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!