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Jewish Journal

Follow the ‘Fellow’

A new drama explores the crumbling legacy of communisim.

by Charles Markowitz

September 12, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Charles Markowitz, left, with John Herman Shaner. Photo by Ed Krieger

Charles Markowitz, left, with John Herman Shaner. Photo by Ed Krieger

John Herman Shaner's play, "Fellow Traveler," starring Harold Gould, opens at the Malibu Stage Company on Sept. 13. A work rooted in issues of both politics and Judaism, it examines the agonizing legacy of communism as experienced by a Jewish TV writer in Hollywood, who is trying to come to terms with a crumbled ideology. Shaner is also the author of "After Crystal-Night," seen at the Odyssey last season.

Charles Marowitz: In your play, "Fellow Traveler," you depict a man who is trying to recover from the massive disillusionment that befell communists from Perestroika right up to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Do you believe there are people who, despite all the horrific revelations of Stalin and Mao, still cling to the communist ideal?

John Herman Shaner: There may be even millions. A little while ago, at a reading of this play here in L.A., I ran into a woman who wrote for Le Figaro, the popular French daily. She told me that half the psychiatric hospital beds in France are filled with ex-communists or ex-socialists, people unable to assimilate the collapse of the Soviet Union and desperately trying to preserve their ideological belief in communism.

They're trying to find, as it were, a backdoor out of their dilemmas, arguing that communism was never really tried -- in just the same way that certain Christians contend that true Christianity has never really been tried.

The story of this play is based on myself and my dearest friend, who proselytized me every single day of our relationship. We were locked in a constant argument, though we remained dear, devoted friends for some 35 or 40 years. In a sense, the play is a revenge against him, his inability to come to terms with the communist realities and his trying impose those irrationalities on me.

CM: There has always been this perception that Jewishness and communism often went hand in hand. Do you believe there was, or is, some kind of affinity between Marxism and Judaism?

JHS: Jews were drawn to Marxism early on, because they felt it was a progressive movement that somehow, through some kind of alchemy, would reduce, diminish or possibly even eradicate anti-Semitism. It propagated universalism, that all men were brothers and that many of the problems that beset Jews came about through economic inequities, and therefore many Jews , particularly the secular ones, felt that where Moses had failed them, Marx was going to redeem them. That anti-Semitism was going to be destroyed and all men truly become equal.

CM: Isn't it ironic that it actually worked the other way?

JHS: It's one of history's very greatest ironies because, if anything, communism mobilized the hatred of the population in countries like Russia and Germany and other supposedly civilized countries against the Jews. The general perception was that the Jews, or some great portion of them, were communists and communists were equated with the anti-Christ.

CM: If the Catholic Church can be rocked by the recent scandals among its priests and bishops and still retain its credibility, can the legacy of Marxism-Leninism ever be entirely banished?

JHS: No, it can't. Because there's this quality in some human beings that they will constantly make that leap of faith. They will say, "Yes there are people who are imperfect, immoral, sexually corrupt, but the underlying idea remains correct." The idea of salvation at the root of Catholicism -- that sense of euphoria that many people get from religion -- that's the same thing that communism gave to millions of people.

CM: In your play, the central character, an unreformable, dyed-in-the-wool communist, recites the "Ashamnu" prayer in order to repent his long-standing political sins. Do you believe that he is representative of former communists that have been forced to acknowledge the crimes of the past?

JHS: My character, Arnold Priest, is forced into this. This is his expiation. He's in a corner; he can't escape. They've got the evidence on him and he realizes it. He is forced into the Ashamnu. He cannot eat, he cannot sleep, his sexual impulse has gone and he is desperately looking for some kind of psychological out. Ironically, that "out" comes through a religious ritual, which he had previously rejected, along with all of Judaism. The Ashamnu means we are telling God and ourselves that we have sinned -- not so much against God, but against each other.

CM: What is it you most want people to take away from seeing your play?

JHS: That to take what is most precious in yourself -- your idealism and your individualism -- and give them up to an ideology that turns out to be corrupt can be fatal to the personality.

This is a play about one's obligation to question -- that you must maintain your own common sense, your own seat-of-the-pants understanding when something contradicts your personal sense of what is right. That you mustn't slavishly pursue a belief simply because it is popular or fashionable or morally uplifting. Every faith, no matter how devout, has to be questioned, because if not, it becomes merely genuflection.

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