Wrap-Up on The Great Holtzman-Horowitz Virtual Debate (part 1)

My Facebook Status Update of late last night reads:

Our big post-show turned out to be its own one-act; the inter-cutting of ferocious missives from two writers who dislike each other turns out to be good drama! Glad to have shared it with a diverse crowd (of righties and lefties) as considerable light–and heat–was shed. A smart audience can provide its own collective wisdom, making distinction between useful criticism and outrageous accusation.

Here’s how we began last night’s program, immediately following conclusion of the play:  “Tonight we’ll be hearing from two authors who aren’t present, who’ve shared their words over email and blog postings, and our plan is to voice them, in a kind of theatrical exchange, for the purpose of discussing the exchange with you, our audience. Actor Rick Foucheux, who so ably plays the character of Eugene Biddle in the play, will read the responses of David Horowitz. Actor Norman Aronovic, who ably plays the character of attorney Arthur Rossiter, representing the prisoner Alison Moulton, will first read an excerpt from the program notes, and then the subsequent responses of playwright Willy Holtzman.

The questions we ask tonight will include:

– How do we assess the effectiveness of a play like SOMETHING YOU DID which is inspired by aspects of the lives of several living (and some deceased) individuals, which also deviates crucially from each of these lives? To what end does one deviate from fact? What’s the benefit? To what end does cleave to real-life incident and identity? As one exercises dramatic license, what are the benefits of verisimilitude? Are they merely cynical market driven benefits, or is there a social and cultural good for hewing close to fact?

– As SOMETHING YOU DID is a play of ideas and, by its end, a formal hearing and debate, is it, in the end, a fair fight?

– And this framing question from Theater J regular, attorney and blogger Arthur Hessel, who writes on this blog, “If a play is based on fact, but is not itself fully factual, how is the audience to know? Can a play dealing with history re-invent that history on stage?”

An audience of 165 saw the show.  100 stayed for the discussion — about 20 or more people came just for the talk-back which began (after a film crew from Pajamas Media TV set up sound and positioned its camera) at 9:40 and ended just before 11:00. While not everyone stayed for the duration of the back and forth, the 20 minute reading of intercut response, rebuttal and refutation from Horowitz and Holtzman played to pin-drop silence. This was illuminating; two scalpel-sharpened wordsmiths with barely-disguised antipathy for the other’s position, raising many valid points while, at other times, going a bit over the edge in the process of dressing each other down, has all the makings for a good play.  (Indeed, many suggested this should be the command-performance second act following the play’s uninterrupted first act.)

Points will emerge as we collect feedback and reports from others. I’m sure the City Paper–there covering the event last night–will have a take on the evening’s drama. Ron Radosh, a close friend of David Horowitz for over 60 years, represented his friend well and was responsible for the presence of PJTV, Pajamas Media Television, a formidably funded alternative media outlet.

The most illuminating questions for me: Can dramatists have it “both ways?” Ron Radosh says no. A dramatist can’t, on the one hand, reference real-life figures and incidents, saying their work is “based on” the lives of authentic events and their enactors, while at the same time demuring and saying that the drama being created is a fiction that can’t be held accountable when straying from the facts surrounding a case. There was division amongst the audience on this point — an on our panel. Isn’t that Shakespeare’s Game (to quote William Gibson) or the work of many a novelist or playwright; to formulate a fiction based on fact and allow for the co-mingling to illuminate hypotheses into hitherto unrevealed emotion, motivation, illusive insights, even while acknowledging that these are theatrically drawn interpretations; not academically or journalistically supported findings?  The $50 theater ticket helps make that distinction as well; what we’re seeing on stage in plays like SOMETHING YOU DID is a thought-provoking entertainment.

Another question emerged: In exercising his artistic license, did playwright Willy Holtzman flout artistic ethics? The charge was levied by more than one in the audience who came prepared with research, noting that Holtzman had sought the feedback for Kathy Boudin whom he not only interviewed; he also brought her to see the first production of the play in New York in 2008. That he ran the play by her “for approval” was “an outrage” to some. Why he didn’t consult with Horowitz in advance, even while admitting–again in his program notes–that play was, in fact, “based on” real life figures (audience members noted the plural of “figures” proving that Holtzman indeed intended to reference and implicate Horowitz as well as Boudin)–was an unconscionable act of stacking the deck on behalf of his protagonist, not affording his (Biddle/Horowitz) the same opportunity to respond to his portraiture.  A fair complaint?

Holtzman interviewed many models, experts and veterans of times and places he was writing about. He interviewed prison guards and other corrections officers; he interviewed lefty lawyers and neo-conservative authors. He sharpened the ideas and the details in the writing throughout. Did he ask Kathy Boudin what she thought of the relationship that “her character” had with Gene Biddle? I can’t imagine he did, as it’s an entirely fictional element of the story he’s created. Was the portrait an officially authorized creation? I can’t imagine so either. If the playwright showed the play to Boudin, was he obligated to reach out–well in advance of production–to Horowitz as well?

Many more questions were raised. Were the program notes guilty of distracting the viewer? Of bringing up the name of David Horowitz when of course the play never does. Should the theater have edited those notes more closely? Perhaps.

In accusing the play of fraudulence, does Horowitz miss the achievements of its fact-inspired fictional achievements?

What follows are comments coming in, speaking to last night’s program:
from Art Eckstein:

The “After-play” was excellent, the actors great, and the conversation interesting. You can be proud of the whole production this Saturday night. And I agree with the person in the audience who thought it was essential that the “duelling letters” from Horowitz and Holtzman should be “add-ons” to any production of the play.

Like I said in public and then in private to you, the most shocking thing I learned from the conversation was that Holtzman took Cathy Boudin and Bernadine Dohrn to see an early production of the play, and changed the play as they wished. THIS is not in the Playwright’s Notes at the beginning of the playbook, and it is something people should know. You emphasized that Holtzman visited prisons, etc., to get things right. Well, he consulted Cathy Boudin to get things right, and as if that weren’t enough, Bernadine Dohrn too. He didn’t do David Horowitz the same courtesy. This is a matter not of artistic freedom but indeed (as was said) of artistic ethics.

It should also be clear that many many people in the audience accepted that this was pretty much a depiction of the real David Horowitz, because Holtzman said as much in the Playwright’s Notes. (It was disingenuous of Holtzman in his letter to say that this was merely narcissism on Horowitz’s part, to think the play was in good part about him.) Indeed, you and I both saw the very intelligent guy say to you that he actually thought that the real David Horowitz had slept with the real Cathy Boudin, as occurs in the characters in the play. How many others of the hundreds who say the play were misled about the real history of Boudin and Horowitz, and went away thinking something that wasn’t true–not out of stupidity, or lack of understanding of theatre, but because Holtzman intimated what he wrote was based on fact?

Again, all of this is hugely interesting, but for me it does not take away from the high quality of the production. And this last Saturday night with the add-on was REALLY creative and something you can really be proud of. Congratulations on it!

Warm wishes,

Art

8 thoughts on “Wrap-Up on The Great Holtzman-Horowitz Virtual Debate (part 1)

  1. Good stuff. I’m sorry I was out-of-town. First, Thank God, Theater J didn’t edit Holtzman’s notes. Rarely does a provocative play get such a rich exponential layer of political tumult to add to its resonance.

    And second, Art Eckstein’s way too concerned with some sort of symmetrical fairness in Holtzman’s research and modus operandi in the creation and revision of the play. As long as Holtzman doesn’t claim to be writing a fair-minded documentary of the events in question, who cares who he chooses to interview, bring along as guests or to influence his revisions? This is not a peer-reviewed academician’s tenure hearing. It’s his privilege as a creative artist. He doesn’t claim to be an objective historian (oxymoron intended) any more than Shakespeare did.

    Theater-goers should be able to separate the dramatic value from the political subtexts, regardless of the program notes. Holtzman has no obligation to Horowitz, nor to the audience that naively conflated fiction with fact. Similarly, Philip Roth had no obligation to disabuse his readers of their natural association of E.I. Lonoff with Bernard Malamud or Milton Appel with Irving Howe. Roth and Holtzman as creative artists deserve their sympathies and antipathies (whether anti-Horowitz or anti-Malamud/Howe). Free the fictional composite character from the yoke of verisimilitude!

  2. Holtzman claims to be getting at a deeper truth, as he says in his Writer’s Notes with the quote from Emerson. Do you get at “the deeper truth” by whitewashing Boudin and making Horowitz into a villain? What “deeper truth” is that?

    Holtzman says in the Writer’s Notes that the play is based on Horowitz and Boudin. This is explicit. If the play is not about them, why mention them? If the play is not about them, why allow Boudin to vet the play? Holtzman can’t make these claims about truth, and bring in the real Boudin to help him, and then create a total distortion of the truth, and then defend himself by claiming it’s fiction. There’s artistic license–and then there’s artistic ethics.

    • During the talkback w/ Radosh, Herz and Galston, a couple of incorrigible audience members railed against the play as if it were the play’s responsibility to perfectly depict history. Part of this stubborn resistance is a feeble effort to suspend disbelief in the narrative and engage a play of ideas in a historical context (whether about Spinoza or Horowitz/Boudin) within the dramatic parameters presented on stage.

      Artistic ethics concern plagiarism, not whether the playwright has given enough people (or too few) an opportunity to see the show before a revision. It is not Art Eckstein’s concern whether Boudin “vetted” (whatever that means) the script. That Boudin and Horowitz were mentioned in the notes doesn’t change Holtzman’s ethical responsibilities, either.

      It appears that Eckstein’s refusal to deal with the play as a creation of the imagination (or catalyst for “deeper truth”) is because its ideas don’t comport with his politics. Agree or disagree with the ideas in the play, but complaining about Holtzman’s “artistic ethics” in terms of the path he took in creating the play, is akin to complaining about John Updike’s “artistic ethics” because he had extramarital affairs while writing about troubled marriages!

  3. The play’s Writer’s Notes claim to be about Boudin and Horowitz. Holtzman, having said that, had a responsibility to have the characters at least somewhat related to the real Boudin and Horowitz. This is especially so because the play was enough about the real Boudin that Holtzman showed the play to her at an early stage, and modified things in the play according to the real Boudin’s suggestions. So much for the defense of the play as “only fiction”.

    Here are the results:
    1. The real Boudin was involved in the deaths of six people, none accidental; Alison in the play is involved in only one death and it is accidental.
    2. The real Boudin was involved with the killing of three policemen in 1981, long after the Vietnam War was over; Alison the angel in the play is only motivated by agony over the then-occurring Vietnam, which was the time of her only violent action.
    3. The real Boudin served a twenty year sentence for killing three; Alison is serving her 35th year for accidentally killing one. The issue in the play is whether she deserves parole.
    3. The real Horowitz was an opponent of terrorism even when he was editor of Ramparts, the premier left-wing magazine. Gene in the play is depicted as a member of Weatherman.
    4. The real Horowitz revealed that the bomb made at the Townhouse by Boudin and her friends in 1970 was an anti-personnel weapon filled with nails; Gene in the play buys nails for the bomb.
    5. Not only did Horowitz criticize Weatherman in print in Ramparts, but he criticized the Symbionese Liberation Army. The SLA operated in the Bay Area, and Horowitz criticized them in print when his home address was in the Berkeley phone book (I know, because I have it). Gene in the play is presented as a coward.
    5. Gene in the play is depicted as a racist and a Jewish tribalist. The real Horowitz has three black grandchildren.

    One could go on. This is the “deeper truth” Holtzman has created. The play is well-done dramatically, but it makes a claim to history as well, with living people named. I was on the outskirts of Berkeley SDS. The play, despite making its claim to history, is the opposite of what the complex reality was. It doesn’t have to have footnotes, but having made that claim to history, it ought to at least try to fulfill it. That it does not is not the result of clumsiness or ignorance. Holtzman consulted the real Boudin–no wonder she approved! It is the result of intentional misdirection.

  4. The play works as drama (or rather, as melodrama, with good and evil): it’s well done, I don’t deny it. Yet how much better, how much richer it would have been to have the final intellectual confrontation between an Alison who was closer to the real, harsher Kathy Boudin, and a Gene who was closer to the real, complicated David Horowitz. A real opportunity was lost, for the sake of fashionable politics.

    But that’s not an ethical issue. The false claim to history, to my mind, is.

  5. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” And Hamlet is apropos as are Shakespeare’s history plays, because he happily (and consistently) sacrifices historical accuracy for the sake of dramaturgy. It’s not surprising that an historian just can’t seem to get beyond the fundamental difference between a playwright’s craft and an historian’s primary responsibility.

    Although I would never claim to speak for the playwright, Holtzman’s drama is helped by a relatively sympathetic protagonist (Alison/Boudin) and a relatively unsympathetic antagonist (Biddle/Horowitz). Despite Eckstein’s strange syncophantic devotion to Horowitz, most of us find the real life figure to be too hysterical, defensive, messianic, utopian, narcissistic and extreme to be taken all that seriously.

    Horowitz is also a baggage-burdened public figure while the largely silent Boudin is a blank slate. It makes much more sense dramatically, therefore, to shape the Alison character (being female doesn’t hurt) as the relatively sympathetic figure of the two. That her father was a prominent civil liberties defender makes her protagonist all the richer.

    If Eckstein’s academic credentials were earned in theater or literature, he’d sing a different tune. But once an historian always an historian! So he argues that a playwright’s notes affirming the (all too obvious) resonance of real-life figures must then force that playwright into a new realm of artistic responsibility. It’s like conflating an historian’s sensible and overarching thesis (say, “a starting point for future discourse between political science and ancient history”) with a far less sensible and minor argument (say, that Carthaginians were as militarily aggressive as the Romans).

    Holtzman’s play hardly needed his notes and, for some in the audience, might have been better appreciated on its own terms without being hijacked by all the white noise having little to do with the byproduct of a creative process. But this is par for the course for most roman a clefs. Philip Rahv and Edmund Wilson hated McCarthy’s roman a clefs as much as the friends of Delmore Schwartz and Allan Bloom (like friends of Horowitz) hated Bellow’s fiction.

    “Creating fiction is a very strange thing,” Bellow said. “Very few people understand it. They may think they do. They try to line it up with certain knowable facts, but it doesn’t always work that way.” If only Art Eckstein could stop himself from lining up SOMETHING YOU DID with certain knowable facts.

  6. Lee, you can’t escape the impact of the Writer’s Notes. I can see that they make even you uncomfortable.

    If Holtzman wasn’t interested in claiming weight for the play by it being some reflection of real history, why did he cite Boudin and Horowitz in the Notes, why did he say that this is what the play is about, and consult with the real Boudin, and consult with the real Bernadine Dohrn? You can’t do that and then claim, under criticism of the gross inaccuracies that intentionally imbalance the sides in the play, that this is okay to do because it’s all fiction.

    I’m not being sycophantic towards Horowitz. I am citing obvious public facts about him, facts that were available to Holtzman and which Holtzman ignored in the service of his political agenda while simultaneously claiming the historical weight of the play being about the real Horowitz and Boudin, while also claiming immunity from the charge of gross inaccuracies on grounds that it’s all fiction anyway. I don’t think that Holtzman can have it both ways.

  7. Art, it’s interesting to me that the legitimacy or “higher (artistic) truth” of an elaborate dramatic production — many years in the making — hinges on “the Writer’s Notes”. Even though I find lending credence to such a notion absurd on its face, I’ll play your game. So, let’s go to the notes: In the second line, Holtzman states, “[SOMETHING THAT YOU DID] was inspired by real events.” Full Stop. “[I]nspired.” He then goes on to mention Boudin’s parole and Horowitz’s criticism of her release. In the very next paragraph, Holtzman writes, “So why have I fictionalized a story based on public figures? Because as Emerson famously said, ‘Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.'”

    “Inspired,” “fictionalized” and “fiction.” Why is it so difficult for an historian to let go of his preoccupation with “reality” and give way to fiction? I suspect it’s because to do so would be to ascribe Emersonian validity to Holtzman’s fictional method while implicitly (if not explicitly) deriding that method (history) which attempts to grapple with reality on its own terms.

    Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE had to overcome similar griping from historians despite the playwright’s notes which, presumably, freed him from a responsibility to depict historical reality “accurately”:
    A NOTE ON THE HISTORICAL ACCURACY OF THIS PLAY Arthur Miller
    “This play is not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian. Dramatic purposes have sometimes required many characters to be fused into one… However, I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history…. [The characters] may therefore be taken as creations of my own, drawn to the best of my ability in conformity with their known behavior…”

    I’m sure Art objects to Miller’s play, too. I guess he’d say it’s an historian’s prerogative. Or maybe he likes Miller’s notes better than Holtzman’s. Or maybe he has no complaints, because the political subtext is more palatable! !

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