Howard Fast on the production of The Hammer
in Being Red pp. 270-274
During the weeks before going to prison, I had written a play called The Hammer. It was a drama about a Jewish family during the war years, a hard-working father who keeps his head just above water, and his three sons. One son comes out of the army, badly wounded, badly scarred. Another son makes a fortune out of the war, and the youngest son provides his share of the drama by deciding to enlist Not a very good play, a judgment apart from any modesty on my side. It was tendentious and preachy. However, a year before this — that is, before my release from prison — I had come together with two good friends, Herb Tank, a merchant seaman turned writer, and Barney Rubin, Spanish vet, machine gunner in World War Two, and perhaps the best-known columnist for Stars and Stripes. With the actor Frank Silvera and the writers Arnold Manoff and Alice Childress, we had formed New Playwrights. The Hammer was my contribution to the endeavor.
While I was in prison, Barney Rubin and Herb Tank were determined that when I got out, I should be greeted with a mounted production, with a first-night opening on the night of my release. However, I won a few days off for good behavior and was released earlier than expected, early enough to see the first run-through. New Playwrights was a left-wing theater operation, an off-Broadway effort, launched on a shoestring and with the cooperation of the Cultural Section of the party. Without the party, it could not have come into existence, and by the definition of the Un-American Committee at the time, it was a Communist-front organization. It had the use of the Czechoslovak House on East Seventy-second Street.
Barney telephoned the day I got home, greeted me enthusiastically, and told me that the first run-through would be for Bette and me. "Curtain at eight-thirty," he said. The author never knows how bad his play is until the first night, but I was very uneasy about this one, the more so for its being cast and rehearsed without my presence or participation, but what was done was done and you can't saw sawdust; and Bette and I decided that we would not criticize, no matter what, since this had been done with great good will.
We were greeted warmly by Barney and Herb. Half a dozen men and women from the Cultural Section completed the audience for the run-through. The play began. The father came onstage, Michael Lewin, small, slender, pale white skin, and orange hair. Nina Normani, playing Michael's wife, small, pale. The first son came onstage, James Earl Jones, six feet and two inches, barrel-cheated, eighteen years old if my memory serves me, two hundred pounds of bone and muscle if an ounce, and a bass voice that shook the walls of the little theater.
"God help us," I said to Bette.
"I'm sure he's only a stand-in," Bette whispered back.
"No, no, no," I moaned softly. "He's not a stand-in. The gods hate me. The muse hates me. I'm doomed."
Time crept on, slowly, painfully. Understand me: Jimmy Jones, as we called him then, was a lovely, modest young man, his whole life and being in and of the theater. But he was also black and twice as tall as anyone else in the play.
At last the first act ended and the curtain came down, and I turned to Barney Rubin and said, "Jimmy was a stand-in, wasn't he?"
Barney shook his head. Lionel Berman, organizer of the Cultural Section, was there, and Barney nodded at him.
Lionel, voice of the party, said, "What do you mean, 'stand-in'?"
"Well — I mean an actor's sick or something else, and someone else does the part for tonight."
"No. Jimmy's been cast for the part. Your reaction is a chauvinist reaction."
Bullshit, I thought.
"No," I said, restraining myself, remembering that this little commissar was the voice and power of the party, and that every friend I had in the world was in the party. "I'm not being a white chauvinist, Lionel. But Mike here weighs in at maybe a hundred and ten pounds, and he's as pale as anyone can be and he's Jewish, and for God's sake, tell me what genetic miracle could produce Jimmy Jones."
"You are missing the point completely," Berman said.
"All right. Tell me the point."
"The point is that the theater is not the film. The theater depends on the suspension of disbelief, and if the actor is good enough, that suspension of disbelief will allow him to do the role and the audience will go along with him. Think about Canada Lee."
The black actor Canada Lee had made a small triumph of his role in The Duchess of Malfi, but there he played a white man, his skin covered with white makeup, and people who saw him saw a white man. I slowly but emphatically explained the difference. "I like Jimmy," I said, "but if he plays this impossible role, he'll be made a fool of and the play will become a joke."
"The party does not agree with you," Berman said. He could perhaps be argued with. But how can you argue with the party? He informed me that the matter had been thoroughly discussed with V. J. Jerome, a silly man who was the official party cultural authority east of the Mississippi River.
"It's my play," I said, "and I will not have it."
Barney Rubin and Herb Tank listened in silence. Like me, they were not willing to break with the party. All the years of their young lives had been invested there, in war and peace. Like me, they had seen people brought up on charges for expulsion from the party, and then expelled, and then isolated, unable to go crawling to those who hated the party and frozen away from the friends of a lifetime. No, you don't break easily.
"Is that your position?" Berman asked me. "Because if it is, you'll be brought up on charges —"
I turned to Barney. "Is it your position? Did you and Herb agree to this?"
"We had to," Barney said.
And Herb Tank said, "Give it a chance. Who knows? What Lionel says about the suspension of disbelief is the whole sense of the theater. We can't do anything about it now. Jimmy wants to try to make it work. Give it a chance."
"And otherwise I'm brought up on charges of white chauvinism — is that it?"
Berman nodded, and I stood on the edge of a cliff I'd stand on again and again in the coming years. It was not alone being brought up on charges for expulsion; I was almost ready in my anger at what had happened to face that and let them expel me; but if I pulled the play, it would sink New Playwrights. They had sold theater parties to every left-wing group in the city; they had spent ticket money that there was no hope of repaying; Barney and Herb had worked like diggers, and there were the jobs and hopes of the seven cast members, the understudies, the director, and all the rest of the company.
"All right, I'll go along with it," I said hopelessly.
The house for the first night had been bought up by the Jewish Workmen's Circle, garment workers and their wives at a time when eighty percent of the garment workers in New York were Jewish, people in their fifties and sixties who liked me and were eager to see anything I had written. They were simple, hard-working people who loved the theater and had in their youth supported the Yiddish theater passionately. Now they waited to see what Howard Fast, just out of prison, had written. It came on. They were not critical. They were with the play, absorbed in it, until James Earl Jones walked onto the stage, towering over the rest of the cast, obviously black. Facing an audience, sensitive to a point of despair, as so many black actors are, yet locked into what he had been talked into, he was trying desperately to control the rich vibrancy of his voice.
Bette and I shrank in our seats, and all over the hall, the whispers of the Yiddish-speaking audience could be heard—"Vere is er?" (Who is he?) and "Fin vonent cumpt er?" (Where does he come from?) — and various expressions of confusion, disbelief, and annoyance as the audience came to understand that Jimmy Jones had been cast as the son of tiny Michael Lewin with his orange hair and pasty-white skin. If those petty commissars of culture had thought the matter through, they would have realized that putting James Earl Jones into that impassible position was the act of white chauvinism, not my attempt to stop it. But in a microscopic form, this incident was a total definition of the leadership of the Communist Party, here and, I believe, everywhere. For one thing, they were a leadership cut off from the rank and file, and, most important, they were absolutely rigid in their preference for theory over reality. They could not and would not conform to reality, and while in this case it was a small matter, in the larger arena of politics it was tragedy.
They had decided that an obviously black actor could convince an audience that he was white; their decision made it real because it fitted in with what they felt was "Marxist thinking." Stalin had decided that the German infantrymen would not fire on the Soviet workers because both were of the working class, and therefore he issued orders for the Soviet soldiers not to fire at the advancing Germans — who mowed down the Russian soldiers by the thousands. The American party leadership had decided in 1948 that it was theoretically time for a third party. They lured Henry Wallace in as their candidate and the election became a national disaster, revealing not the strength of liberal America but the weakness. The same with the wartime no-strike pledge. And again and again. I could fill pages with accounts of Communist Party decisions made in the face of dearly opposite reality. But it must be noted that this did not make Communism a more dangerous force to the establishment; it was an inner contradiction that drained the strength from Communism, which had been defined by Lenin as the correct path to socialism. Abused as it was by its leadership — so often petty and stupid — it became something else entirely.
But I am telling my own story here, and now we are at the final curtain of The Hammer. The curtain came down, as third act curtains do, and here and there in the audience were a few hand claps, a feeble whisper of applause. Between the acts, we had lost a third of the audience. Bette and I were in the shadows in the rear, hoping we would not be noticed. I had vague wishes that I could be back at Mill Point, far from this test of the human spirit, and Bette clung to me, whispering assurances that the world still existed.
Leaving the theater, we encountered the drama critic of The New York Herald Tribune, who said to me, "Fast, I admire the way you've stood up to the bastards, and I'm going to take this opportunity to help. I'm not going to review your play."
Blessings on him.