Written by John Hancock
and Dorothy Tristan
Directed by John Hancock
Theatre Building, Chicago
One of my earliest memories is peering out our apartment window as my mother pointed to a car parked outside. “That’s the FBI,” she said. Another memory is sitting on my mother’s lap, talking to my father on a phone through a thick glass pane. It was the Men’s House of Detention in lower Manhattan. Also “residing” there at that time were Julius Rosenberg, three years away from the electric chair, and Eugene Dennis, general secretary of the Communist Party.
What was my father’s crime? As a Jew fleeing then-fascist Hungary in the 1920s, he had overstayed his student visa. Later he was able to obtain an immigrant visa and became a citizen. In the 1940s, he had the misfortune of working in the same office as Harry Gold, who became a top witness against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Called before a grand jury in 1950 as the anti-communist witch-hunts and spy hysteria gathered steam, my father was afraid to tell them of his decades-old immigration violation. A week later, after consulting a lawyer, he went back and explained. Nevertheless, he was indicted for perjury, an astronomical bail was set, and his photo was plastered across New York newspapers with headlines calling him a “suspect” in the “atom spy case.”
What was my father’s real “crime”? Being a member of the Communist Party and refusing to name names.
It was a dark time that cast a shadow over my childhood and reverberates for me even today.
Now, director/writer John Hancock, an Academy Award nominee and Obie winner, and actor/writer Dorothy Tristan have brought us a powerful play that evokes those terrible years.
“The Brother” focuses on David Greenglass, whose testimony put his sister Ethel Rosenberg in the electric chair. Greenglass later admitted to New York Times reporter Sam Roberts that he helped send his sister and brother-in-law to their deaths to save his own and his wife’s necks. He served 10 years in jail and then took an assumed name. Based on a book by Roberts, who tracked down and interviewed Greenglass in the 1990s, the play uses this wretched figure as a window into the ideals and betrayals of the era. Most of all, it shows how the ultra-right predecessors of Dick Cheney et al. derailed our country from the euphoria of the U.S.-Soviet anti-fascist alliance into a vicious crusade to destroy not only Soviet socialism but the U.S. Communist Party and the broad American left that the party had helped to build.
After the collapse of the USSR, documents released from Soviet archives seemed to “prove” Julius Rosenberg gave information to the Russians during the war. But we have also learned that documents in those archives pertaining to the Communist Party USA were planted by the FBI. Clearly, these are questionable sources. Who knows if we’ll ever know all the facts.
The play centers around Greenglass’ self-serving version of events, depicting Julius Rosenberg as having recruited Greenglass to help pass atomic secrets to the Russians. Early in the play, Rosenberg addresses the audience, saying, “Of course you’re seeing the David Greenglass version. … And there are after all other possibilities. One is that he’s lying and I am completely innocent.” In which case, he says, the archive documents are U.S. government forgeries. “Another is that I am a hard-nosed idealist fighting for something I believe in with all my heart. You decide.”
The play shows that Rosenberg, like many other progressives, saw that the U.S., even while engaged in the wartime alliance, was working to undermine the Soviet Union. Like millions of Americans at that time, Communist and non-Communist, the Rosenbergs were devoted to the anti-fascist cause and to defending Soviet socialism as a beacon for a postwar world of peace and social justice. As soon as the war ended, that optimistic climate turned grim as right-wing forces launched the Cold War. The Rosenbergs suddenly became juicy potential tools for the anti-communist hysteria — but only if they would cooperate. Fear was the bludgeon, personal gripes, disputes and failings were the lubricants, setting off a wave of names-naming, “confessions” and betrayals of friends and comrades. As the play shows, even minutes before the Rosenbergs’ executions, a phone line was kept open so that, if they “just” agreed to name “only one name,” their lives would be spared. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg did not cooperate. In letters to their children as their deaths approached, they voiced their abiding vision of a better world for humanity.
Greenglass did cooperate. Actor Robert Breuler brings this weak, cowering, blustering figure to life in a stunning performance, showing how the witch-hunters were able to snare such individuals into doing their dirty work.
Greenglass went on to live a living death, reviled and dogged by his tortured memories. The Rosenbergs remain symbols of courage, principle and idealism.
“The Brother” runs through Nov. 18 in Chicago, and may run in New York later. Go see it.