When this off-Broadway play was announced back in March, I rushed to get my name on the list of patrons. Like most people who write for a living, having a chance to peer into the head of one of the most renowned journalists in America held a certain sway.
Playing at The Wild Project through May 22, an intimate theatre deep in Alphabet City, at 195 East Third Street, the script by Joseph Vitale stars Joseph Menino, who has the look (and chain-smoking cigarette demeanor) of the eminent broadcaster, down to his slicked-back and pomaded coif, deep baritone, and trademark braces.
The set is simple—chair, table, and the 1940’s microphone, a far cry from the tiny buds we see pinned to broadcasters today. Menino did a good job of recapping Murrow’s rise to fame, which began on a farm in Polecat Creek, North Carolina, then a move, at age six, with his family to homestead in Washington State, where he excelled in debate under the tutelage of Ida Lou Anderson, his polio-ridden teacher. Her guidance followed him well into his career—it was she who instructed him on the proper diction of his, “This is London” preamble to his broadcasts during the blitz while on foreign assignment for CBS.
The actor-as-narrator also explained the genesis of “Good Night and Good Luck”, the phrase he used to sign off. During war-time London’s incessant bombing by Berlin, citizens couldn’t be sure if their friends would be alive the next day following a raid. (Murrow and his wife, Janet Brewster, lost a dear friend in one particularly horrific one.)
Murrow’s World War II broadcasts were so effective in drumming up support for Britain that Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked him to join the BBC. (He demurred, although he carried on a public affair with the Prime Minister’s daughter-in-law, Pamela Churchill, a fact not mentioned in the play, but including it would have done a great deal to liven it up and move it beyond a staged biopic.)
His war-time reporting culminated with being embedded in Patton’s Third Army and Murrow’s broadcasting of the horrors witnessed at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Menino delivered it with the ringing tone of abject disgust, including the reference to “bodies stacked up like cordwood,” which still repels us (and rightfully so) 71 years hence.
Murrow returned to the United States after the War, and continued to work for Bill Paley and CBS in the pioneering days of television, culminating with his “See It Now” series. One segment, which showcased Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red scare, is often credited with leading to the senator’s ultimate censure and downward spiral to his death from alcoholism.
Murrow’s hard-hitting reporting was a double-edged sword, clueing his viewers on sordid details, but frequently offending the network brass (and its advertisers) in the process, and then permanently destroying his close friendship with Paley. His resignation from CBS led to leadership of the United States Information Agency under President John F. Kennedy.
Although the play would benefit from more insight into Murrow’s personality, for those who admire the man and his work, Murrow is a good start. Given today’s backdrop of political correctness, Murrow reminds us of a time when broadcasters spoke their mind—and were willing to accept the consequences.
Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein
Here’s what I learned this week. Please help me try to understand it.
A giant of a jurist died, and before the ink was dry on the death certificate voices were raised to say what should happen as the result of his death.
What I learned in these tragic moments reflects rather unflatteringly on our love for the document that is the foundation stone of our precious democracy. (And in saying that I recall Winston Churchill’s magnificent insight: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.”) Those reminders sent me back to take a reverent look at the documents that have guided the growth of our country from brave idea to struggling realization of a dream: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and at the very outset, the Declaration of Independence. What were the words? I had always thought that the Preamble to the Constitution that emerged from a grueling period of discussion and compromise; daring and disappointment had announced itself as being the expression of “We the People.” But now I was forced to wonder if I had misread the 18th Century penmanship. Did I remember it wrongly? Did it in fact begin with the words, “Me the People”?
So I checked. And came away reassured and somewhat saddened. The message was in fact from “We the People.” And with a certain gallows sense of humor the thought occurred to me that when the inevitable speculation about conspiracy in relation to the death of the honest originalist Antonin Scalia was raised (perhaps in a 140 character tweet) it would be easy enough to counter. It would only require suggesting that a premonition of what would occur in the aftermath of his death would alone have been enough to stop the heart of any dedicated originalist.
He believed that the founders had said what they said and meant what they said, quite literally.
Now admittedly “We the People” is a challenging and risky statement. It means that the individual members of our wildly diverse population must have enough trust in each other and their destiny as a nation to search for answers to their common challenges that combine or at least respect the diverse opinions of this marvelous mosaic of a democracy.
“We the People” when asked will have to search their souls to answer the question of how problems are to be solved. They will have to face up to the admittedly chilling and risky statement and humbly admit that they have to stretch their humanity, put aside any arrogant plan to substitute a personal agenda designed to thwart or block the will of the majority expressed at the ballot box. It means that a wildly diverse population must find within itself enough trust to discover a way to respond to common challenges. It means they will be expected to combine or at least show respect for the diverse opinions of all granted the status implied by the term, “We the People.”
When asked, they will have to search for ways to respect the implications of that lofty phrase. They will never be able to take solace in a claim that one group or individual is empowered to block the constitutionally granted rights of the others.
“We the People” is a proposition that is inconveniently risky, untidy; having the power to deliver at once both justice and discomfort.
“Me the People,” on the other hand, will simply be able to say,” I’ll come up with the perfect, amazing solutions, all without providing any detail on how those miracle will be effected.” The message is “I know how it’s meant to be done. Trust me, when the occasion arises you will see that I am right.”
The Constitution’s Preamble, it seems, is an equal opportunity challenger to potential demagogues and all the individual John and Jane Does who are called upon to resist the temptation to read it as “Me the People.” But whoever said that achieving grand ideas could be easy?
“We the People” will never be able to take solace in such tidy solutions. They will be forced to look into the deepest parts of their sprits to come up with that balance of respect and realism required to honor opinions that do not totally agree their own and to employ whatever powers of persuasion they may have to show their vision of the solutions as clearly and compellingly as possible.
If I am very blessed I will be able to look back on this week as a time when I summoned up the courage to take a stand on the side of “We the People.” For that I will need your help, each and all. And all I can offer in return is that you can count on mine in return.
Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears every Sunday.