Left-wing ideology (again) in Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday

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: What?
Helen: Washington?
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 Obama changeSecretary 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.

Garson Kanin

Garson Kanin

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.

Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman

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. 

Daily_WorkerYet 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 Soviet mansome 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.

Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival (a review)

movie poster of Born YesterdayThe audiences at the Shaw Festival tend to be older, so we’re guessing that quite a few of the folks at the performance of Born Yesterday that we saw had, like us, seen the 1950 film version of the play, starring Broderick Crawford and Judy Holliday (who won the Oscar for best actress), at one time or another.  We’d also guess that most of them (like us) missed the 1993 remake, starring John Goodman and Melanie Griffith, 1993 movie version Born Yesterdaywho was nominated for, but did not win, the 1993 Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress.

At any rate, the incidental music for the Shaw Festival’s production reminded us of Born Yesterday‘s history in the motion pictures; the curtain rose to a sweeping orchestral overture in the style of the vintage movies of the 1940s. And Deborah Hay’s performance as Billie Dawn surely owed a good deal to Judy Holliday, star of both the original stage play and the 1950 movie.

Nothing wrong with that, though; Born Yesterday is a thoroughly entertaining show, the best production of a classic American comedy at the Shaw Festival since You Can’t Take It With You ten years ago.  Deborah Hay is a scream in the lead role.

The play begins as self-made junk tycoon Harry Brock (Thom Marriott) is moving into a suite at a posh Washington, D.C. hotel. Harry is intent on cornering the market on all the scrap metal that’s littering Europe after the war (WWII), and his scheme, devised by his $100,000 per year personal lawyer Ed Devery (Patrick Galligan), depends on his owning part of the United States government as well.  Harry intends to bribe an influential senator (Lorne Kennedy) to get rid of laws that stand in his way.

Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay as Billie Dawn

But his first meeting with the senator and his wife shows Harry that his long-time mistress Billie Dawn (Deborah Hay), a former chorus girl from Brooklyn, needs some polishing up before she’s ready for Washington society. Harry hires a young bespectacled reporter, Paul Verrall (Gray Powell), to give his culturally deficient mistress a crash course in literature, the arts, and politics. To everyone’s surprise, she takes to Thomas Paine and Dickens right away, she likes the pictures at the National Gallery, and she turns out to have an instinctive feel for the dynamics of crooked business deals.  As this is a romantic comedy, she also falls for her tutor.

scene from Born Yesterday

Gray Powell as Paul Verrall, Deborah Hay as Billie Dawn

The storyline of gussying up a girl from the streets reminded us, naturally, of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Like Henry Higgins in that play, Harry Brock fails to foresee the full fruits of a cultural education for Billie Dawn.  After spending time with Paul, Billie Dawn realizes that Harry is crude, brutish, and ignorant.  Her political education also helps her realize that Harry is a crook and that his plan to buy a United States senator is (gasp) un-American.  (Emsworth has some thoughts on the ideological overtones of Born Yesterday in this post.)

The humor in Born Yesterday is not sophisticated, but it goes down easy.  The entire cast is marvelous, down to the small supporting roles (we liked especially Beryl Bain as Helen, Billie Dawn’s maid and friend, and Donna Belleville as Senator Hedges’s wife), but the tone of the show depends on Deborah Hay, who plays the brassy Billie Dawn to perfection.  Her repartee with Thom Marriott (as Harry Brock) is precious, and their hilarious ten-minute, mostly wordless game of gin rummy is worth the price of admission all by itself.

And of course it’s tremendously satisfying to see Harry get what’s coming to him. Harry Brock, a bully who knocks Billie Dawn around when she crosses him, may be the least attractive character you’ll ever see in a stage comedy. No lovable swindler he (like Max Bialystock in The Producers); meanness is his primary personal quality.

Vermeer -- Girl with a Red Hat

Vermeer's Girl with a Red Hat

For the second time at the Shaw Festival this year (see this post), we were delighted to see reproductions of some of our favorite art on stage; Billie Dawn brought home some color prints of pictures by Vermeer, Cezanne, and Gauguin from her excursions with Paul to the National Gallery.

The show we saw had some unintended drama. Outside the theater, the weather in Niagara-on-the-Lake was stormy, and throughout the play rolls of thunder were frequently heard (during scenes in which the skies of Washington, D.C., which were part of the scenery, were blue and cloudless!). In the final moments of the play, the power went off and the theater went dark for about ten seconds just as Patrick Galligan (playing the lawyer Ed Devery, and pitch-perfect as usual) was reaching the climax of his “justice and the American way” speech. Galligan was still holding his pose (to the applause of the audience) when the lights came on again.

We also appreciated the local connection: playwright Garson Kanin, who wrote Born Yesterday, was born in Rochester! Near as we can tell, he didn’t live here long enough for our town to make much of an impression on him, but we’ll take credit for him anyway. Aside from Rochester’s being the home of one of the finest actors of our time (Philip Seymour Hoffman), we don’t have many other show business types to brag about.

More thoughts about Born Yesterday — and Emsworth’s reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

Left-wing ideology in Born Yesterday (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)