Sunday, August 16, 2009



By James Karas

In April 1952 Elia Kazan appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and gave the names of eight people who were fellow members of the Communist Party during the 1930s. They were blacklisted.

In 1956, playwright Arthur Miller was subpoenaed to testify before the same committee and he refused to disclose the names of leftists or Communists that he had associated with. He was found to be in contempt of Congress, fined $500.00 and sentenced to one month in jail. The decision was subsequently overturned.

HUAC was established as a permanent Committee of the House of Representatives in 1945 with the aim of weeding out Communists or “reds” from American society. It paid special attention to the movie industry which it felt was dominated by Communists. Under Senator Joseph McCarthy the hearings became infamous witch hunts where guilt by association, the trampling of democratic rights and coercive interrogations were the norm.

Kazan and Miller were close friends and their decisions to name names and not to name names respectively put an end to their friendship and were to play pivotal roles in their subsequent lives.

Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan had a lot in common. Both were the children of immigrants, were raised in New York, espoused leftist politics, went into the theatre and were exceptionally successful. Kazan was brought from Turkey in 1913 at age four, the son of Greek immigrants. Miller, born in 1915, was the son of Polish Jews.

Miller’s first major play, All My Sons (1947) dealt with corruption in business and treachery. Joe Keller, an airplane parts manufacturer sells defective cylinder heads to the Air Force during World War II. He and his partner are arrested but he is exonerated when he puts the blame on his partner. When his son, an Air Force pilot, finds out of his father’s activities, he commits suicide rather than face his father’s treachery. Joe insists that he did what he did for the good of his family. When the full extent of his moral cowardice and treachery are revealed, Keller commits suicide.

All My Sons was directed by Elia Kazan.

In 1949 Kazan directed Miller’s Death of a Salesman, one of the greatest American plays, and the two men became friends. In his autobiography, Timebends – A Life, (1987), Miller wrote that Kazan was a man “whom I loved like a brother.”

Both men produced significant works illustrating or justifying their actions before HUAC. Kazan directed the film On the Waterfront (1954). Miller wrote the play A View from the Bridge. The play and a stage version of the film played in London a few months ago and I was able to see both productions on successive nights.

A View from the Bridge is a riveting play about love and betrayal played at London’s Duke of York’s Theatre. It is about Eddie Carbone (Ken Stott) an Italian-American who betrays Rodolpho, an illegal immigrant, to prevent him from marrying Eddie’s niece Catherine. Eddie harbors an illicit passion for Catherine. Rodolpho, who is also related to Eddie, falls in love with her and Eddie calls the immigration authorities. The play is a vivid condemnation of such treachery and it has the expected tragic finale. Eddie is condemned by society for his conduct and after Rodolpho’s brother spits on him he screams “I want my name back.” He is killed in a fight with Rodolpho’s brother.

A short distance from the Duke of York’s, On the Waterfront, the stage version of the famous movie with Marlon Brando played at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. It is a play that justifies naming names.

Kazan had to appear before the Committee in April 1952. He met with Miller in early April and told him that he had decided to cooperate with the Committee. Miller in his autobiography writes of Kazan’s decision to name names to HUAC: “There was a certain gloomy logic in what he was saying: unless he came clean he could never hope, in the height of his creative powers, to make another film in America, and he would probably not be given a passport to work abroad either. If the theatre remained open to him, it was not his primary interest anymore; he wanted to deepen his film life, that was where his heart lay, and he had been told in so many words by his old boss and friend Spyros Skouras, president of Twentieth Century Fox, that the company would not employ him unless he satisfied the Committee.”

Miller tries to convince Kazan that the witch hunts could not go on indefinitely but then comes to the terrible realization that “unbelievable as it seemed, I could still be up for sacrifice if Kazan knew I attended meetings of the Communist Party writers years ago and had made a speech at one of them.” Miller sympathized with Kazan’s predicament but at the same time “was afraid of him. Had I been of his generation, he would have had to sacrifice me as well.” Kazan would have done to Miller what Joe Keller did to his partner in All My Sons: betrayed him for his self-interest.

As indicated, Kazan appeared before HUAC in April 1952 and gave the names of eight people, including playwright Clifford Odets, who were blacklisted. Kazan showed no remorse for his action but commented that “there's a normal sadness about hurting people, but I'd rather hurt them a little than hurt myself a lot."

That statement may show more bravado than moral certainty. Kazan obviously had some misgivings about his testimony before the committee. He took out an ad in the New York Times in which he wrote A Statement “to make my stand clear.” While a member of the Communist Party for about a year and a half (1934-1936), he had “firsthand experience of dictatorship and thought control” and that left him with “an abiding hatred of Communist philosophy and methods and the conviction that these must be resisted always.”

The problem is that he did not act on his conviction to resist Communism until he was called to testify before HUAC sixteen years later. His explanation for the delay was his concern for the reputation and employment of the people he would expose – people who had done exactly what he did many years before. That consideration went by the board when he realized that these people were a danger to free speech, free press etc. He never explains what menace Clifford Odets and the others posed to those cherished American ideals nor does he reveal when that epiphany came to him. Was it in the spring of 1936 when he left the Communist Party or in January 1952 when he was called to testify before HUAC?

In 1954 Kazan directed On the Waterfront, written by Budd Schulberg with Lee J. Cobb in the cast. The movie is an attempt to justify the informer for snitching to the authorities. Lee J. Cobb, the original Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and Schulberg testified before HUAC and named names.

Schulberg has adapted the screenplay of the 1954 movie with Stan Silverman for the stage. Steven Berkoff directs the current production and plays the role of Johnny Friendly, the heavy. The acting is stylized and at times choreographed. About half a dozen men are the chorus and they act as the dockworkers, Crimes Committee and other parts. There is some serious overacting by Berkoff and Simon Merrells as Terry Malloy. Were it not for the stylized acting the whole thing would have ended up as melodrama but it is quite effective and dramatic theatre.

On the Waterfront is about corruption and crime by organized criminals on the Port of New York. Johnny Friendly and his cohorts are corrupt thugs who are running the union local and skimming from the wages of the workers. They do not brook any dissent and when one person attempts it he is murdered by being pushed off a building. One of the participants in the murder is Terry Malloy, a former prize fighter who is not too bright. Terry’s boxing career was cut short by his brother Charley (Cobb in the movie, Antony Byrne in the play) when he was asked to throw a match because they had bet on the other fighter.

Terry falls in love with the victim’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint/Bryony Afferson) and when he witnesses another murder he learns a new word: “conscience.” He is subpoenaed by a commission investigating crimes on the waterfront and he must decide about giving evidence against his brother Charley and his cousin Johnny Friendly.

Terry follows his conscience and gives evidence against the criminals. He is severely beaten but is able to get up and presumably be followed by other longshoremen on the path of justice and resistance to the mob. Naming names, in this instance, was the right and noble thing to do.

On the Waterfront is considered on of the best films ever made. It won eight Oscars in 1954 including Best Picture, Best Director (Kazan), Best Actor (Brando) and Best Supporting Actress (Saint).

Kazan made no secret that he considered the film his revenge on those who criticized him for naming names before HUAC. In his 1988 autobiography Elia Kazan: A Life he remembered getting the Oscar as follows: “I was tasting vengeance that night and enjoying it. On the Waterfront is my own story, every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood.”

Surely there is a difference between giving evidence against criminals and giving the names of people who belonged to the same organization as you did many years before the testimony.

Miller was subpoenaed to testify before HUAC in 1956. Spyros Skouras attempted to convince him to cooperate with the Committee. Miller stood his ground but he himself realized that his moral courage was affected by this: “Privately I thanked my stars that I worked in the theatre, where there was no blacklist; as a film writer, I would now be kissing my career goodbye.” In the end, he refused to testify because if he did he would be breaking “an implicit understanding among human beings that you don’t use their names to bring trouble on them, or cooperate in deforming the democratic doctrine of the sanctity of peaceful association.” He realized that if he did not buckle he could be sent to jail but he considered HUAC so morally corrupt that he was willing to take that risk.

Lillian Hellman was subpoenaed to testify before HUAC in 1952. She asked the Committee if she could testify about herself without naming others. The Committee refused and she issued the following statement: “To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable.” Helleman was blacklisted and her career suffered.

In 1999, the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to bestow an honorary Oscar to Kazan for his achievement in film. The decision was hugely controversial. There were those who never forgave Kazan for informing on his former associates and folded their arms in protest when he stepped up to receive his Oscars. There were others who thought that it was time to bury the hatchet and applauded warmly. The moral issue of informing on your colleagues was not resolved. Interestingly enough, the fact the Kazan belonged to the same organization as the people he named had no adverse consequences on him. The informer, in this case at least, was absolved of his sin the minute he named the other sinners.

The emblematic example of acting on principle over expedience is that of Sir Thomas More as seen by Robert Bolt in A Man for all Seasons. More was Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor when the king broke away from Rome so that he could annul his marriage to Catherine, his first wife, and marry Anne Boleyn. More, a devout Catholic, refused to recognize the king’s religious supremacy. Being a lawyer, he tread carefully and refused to state his position and relied on his silence for safety. The king insisted on More’s support. He was charged with treason but there was no evidence on which to convict him. Richard Rich, an ambitious young man and, at least, an acquaintance if not a friend of More’s, provided perjured evidence and More was convicted.

There is a magnificent scene at the end of More’s trial. After Rich has given his perjured evidence, More notices that Rich is wearing a chain of office. He asks what the chain represents and he is told that Rich has been appointed Attorney General for Wales. More gives the great reply that separates principal from expedience: “Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … But for Wales!”

“Wales” could be career (Kazan), family (Joe Keller), misguided love (Eddie Carbone) or any number of reasons.

What is left in the end is each person’s epitaph in history if not eternity. In A Dictionary of British History, Richard Rich is given a one-sentence dismissal: “His provision, while solicitor general, of false evidence at the trial of Sir Thomas More was instrumental is securing More’s conviction for treason (1535).” He is a perjurer forever. More gets a whole paragraph where he is described as a renowned scholar, lawyer and saint who was convicted on the perjured evidence of Sir Richard Rich.

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