Preview: Epic Revisits the Red Scares in a One-Off Performance

areyouEpic Theatre Company has announced “a series of programs designed to respond to the country’s political climate,” beginning on Sunday, January 22, with a one-off performance of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? by Eric Russell Bentley, a 1972 play that uses the the real words of questions and answers in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Bentley, who celebrated his 100th birthday a few months ago, gained a reputation as a leading drama critic and scholar of the theater, publishing the non-fiction book Thirty Years of Treason, a collection of transcripts from HUAC interrogations between 1938 and 1968 of entertainment industry celebrities, including Lionel Stander, Abe Burrows, Lillian Hellman, Larry Parks, Elia Kazan, Jerome Robbins, Jose Ferrer, Ayn Rand, Gary Cooper, Ring Lardner Jr., Sterling Hayden, Arthur Miller, Zero Mostel and Tom Hayden. His play Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? is a dramatic arrangement of excerpts from that historical record.

Adopting its title from the iconic question asked of witnesses subpoenaed by HUAC — “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” — the play seeks to give a sense of the impossible dilemma faced by anyone called to testify. No actual evidence was required for a subpoena, as the entire game was really a carefully constructed legal trap: If the witness denied membership they could be charged with perjury;  if the witness admitted to membership they would be blacklisted and unable to work, and they would also be pressed to betray other suspected members; if the witness declined to answer, exercising their constitutional Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, this would be interpreted by the public as an admission, which would destroy their reputation and still leave them blacklisted and unable to work. Witnesses who refused to answer on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the question violated their rights to freedom of speech and association, were charged with contempt.

In reality, the accusations of Communist “infiltration” of the entertainment industry were mostly shams to cover other motivations. During the interval of American neutrality between the start of World War II in Europe in September 1939 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, pro-fascist isolationists asserted a conspiracy theory that American Jews who supposedly controlled the media were agitating to bring the United States into the war. The Soviet Union, the epitome of world communism, was allied with Nazi Germany from the start of the war until June 1941 when the Nazis suddenly attacked and invaded; instantly the American Communist Party reversed from isolationism to interventionism, denying that they had ever been isolationist. The rabidly right-wing Walt Disney, incapable of understanding how much his employees hated him, publicly claimed that labor unrest at his studio was a communist plot.

The McCarthy era and Red Scares were some of the scariest times in the history of this country, when nothing more than rumored or whispered allegations unsupported by any evidence were enough to destroy people’s lives and careers. Given sufficient paranoia and fear, could it happen again?

Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, Epic Theatre Company, Theatre 82, 82 Rolfe Sq, Cranston. One performance only, Sun, Jan. 22, 3pm. Free (but donations accepted for the ACLU). Reservations by e-mail: Handicap accessible.
Featuring (in alphabetical order) Theodore Clement, Bob Colonna, Andrew Conley, Stephanie Crugnola, Alijah Dickenson, Kira Hawkridge, Tommy Labanaris, James Lucey, Kristin McGuirk, Liz McLoughlin, William Oakes, Jim O’Brien, Frank O’Donnell, Tim Rondeau, Melanie Stone, Victor Terry, Cardryell Truss.

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