1950s American history is forever tainted by “The Second Red Scare” doggedly lead by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Accusations of disloyalty, subversion or treason were indiscriminately leveled at American citizens without valid evidence…destroying uncountable lives.
When John Osborne, then in his twenties, wrote Personal Enemy in 1953, (with Anthony Creighton) he had never been to the country in which it’s set. The great British spy scandal of Philby and McClean, involving a group of gay men attending the same college, wasn’t exposed till the early 1960s. Osborne had no local communist witch hunt on which to base his material, only awareness of what was happening here. He did, however, have a bird’s eye view of the historical persecution of homosexuality and saw in the two equally misdirected fervor.
The Cold War is heating up. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are electrocuted. The Constants, a typical small town (Langley Springs) American family, lose a son in The Korean War. Don, always the favorite, has been enshrined in his mother’s house and heart. Two years later, Mrs. Constant (Karen Lewis) still peppers her conversation with adoring references—to the jealous frustration of her married daughter, Caryl (Joanne King) and the patient resignation of her husband (Tony Turner) her young son, Arnie (Peter Clapp), and Caryl’s sweet, but passive husband, Sam (Mark Oosterveen).
A local librarian, Ward Perry (Steven Clarke) has given inscribed copies of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to both the Constant boys, one after the other, presumably as they came of age. He’s currently Arnie’s friend, mentor and confidante. The plot turns on the discovery of these books, questions concerning the boys’ sexuality, and the shock of hearing Don’s alive in light of his new allegiances or, as the play calls them, “his putrefying, rotten attitudes.”
This could have been an Elia Kazan film. Something tough and grainy like On the Waterfront. Certainly black and white. Mrs.Constant, consumed by fear, prejudice, and religion, egged on by her small-minded daughter and aided by an irrational government office, unwittingly if passionately brings tragedy to all their lives.
When written, Personal Enemy was so heavily censored by The Lord Chamberlain: “Very distasteful and embarrassing in mixed company…might start an unfortunate train of thought…” that its single 1955 performance in Yorkshire was incomprehensible. This is the first time the play is presented in its original, uncut version.
Karen Lewis (Mrs. Constant) and Joanne King (Caryl Kessler) create hateful characters. They’re both so believably obtuse in the throes of their hystrionics, one wants to throttle them. While Caryl barely understands the long term consequences of her beliefs, however, (she actually seems petulant at times) Mrs. Constant does comprehend hers. That we don’t see her more fearful of the future is an omission by actress or director.
Mark Oosterveen as Caryl’s increasingly agonized husband, seems a less affecting actor until he gets his teeth into the meat of the situation, whereupon he erupts like a thinking volcano. I admit to wondering in retrospect whether, in fact, he’s so good that I mistook his portrayal of blandness as lack of focus. It’s possible.
Peter Clapp’s portrayal of Arnie is able and naturalistic. Steven Clarke vacillates between under and over acting in the triple roles of Ward Perry, The Investigator and Reverend Merrick. Genevieve Allenbury seems a caricature as Mrs. Constant’s Polish neighbor Mrs. Slifer.
For my money, Tony Turner as Mr. Constant is the most effectively realistic of the cast. His solidity is credible even when he’s given little to say, his pain apparent with an economic gesture or expression, and his final scene compelling. Bravo.
I found David Aula’s Direction curiously uneven.
Personal Enemy is not one of Osborne’s best works. Still, its microcosmic examination of the politics of discrimination is bruising, emphatic and, finally, horrifying. In this he has succeeded. Unfortunately, today’s world makes this too easily comprehensible.
Personal Enemy by John Osborne & Anthony Creighton
Directed by David Aula
Brits Off Broadway at
59 East 59th Street
www.59e59.org or 212-279-4299
Through November 28
Photo credit, Ari Mintz, from top:
Karen Lewis and Peter Clapp
Mark Oosterveen and Joanne King
Genevieve Allenbury and Karen Lewis