Trumbo: A valentine to a blacklisted father

Theater review

Dalton Trumbo, with his unique and memorable name, was brought before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 and asked if he was a Communist. He did not acknowledge that he was, but as he also did not deny membership, he was blacklisted by the motion picture industry. A screenwriter, he was among the first 10 blacklisted – later known as the Hollywood Ten.

His son, Christopher, has lovingly adapted some of his correspondence into a play, Trumbo. Witty, irreverent, irascible and insightful, the letters reflect the struggles of life after being blacklisted.

After being fired by MGM, Trumbo could no longer afford to live in Hollywood. He and his wife Cleo bought a ranch out in the sticks. An early letter to his union explains that he cannot afford dues, as he has no income. Another letter, angry and rather poignant, was sent off to the principal of his daughter’s school. His daughter, initially eager to learn, had stopped wanting to go to school. She was being ostracized.

Because he had not given a direct response to HUAC, he was arrested for contempt of Congress and spent a year in prison. His family went to visit him. The prison was in the South. Christopher, then a child, was made aware of segregation for the first time. He remarks on the irony of his father being in prison for not cooperating with the a committee determined to wipe out “un-American activities,” while in a certain time and place, segregation was “American.”

In the following years, Trumbo’s works either sold for very little or he could not find work. He took the family to Mexico for a while in an experiment to live more frugally (one did not need a passport to travel to Mexico), and he had to resort to selling his work using friends’ names. In this fashion, The Brave One and Roman Holiday were foisted off on studios. They won Oscars.

Finally, in 1960, Trumbo’s name appeared in the credits for Spartacus in spite of industry objection. Otto Preminger then broke the blacklist and hired Trumbo to write the screenplay for Exodus. He was able to return to screenwriting under his own name, and was eventually given a lifetime achievement award by the Screen Writers Guild.

While the situation was grim, the play was enjoyable. Like all good drama, it runs through a gamut of emotions, with a heavy emphasis on laughter through Trumbo’s keen and ascerbic wit.

A wonderful vehicle for actors, several are taking short runs of the lead role. Nathan Lane was the first Trumbo in this production. I saw F. Murray Abraham. Brian Dennehy is scheduled to appear through Nov. 9, followed by a short stint by Gore Vidal. The run is open-ended, and future casting will be announced. Tickets are expensive ($65), but are frequently available at a discount at the TKTS booths at Times Square, and the South Street Seaport, and through TDF (www.tdf.org/indexalt.html). (My own thanks to J.W. for inviting me to see the play.)

In the end, Dalton Trumbo, slightly worse for wear, wins. He has survived the American government’s, and the American movie industry’s, oppression and has not only remained true to his priniciples, but is honored, and as this play shows, loved.

– Karen Moy (kmoy@pww.org)