September 26, 1950
Fast's Play 'The Hammer' Presented by New Playwrights
THE HAMMER, a new play by Howard Fast, presented by New Playwrights Inc.; staged by Al Saxe; setting by De Witt Drury. At the Czechoslovak Workers House, 347 E. 72 St., N.Y.NEW PLAYWRIGHTS, Inc., which opened so auspiciously last season with its production of Herb Tank's Longitude 49, is now presenting The Hammer, a play in three acts by Howard Fast, directed by Al Saxe.
Mrs. Green.....Ida Pickwick
Sam Cooper.....Laird Brooks
Jerome Green.....Earl Jones
Fran Cooper.....Laura Arbeit
Mr. Green.....Al Nadler
Ruth Fried.....Dagmar Heydendahl
Arnie Green.....James Leland
Unlike most Broadway production companies, New Playwrights does not believe that insignificance is a virtue in drama. Any New Playwrights production creates interest since this group has rejected the current standards of Broadway, and torn down the price barrier which keeps most New Yorkers from seeing plays. The organization is trying to give the working class its own theatre, its own actors, its own writers. Similarly, Howard Fast's record both as a novelist and as a man fighting for the welfare of the class to which he has dedicated his life, has earned respectful attention for his literary productions. Fast was released from prison, where he served the penalty for being a "premature anti-fascist," only a few days before the opening of The Hammer.
LET IT BE SAID at the start that The Hammer has many serious weaknesses as a play. One is often aware that Howard Fast, the novelist, is not on familiar grounds in writing for the stage.
The theme, briefly, is that of a Jewish war veteran, forcefully played by James Leland, who returns with a mutilated face to a world which he considers uniformly hostile. The anti-Semitism which he meets further embitters him. He has discovered that his wife has been unfaithful to him with his brother-in-law, a man who profited from the war while Arnie Green fought it. Consequently Arnie hates: hates his family, his country, the world. The play reaches its thematic climax when the veteran learns that his hate is futile and barren. One must know whom to hate and whom to love and why.* * *
THE HAMMER proves, first of all--that when the theatre even begins to approach problems of basic importance to the people, it lives. For all the weaknesses of The Hammer, no one leaves the theatre--as he may so many Broadway productions--resentful of a wasted evening. The audience sees an attempt to deal with ideas and concepts of importance. Those who see The Hammer will recognize the weaknesses of the play, but they will also find themselves stimulated to applause because it is, for all its faults, living theatre.
The Hammer, in another aspect, proves again, with the performance of the Negro actor Earl Jones as the Jewish Jerome Green, that the excuses for jimcrow in the theatre are absolutely baseless. Those who speculated, "Won't it seem strange?" or "Isn't this stretching things a bit?," will discover how completely wrong they have been. Two minutes after the curtain's rise the audience fully accepts this eminently sensible method of casting. In its fight against the concept that Negro actors must be restricted in their roles, New Playwrights is making a genuinely significant contribution to the American theatre.* * *
But the character of Arnie Green, the returned vet, is obscured. Instead of being an embittered soldier, he is presented as a seriously distorted personality, a man with whom one can neither reason nor act. Much of his hatred, his sudden outbursts, appear unmotivated by any but the most neurotic impulses. As a consequence, the author comes dangerously close to losing the audience's sympathy for his hero.* * *
THE THIRD and final act brings the veteran to his new understanding through argument rather than experience, and this is, perhaps, the fundamental weakness of The Hammer as a play. Arnie Green is talked into a deeper understanding of his problem. He does not experience events which give him this deeper understanding. As such, the play is often argumentation rather than drama, and as it unfolds we are conscious of the novelist struggling with a new and unfamiliar form.
In this act, Jerome Green, Arnie's brother, delivers the moving speech which leads to Arnie's development. This speech is a highlight of the play, and it would indeed have been truly climactic had it been a more integral part of the drama as a whole. As it stands, the speech is a solution to the problems of the dramatist, but not to the problems of the characters he has created. In fact, Jerome Green was never fully conceived in terms of the play. He is introduced as a Spanish vet and a union organizer, but these are merely contrivances, labels. Jerome Green has no fundamental function in the play other than to supply the verbal argumentation which finally helps Arnie to stability, and to play the foil to the villainies of the war profiteer.
The old Jewish father who tries to understand the problems facing his wounded son is a too familiar character: the kindly, whimsical, but rather inept old man whose confusions are more irritating than endearing.* * *
Nevertheless, one must commend the effort of writing and producing a full-length play about a Jewish family which attempts to deal with the problem of anti-Semitism. There can be no disputing the excellence of the acting and the smoothness of the production under Al Saxe's direction. The remarkable ease with which James Leland as Arnie Green handled an extremely complex and difficult role was noted by Sunday night's audience, which twice interrupted his performance to applaud. Earl Jones was also heartily applauded for an outstanding job in the role of Jerome Green. All the other players--Ida Pickwick as Mrs. Green, Laird Brooks as Sam Cooper, Al Nadler as Mr. Green, Dagmar Heydendahl as Ruth Fried, Laura Arbeit as Fran Cooper--contributed their bit to the production.* * *
UNFORTUNATELY reactionaries are looking for ways and means to put an end to this indispensable people's theatre. Such action is particularly shameful when so many actors are faced with shrinking opportunities for employment on Broadway. The life of New Playwrights therefore depends upon the determined support of its audience and the insistence of the play-going public that this theatre remain alive. If it remains alive, it will grow.