Filing into the theater, we see Ben Hecht, aka playwright/actor James Sherman, plunking away at his manual typewriter with a wry, half grin. He finishes and stands, manner completely natural. Our protagonist was, it seems, lunching with “a famous lady, more famous than intelligent…” with whom he’d had a peripheral relationship for years. Assuming he wasn’t “the kind who feels any discussion is a slight,” she surprised him by asking “Do you mind talking about Jews?”
“It was the first moment in my life I’d be called upon to BE a Jew.” His acquaintance wondered about the reason for their unpopularity. “She had picked up some kind of anti-Semitism germ. There wasn’t a sneeze yet, but…” Protesting a hatred of Nazism, she defended the German people. “…attempting to remove murder as a political issue.”
The character paces, gestures, sits, and reflects, drawing on memories. He reads from a threatening letter, meditates on framed photos, and takes a drink or two. Movement is so fluid and unselfconscious, pacing so perfect, one wonders at the absence of a director credit.
Derived by weaving together two volumes of Hecht’s writing, the piece seamlessly offers history and beliefs in the format of storytelling. It’s an edifying look at an important, lesser known aspect of his life. Because much of the monologue arrives in the author’s own words, we get a real feeling for his elegant, direct, economic use of language. The smart, zealous, frustrated, despairing, tempered man before us seems genuine.
Ben Hecht (1894 –1964) was the New York born, Bar Mitzvahed son of Russian immigrants, but didn’t think of himself as Jewish until later in life. A screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, journalist, and novelist, he filed hundreds of news stories both here and abroad as well as writing 35 books. (Journalism is given short shrift, but it’s not the point here.) When his friend, Herman J. Mankiewicz, sent him the telegram “…millions are to be grabbed out here, and your competition is idiots,” Hecht went to Hollywood. He drank and collaborated with Charles MacArthur while executing iconic screenplays like On the Twentieth Century, The Front Page, and Design For Living, garnering story or script credits for 70 films.
As soon as a job or two was finished, Hecht would be on a train back east with enough money to live the rest of the year. Though Hollywood and its denizens are illuminated (exposed), this is not that anecdotal tale. Warned by Zionist Shmarya Levine to always approach the subject of Jews with humor, however, he keeps it in mind. A mostly serious, sometimes shudder-inducing play, the piece is neither didactic nor dull, never turns leaden, and manages both irony and lighter moments.
Hecht was an activist for civil rights who swore he’d never experienced anti-Semitism. “Our only synagogue was Broadway,” he wrote living in New York after Chicago. “We were far from aunts and uncles, from our finger bowls and epigrams.” When he encountered fundraisers for the Zionist group Irgun (a paramilitary organization) and, as he wrote, “ran into history,” life changed. It was 1939.
The writer committed years to shining a light on suffering and wholesale elimination of European Jews, tracing survivors, establishing a home for his people in the Middle East, and eventually nurturing Israel. He was a superb propagandist. “The Jews performed neither as victims nor pariahs, they remained a part of the world toiling to disgorge them…Israel flourishes in scholarship, not martyrdom.” It was Hecht’s 1914 Reader’s Digest article that broke the silence concerning atrocities. There had already been two million Jewish deaths.
In California, “I would sit at tables with the great men of Hollywood and never hear the word Jew spoken…” In New York, Hecht gathered 30 Semitic authors and a composer at playwright George Kaufman’s apartment calling for public, moral outrage. At the end of a meeting during which he was accused of collusion by Edna Ferber, only Kurt Weill, Moss Hart, and Billy Rose agreed. Though pageants were created with volunteers from all the arts, little was affected. “All we have done is make a lot of Jews cry, which is not much of an accomplishment.” (Kurt Weill)
“I am likely to sound immodest, but my activities produced a new Jewish battle cry, “Down with Ben Hecht!”(Hecht) Hollywood grew afraid. The British boycotted his films. “The cause was not what I thought it was…but for a Jew not to be interested is the same as someone sitting on a hot stove who doesn’t think about fire.” Hecht had an extraordinary, multifaceted, and full life. This well written, ably acted play makes one want to know more.
Production Photos, shot at another location, courtesy of United Solo
The Ben Hecht Show
Written and Performed by James Sherman
The Ben Hecht Show will also be performed October 23 at 7:30 p.m.
In its 8th season, United Solo, the country’s largest, most varied solo theater festival, offers 120 theatrical pieces from six continents and 23 countries. Each and every one of these one acts was written by the person performing it. They include biographical and autobio- graphical pieces, dramas, comedies, puppetry, mime, mentalism and music. Some feature recorded sound, some utilize video, some include movement or dance. The festival is an inexpensive way to enjoy original, often premiering theater as it finds its sea legs in an intimate environment. Through November 19, 2017
United Solo Festival
410 West 42nd Street