Author/Playwright a Fast Man with Kind Words
By Nels Nelson, Daily News Theater Critic
Howard Fast, the author of "The Immigrants," "Spartacus," "The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti" and, of course, "Citizen Tom Paine," was in town the other day for a dress rehearsal of the play he has carved from his 1943 historical novel about the great American political theorist and pamphleteer.
Even as he effused about the Philadelphia Company production of "Citizen Tom Paine" (being done jointly with the Kennedy Center), which begins previews Friday at Plays and Players for its Sunday evening opening, the courtly 73-year-old writer took the time to deliver an encomium to the ladies.
"So refreshing, this company of women," he said (the Philadelphia Company's artistic director, general manager and director of communications all are young women of indubitable talent and energy). "You get a note of sanity from them. They're good, sweet people. I haven't heard a harsh word all day."
Fast said he felt privileged to be in on the beginning of "one of the great theatrical careers in this country," that of director Jim Simpson. And, in the flick of an eye, he also praised the star of the show, Richard Thomas, as "the intellectual actor par excellence."
In the course of rereading his Tom Paine story to dramatize it some 40 years after it was published, Fast dipped once more into Paine's "The Age of Reason" and was struck by the realization that Paine "was talking as only a Buddhist could talk" (Fast himself acknowledges having been "a poor Zen Buddhist" for the last 35 years). He described Paine as "one of the great minds of the 18th century, a century of great, explosive, intellectual quality."
The founding fathers had "no notion of breaking ties with England and creating a new country, and no notion of where they would go if they did. They were thinking in terms of having a sub-Parliament so they could make their own laws. He told them, 'You people are crazy, you have the first opportunity in the history of mankind to create a new kind of country.' He spelled it out, and they were terrified. He produced a blueprint for change. Jefferson unquestionably went to Paine for ideas when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Yet, we dishonored him and dealt with him as a common criminal."
Except for the months of November through February, when they hunker down in New York City, Fast and his wife of nearly 50 years live in Redding Ridge, Conn. "Connecticut is loaded with writers, actors - all sorts of people involved in the arts," he pointed out, and then suggested the reason for it: ''There is no state income tax in Connecticut."
Fast has authored well over 50 books, numerous plays and screenplays, hundreds of short stories and a series of novels which he wrote under the pseudonym E. V. Cunningham. His latest novel under his own name, "The Dinner Party," is being published this week by Houghton Mifflin.
"Citizen Tom Paine" concludes its Philadelphia run on Feb. 22 and five days later begins a six-week engagement at the Kennedy Center in Washington.