Thursday, February 10, 2005

How Will Trumbo Be Greeted?

It will be interesting to see how much the recent lionizing of Reagan, the ascendency of conservative ideology, and renewed calls for a "logical and rational" arguments for internment by such offensive columnists as Michelle Malkin, (who wrote the recent book, "In Defense of Internment,") have filtered down into the general critical consciousness. More interesting will be to see if is under the false classification of original thinking. Some of this is a result of Contrarianism gone haywire. There is a long road from George Orwell to Christopher Hitchens to Michael Savage, and it is littered with jettisoned integrity.

In 2003, Mark Steyn, a conservative reviewer I read quite a bit, wrote a review of Trumbo that was dripping with so much McCarthy- loving, communist-hating talking points that it smelled like Anne Coulter's perfume. (And yes, I am aware that McCarthy did not persecute Dalton Trumbo.)

Mark Steyn later that year wrote a good "In Memoriam" piece on Elia Kazan, in the Atlantic Monthly, praising the Director's masterpiece On the Waterfront as the declaration of a stand against not only the brutish thugs of Johnny Friendly's dockside gang, but also the thuggery of communism and its resultant genocidal travesties. Indeed, anyone of my generation who has any romantic notions of communism in practice should check out The Black Book of Communism from the Library, or better yet, buy it to have in their home as a reminder.

However, what I found fascinating while watching a preview performance of Trumbo was the fact that "thuggery" is used as a term by Trumbo. And not in referring to his own predicament of being blacklisted, but rather that of his daughter, who has been ostracized at her public school by not only the students, but by forces from within the PTA and the Blue Birds. Dalton Trumbo's letter to the Principal of his daughters' school ends in sarcastic gratitude to the educational administration for introducing his daughter to "barbarism." Another piece in the play speaks directly to "informers' like Elia Kazan, when Trumbo makes the clarifying statement that, "I know of no one who turned informer for anything other than personal gain."

Contrarian thought, however, is dismissive of these arguments as an obfuscation of the truth. In the eyes of the conservative ideologists Trumbo is still to be blacklisted.

Mark Steyn says:"Though the play won’t tell you the answer to that famous question – 'Are you now or have you ever…?' – the answer is: yes, he was. The more interesting question is: How do you feel about getting one of the great moral questions of the century wrong?"

For conservatives, it is game, set, match. Trumbo must be silenced, the rationale goes, because the communist party proved to be, well, horrific.

Brian Dennehy has pointed out a distinction between this time and that time. In a Cambridge Chronicle interview last week, Brian Dennehy said, "Look at Michael Moore. He made $250 million saying what he damn well pleased. ['Fahrenheit 9/11'] was hardly a documentary; it was a piece of propaganda. And I don't have an objection to that. The point is he was hardly punished for his opinion.... The people who try to make analogies between that period (the Blacklist) and this period are not being honest. It's not the same."

But a few sentences later Dennehy says, "And I don't want people to think 'Trumbo' is a history lesson. It's great theater. But it's also a learning experience, and that's what theater should be all about."

I agree to a point with Mr. Dennehy, but he seems to want to have it both ways: He thinks the play is monumentally important as a learning experience, but does he really want us to see it as a learning experience that has no application?

In the end Trumbo is not a play. It is theatre though, and it contains one of the most interesting characters you will see in years.

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