L.A. Theatre Works Audio Docudrama Series
These five plays examining pivotal moments in American History were written for a radio audience but each was also delivered to live audiences at least once and often on tours of the United States and beyond.
Every one is superb and the whole volume should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in American politics and wider social studies.
The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial by Peter Goodchild
The subject matter explored in this fascinating documentary drama will be best known today as the basis for the play and film versions of Inherit the Wind.
Back in 1925, the Scopes Monkey Trial gripped a nation, as two of its finest advocates, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, stood toe to toe to argue whether the Bible was literally true or evolution explained the creation of the species.
Rather than arguing their sides in the Supreme Court, this case was heard in the small Tennessee town of Dayton, to which the advocates and their entourages, not to mention a good selection of the world’s press, descended for a madcap week that was also broadcast on the new-fangled wireless radio.
The play has been written based largely on transcripts and other documentary evidence.
The excitement is intense, as a schoolteacher becomes a pawn for the forces of good and evil (everyone can agree that, even if they dispute which side is which) who brought brilliant advocacy and sharp brainwork to bear. To make things more difficult, the judge and the local townsfolk were fervent believers in Creationism.
As the writer, Peter Goodchild, reminds us, rather than merely a historical oddity, many of the underlying arguments are being played out again in some parts of the United States today, though almost certainly less skilfully.
The Real Dr. Strangelove by Peter Goodchild
Peter Goodchild’s second play in the collection is a terrifying depiction of a McCarthy-style witch hunt that took place in the mid-1950s.
Robert Oppenheimer has become notorious as the man behind the atomic bomb, but his subsequent history may be less well-known.
After the war, Oppenheimer became something of a pacifist, opposing and possibly blocking efforts to develop and test the hydrogen bomb.
In doing so, he was at odds with the man who was masterminding its development, a Hungarian exile, Edward Teller.
The Real Dr. Strangelove depicts something close to a kangaroo court trial at which Oppenheimer was accused not only of failing to do his job adequately but also of spying for Russia. At stake were his job and reputation but also potentially his freedom.
Where this play really scores is not only in reliving a court case in which the odds were stacked against the defendant but also exploring the motivations of many of those involved, particularly the very complex character of Edward Teller.
RFK: The Journey to Justice by Murray Horwitz and Jonathan Estrin
This piece, which follows Robert F Kennedy during his time as Attorney General to his brother and beyond, primarily concentrates on the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
More particularly, it shows the problems that a theoretically liberal administration faced when the Rev Martin Luther King lost patience and decided to advance the status of what are now known as African Americans at his own pace.
Slowly, during the period from his brother’s election as President to his untimely death, RFK is transformed from a shrewd, ruthless politician into a principled humanitarian, a disappointingly rare journey for any influential person in history.
As if this wasn’t a good enough play anyway, it also contains a telling exchange between a support staff member who says, “or… radically change the balance of federal power—God knows where that might lead,” to which RFK responds, “well, I wouldn’t mind my brother as a dictator, but we might get a son of a bitch later”. Enough said.
The Chicago Conspiracy Trial by Peter Goodchild
This play reads like more like a satirical comedy than a mixture of court transcripts and personal interviews.
It is quite terrifying that, only half a century ago, a court in the United States could literally disregard the law, allegedly because its proceedings were effectively being controlled from behind-the-scenes by the FBI.
The case involved eight free-spirited protesters who were accused of conspiracy to incite riots in the vicinity of a Democratic Party Presidential Convention and various associated charges.
Throughout the proceedings, the impression is given that this was an attempt by the authorities not only to silence the individuals involved but also defend the war in Vietnam and various other abuses of democracy perpetrated by both federal and state governments.
While the prosecuting attorneys were biased and bigoted, Judge Hoffman gives the impression of something far worse, refusing to allow the defence to make its case using tactics and unintentional comic timing that would not have been out of place had he handed his gavel to Groucho Marx.
Indeed, there are moments in this very serious play when you are tempted to laugh out loud, even while watching the injustices mount up to the point where not only were the defendants sentenced for the crimes of which they were originally accused but also contempt of court but so was one of their noble defending attorneys, William Kunstler.
The most pleasing aspect of the piece is the discovery that, on appeal, the hippies and Yippies had the last laugh.
Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers by Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons
The play that completes the engrossing set is just as enthralling and informative as its predecessors.
It is a tale of government wrongdoing in connection with the war in Vietnam and, more widely, featuring illegal taping by the White House and the investigative journalists of the Washington Post.
The main players will be familiar to fans of All the President’s Men. Although Woodward and Bernstein are not on the scene, the big decisions rely on the courage of the Post’s Board Chairman (sic) and Publisher Katharine Graham and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee.
Set in 1971 and narrated by Katharine Graham herself, this could almost be seen as a prequel to the better-known story, featuring a trawl at breakneck speed through thousands of pages of leaked documents, government attempts at suppression and derring do in editorial meetings as legal advisers reminded board members that they potentially face destitution and prison if the outcome is unfavourable.
It ends in a chilling court case that would determine the extent of press freedom for the future and prospectively permit the publication of extracts from The Pentagon Papers that would contribute towards ending American involvement in Vietnam.
This is cracking stuff and should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in politics and the relationship between the government and the media in America and more widely.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher