ON THIS DAY – 18 February 1970 – The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’
A couple of days ago was the anniversary of the handing down of the all-important verdict in the so-called Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’. This was one of the most shocking, alarming, important and influential political trials in the 20th Century.
The ‘Chicago 8’ consisted of some of the most dynamic, passionate, outspoken and controversial of the relatively young contemporary American political activists in the heady days of the late-1960s.
The Chicago 8′ were:
- Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989)
- Jerry Rubin (1938-1994)
- David Dellinger (1915-2004)
- Tom Hayden (1939-2016)
- Rennie Davis (1941- )
- John R. Froines (1939- )
- Lee Weiner (1939- )
- Bobby Seale (1936- )
Glancing at this list of names containing some of the most important and influential American left-wing political activists of the 1960s and 1970s it is immediately apparent that four have passed on, and four remain. It struck me as rather a shame as well as a little disturbing that this notorious trial, the people involved, the events of the trial, and its subsequent influence, could disappear without much notice in the on-going cultural amnesia of the ‘Great Nothing’ that removes all sense of knowledge about the past. Ignorance of The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ evokes the ‘Santayana historic principle’ that ‘those who ignore the lessons of the past are bound to repeat them’; and what happened in The Trial of the Chicago was so shocking that, if you knew, you wouldn’t want it repeated at any cost.
Why this trial came about in the first place, and what happened during it and after it is of enormous importance – and should never be forgotten.
In August 1968, at the height of a very ‘long, hot, summer’, in Chicago during the 1968 National Democratic Convention, there was a number of rather violent anti-Vietnam ‘protests’, in which members of the ‘Chicago 8’ were actively involved. The Right-Wing reactionary conservatives in government, Republicans and Democrats, decided to may them accountable. There were formally charged with, amongst other things, the very real and serious charges of ‘conspiracy’ against the State, including the building of bombs, and for deliberately and illegally ‘crossing borders, in order to incite riot’.
The subsequent trial had more layers to it, greater complexity, and on-going relevance than a mere generational battle between the ‘Young’ and the ‘Old’. This was also a battle of conflicting visions and ideas as well as actions in regard to the US Legal system, ‘crime and punishment’, ‘justice’, and the ‘American way of life’. It was a battle between the old dominant ruling conservative ‘white’ ‘Right’, exemplified by presiding Illinois District Court Judge Julius Hoffman (1895-1983), and Illinois State Prosecutors Richard Schutlz and Tom Foran (? -2000), and the more radical ‘younger counter-culture’ ‘Left’, exemplified by the ‘Chicago 8’ and their equally out-spoken attorney’s William Kunstler (1919-1995) and Leonard Weineglass (1933- 2011),
The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ descended into a complete and utter travesty of so-called American justice and the contemporary US Legal System. It exposed the ruthlessness as well as the determination of both sides, in regard to their vision of the ‘American Way of Life’, what was acceptable and non-acceptable behavior, and a new vision of ‘the American Dream’ that drove fear into the heart of conservative America.
The reasons why this particular group of men from the ‘Left-wing’ of American politics was chosen to be the scapegoats for the violent demonstrations that occurred in Chicago in that hot August in 1968 is not altogether clear. Part of the reason lies with other matters, such as African-American activist Bobby Seale who was a co-founder of the militant African-American organization known as ‘The BlackPanthers’ that had very little to do with the demonstrations in Chicago that August in 1968.
Maybe the ‘Chicago 8′ were charged because of the way they dressed? They were all relatively young men, fresh out of college, smart and ambitious and ready to make their mark on US politics, society and culture. The ‘Chicago 8′, for the most part, and as contemporary photographs of them reveal, dressed in the popular ‘hippie’, ‘beatnik’, and ‘denim’ counter-culture fashions of the late-1960s. Furthermore, they grew their hair. It is sometimes a forgotten aspect of the American counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s that young men growing their hair, and/or having it ‘permed’ to complement modern youth fashions, was also an act of rebellion against the conservative ‘Right’, who preferred and in some places demanded that men and boys had the same militaristic ‘short back and sides’ cut their hair. The song ‘Hair’ from the landmark musical HAIR, which had just opened on Broadway in 1968, reflects and satirizes this contemporary revolutionary obsession with the length of one’s hair.
Whilst to modern eyes it is perhaps too easy to place Judge Julius Hoffman and his associates as the villains, and the ‘Chicago 8′ and their respective attorneys as the victims. The truth is more complex, with neither side behaving with much grace and generosity towards the other. On the contrary, both sides indulged in ruthless, intolerant, and aggressive behavior to one another, as exemplified in the case of Bobby Seale.
From its very beginning, the actual trial of the ‘Chicago 8‘ was surrounded with controversy and relatively strange and inexplicable choices, such as those associated with Bobby Seale. It was a sheer accident as well as blatant manipulative opportunism that saw Bobby Seale suddenly been made to be a part of the ‘Chicago 8’. Prior to this, Bobby Seale had had very little to do with the anti-Vietnam War ‘protest’ leaders, such as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden. Bobby Seale was the co-founder of the newly formed militant and relatively subversive and intimidating African-American organization, The Black Panthers. To the conservative ‘Right’, Bobby Seale represented a very real and dangerous threat to their decaying vision of the ‘(‘white’) American way of Life’. Even though he was only in Chicago for two days during the National Democratic Convention, nonetheless, he was considered equally guilty as the others in regard to the charges of being involved in a ‘conspiracy’ against the State, and ‘crossing border, to incite riot’.
What happened to Bobby Seale during the course of this trial came to exemplify and symbolize the worst of this trials abuse of privilege, power, and justice.
From the very beginning of the trial, Bobby Seale fought for his right to choose his own legal counsel and for his case to be heard separately from the others. His appeals were ignored and dismissed, and he became outraged. In every court session, he would speak up loudly and passionately, demanding his rights for his legal counsel and for his case to be trialed separately. He never stopped – ever. Supported by his co-accused, his constant barrage of loud and assertive interjections prevented the relatively smooth process of the trial and the day-to-day running of the court. Finally, after yet another loud and aggressive altercation Judge Julius Hoffman, in order to silence Bobby Seale did the unthinkable. He charged Bobby Seale with ‘contempt of court’, which carried with it a 4-year prison sentence, and then when that still did not silence him, Judge Hoffman ordered the courtroom staff to bind Bobby Seale to a chair in the courtroom, and ‘gag’ him. This was done, not just once – but four times. This drastic and brutal action, known as ‘the “gagging” of Bobby Seale’became the most notorious incident this trial full of notorious incidents. It came to symbolize the utter travesty of justice, the use, and abuse of privilege and power, and essential American civil and human rights.
Whilst arguably Bobby Seale through his own abusive behavior, particularly towards Judge Hoffman, may have brought this on himself, no one could have predicted the punishment. It shocked the nation and helped turn public opinion in favor of the ‘Chicago 8’. Throughout all this, Bobby Seale stood firm. indignantly defiant and demanded his right for legal representation and for his case to be heard separately. Promises and reassurances were made, but nothing happened, which only fueled his anger and outrage. However, following his controversial ‘gagging’ of Bobby Seale, Judge Hoffman then severed Seale’s relationship with the others, who henceforth were known as the ‘Chicago 7′ for the rest of the two-year trial. Eventually, all charges against Bobby Seale were dropped, nonetheless, he still served time in prison because of his (justifiable) ‘contempt in court’.
The ‘Not Guilty’ verdict that came down on 18 February 1970 may have released the ‘Chicago 7’ from the ‘conspiracy’ charges, but they received a ‘Guilty’ verdict for ‘crossing borders, to incite riot’. This was partially true as they did know that what they were doing was technically illegal, and they did intend to disrupt the National Democratic Conventions. They each received prison sentences for this ‘crime’, in addition to the racked-up years they received for the numerous ‘contempt in court’ penalties they and their attorney’s received from Judge Julius Hoffman. Subsequently, each member of the ‘Chicago 8’ received prison sentences. Essentially, each member of the ‘Chicago 8’ received prison sentences of approximately 10 years each.
In 1972, just two years after the official verdicts, the respective Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, and the later Trial of the ‘Chicago 7’, and the case against Bobby Seale were reviewed. The subsequent results of this review were considerable. The charges against the ‘Chicago 7’ and Bobby Seale were dropped and their respective sentences squashed. The respective trials had shown up major inadequacies and flaws in the US Legal System, which included and allowed the suppression of information, ‘extreme prejudice’ by the practicing representatives of the law, and the imposition of intimidating means to maintain order, control, and power.
The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ triggered off numerous judicial and law reforms in the US Legal System, particularly in regard to due process in court proceedings. The importance and significance of The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, and later The Trial of the ‘Chicago 7’ was partially acknowledged via being the source and inspiration and fact behind the creation of numerous artworks.
The 1968 Chicago demonstrations and the subsequent Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, and/or Trial of the ‘Chicago 7’ has featured either directly or indirectly in a number of films and television productions. This includes Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), Jean-Luc Godard, Jean- Pierre Grolin and the Dziga Vertov Group’s Vladimir et Rosa (1970), Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park (1971), and Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971).
Direct dramatizations, based on the transcripts of the respective trials include the BBC’s docudrama The Chicago Conspiracy Trial (1970), and HBO’s docudrama Conspiracy: The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, John Goodchild’s and L. A Theatre Works’ radio play The Chicago Conspiracy Trial (1993), Robert Greenwald’s Steal this Movie! (2000), Brett Morgan’s animated documentary Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace (2007), Kerry Feltham’s The Great Chicago’s Conspiracy Circus (1969/2008), Pinchas Perry’s The Chicago 8 (2009 / 2012), and Kenneth Bowser’s documentary Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune (2010),
In the world of popular music, the Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ has featured in a number of works, notably Graham Nashe’s Chicago from his debut album Songs for Beginners. The opening line, “So your brother’s bound and gagged, and they’ve chained him to a chair”, is a direct reference to ‘the gagging of Bobby Seale’ during court proceedings in the first trial.
One of the most powerful and lasting images associated with the respective trials is Richard Avendon’s 1969 ‘wall-sized mural portrait photograph of the ‘Chicago 7’. First exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 1970, it shows the members of the ‘Chicago 7’ in a line very similar to a conventional US Police ‘line-up’ of suspects. The Avedon portrait was shot and made before the verdicts and the official end to the trial. It has subsequently, however, toured and been shown in many art galleries and museums around the world.
The human cost to the individual members of the ‘Chicago 8’, as well as their respective families, was considerable. Despite the verdict of ‘Not Guilty ‘ for the ‘conspiracy’ charges, the members of the now ‘Chicago 7’, were found ‘Guilty’ on other charges, particularly the charge of ‘crossing borders, to incite riot’ and a number of ‘contempt of court’ fines that generally contained the added punishment of a 4 years prison sentence. All-up, each of the ‘Chicago 7’ were facing a prison service for the next 10 years.
The damage to the reputation and integrity of the American legal and justice systems was considerable. In particular, it was the jurisdiction and power of the District Courts and their respective State judges that was profoundly questioned. As with other institutions and organizations, such as the US Arms Forces and the Vietnam War, the US Legal System, particularly the numerous District Courts scattered right across and throughout the USA, experienced a radical change in how they were perceived by the general public.
A general lack of trust in the courts and the US Legal System seems to have permeated across the entire country from which it would take decades to recover.
Maybe that is the reason why when on the anniversary of the ‘Not Guilty’ vote, which marked the end of the ‘Trial of the Chicago 8’, there was barely a mention of it in the news or social media. That as well as it becoming yet another so-called meaningless incident from USA and World History, it has the potential to produce shame for allowing such a travesty of justice to exist in the first place. It has the potential to further damage the US Legal system, government, and administration because it removes trust and confidence with those particular and necessary components of an advanced ‘Western’ democratic country, that advocate the principle of ‘and justice for all’ but in reality cannot always guarantee it.
This is the reason why ‘The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ is so important because it reveals a crack in the system of a democratic government and the law, for which we can be and are both outraged and ashamed. There is a danger to a blind belief and expectation in the basic democratic and human rights involving the law ‘and justice for all’, which cannot always be guaranteed by that government and its legal system, even if it is advocated as an essential part of a so-called ‘democracy’.
We assume that we are all protected by the ‘Law, of the Land’ and that our individual lives, as well as our democratic right to hold differing opinions and beliefs, are sacred. We are wrong. History continually reminds us of this, and we continually ignore and dismiss it. Subsequently, this kind of abuse of power is continually repeated, and we continue to do nothing until the point where ‘and justice for all’ and other basic democratic and human rights are completely removed, and the doors to the gas chambers are opened yet again.
This is of great relevance to those living in the USA today and in other so-called ‘democratic’ countries, where the forces and supporters of far Right-Wing re-active conservatism are on the rise. The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ reminds us of the potential vulnerability of this scared democratic principle and human right under the law. It reminds us of the potential and actual use and abuse of this sacred democratic principle of ‘and justice for all’ by the very people who seemingly advocate it, yet some of these people will actively work to suppress it in the face of opposition to their preferred ‘way of life’. This is fascism – the active and brutal suppression of difference, as was seen throughout the entire Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, and by both sides. It resonates with a famous proverbial statement by the 19th Century English historian, Lord Acton – ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
Most people, it would seem are cowered and intimidated into states of bafflement, bewilderment, and silence, due to the impassioned vitriol that can spray forth from the extreme ‘Right’ and the extreme ‘Left’. It is far too much ‘noise’ in a world that is increasingly ‘noisy’ and invasive into our personal and public lives. Based on historical precedents, exemplified by life under Nazi Germany, Russian Stalinism, and any other fascistic totalitarian government or organization of ‘like-minded’ people who are intolerant of any difference, to be silenced by the heated words and actions of anger and hatred is the norm.
This is perhaps why the anniversary of the verdict for The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ went relatively unnoticed. What happened in that Illinois District Courtroom so many years ago produced silence as well as outrage. The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ was an explosive vitriolic battle of anger and resentment by both sides against each other. The outrage over the proceedings, particularly ‘the “gagging” of Bobby Seale’ is relatively easy to understand and appreciate because it was so appallingly outrageous – and yet, during four days of the course of the trial it was tolerated. Not by the victims of the oppression, but by the American people. With extensive news coverage of this very open and public display of the Government and the Law to make accountable through the Law any opposition was draconian, to say the least. It is the silence of the majority of the American people that is baffling. Most people were shocked and dismayed at what was happening, especially the image of the ‘bound and gagged’ Bobby Seale, which had all the trappings of the worst cases in Nazi Germany and beyond – but nothing happened, and the trial continued. This whole trial, this travesty of American justice, could have stopped immediately if the majority of the American people wanted it to stop, but they didn’t, and the trial continued for the next two years.
It is noticeable that the ‘voices of reason’ were relatively silent or ineffective during the course of the trial. Maybe it was because of all the ‘noise’ of hatred and resentment firing out of the courtroom that stifled any attempt to stop the trial from proceeding. Maybe the extreme Right was seen as too powerful and intimidating; maybe the extreme Left was seen as too powerful and intimidating? Maybe it was an issue of timing? Waiting for the right moment to fix up and hopefully repair any damage done. This would have been impossible to achieve if the trial continued, as it did continue for the next two years.
The ‘voices of reason and reconciliation needed to wait until all the anger, hatred, and resentment had dispersed. It is noticeable that it was two years after the verdict, in 1972 that the whole schmozzle was unpicked, charges dropped, sentences squashed and the prisoners set free. Two years may sound like a long time, but in actual fact, it is a relatively short time. To go through all the documents, transcripts, in fact, everything to do with the case, then to take any recommendations in regards to the convicted-by-Law, and go through the whole process of reversing judgments and sentences, et. al, could have taken a lot longer than two years after hearing the verdict.
It is possible that all the necessary paper-work and meetings etc may easily have been done by the respective people and organizations involved. A number of the ‘Chicago 7′ were lawyers with extensive and successful practices. It is arguable that some of the friends of the ‘Chicago 7′ had ‘influence’, which would have assisted in getting the necessary people in the US Administration and Bureaucracy to immediately attend to the documents and papers associated with the trial. Nonetheless, that it was all done in two years implies either that the US Administration and Bureaucracy was extremely, extremely efficient at this time (unlikely): or that finally the ‘Voices of Reason and Reconciliation’ were able to move quickly and collaboratively with numerous ‘stakeholders’, including that vast mass known as the ‘American People’.The relative quickness in having the whole things reviewed, overturned and the prisoners released could not have happened if the culture of anger, hatred, and resentment was still relatively dominant; any change to the judgment would have been met with opposition and from a variety of people and places. It wasn’t – which suggests the opposite – that public opinion had swung in to support the ‘Chicago 7’.
You get a hint of the gradual but steadily growing swing in favor of the campaign to free the ‘Chicago 7’ and Bobby Seale in the respective local, state and national newspapers and journals from 1970 to 1972. This swing comes at a relatively tempestuous time for the US Presidency and Administration now under the conservative grip of Republican President Nixon and his team. The campaign to free Bobby Seale and the ‘Chicago 7‘ parallels the call and drive to end US involvement in the Vietnam War, which is finally if somewhat controversially achieved in 1973. That this dominating business of the day was going on at the same time only further suggests that there must have been a lot of quick and easy collaboration between the respective Government Departments to get this matter resolved as quickly as possible.
The campaign to free Bobby Seale and the Chicago 7 catches the wave of change generated by the growing backlash against the reactive and oppressive conservative powers and their responsibility for the disastrous Vietnam War. This backlash was to take another leap forward with the ensuing ‘Watergate’ scandal and the resignation of President Nixon in 1974.
It should also be noted that this change in public opinion was partly due to the fact that The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, as well as Vietnam War, and the ‘Watergate’ scandal was played out on national television. It has been said that it was the influence of television that assisted in ending the Vietnam War because for the first time the real horrors of war were being broadcasted via television into ordinary American homes across the entire nation. This influence of television on public opinion in regard to the Vietnam War is equally true in regard to public opinion about The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8′; a fact driven home by the respective dramatizations of the trial, as well as in other art forms, which also presented disgust over the trial and sympathy for the ‘Chicago 8′.
To some, the ‘Chicago 8’ are still the radical left-wing, ‘hippies’, ‘traitors’, ‘druggies’, and (of course) ‘Communists’; for others, such as Richard Avedon and his generation of artists they were ‘heroes’. The truth of all this, however, lies somewhere in between. As was obvious then, The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ represented the polarization of the radical Left and the conservative Right in US Politics and Society in the final years of the 1960s. It showed how on both sides privilege and power can be abused, and how on both sides arrogance and entrenched prejudical behaviors and attitudes can lead to a type of physical and psychological violence. This violence unchecked can seriously undermine trust and confidence in a countries legal system and government, and make a mockery of a sacred democratic principle and belief in the right and even existence of ‘and justice for all’. The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ revealed how truly fragile is the law when faced with irrational fear, anger, resentment, and hatred.
There is, however, something else about ‘The Trial of the Chicago 8’ that is more positive than the fear and anger it unleashed. I experienced this ‘something else’ when I was first exposed to and learned about The Trial of the Chicago 8. I was only 11 years in 1968 and blissfully unaware of any of the people and incidences that are associated with this notorious trial and ‘travesty of justice’. Two years later, however, in 1970 it was a different story. I remember I watched with my family the excellent BBC docu-drama The Chicago Conspiracy Trial. We were all appalled, outraged and silenced by this event, particularly ‘the “gagging” of Bobby Seale,’ something hitherto we knew nothing about. In many ways, I mark the awakening of my political consciousness with seeing The Chicago Conspiracy Trial. The issues of injustice, civil and human rights discussed in this docu-drama as well as the real trial itself, was also influential in shaping the form and expression of my future social and political activism, something that was given further inspirational stimuli with the changes in Australia ushered in by the newly elected Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the Labour Party in 1972, the ending of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and the end of compulsory ‘conscription’ into the Australian Armed forces, the beginning of the ‘gay’ rights movement in Australia, and the controversial sacking of Gough Whitlam and his Labor Government in 1975.
Looking back, it now seems all so quick, so much social and political change in Australia, the USA, and the rest of the world, within the seven years between the beginning of the Trial of the ‘Chicago 8‘ in 1968, and the resignation of President Nixon, and the sacking of the Labor Government in 1975. Time and again I am reminded of the old saying, ‘From the Ashes of Disaster comes the Roses of Success’. This seems to me rather apt in regard to disastrous actual Trail of the ‘Chicago 8’, and the ‘Roses of Success’ that came from this disaster, including radical legal reforms in the US, and the eventual placement of the radical ‘revolutionaries’ that made up the ‘Chicago 8’ as first victims of prejudice and injustice, and then as ‘heroes’ for their courage and resilience as the world around them collapsed, changed, and was reborn. I was reborn – as it was their story that woke me up to the realities, privileges, vulnerabilities, and brilliant possibilities inherent in living in a ‘democracy’. Their individual and collective heroism helped shape me, and the future – and we are all the better for their trials and tribulations as the ‘Chicago 8‘.
One Man – Three Women – and a Mother’s apartment!
Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers opened on 28 December 1969, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, New York. It ran for over two years and subsequently was performed throughout the world, including Australia. It has remained one of Neil Simon’s most regularly performed comedies of urban New York life.
This satiric comedy-of-(American-Jewish) manners was initially a response to the ‘sexual liberation’ of the late-1960s, exemplified by the ground-breaking musical Hair, which had opened on Broadway only the year before. Last of the Red Hot Lovers joined other notable productions in 1969, the first year of Richard Nixon’s presidency, that questioned and challenged numerous contemporary conservative values and institutions. This included Leonard Gershe’s Butterflies are Free, and Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers (Marriage), Robert Marasco’s Child’s Play (Roman Catholic education), and Arthur Kopit’s Indians (History and Native-Americans). This rebelliousness was complemented in some of the most outstanding and influential American films of the year, which included John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, and Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
All these works are celebrating their respective 50th Anniversary in 2019. It is somewhat sobering to think and reflect that many of the issues raised in these works in 1969 are still concerns in 2019. Dated? I think not.
Within Neil Simon’s considerable canon of work, Last of the Red Hot Lovers is the second in a quartet of plays that charts a particular evolution of Neil Simon dramatic concerns, skills, and artistry. From the farcical Plaza Suite (1968) and the satiric romance of Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969) to the serious dramas of The Gingerbread Lady (1970), and The Prisoner of 2nd Avenue (1971). Collectively, these plays form a quartet with similar themes, characters, situations, and dramatic techniques, including setting the entire action in the same room but with three different stories (Plaza Suite and Last of the Red Hot Lovers). There is a growing sense of middle-age and middle-class fear, isolation and complete ‘bafflement of the individual’. This ‘bafflement’ with the modern world is also reflected in the film The Out of Towners (1970), one of Neil Simon’s best film works.
What gives these plays (and screenplay) an added depth is the poignancy of the humour. Clive Barnes, the influential New York Times theatre critic, noted the shift in Neil Simon’s humour in his review of the original production – “He is as witty as ever…but he is now controlling that special verbal razzle-dazzle that has at times seemed mechanically chill… There is the dimension of humanity to its humour so that you can love it as well as laugh at it.” (NYT. 29 December 1969).
Whilst Last of the Red Hot Lovers deals with a middle-age crisis of confidence the play also deals with more universal issues such as ‘broken dreams’. From today’s perspective, the play could be regarded as relatively conservative. It challenges the now accepted convention of ‘do your own thing’ on a moral and ethical basis. As the characters express, it makes one also question whether or not one is ‘decent’.
Are you? Are you ‘decent’? Who else in your life would you call ‘decent’? Or do you think that mankind is basically selfish and ‘indecent’? What can you do if essentially you are a ‘romantic’ and believe in the best of people rather than the worse? How do you cope with modern ethics that proclaims ‘do your own thing’ and be ‘honest’ to yourself when invariably that involves hurting other people?
This is what makes Last of the Red Hot Lovers still so relevant and pertinent as these issues are still part of living in so-called ‘modern times’ and can be baffling. What makes the play special and very much exemplifies the best of Neil Simon is that he doesn’t judge his characters. These are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people but individuals with whom we can empathize as they struggle with a world that seems to demand behaviour that doesn’t sit comfortably with them, particularly in regards to sex.
Like most of Neil Simon’s work, Last of the Red Hot Lovers the characters are wonderful for actors to play. The original (and subsequent productions) invariably have been performed by one male actor and three female actors. The original cast was James Coco (Barney), Linda Lavin (Elaine), Marcia Rodd (Bobbi), and Doris Roberts (Jeanette). The great American caricature artist, Al Hershfield, did one of his famous theatrical portraits of the original cast. Other actors who have performed in this play include Dom DeLuise, Sid Caesar, Alan Arkin (Barney), Rita Moreno, Sally Kellerman (Elaine), Paula Prentis (Bobbi) and Renee Talor (Jeanette). The Australian cast included Harry H. Corbett (Barney), Lelia Blake (Elaine), Anne Lucas (Bobbi), and Betty Lucas (Jeanette), and was directed by Alfred Sandor.
The idea, however, of having all three female characters performed by the same actress was initially inspired by a highly successful 2005/06 Chinese production featuring husband and wife team Xu Zheng (Barney) and Tao Hong (Elaine, Bobbi, Jeanette).
This production of Last of the Red Hot Lovers by STARC PRODUCTIONS complements and continues our ever-evolving ‘aesthetic’ of 2-hander plays in which the acting has precedence over design and concept: ‘STARC by name – ‘Stark’ by Nature’. Each of these four productions – Gardner McKay’s Toyer, Jim Cartwright’s Two, Suzie Miller’s Reasonable Doubt, and now Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers – whilst maintaining our essential dramatic ‘aesthetic’, nonetheless, are widely different in ‘style’.
What is ‘Style’? Michel St. Denis defined ‘style’ as the ‘dramatic reality’ or ‘dramatic truth’ of each individual play – even though written by the same playwright. The world of Last of the Red Hot Lovers may have certain similarities with other plays by Neil Simon, but it is remarkable different – even the three Acts are different, even though set in the same place.
These are the artistic challenges for STARC PRODUCTIONS, challenging our talent and skills against different ‘styles’ within one ‘aesthetic’. Furthermore, it complements and continues STARC PRODUCTIONS artistic mission – Quality Entertainment at Affordable Prices.
We are determined to establish another full-time professional theatre company in Adelaide. It’s Time! The talent and skills are here – but not always the opportunity. It’s Time!
‘Westward Ho!’ – ‘Go West’: How ‘the West’ was Imagined.
PART 1: In the Beginning…..
Go West, life is peaceful there. / Go West, lots of open air. / Go West to begin life new.
The above is from the song Go West by Henri Belolo, Jacques Morall, and Victor Edward Willis, which was first sung by the iconic ‘gay’ group The Village People in 1979. It was not as popular as other songs by The Village People but eventually gained international success when the Pet Shop Boys released a revised version in 1993.
What the above lyrics encapsulate is an image of ‘the West’, a romantic utopian ideal that is ‘peaceful’ with ‘lots of open air’ and a place where one can ‘begin life new’. It is inspired by the statement Go West, young man, and grow up with your country that is generally attributed to American journalist and politician Horace Greeley (1811-1872), who amongst other things was a co-founder of the US Republican Party. Greeley’s statement was part of a US idealistic movement in the mid-nineteenth century known as ‘Manifest Destiny’ that envisaged a kind of divine ‘collective destiny’ of the American people to expand and conquer all of North America. It was not popular with all Americans, notably President Lincoln; nonetheless, it played a significant role in the evolution of the United States of America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
YOU WANT ‘DIVERSITY’?
What does ‘the West’ mean? It can be allegorical as well as actual. It can be wild and dangerous as well as peaceful. Most will associate ‘the West’ with the American ‘West’ and particularly the ‘Western’ film genre. Yet, even here there is a vast diversity of imagined worlds. The ‘Western’ is the oldest film genre, exemplified by the very first films, such as Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), as well as Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), which is the first motion picture feature in World Cinema.
The ‘Western’, however, has more sub-genres than any other film genre. Indeed it is possible to argue that the ‘Western’ IS film in all is magnificent grandeur. You want ‘diversity’ – then look no further than the ‘Western’ in World Cinema. Virtually every major actor, director, producer, writer, cinematographer, designer, composer, editor, et. al, have done at least one or more ‘Westerns’.
Currently, the most common cry in the contemporary performing arts is ‘Diversity’ – usually made by people considerably younger than myself and peers. It is declaimed in such a way as if it had never been called for before they embarked on their evangelical like mission. Talk about patronizing arrogance and re-inventing the wheel? They do, however, have some valuable points to make in terms of certain aspects of ‘identity politics’ – but not in others; plus their punitive measures against any who oppose or question their God-given democratic right to judge and condemn (based on social media) is rather intimidating.
This recently came to a head for me over a New Year dinner party when I mentioned I was looking into ‘Westerns’.
‘Oh, I HATE ‘Westerns’, said ’20-something’ Cheryl contemptuously and supported by 30-something Shane (not their real names, of course, but will suffice).
‘Do you’, I replied, ‘And why?’
‘Oh, all that antiquated macho bullshit – it’s disgusting’.
‘How many ‘Westerns’ have you seen?’
They rattled off a few of the older ‘classics’, which was rather impressive as I was expecting ‘zero’, plus Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which they did like nor approve of. Yep – they didn’t ‘approve’.
‘It’s soooo American’ – was the other erudite criticism. Whilst the conversation veered towards other topical sensations associated with disgraced actors and ‘identity politics’, rather than engage I retreated into my own escapist world of the movies, and hence this rather extended essay was born.
Classic ‘Westerns’ include John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956), Fred Zimmermann’s High Noon (1952), George Stevens’ Shane (1953), John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). However, there is a lot more than these brilliant works – a hell of a lot more.
There are ‘Western’ musicals, notably Rodgers and Hammerstein’s highly influential Oklahoma (1943) and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1948), but also Stanley Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), David Butler’s Calamity Jane (1953), Joshua Logan’s Paint Your Wagon (1969), Michael Apted’s The Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), and Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) and A Prairie Home Companion (2006). There are even ‘Western’ Operas, exemplified by Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West (1910), which is based on the 1905 play by David Belasco.
‘Western’ comedies include Buster Keaton’s Go West (1925), Mae West’s Go West, Young Man (1936), George Marshal’s Destry Rides Again (1939), The Marx Brothers’ Go West (1940), Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (1974), John Landis’ The Three Amigos (1986). and Ron Underwood’s City Slickers (1991).
The American ‘Western’ really started to change in the late 20th Century. This was partly due to ‘Revisionist’ history, exemplified by Dee Brown’s enormously influential Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). This subsequently ushered in a new wave of ‘Revisionist Westerns’ in which Native American started to be given an authentic voice. Examples in include – Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue (1970), Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse (1970), and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970).
The extreme violence in these three films is reflective of the need to smash through complacency and ignorance of the nightmare of ‘white’ invasion and ‘manifest destiny’ on the Native American population. This is still a highly volatile and contentious issue, not least being the issue of ‘white’ actors playing Native American roles. This includes even such illustrious actors as Dame Judith Anderson who is virtually unrecognizable in A Man Called Horse. Her Academy Award-nominated performance as the Sioux matriarch Buffalo Cow Head is truly terrific. In today’s world, however, Dame Judith Anderson’s performance would be regarded as inappropriate ‘cultural appropriation’. Changing times, changing tastes, nonetheless, it is still a great piece of ‘transformational’ acting from one of the 20th Century’s greatest actors.
The changes in political and cultural tastes and ethics in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in regard to Native Americans, can be seen in the relative success of a small independent film that nearly didn’t get made at all – Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack (1971). Tom Laughlin had first introduced the character of Billy Jack in the ‘outlaw biker’ film The Born Losers (1967). ‘Biker’ films of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Laszlo Benedek’s The Wild One (1953) with Marlon Brando, and Peter Fonda’s and Dennis Hopper’s seminal Easy Rider (1969) share many things in common with the traditional ‘Western’ format – outsiders facing hostility in rural and country settings, with motorbikes replacing horses. These films offered Tom Laughlin a way in, an ‘entry point’ to the American film market. Billy Jack is a ‘half-breed’ Navajo Indian, who is also a Green Beret Vietnam War veteran and a ‘Hapkido’ Korean martial arts Master. You could say that Tom Laughlin deliberately had all bases covered. It didn’t make much difference as it took him 3 years to get Billy Jack made, from 1969 to 1971. Three production companies, American International Pictures, 20th Century-Fox, and Warner Brothers, came and went in regard to the making and distribution of Billy Jack. Finally, in 1971, Tom Laughlin distributed the film himself. It was a massive hit! Looking at the film now it is an odd mixture of styles and genres – part action film, part civil rights film, part martial arts film (in an era before Bruce Lee’s kung-fu films). There really isn’t anything else like it – it is quite simply unique. What makes it uncomfortable is its defense of violence against racism. Justifiable violence? That is what makes the film still extremely important. It is up to the individual viewer to make up their own mind.
Other ‘Revisionist Westerns’ include – Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990), and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996), featuring Johnny Depp. I really don’t know where or how to place Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013) in which Johnny Depp played the Native American role of Tonto. This caused quite a controversy with accusations of ‘white-washing’ and inappropriate ‘cultural appropriation’ – the film was universally condemned. I didn’t dislike it – in fact, I found it rather fascinating; certainly strange and unconventional, which I’ve come to expect from anything with Johnny Depp who has also played a Carribean pirate, a psychopathic 19th Century London barber, Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter, and a creature called Edward Scissorhands. Again, like Dame Judith Anderson in A Man Called Horse, the contemporary ‘white-washing’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ arguments draws attention to a modern tension in regard to acting and casting. It would seem, following modern tastes and sensibilities that Actors are no longer encouraged or even allowed to ‘transform’ into characters other than themselves. Contemporary tastes seem to be pulling away from this ancient tradition; only ‘gay’ actors should play ‘gay’ roles, only Native American actors should play Native American roles, only transgender actors should play transgender roles. It is an on-going ‘drama’ that is a part of the ultimately limited vision of contemporary ‘identity politics’. Strangely enough, for some reason, everyone meets in ‘the West’.
Other examples of how the ‘Western’ was evolving in the late-20th Century, complementing changes in socio-political tastes, concerns, and sentiments (e.g. civil rights, racism, feminism, gay rights, et al.) can be seen in the sub-genres of ‘Crime Westerns’ and ‘Western Dramas’, embracing both the ‘epic’ and smaller ‘naturalistic’ social dramas. Examples include – John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) , The Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1995), No Country for Old Men (207), and Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017); George Stevens’ Giant (1956), Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).
Possibly partly due to the influences of ‘revisionist Westerns’ other sub-genres began to emerge in the late-20th Century. It was almost as if ‘revisionism’ allowed for greater imaginative and creative freedom. ‘Science Fiction Westerns’ and ‘Horror Westerns’ began to appear, exemplified by the influential Westworld (1973), written and directed by Michael Crichton. Other ‘Science Fiction Westerns’ include Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future III (1990), Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens (2011) and Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002) TV Series and follow-up film Serenity (2005).
‘Horror Westerns’, like ‘Science Fiction Westerns’ are a curious hybrid that has evolved in the latter half of the 20th Century and are now an important part of contemporary World Cinema. Very often ‘Horror Westerns’ will embrace other film genres such as musicals, comedy, and satire (‘spoofs’). This includes Edward Dien’s Curse of the Undead (1959), Norman Taurog’s and Elvis Presley’s Tickle Me (1965), William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid versus Dracula (1966) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).
Considering the enormous universal popularity of ‘Horror’ film throughout the world, it is hardly surprising that there has been an increase in the number of ‘Horror Westerns’. This includes Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), Robert Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk to Dawn (1996), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999), J. T. Petty’s The Burrowers (2008), Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer (2012), S. Craig Zeher’s Bone Tomahawk (2015), Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone (2016), and The Spierig Brothers’ Winchester (2018).
Outside the USA there are a number of ‘Western’ sub-genres that are country-specific and are often identified by food from a particular country. For example, ‘Curry Westerns’ are those from India and South East Asia, such as R. Thyagarjan’s Thai Meethu Sathyiyam (1978) and K. Murali Mohana Rao’s Kodama Simham (1990).
Connected to this but completely independent are the respective ‘Martial Arts Westerns’ that can be found in numerous countries. This includes ‘Samurai Westerns’ of which Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) is the most influential, being the base for the 1954 and 2016 American versions of The Magnificent Seven. The Japanese ‘star’ actor of Seven Samurai was Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997), who is one of the greatest actors of the 20th Century. He made very few English-speaking films compared to the massive amount of work he did in Japan and Asia. Nonetheless, there are a couple, which includes Terence Young’s unique American ‘samurai Western’ called Red Sun (1971) that also features Charles Bronson, Alain Delon, and Ursula Andress.
Perhaps the most famous and universal recognized are the influential Italian and Spanish ‘Spaghetti Westerns’. These are best exemplified by the films of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ Trilogy featuring Clint Eastwood as ‘the Man with No Name’ – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), as well as Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) has had a significant and acknowledged influence on US ‘Western’ as well as ‘Crime’ film directors, notably by Don Siegel, Clint Eastward, and Francis Ford Coppola. The influence of Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) and Django Strikes Again (1986) with Franco Nero as Django is evident in the work of Quentin Tarantino who gave Franco Nero a tribute cameo role in Django Unchained (2012).
Australian ‘Westerns’ are sometimes called ‘Meat-Pie Westerns’ or ‘Kangaroo Westerns’, although I prefer the more accurate term ‘Outback Westerns’. Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017) is the most recent addition to the heritage of ‘Outback Westerns’ that began with The Story of the Kelly Gang. Others include Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road (2013), John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002), Ken Hannam’s Sunday Too Far Away (1975), Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), George T. Miller’s The Man from Snowy River (1982), Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971), Charles Chauvel’s Jedda (1955) and Sons of Mathew (1949), and Ken G. Hall’s The Squatter’s Daughter (1933) and On Our Selection (1932). Even the Stephan Elliott’s ever-popular Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) falls into a kind of ‘Outback ‘Western’ Musical. George Miller’s Mad Max films are also a type of ‘Science Fiction Westerns’.
It is, however, George Millers Mad Max films – Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), MadMax 3: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – with all their dystopian frenzy that are the most well-known Australian ‘Science Fiction Westerns’.
There are many other sub-genres to ‘Westerns’, not least being animation. However, rather than this essay turn too much into a tome, I will stop here. All the above is merely designed to prove that that ‘Western’ is the most diverse and fascinating of all film genres. It embraces everything, including virtually every country in the world that makes movies. The ‘Western’ IS World Cinema.
But where did this all begin?
The ‘Western’ – In the beginning…
Whilst today ‘the West’ it may primarily conjure up images largely associated with the American ‘Western’ film genre, its historical precedent is considerably older. The notion, idea, and practice of traveling ‘westward’ can be seen in the early sixteenth century, exemplified by Amerigo Vespucci’s Mundus Novus (1503), and other works associated with the ‘New World’ of the Americas.
The cry Westward Ho!, and its opposite Eastward Ho!, date from 16th Century London. Ferrymen on the River Thames used these cries when declaring their respective direction up and down the Thames. Westward Ho! was reflective of the growth of London to the west outside the city walls (the ‘West End’), as was satirized by John Webster and Thomas Dekker in their Jacobean City Comedy Westward Ho! (1605). In turn, Ben Jonson, John Marston, and George Chapman satirized this play with their own Eastward Ho! (1605), which resulted in them being imprisoned for angering King James I. Whilst neither play is set in the ‘New World’, at least some of the characters in Eastward Ho! board a ship bound for the new colony of Jamestown in Virginia. The fact that they never get there, but are shipwrecked before they even leave the Thames estuary, does not diminish the notion that to the characters involved traveling ‘Westward’ to the ‘New World’ offered hope of a new life and bountiful riches.
This dream, this journey to the ‘West’ in the ‘age of discovery’ also offered the hope of religious freedom. In 1603 the English Puritan lawyer, John Winthrop (1587-1649) published a pamphlet citing the image of a ‘city upon a hill’, a phrase found in Jesus Christ’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Mathew 5:14 in The Bible that states, You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. This, plus the desire to escape religious persecution led to the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ crossing the Atlantic on the Mayflower and landing on Plymouth Rock in the ‘New World’ in 1620. The ritual of Thanksgiving has been a part of American culture ever since. Escaping religious persecution was also behind the journey of English Catholics in 1634 and the establishment of colonies in Maryland.
Dreams of wealth, a new life, religious freedom are all part of what makes up the image of ‘the West’. There is, however, a lot more – it was also an epic romantic adventure, full of the exotic and the erotic. This is exemplified by numerous novels and films from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The popular 1952 Hollywood film epic Plymouth Adventure, directed by Clarence Brown, with Spencer Tracy, Gene Tierney, and Van Johnson, deals with the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ braving the Atlantic crossing and landing on Plymouth Rock in what is now Provincetown. The producer, Dore Schary said at the time, “I don’t think that historical era has been done properly on screen before because the people were too soft. The pilgrims had to be tough and lusty to accomplish what they did. So that’s the kind we cast in the film.” (Hedda Hopper, Man with a Mission! Chicago Daily Tribune, 27 July 1952). Hmmm? Maybe – but this does draw attention to how history has been re-interpreted in drama dependent upon popular tastes and sentiments of a particular time; in this case 1950s Cold War America. Nonetheless, Dore Schary is correct in that it takes a particular person to actually venture into ‘the West’. Today, despite all the coiffured machismo you would be hard pressed to find much that is similar about these pilgrims and about this landing amongst the ‘gayland’ of modern Provincetown. But let’s go back even further.
Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! (1855), involving Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh in the ‘New World’ and their battles against the Spanish was so popular that a town in Devon was named after it – the only town in the UK that has an exclamation mark attached to it. Kingsley’s novel also involves the first English settlement of the ‘New World’ at Jamestown, Virginia. However, in popular culture, the main focus of this story has subsequently been the relationship between ‘founding father’ Captain John Smith and the American native Indian Pocahontas. Whether or not any of it is true is now irrelevant. To the modern imagination it is true, and has even been made into a Disney film (with a sequel) Pocahontas (1995) – so, of course, it must be true. Terence Malik’s The New World (2005), as well as Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986) and Peter Schaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964) are perhaps more accurate dramatizations of the European invasion of the Americas.
But let’s go back even further. John Dryden’s and Sir Robert Howard’s The Indian Queen (1664), Aphra Behn’s Oroonokoo (1688) and Thomas Southerne’s 1689 play adaptation are examples of how the ‘western’ imagination realized ‘first contact’ with the indigenous population and the creation of the character of ‘the noble savage’. Whether or not Aphra Behn actually visited Surinam in South America is questionable, nonetheless, her Oroonokoo was the ideal ‘noble savage’ for the ‘western’ imagination until Daniel Defoe’s Man Friday in Robinson Crusoe (1719). Add in for good measure Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, notably the Yahoos in Gulliver’s final voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms, and the overall portrayal of ‘indigenous’ people are seen as rather romanticized and patronizing and far from the truth.
The idea of a ‘New World’ in ‘the West’ becomes intrinsically linked to the idea of the United States of America itself. This is exemplified by Thomas Paine who wrote in his pamphlet Common Sense in 1776, ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.’
Things begin to truly accelerate after Thomas Jefferson secures what is known as the ‘Louisiana Purchase in 1803. This opened up vast amounts of land across North American. The ‘Manifest Destiny’ of the American people evolved throughout the 19th Century into ‘Continentalism’ – never mind the Native Americans, Mexicans, Spanish, and any other opponents. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 made it very clear to Great Britain and any other European power that they were not welcome to participate in this ruthless land-grabbing juggernaut expansion across North America. In certain places, namely the Oregon border disputes with Canada and Great Britain things were not resolved until 1844. The American-Mexican War 1846-48 saw the Westward Ho! movement take over modern-day California and Texas. The American Civil War in the 1860s did not stop further expansion and consolidation of ‘the West’.
The 1872 painting American Progress by John Gast in a way represents this ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘tellucracy’. It is a bit of a creepy painting with ‘Columbia’ all in ‘white’ advancing ‘westward’, making the Native American cower as she heralds advances in American industry such as the railway and the telegraph. This isn’t a benign ‘patriotic’ love of country, as defined by George Orwell, but rampant and rapacious ‘nationalism’; the ‘white’ American way is the only way – and look what comes with it – ‘Strike me lucky!’
American expansionism, ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘Continentalism’ influences the image of the American ‘West’, as found in many of the respective novels by American writers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This, in turn, influenced the popular image of ‘the West’ and how it eventually was dramatized in American film. This includes the works of Washington Irving (1783-1859) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). What is quite apparent, and makes these works a little difficult to stomach is the attitude of ‘white privilege’, particularly towards the Native American Indians, who seem to have descended from ‘noble savages’ to just ‘savages’, as well as the Mexicans. Somewhat perversely the current cry of President Donald Trump to build a wall along the US-Mexican border is a continuation of this essentially racist attitude. God is no longer an Englishman, he is a ‘white’ American.
James Fenimore Cooper’s five ‘Leatherstocking’ novels involving the trapper Natty Bumppo – The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), The Deerslayer (1841), mark the beginning of what we now imagine as the American ‘West’. They are not necessarily comfortable reads as invariably Native Americans are cast as the enemy (along with the French), and Natty Bumppo invariably is there to assist the ‘white’ settlers conqueror their opponents as well as the land.
James Fenimore Cooper’s novels are romantic historical adventures with Natty Bumppo as a kind of modern-day knight. It is interesting to note that for the most part his name is never mentioned; which in a curious way pre-figure Clint Eastward’s ‘Man with No Name’ in the Sergio Leone ‘spaghetti westerns’, such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967).
The romanticism increases with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), particularly with Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and The Courtship of Myles Standish (1858). Whilst The Song of Hiawatha may be the most potent and influential work for its time, nonetheless, as evident by the numerous subsequent parodies many contemporaries found it too mawkish to be credible, particularly with its ultimate Christian message of conversion and salvation for the noble Native American savage.
A more interesting story is that of Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, which is supposedly based on a true story. Unlike Fenimore Copper’s French characters Longfellow’s Evangeline and her Acadian compatriots, French colonists who the British expelled from Canada in ‘The Great Upheaval’ 1755-1764, has a tragic romantic epic sweep that captures the bewilderment of strangers in a strange land; very much a part of the story of ‘the West’. Unlike other narratives, the motivations behind the actions of Evangeline and her lover Gabriel (yes – the Christian allegories are rampant here) are those of love rather than conquest. Subsequently, it has things in common with John Maclean’s film Slow West (2015), one of the most unique ‘Westerns’ of modern times.
I’m going to add to this little group Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (1850). As its title suggests the notion of dealing with the ‘New World’ has a strong romantic side. Like Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone (2016) the primary focus of the female protagonists, Hester and Liz respectively, is the protection of a female child. This too is part of ‘the West’.
The final part of this initial exploration of what constitutes ‘the West’ involves three American writers from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century – Bret Harte (1836-1902), Jack London (1876-1916), and Zane Grey (1872-1939). Collectively, these American writers successfully create what we today imagine to be the American ‘West’ way before Hollywood arrives with the ‘Western’ film genre. They are, however, very different.
Bret Harte was primarily a short story writer concentrating on the Californian Gold Rush – the ‘49ers’. Two of his short stories, in particular, The Luck of Roaring Camp (1870) and The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1869), captured the imagination of the general public and are still regularly reprinted, and have been adapted in dramatic form numerous times and numerous ways. These are works of ‘naturalism’, tragic tales that have a poignant spiritual essence; all the more remarkable because they are relatively short. There is a profound dignity and integrity in Harte’s portrayal of seeming social outcasts who have gone ‘West’ in order to find a better life but pay a considerable price – usually death. It draws attention to another meaning associated with ‘Go West’, which is a euphemism for Death.
Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) take as their respective setting the Klondike in Canada – a different ‘West’ but no less foreign, wild, and adventurous than others. Charles Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) and Mae West’s Klondike Annie (1936) are the best films that also deal with this imagining of ‘the West’. Furthermore, the heroes of the London’s respective novels are dogs – Buck and White Fang; perhaps the best stories about ‘man’s best friend’ that have ever been written.
It is, however, Zane Grey who is the American writer that Hollywood primarily turned to in the realization and dramatization of the American ‘West’ as popularized in American ‘Western’ film. His canon of work is massive, yet virtually all his novels have been turned into films and/or television series. To single out one as representative of all the safest bet is Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). What is fascinating about Riders of the Purple Sage is not necessarily the numerous times it has been dramatically realized but its actual content. The novels chief protagonist and heroine is Jane Withersteen. The novel focuses on her battle with Mormon polygamy. Similar to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester and Martin Koolhoven’s Liz, the motivating factor is the protection of a female child.
As I have hopefully drawn attention to the protection of children and adolescents is a major feature of the American ‘West’. It is evident in the above as well as George Steven’s Shane (1953), John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), both versions of True Grit (1969/2010), and Ron Howard’s The Missing (2003). This, however, is just one aspect of the ‘Western’. Other characteristics will be explored in a later essay, nonetheless, based on the above it is reasonable to place the notion and dramatic realization of ‘the West’ into the world of ‘Romance’; and by ‘Romance’ I mean ‘classical Romance’ which is essentially a journey of transformation. What makes ‘the Western’ a unique ‘Romance’ is that invariably it occurs at the frontier of civilization. Furthermore, as exemplified in numerous novels and films, it is a place in which gender issues are sometimes blurred. It may well seem male-dominated (and it is), but women can and often do play an equal role in respective power and survival struggles, exemplified by Nicholas Ray’s extraordinary Johnny Guitar (1954) and Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman (2014).
This concludes the first essay about how ‘the West’ has been imagined. It has essentially been a ‘curtain raiser’ for the examination of the ‘Western’ film genre, one of the most extensive and diverse and influential in World Cinema. Time and space have not permitted me to cover all aspects of ‘the West’ prior to its prime position in film. All art forms in one way or another have dealt with ‘the West’; and intriguingly, virtually every major actor of the 20th and 21st Centuries have done at least one if not more ‘Westerns’. The ‘West’ sits in the frontier world of our lives; we may never actually go there, especially the American ‘West’, but we can and do go there imaginatively. Subsequently, whatever it may mean personally and/or professionally it plays a significant role in all our lives.
“It’s come to my attention that you don’t know who I am” – is a line that Cate Blanchett delivers with deep and devastating effectiveness when she first enters THOR RAGNAROK. Could it be that she is referencing her old acting teachers, Kevin Jackson and myself? Not certain – but what this line does reflect is the subject of ‘identity politics’ that has come to dominate so much of modern theatre and film.
So – here we are – at the end of 2018 – that brief time in which we reflect on what we have seen and done over 2018, amidst the plethora of ‘Best of’ lists. I am not necessarily into the ‘Best of ’ etc. I have a fervent dislike of art becoming a kind of superficial competition, which is why I don’t watch a lot of TV. My lists are far more personal and revealing, reflective of those productions that affected me in one way or another, and have stayed with me for various reasons. I have my favourites, certainly, but they are not necessarily the “Best” of anything. I like the respective following works – because they moved me – that’s all.
I feel very fortunate to be living and working in Adelaide, partly because I am able to see a relatively vast range of national and international productions each year. This is primarily due to the respective festivals, such as the Adelaide Fringe Festival, the Adelaide Festival, the Adelaide Film Festival, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and (my favourite) the Oz-Asia Festival.
So – here we go. However, let me first state that I did not see any opera this year, nor did I see much dance and ballet, so these kind of productions are not on my list. All the theatre productions listed below were different in their own way, yet each profoundly moved me as well as enlightened and thrilled me.
THEATRE (in roughly chronological order)
JOHN BUCCHINO: IT’S ONLY LIFE – Davine Productions (USA/AUST. – Fringe Festival)
FLESH & BONE by Elliot Warren – Unpolished Theatre (UK – Fringe Festival)
KING JACK QUEEN by Baboab Tree Theatre Company (UK – Fringe Festival)
SMOKING WITH GRANDMA (Threewords Playwright (China – Fringe Festival)
KINGS OF WAR based on the ‘History’ plays by William Shakespeare – directed by Ivo von Hove and produced by Toneelgroep Amsterdam (Adelaide Festival)
US/THEM by Carly Wijs and BRONKS, Belgium (Adelaide Festival)
FLA.CO.MEN – Israel Galvan (Spain – Adelaide Festival)
MEMORIAL by Alice Oswald – directed by Chris Drummond with Helen Morse (Brink Productions) (Australia – Adelaide Festival)
PATTI LUPONE (USA – Cabaret Festival)
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL (USA – Cabaret Festival)
NASSIM by Nassim Soleimanpour (Iran – Oz-Asia Festival
SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai (China – Oz-Asia Festival)
SUTRA by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Netherlands/China – Oz-Asia Festival)
FAITH HEALER by Brain Friel – directed by Judy Davis with Colin Friels, Alison Whyte and Paul Blackwell. (State Theatre of South Australia.)
THE PURPLE LIST by Libby Pearson (UK – Feast Festival)
SEUSSICAL by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens– Northern Light Theatre Company
LINES by Pamela Carter (UK) – directed by Cory MacMahon (UK)
GODS OF STRANGERS by Elena Carapetis (State Theatre of South Australia)
Whilst this is really just shameless self-promotion, nonetheless, I am very proud of the productions that STARC the company I have formed with Stefannie Rossi and Marc Clement, produced in 2018. This includes TOYER by Gardner Mackay, TWO by Jim Cartwright, and REASONABLE DOUBT by Suzie Miller. Plus – there was Genet’s THE MAIDS.
Suzie Miller’s REASONABLE DOUBT, Elena Carapetis’ GODS OF STRANGERS, as well as Jada Alberts’ BROTHERS WRECK were the outstanding new Australian plays produced in Adelaide in 2018. I did see other new works in Sydney and Melbourne – but that’s another story, and none of them had the same impact on me as these three works. I may be biased re REASONABLE DOUBT but it was an honour and privilege to direct and produce the Australian premiere of this play.
FILM (not in any order of preference)
SHOPLIFTERS (2018) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (JAPAN)
CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) directed by Jon M. Chu (USA)
A STAR IS BORN (2018) directed by Bradley Cooper (USA)
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018) directed by Bryan Singer (USA.UK)
HEREDITARY (2018) directed by Ari Aster (USA)
GURRUMUL (2018 directed by Paul Damien Williams (AUSTRALIA)
Films released at the end of 2017 and seen in 2018
SWEET COUNTRY (2017) directed by Warwick Thornton (AUSTRALIA)
THE INSULT (2017) – directed by Ziad Doueiri (LEBANON)
A FANTASTIC WOMAN (2017) directed by Sebastian Lelio (CHILE)
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017) directed by Luca Guadagnini (ITALY)
THOR – RAGNAROK (2017) directed by Taika Waititi (USA/NZ)
DARKEST HOUR (2017) directed by Joe Wright (UK/USA)
THE POST (2017) directed by Steven Spielberg (USA
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) directed by Martin McDonagh (USA)
THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017) directed by James Franco (USA)
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) directed by Rian Johnson (USA)
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) – directed by Michael Gracey (USA)
BLADERUNNER 2049 (2017) – directed by Denis Villeneuve (USA)
Rather an eclectic group – and there are others – but these are the ones that have stayed with me.
I was also very fortunate in representing the National Film and Sound Archive in presenting during the 2018 Adelaide Film Festival (which was excellent) the newly restored prints of Gillian Armstrong’s STARSTRUCK (1982) and John Duigan’s THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE (1987). The latter, in particular, was very well received, and it was marvellous to see the very young Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn who most certainly have gone on to have quite wonderful careers.
2018 also marked the 100th Anniversary of the Raymond Longford’s and Lotte Lyall’s THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE (1918), which premiered in Adelaide on the 26 November 1918. I couldn’t attend the anniversary screening in Adelaide, so I watched this great Australian silent film classic at home.
Re Australian films – I did see a number, including Stephan Elliot’s SWINGING SAFARI, Mark Grenfell’s THE MERGER, Chris Sun’s BOAR, Ben Howling’s CARGO, Marion Pilowsky’s THE FLIPSIDE, and Heath Davis’ BOOK WEEK. I also finally caught up with Simon Baker’s BREATH (2017) and Ben Young’s HOUNDS OF LOVE (2017). A number of these films I admit I watched at home as they either had a limited cinema release and/or went straight to Netflix.
So – a wacky combo of romantic comedies and horror. None of these films was ‘brilliant’, but they were OK; in fact, more than OK. I particularly liked and appreciated the romantic comedies, perhaps the most difficult of all film genres to successfully pull off.
It was, however, Paul Damien Williams’ documentary GURRUMUL and Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY that were the stand-outs – especially SWEET COUNTRY.
Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY is terrific! And yet – I don’t know anyone who has seen it. Seriously. I saw it at the movies in Mitcham and I was one of three people in the session. Rather depressing – especially for such an excellent Australian film, but the reality is that it has been a bit of a disaster at the box-office, and continues to be an unknown despite good reviews etc.
SWEET COUNTRY, however, did trigger and inspired me to explore in more detail the nature of Australian ‘westerns’, and the ‘Western’ as a film genre in general.
The ‘Western’ is arguably the most common form of film in World Cinema, beginning with the Tait’s THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (1906), the first feature film in World Cinema, and the shorter THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903).
Subsequently, it is possible to argue that it was the ‘Western’ that began cinema and feature film. There are so many sub-genres in regard to ‘Westerns’, including musicals, comedies, horror, and science-fiction. Virtually all major ‘stars’ have at least one ‘Western’ in their body of work – and often more than one. Nor is the ‘Western’ confined simply to US film – they are everywhere; for example, the influential Italian/ Spanish ‘spaghetti westerns’ of Sergio Leone. Australian ‘Westerns’ have the strange title of ‘meat-pie’ Westerns.
There is not the time nor space to elaborate on this wonderful conundrum (what does the ‘West’ mean? Etc), but SWEET COUNTRY certainly joins the pantheon of great Australian ‘Westerns’ that includes WAKE IN FRIGHT, THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER, THE TRACKER, THE PROPOSITION, MYSTERY ROAD, GOLDSTONE, as well as earlier films such as ROBBERY UNDER ARMS, BITTER SPRINGS and even JEDDAH.
The ‘Western’ is also very much a part of contemporary US films. Here is a list of some of the modern US ‘Westerns’ that I have watched. John McLean’s SLOW WEST (2015) and Ti West’s IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016) being two in particular that I enjoyed and would thoroughly recommend.
THE HOMESMAN (2014) – directed by Tommy Lee Jones
SLOW WEST (2015) – directed by John McLean
BONE TOMAHAWK (2015) – S. Craig Zahler
THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) – Quentin Tarantino
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016) – Ti West
BRIMSTONE (2016) – Martin Koolhoven
Looking back – WOW – quite pleased with myself that I have actually seen so much.
Finally – did Ms Blanchett wickedly reference either Kevin Jackson or myself in THOR RAGNAROK?
I don’t really know – but it certainly has been suggested. No matter – but if and whenever I see this wonderful ex-student of ours I do intend to say to her in a rather deep voice – It has come to my attention that you don’t know who I am (Kevin), quickly followed by – Have you been listening to a word I’ve said!!! (Me)
Bring on 2019.
Ken G. Hall’s Tall Timbers (1937) is a romantic melodrama that is highly watchable, particularly for its spectacular bushfire climax. Ken G. Hall had longed to make a film about the timber industry in contemporary 1930s Australia. The original story by Frank Hurley was adapted into a screenplay by Frank Harvey. Much of the joy of Tall Timbers, however, lies with the cinematography by George Heath who one was one of the prolific D.O.P’s of Australian cinema in the 1930s and 1940s.
The story centres on a young woman, Joan Burbridge (played by Shirley Ann Richards) whose father owns a timber company. She is saved from drowning by a young man, Jim Thorton (played by Frank Leighton) who joins her and her father in dealing with treachery within and without the timber company. There are a number of complicated romantic relationships within the plot, but it all comes together and is resolved in the awesome bushfire climax of the film.
The film was a success in Australia and in the UK and US, where it was renamed Thundering Forest and Timberland Terror. What makes the bushfire climax special is that it was mostly done with miniatures in a studio. Whilst the melodramatic aspect of the film is a little over-wrought, which Hall acknowledged, nonetheless, it is still a thrilling piece of Australian cinema.
Ken G. Hall’s It Isn’t Done (1937) was one of the most successful Australian films of the 1930s. It was based on a story by Cecil Kellaway and written by Frank Harvey and Carl Dudley. Cecil Kellaway was a South African born actor who lived and worked in Australia during the 1920s and 1930s. He would eventually move to the USA where he would establish himself as a major character actor, featuring in such films as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Luck of the Irish (1948), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). This was also Shirley Ann Richard’s first feature film.
The story involves an Australian farmer called Hubert Blaydon (Cecil Kellaway) who suddenly inherits a baronet in the UK. He and his family travel to England to take up the inheritance but run up against British snobbery. Eventually, Hubert arranges to get rid of the inheritance, giving it to a young writer, Peter Ashton (John Longden), who has fallen in love with Hubert’s daughter, Patricia (Shirley Ann Richards). Hubert and his wife return to Australia leaving Patricia who marries Peter.
Whilst mostly set in the UK, the film was entirely shot in Australia, in the Cinesound Bondi studios. This is a truly delightful ‘comedy of manners’ contrasting contemporary Australian social ways and ethics with British ones. It was a big success in Australia as well as the UK and USA and is still as funny and engaging as it ever was.
TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS: #7 – THOROUGHBRED (1936)
Ken G. Hall’s Thoroughbred (1936) is a sometimes thrilling Australian film. It is very loosely based on the story of one of Australia’s greatest racehorses, Phar Lap. Unfortunately, it has suffered from comparisons with other similar films, such as Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill (1934). However, it is a delightful film and is part of a small group or genre of Australian films that is about the popular Australian sport of horse racing. Furthermore, like virtually all the Australian horse racing films the climax is the famous Melbourne Cup – the Australian horse race ‘that stops the nation’.
The story centres on a horse called Stormalong who is owned and cared for by Joan, a young Canadian horse trainer living in Australia. She is helped by Tommy Dawson and together they start winning races. Eventually, Stormalong becomes a favourite to win the Melbourne Cup. However, a group of corrupt gambling syndicates plot to destroy Stormalong. First, they arrange for his stable to be burnt down; then they kidnap Tommy; and finally, at the Melbourne Cup whilst the race is on there is a life and death race to try and stop a sniper from shooting Stormalong.
In 1935 order to help finance the film and secure a US distribution Ken G. Hall traveled to the US and signed American actress Helen Twelvetrees to play Joan. Helen Twelvetrees, as well as Frank Leighton who plays Tommy, is terrific in the film. There is also a back-stage drama here as Helen Twelvetrees. She came to Australia with her husband and child but had an affair with Frank Leighton who was playing Tommy. Her husband found out and threatened to kill Frank Leighton. Ken G. Hall had to hire detectives to help gently but firmly get the husband and child out of the country.
I thoroughly recommend this wonderful little gem in the Australian film canon.
Tony’ Top Australian Films: #6. THE SILENCE OF DEAN MAITLAND (1934)
Ken G. Hall’s The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934) is not a great film, but it has something rather intriguing about it that makes compulsive viewing. Furthermore, it throws a particular mirror up to its contemporary society with certain issues still relevant today.
The film is based on the romantic melodramatic novel of the same name by Maxwell Grey (a pseudonym for Mary Gleed Tuttiett) that was first published in 1886. It was a best-seller, adapted into a play, and later two silent films in 1914 and 1915. It involves a minister, Dean Maitland who is seduced by the local sex-pot, Alma Lee who becomes pregnant. Ben Lee, Alma’s father, when he finds out physically attacks Dean Maitland, who then accidentally kills Alma’s father. Rather than confess, Dean Maitland allows his best friend, Dr. Henery Everard to take the blame. Everard goes to jail for twenty years, whilst Dean Maitland enjoys a successful life. Eventually, however, all is revealed.
There is a story that Ken G. Hall and his friend Stuart F. Doyle went to see a production of the play by The Rockdale Amateur Society in Sydney, and ended up in fits of giggles due to its overt melodramatic sentimentality. Nonetheless, Hall sensed there was something about this story that would appeal to contemporary audiences – and he was right. Despite reserved contemporary critical assessments, the respective film versions were popular successes, particularly Ken G. Hall’s 1934 film.
Today it is very awkward at times to watch, nonetheless, there is something about this story. Furthermore, despite all the melodramatic sentimentality The Silence of Dean Maitland had, and I think still has, the power and capacity to upset numerous people in religious communities and government institutions. Raymond Longford wrote and directed the 1914 film version, and ended up in court over distribution problems. It is perhaps the issue of decadence, hypocrisy, corruption, and betrayal by a supposed respected religious leader that is why The Silence of Dean Maitland has its appeal and fascination, and would, if re-made, probably be as successful and popular with Australian audiences as it has always been. A curiosity, perhaps, but there is something there….?
TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS
#5. The Squatter’s Daughter (1932)
One of the most popular Australian ‘melodramas’ in the first decades of the 20th Century was The Squatter’s Daughter (1907) by Bert Baily and Edward Duggan. The story essentially involves a dramatic love-triangle between two male rivals and the feisty heroine – Violet, the ‘Squatter’s Daughter’. Partly why this film is in my ‘Top Australian films’ is because it exemplifies the creation of a particular type of Australian female persona – the Aussie ‘shelia’.
These days, to call a woman a ‘shelia’ would be taken as a relatively derogatory label. That was not it’s original intention; rather the contrary, as it was a term that was essentially affectionate and complementary. The ‘shelia’ roles, such as Violet in The Squatter’s Daughter, were primarily masculine creations, nonetheless, the character was firmly embraced – feisty, independent, smart, beautiful, sometimes rich and sometimes not – she was seen as the ideal companion to the idealized romantic persona of the contemporary Australian male. These characteristics are also found in Sybylla Mervyn in Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), who to a certain extent prefigures Violet in The Squatter’s Daughter (1907), and many others to follow – such as Barbara in Lawson Harris’ A Daughter of Australia (1922).
The success of the play led to Bert Bailey directing a silent-screen adaption in 1910. Unfortunately, there are no surviving copies and is now regarded as a ‘lost film’.
It is, however, Ken G. Hall’s 1932 film version that perhaps gives the best glimpse of how thrilling contemporary Australain audiences found The Squatter’s Daughter. Hall’s film, however, although based on the original play, is considerably different. The characters have been renamed – Violet is now Joan – and certain characters and situations completely removed. For example, the sub-plot in the original play involving the bushranger Ben Hall has gone; its place is a sub-plot involving racism.
Another reason why this film is in my ‘Top Australian films’ is the spectacular and frightening bush-fire that is the climax of the film. Very impressive – and dangerous – film-making.