When successful Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo refused to testify before the 1947 House Committee On UnAmerican Activities, he became the stuff of legend—one of the Hollywood Ten, imprisoned for 11 months in 1950, condemned to the blacklist—and selling scripts through third-party “fronts.”
Years later, he would explore this period of duplicity and shame in his book, The Time of the Toad.
But a more immediate legacy is in the letters he wrote—from prison, from exile both internal and foreign (for a time, the Trumbos lived in Mexico City)—letters to family, friends, and in response to those voices, public and private, he regarded as hypocritical.
These letters form more than the hook, the pretext for Trumbo—Red, White and Blacklisted (now playing a very limited engagement at San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre). They are the texts of the monologues delivered brilliantly by Brian Dennehy, from Trumbo’s desk (or cell) to the world.
There have been collections of Trumbo’s letters, but the present theatrical was conceived by Trumbo’s son, Christopher, and overcomes the objections and prejudices that usually come with solo performances. Even such a fine actor as Dennehy (who goes to London next week to repeat his celebrated portrayal of Willie Loman in the late Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman) would seem to be doing only a spirited reading of Trumbo’s letters; he never gets up from behind the desk he’s stationed at, nor does he take off his reading glasses.
That pre-interpretation doesn’t come to terms with the professionalism and taste of all concerned with this production, from Christopher Trumbo to director Peter Askin, to Dennehy and his colleague William Zielinski, who plays Christopher—part-narrator, sometimes-straightman who sets up the circumstances in which the letters were written, and reacts to them—a character framing a one-character show.
There’s no real interaction between the players (once, Dennehy touches Zielinski on the sleeve without looking at him)—but the value of the letters, both as document and as literature, translate through Dennehy’s careful presentation of Trumbo’s persona and spirited delivery of his pithy verbiage into that theatrical convention Eugene O’Neill (of whose plays Dennehy is one of the great living exponents) imported into American drama—the Strindbergian monologue, a monologue spoken to another character who doesn’t reply.
Whether blasting a false friend in the industry as “a moral hermaphrodite,” or responding to calls to give in to the reality of the blacklist, or writing the mother of a young friend who fronted a script that sold (the friend had died, so Trumbo had to explain who he was and why he had a claim to the property under another man’s name), or sending his son at college the sex manual of Albert Ellis, M. D., Trumbo addresses his reader (and Dennehy the audience) with a dense, wryly humorous, sometimes outrageous diction that goes to the quick of whatever situation that attracted his beacon-like attention.
He excoriates hypocrites (reminding everyone that the government could not enforce punishment beyond jail--only members of the industry with blacklisting and gossip), writes tenderly to his family from prison (with his prisoner’s number following a full signature) and discusses the hopes and the failures they’ve shared with the friends and colleagues of his generation.
His fearless, contentious stance—especially regarding institutional oversight of the hazing of his daughter at school—gives more than a hint of the obloquy the unrepentant blacklistee (and his family and friends) had to suffer.
Director-screenwriter Samuel Fuller (whose iconoclastic films earned him the simultaneous slurs of “Commie” and Fascist) recalled in his memoirs, A Third Face, how he found himself brandishing a bottle in the face of a conservative columnist who was trying to bait Trumbo into a fight at a Hollywood restaurant bar. Fuller later remarks that Trumbo was one of those whose company he came to prefer to the industry’s cocktail party camaraderie.
Fuller’s widow, Christa Lang—who introduced Angela Davis to Jane Fonda at Trumbo’s house—remarks, “What Sam appreciated was that Trumbo was an idealist, yet at the same time open, humorous, with great lucidity about human nature—no pretentious intellectual. He was one of the real Hollywood Ten—not, as Billy Wilder said, one of those whose complaints were later fashionable, ‘when the Hollywood Ten became the Hollywood 360.’”
Trumbo’s script for The Brave One, under the name of Robert Rich, won a 1956 Oscar. A producer picked up the award for the fictional Mr. Rich; Trumbo never got the statuette. In 1960 his name appeared on the scripts for Exodus and Spartacus. A speech given at the Screenwriters Guild has him commenting that everyone—left, right and center—was either hurt by the blacklist or collaborated with it—often under duress.
In a final letter to a colleague and friend, Trumbo speculated on the lasting value of his novels (only accepting Johnny Got His Gun) and the business of screenwriting (stating his belief that the average Hollywood script was better than the average Broadway play), He recalled the accomplishments they’d hoped for when younger, that he’d be able to climb a hill a little higher than the ridge he believed he was standing on.
After the show, Trumbo’s letters seem to be perhaps his best contribution, both to American literature and to the memory of his generation—their hopes for social justice, eulogized in these lines from “Pro Nobis” by poet George Oppen, another ‘50s exile in Mexico: “Tho’ I had hoped to arrive/At an actuality/In the mere number of us/And record now/That I did not.//Therefore pray for us/In the hour of our death indeed.”
8 p.m. Tuesday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through March 20.
Post Street Theatre
450 Post Street, San Francisco
(415) 771-6900 or