What is true? This is the question troubling Rose, the main character in the Jules Feiffer play, A Bad Friend, which opened June 9 at New York City’s Lincoln Center Theater.
Unfortunately, A Bad Friend, while pretending to be an accurate moment in history – U.S. Communists in the McCarthy-era 1950s – is really only one man’s view looking through a warped lens.
The story focuses on Rose, the teenage daughter, who rejects her parents rigidity and constant lectures on “Marxism-Leninism.” Uncle Morty, also a Communist, is a successful Hollywood screenwriter, who visits them frequently.
Rose’s mother and father, Naomi and Shelley, distribute the Daily Worker and are staunch supporters of Joe Stalin. The Rosenbergs have been executed and everyone is looking over his shoulder or watching someone else. Rose is followed by an FBI agent, who tries first to charm her, then – more successfully – to trick her into informing on her family and others.
Well-acted and briskly staged, the play is for the most part a humorous portrayal of over-zealous Communists in 1950s Brooklyn. In fact, quite a bit of dialogue is used to detail the many issues and movements of which the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) was in the forefront: peace, union rights, the integration of baseball and against racism in general. The list could – and did – go on and on.
Shelley, Morty and especially Naomi are all confident in their belief in socialism as a better, fairer system. They look to the Soviet Union as a model because it is the first country of socialism. The eventual news that Stalin had, in fact, caused the deaths of thousands of his countrymen – many of them Communists – leaves them shell-shocked and demoralized.
It’s in the final scene that the real point of A Bad Friend becomes clear (especially when coupled with two nasty anti-Communist articles in the companion issue of the “Lincoln Center Theater Review”).
At her father’s funeral, a now-adult Rose declares he died a broken man and that all the stories about the Soviet Union, which her parents had so eagerly followed in the Daily Worker, were “an insult to their intelligence.”
But what is the whole truth?
Because of the overall positive role played by the Soviet Union during the fight against fascism, some Communists, like Naomi and Shelley, did develop an uncritical and unquestioning – maybe even extreme – faith in Stalin. Was it due to “intellectual dishonesty,” as Rose says, or was it a product of the times and a reaction to U.S. foreign and domestic policy, whose aim was to finish what Hitler could not?
There were indeed many writers, politicians, and others knowingly practicing extreme forms of intellectual dishonesty – just as there are today – but their aim was to end the new movements for social progress here and throughout the world.
The real tragedy in A Bad Friend is that the characters – after spending their lives trying to make this a better place – simply give in or give up. On the other hand, the CPUSA is still here fighting for that better world.
– Carolyn Rummel