From the Days of the Blacklist: What to Do with a Fallen Hero

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former entertainment writer and critic for the New York Daily News.

After the Revolution
Playwrights Horizon Theater
416 W. 42d St.
New York, N.Y.

What do you do when your hero of more than fifty years falls into disgrace?  Do you still venerate his greatness, now diminished, or join the masses in vilifying him?  Worse, what do you do when he is your grandfather?

That is the dilemma that Emma Joseph finds herself in throughout Amy Herzog’s new play, After the Revolution.  It opened Wednesday at Playwrights Horizon Theater, in New York.

Joe Joseph was a much heralded, longtime icon of the Left.  He was blacklisted for refusing to name friends of his who were in the Communist Party in a 1953 Congressional hearing.  Joseph was considered a villain by the public, but a hero by the political Left, which turned all of the men and women who were blacklisted into cultural icons.

Herzog’s fictitious character Joseph held that “esteemed” position all of his life.  A fund was started in his honor to underscore his stand against the government and it had enough money so that Joseph’s effervescent granddaughter, Emma, twenty-six, could serve as its full-time director. Her boyfriend, Miguel, was the assistant director.  In the play, they are involved in yet another progressive crusade, this time to get convicted Philadelphia cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal out of prison.

Then, all of a sudden, a book is published that identifies her grandfather as a spy for the Soviet Union during the 1940s.  It was charged, and proven, that her granddad, who worked in the American military’s OSS, gave top secret military plans to the Soviets.

The news sends Emma reeling.  So does the discovery that her mother and father knew about Grandpa’s spying all of their lives and told her sister about it, but not her.  Furious, she stews over the scandal, refuses to talk to her dad and breaks up with her boyfriend.

Emma’s home is the capital of worldwide liberalism.  The Joseph family is fanatical about its progressivism and political correctness and they all brag that they are Marxists.  They visited Marx’s grave on a vacation.  A picture of Fidel Castro hangs with honor in the living room of their home and the father ordered all of his children to call the walkman radio the “walkperson radio.”  They all prayed for the great revolution to make the world better all of their lives.  And then this scandal exploded.

The plot of the play, that takes place in 1999, is Emma’s coming to grips with the unveiling of her granddad as a spy and her efforts to resolve her conflicts with her father.  She has to figure out whether or not to continue to embrace the family’s hero or denounce him and change the direction of her life.  Was he a truly great man who did one thing wrong, or was he a spy who betrayed his country?  Is there a difference between arguing that Soviet communism is a better way of life than American democracy and actually giving military secrets to the Soviets?  What to do?

It’s an interesting idea and probes a troubled era in U.S. history.  The playwright does not provide enough information about it.  In the early 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee held numerous hearings in an effort to identify hundreds of Americans as Communists or Communist sympathizers, as did a U.S. Senate committee chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Many of the victims of the crazed witch-hunt who were in show business—nearly three hundred of them—were blacklisted by the film industry and never worked again.  Others, such as marvelously gifted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, were forced to write using pseudonyms.  Many government workers lost their jobs.

A request to testify by HUAC struck fear into the heart of any witness.  Those called had to admit they were Communists, perjure themselves by lying about it, or name others.  No matter what they did, the witnesses looked bad.  The post-World War II era was a time of touchy relations between America and Russia and the hawks on the two congressional anti-Communist committees used that apprehension to build a remarkable power base.

The real trouble with Herzog’s play is that it rolls along too slowly.  It has some nicely drawn characters in Emma’s dad and grandmother, a decent plot and some funny lines, but it moves at a snail’s pace.  The characters talk and talk and talk about their dilemma, as if talking would make it go away faster than a shredded picture of Senator McCarthy.

Emma also confronts her father with a long list of things that he did in his life that disappointed her, but they don’t seem that dreadful.  He finally breaks down and tells her that he couldn’t bear to ruin her vision of her grandfather as a hero of the Left and so never let her in on the family’s dirty little secret.

What will the newly enlightened and very angry Emma do?

Director Carolyn Cantor does a good job of moving the lethargic play along as quickly as possible.  She gets good acting out of everyone in a seasoned cast.  The father, Ben, played by Peter Friedman, is a lovable leftist and his mom, Grandma Vera (Lois Smith), has a marvelous, droll sense of humor.  Katherine Powell struggles as Emma, slogging through some tepid dialogue and constantly trying to resolve her problems.  The rest of the cast, Emmy-winner Mare Winningham as Emma’s stepmom, Mark Blum as an uncle, Elliot Villar as Miguel, David Margulies as Morty and Meredith Holzman, as sister Jess, make up a fine ensemble.

“After the Revolution” was produced by the Playwrights Horizon, Tim Sanford, Artistic Director. Clint Ramos (Scenic Designer), Kaye Voyce (costumes), Ben Stanton (lighting), Christopher Boll (production manager).

STARS: Ben (Peter Friedman), Mel (Mare Winningham), Leo (Mark Blum), Vera (Lois Smith), Emma (Katharine Powell), Miguel (Elliot Villar), Morty (David Margulies), Jess (Meredith Holzman). Directed by Carolyn Cantor.

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