's photographs. We've reproduced one of them below.]