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The Exoneration of

Theater: Alarums & Excursions


February 5, 1998 | 7:00 pm

 

The Exoneration of

Elia Kazan

When I was growing up in New York in the 1950s, theliberal-leftist microcosm that was my world had one unmitigatedvillain: Elia Kazan. It didn't matter that he was the miraculousmidwife who had brought Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" andTennessee Williams' "Streetcar Named Desire" to fruition; he was a"squealer," a "rat" and a Judas who had turned in his communistcomrades, and, therefore, deserved to be hung, drawn and quartered.

The animus against Kazan began shortly after he became acooperative witness before the House Un-American ActivitiesCommittee, and it has not abated in 40 years. Shortly after learningof his testimony, Arthur Miller came out with a play ("The Crucible")about an accused man who refused to "name names." Originallyearmarked for Kazan, Miller publicly broke with the man who hadvirtually established his career, and the play was directed by JedHarris. Some years later, a reconciliation of sorts occurred, andKazan did direct Miller's "After the Fall" at New York's LincolnCenter, but, by then, the gleam of notoriety had somewhat faded onboth men.

After condemnation from the left, Kazan's career went on, if notimperturbably, at least steadfastly. There were movies such as "Onthe Waterfront," "East of Eden," "A Face in the Crowd," "The LastTycoon" and a number of novels of which "The Arrangement" wasprobably the most successful. But, by and large, Kazan was treatedlike a spent force -- which, in fact, was the last thing he actuallywas.

His massive autobiography could not redeem him, because it did notcontain enough mea culpa to satisfy the liberal left. The fact is,Kazan's disaffiliation with American-styled Soviet communism wasactually a genuine disenchantment with a treacherous, mean-spiritedand obnoxious political philosophy to which too many impressionableliberals had been drawn in the 1930s and 1940s. But, of course, itwasn't the ideology that was at issue. The more salient point wasthat people who were "named" were economically ruined and so theostensibly honorable ritual of repudiating communist doctrine carriedwith it the stigma of destroying the lives of former friends andcomrades.

Last October, the four major talent guilds produced acommemorative evening for survivors of the blacklist at the Academyof Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was a heartwarming eveningand just about four decades overdue. Obviously, the homage paid tothe victims of the hearings that blighted so many lives did not, andcould not, extend to those who, like Kazan, had been partiallyresponsible for the creation of the blacklist. I, like so many of mymorally indignant friends, smoldered with resentment against Kazanthrough the 1960s and 1970s, but I must confess that gradually, bymeans of a painful and torturous circumlocution, I have reached a newplateau of understanding about both the man and his times.

I feel now that what is significant about Kazan, and whatposterity will honor him for, is his creative genius, and that isright and proper. To amend Marc Antony's line: The good that men dolives after them. It is the evil that is "oft interred in theirbones."

Kazan wasn't simply "a brilliant director"; he was an artist wholeft his stamp on a generation of other artists, and he was the manwho raised social and psychological realism to a plane where it hadnever been before. He was a sorcerer in that he conjured magicalperformances out of performers such as Brando, Dean, Steiger, Harris,et al., which these artists rarely achieved again. He did it byrefusing to play the role of old-styled-director in jodhpurs andboots, bellowing abuse at trembling actors, and, rather, by quietlywhispering hints and provocations into their ears, which radicallytransformed their sense of characterization and remarkably enhancedthe material on which they were working. No ploy was too low or tooconniving not to be employed to win the "gold" of a spectacularperformance. No tactic too shoddy or too cruel if it jolted theimagination, thereby astonishing both the audience and the artist.

In retrospect, it could be argued that his influence onplaywrights such as Miller, Williams and Inge is even greater thanthat stamped upon his actors. Tennessee Williams acknowledged hisdebt to him openly, and, before the split, Miller did so privately.Kazan was the shaman and silent manipulator who simultaneouslywinnowed out and sharpened the work of America's finest playwrights,turning torturous "rewrites" into startling "mise en scène."We are all, in a sense, living in the Age of Kazan, and our idolatryof artists such as Brando and Dean, Malden and Steiger, Miller andWilliams is in no small measure due to the directorial intelligencethat colored the public images of those highly esteemed actors andplaywrights.

In justifying his decision "to testify" rather than "take theFifth," Kazan, plumbing the moral circuitry that separates the"informer" from the "silent accomplice," fashioned a cinematicmasterpiece in "On The Waterfront," scripted by that other "friendlywitness," Budd Schulberg. That film was torn from the guts of a manin a state of agonizing ambivalence. Can one really argue, 40 yearsafter the fact, that the moral dilemma painfully exorcised in thatwork was not worth the effort? Regarding his testimony, Kazan hasnever expressed any public remorse, and it may simply be myintrojection that tends to believe he felt it in private. But shouldour appreciation of an artist's achievement mainly be determined bythe flaws in his character? By that measure, we would have toderogate Brecht, Ibsen, Strindberg, Celine, Von Karajan and dozens ofothers.

Every year, doting prize-givers commemorate those artists who haveenriched their profession. Even poor, abused Chaplin, spurned by hisadopted country and branded as everything from a lecher to a Red, wasrehabilitated before his peers, as he sobbed in his wheelchair whenhe received a special Oscar, which was due him at least 30 yearsbefore.

It is bad enough that prophets are never honored in their owncountry, but a truly dismal spectacle to see mediocrities regularlylauded in one hyped-up award ceremony after another, while supremeartists languish in neglect.

Surely, it is time to honor Elia Kazan's unsurpassed mastery --not his moral character or his self-justifying sense of ethics, butthe potent imagination with which he fertilized some of America'smost treasured playwrights and inspired many of its greatestperformers. If Russia can rehabilitate non-persons such as Meyerholdand Solzhenitsyn, surely America can acknowledge the troubled andbesieged man who provided both theater and film with some of its mostenduring achievements.


Charles Marowitz, a regular contributor for In

Theater magazine, writes from Malibu.

All rights reserved by author


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