We’re tired of being assured by essayists in theater programs that the vintage plays we’re about to see are still “relevant”. Why wouldn’t they be? Why would any great play lose its “relevance”? Human nature doesn’t change from one century to the next, and what else is a great play about?
But sometimes a play’s “relevance” jumps up and barks in your face. When we heard the following lines a couple of weeks ago at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-in-the-Lake, Ontario) in the opening scene of Born Yesterday (first produced in 1946), we thought for a moment that a few new lines might have been specially added to the script. Here’s a Washington journalist (Paul Verrall) talking to a Washington hotel maid (Helen):
Helen: Changed much, do you think?
Paul: Not enough. I could stand a little more change. The idea of the war wasn’t to leave everything the same, you know.
This made us think immediately about the President who swept into office as the candidate of “change”. How many Americans who voted to elect Barack Obama are wondering why it is that, six months later, our troops are still in Iraq, the cabinet still includes George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Hillary Clinton’s in charge of foreign policy, there’s been a “surge” in the war in Afghanistan, the prison at Guantanamo is still full, and the federal deficit has tripled in only six months?!?
A “little more change,” indeed!
But what a curious line playwright Garson Kanin (writing at the end of 1945) put in the mouth of Paul Verrall: “The idea of the war wasn’t to leave everything the same, you know.” Did Verrall really think the idea of the war was to bring about change? What other agenda for the second World War was there but to defeat fascist aggression?
In fact, in 1945 the far left was thinking opportunistically, much like Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, that “you don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste.” The ruin left by the war gave the left an opening to push through a long list of socialist programs, and in Britain and other European countries that’s mostly what they got. Paul Verrall’s complaint (presumably his creator Garson Kanin’s as well) was that the government was wasting its chance to do something radical in Washington.
Now Emsworth hasn’t succeeded in learning anything in particular about Garson Kanin’s politics. They never seem to have made much of a splash, unlike the views of Lillian Hellman, J. B. Priestley, Leonard Bernstein, and of course Bernard Shaw, all people of the left, all admirers of the Soviet Union in their day, and all artists whose work has been at the Shaw Festival the last couple of seasons.
But we can gather something of Kanin’s ideology from Born Yesterday. It’s a brilliant comedy. But embedded in it is as much leftist propaganda as in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (as we catalogued in this post after seeing the play at the Shaw Festival last year) and J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (which we dissected in this post after seeing that play at the Shaw last summer).
Helen: Listen, you know what they charge for this layout?
Paul: Two hundred and thirty-five a day. [This was 1946; Harry Brock had rented a hotel suite that would probably cost $5,000 a day in 2009.]
Helen: Listen, anybody’s got two hundred and thirty-five dollars a day to spend on a hotel room there ought to be a law.
Paul: Too many laws already.
Helen: While I’m getting eighteen a week I don’t see why anybody should spend two hundred and thirty-five a day.
Paul: For a hotel room.
Helen: That’s what I say.
Paul (smiling). I know some people who’d call you a communist.
Helen (darkly). Tell them I’m thinking about it. Seriously.
We hate to sound like a broken record, but Born Yesterday leans on the same leftist themes of “class struggle” and capitalist venality as the Hellman and Priestley plays. Harry Brock in Born Yesterday is a corrupt business tycoon who’s made a fortune, not by building a better mousetrap, but by ruthlessly stomping out competition. Like Ben Hubbard in The Little Foxes, he’s an enemy of the working man — his mistress Billie Dawn casually lets it slip that Harry actually arranged the murder of a labor agitator who was trying to organize a union. And like Ben Hubbard, Harry gets ahead by bribing public officials to eliminate competition.
Yet in his play, Garson Kanin has Harry Brock claim that he’s a champion of “free enterprise.” Harry was actually just the opposite; monopolization and thuggery are enemies of free-market capitalism. But the radical left had a stereotype to promote — the capitalist as corrupt and brutish — and that’s what Kanin made Harry Brock. Harry might as well have been one of the cartoon capitalists in The Daily Worker.
We’re not aware of any direct evidence that these left-leaning playwrights were consciously parrotting a prescribed party line in their plays. Yet how curiously similar are some of the speeches in The Little Foxes, An Inspector Calls, and Born Yesterday! Here’s Addie in Hellman’s The Little Foxes:
Addie: “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.
Here’s the Inspector in An Inspector Calls:
Birling: “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth.”
The Inspector: “They might. But after all it’s better to ask for the earth than to take it.”
And here’s Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday:
Billie: Well, all this stuff I’ve been reading — all that Paul’s been telling me . . . All of a sudden I realized what it means. How some people are always giving it and some taking. And it’s not fair. So I’m not going to let you any more. Or anybody else.
Talk about sticking to your talking points! Was Garson Kanin, like Hellman and Priestley, hoping for the day when Marxist revolution would come to the United States and Britain as it had in Russia? We don’t know, but consider one of the last lines in Born Yesterday, after Harry Brock is roundly defeated:
Brock (to Devery): What’s goin’ on around here?
Devey: A revolution.