Elia Kazan and The Case for Silence
A story is told that in 1955, after Arthur Miller had finished A View from the Bridge, his one-act play about a Sicilian waterfront worker who in a jealous rage informs on his illegal immigrant nephew, Miller sent a copy to Elia Kazan, who had directed his prize-winning smash Broadway hits All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), but had broken with him over the issue of naming names before HUAC. “I have read your play and would be honored to direct it,” Kazan is supposed to have wired back. “You don’t understand,” Miller replied, “I didn’t send it to you because I wanted you to direct it. I sent it to you because I wanted you to know what I think of stool pigeons.”
Apocryphal? Perhaps. But the story had credibility and currency because after Kazan’s April 1952 testimony before HUAC, Miller and Kazan, once the closest of collaborators and the best of friends, no longer spoke. Kazan was not asked to direct Miller’s next play, The Crucible (1953), and as Sam Zolotow delicately reported, “It is known that a disagreement--nothing to do with the play, though--exists between them that would make their further association incompatible.” They had planned to collaborate on a movie about the waterfront to be called “The Hook,” but now Kazan went on to do his own waterfront picture, On the Waterfront, in which Terry Malloy comes to maturity when he realizes his obligation to fink on his fellow hoods. And Miller wrote View, which tried simultaneously to understand and condemn the informer, Kazan emerged in the folklore of the left as the quintessential informer, and Miller was hailed as the risk-taking conscience of the times. “One could almost say,” said Richard Rovere, “that Miller’s sense of himself is the principle that holds informing to be the ultimate in human wickedness.” Arthur Miller
If we are to understand why so many otherwise high-minded people agreed to lend themselves to HUAC’s degradation ceremonies, Kazan is a good place to begin. Not because he is typical--he was too successful, articulate, self-aware, and visible to be that--but because in his life, his politics, and his art he has done as much to defend the naming of names as his old colleague Miller has done to challenge it.
“If Kazan had refused to cooperate [with HUAC],” speculates one director-victim of the day, “he couldn’t have derailed the Committee, but he might well have broken the blacklist. He was too important to be ignored.” Probably no single individual could have broken the blacklist in April 1952, and yet no person was in a better strategic position to try than Kazan, by virtue of his prestige and economic invulnerability, to mount a symbolic campaign against it, and by this example inspire hundreds of fence sitters to come over to the opposition.
Even Kazan’s harshest critics conceded he had earned his success and power through talent and effort. Born in 1909 in Istanbul, Turkey, to the Kazanjoglouses, a family of Anatolian Greeks who emigrated to the United States when he was four years old, Kazan worked his way through Williams College and Yale Drama School as a waiter. “I think the reason why I later joined the Communist Party and turned against everybody was born at Williams. I had this antagonism to privilege, to good looks, to Americans, to Wasps.”
An alumnus of the already legendary Group Theatre of the 1930s, in the late 1940s Kazan along with Lee Strasberg had helped to found the Actors Studio, which gave America the Stanislavski-based “method” and such outsize talents as Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Lee J. Cobb, Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, and James Dean. Besides Miller’s plays, Kazan directed such classics as Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire His burgeoning career as a screen director was marked by the successes of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), the controversial Gentleman’s Agreement (1948), the documentary-style Boomerang (1947), and the poetically powerful screen version of Streetcar (1951). From 1946 on he had de facto first-refusal rights on any Broadway-bound play. And since the blacklist never dominated the New York theater as it did Hollywood, the conventional wisdom was that he wouldn’t have, in the vernacular of the day, to sing for his supper.
Kazan had a hard-won reputation for caring about the social content of his work. As an actor in the Group Theatre he was the taxi driver in Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty who held up his fist at the end and yelled “Strike!” as the audience yelled “Strike!” right back, in unison. As a member of the proletarian theater movement, he had coauthored a play with Art Smith (on whom he was later to inform) called Dimitrof; subtitled “A Play of Mass Pressure.” It told how the pressure of the world proletariat forced the release of the Bulgarian Communist Dimitroff after he gave a stirring courtroom speech and refused to confess falsely to the setting of the Reichstag fire. The villain of the play was the informer Van der Lubbe, who had been persuaded by Hitler and Goring to put the finger on Dimitroff. The hero of the play, the authors explained in an introductory note, is “mass pressure.”
On Broadway, the plays Kazan directed dealt with problems of conscience, responsibility, and personal honor in a materialistic society, and even in Hollywood he traded in such socially significant themes as anti-Semitism (Gentleman’s Agreement), racial discrimination (Pinky ), and revolution (Viva Zapata ).
It was because Kazan seemed to take the social content of his art so seriously that his appearance before HUAC caused such astonished dismay among many of his friends and colleagues. He was in rehearsal in Boston on Flight into Egypt, George Tabori’s play about a group of refugees from Austria awaiting passage to America, when he was first subpoenaed by HUAC and the rumors started to fly. He went to Washington for a hearing in executive session on a day when he and Tabori had been scheduled to observe the waiting room of a local hospital (on the theory that since much of the action of the play took place in a waiting room, maybe they would pick up some usable business). On his return, Kazan asked Tabori what he had seen, and the playwright, who felt that Kazan’s own confusion about his HUAC appearance was distorting his perspective on the play and its theme of betrayal, was said to have replied, “They cut a man’s tongue out.”
The late Kermit Bloomgarden, who had produced Death of a Salesman, told me, “I do remember that any number of times in the course of the investigations Kazan would say he had been [in the Communist Party], he was not now, he wanted no part of the Communists, but if they wanted him to give names, he’d tell them where to get off. He told me that as late as six weeks before he testified.
“I had an office at 1545 Broadway on the first floor. Kazan had one on the fourth floor. My office had a window then. He waved to me through the window to come down and have a drink with him at Dinty Moore’s. He told me he’d been to Washington and met with J. Edgar Hoover and Spyros Skouras and they wanted him to give names and he was going to call the people whom he had to name. Gadg [Kazan’s nickname] wanted to know what I thought, and I said, ‘Everyone must do what his conscience tells him to do.’ He said, ‘I’ve got to think of my kids.’ And I said, ‘This too shall pass, and then you’ll be an informer in the eyes of your kids, think of that.’ Finally we left Dinty Moore’s and we walked down the block and he went his way and I went mine and we didn’t see or speak to each other for fifteen years. I immediately called Miller and I said to Arthur that it was ninty-nine percent sure that Gadg was giving names. Miller went over to see Gadg and Molly [Kazan’s wife], and then he and Gadg walked for hours through the woods in Roxbury, Connecticut, where Miller told him he would regret it for the rest of his life and tried to talk him out of what he was going to do. When he couldn’t, Gadg went to Washington and Miller went right up to Salem and wrote The Crucible.”
Kazan appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee twice, the first time in January 1952, when he answered all questions except the one about what people he knew to be members of the Communist Party between the summer of 1934, when he joined it, and the spring of 1936, when he left. In April he told the Committee he had come to the conclusion “that I did wrong to withhold these names before, because secrecy serves the Communists, and is exactly what they want.” Now his testimony, written in advance, was articulate, tough, and detailed as he named eight members of his Group Theatre unit and some Party functionaries. He split with the Party, he said, over its attempt to use him to take over the group:
... I was instructed by the Communist unit to demand that the group be run “democratically.” This was a characteristic Communist tactic; they were not interested in democracy; they wanted control. They had no chance of controlling the directors, but they thought that if authority went to the actors, they would have a chance to dominate through the usual tricks of behind-the-scenes caucuses, block voting, and confusion of issues. This was the specific issue on which I quit the Party. I had enough regimentation, enough of being told what to think and say and do, enough of their habitual violation of the daily practices of democracy to which I was accustomed. The last straw came when I was invited to go through a typical Communist scene of crawling and apologizing and admitting the error of my ways.... I had had a taste of police-state living and I did not like it.
Had he simply told his story and named his names along with the scores of other witnesses, he might have been denounced on the left, celebrated on the right, and his testimony forgotten. But Kazan was not content to let his affidavit speak for itself. First, he appended to his testimony an annotated bibliography cum apologia which listed and “explained” the entire history of his twenty-five professional forays as a director. This seemed to his critics unnecessary bending. Most of the items on his list were comparatively harmless, and Kazan said so, but whenever there was the possibility of an interpretation at odds with prevailing dogma, he anticipated the objection. Thus:
Boomerang (picture), 1946: Based on an incident in the life of Homer Cummings, later Attorney General of the United States. It tells how an initial miscarriage of justice was righted by the persistence and integrity of a young district attorney, who risked his career to save an innocent man. This shows the exact opposite of the Communist libels on America.
All My Sons, by Arthur Miller, 1947: The story of a war veteran who came home to discover that his father, a small manufacturer, had shipped defective plane parts to the Armed Forces during the war. Some people have searched for hidden propaganda in this one, but I believe it to be a deeply moral investigation of problems of conscience and responsibility.
Gentleman’s Agreement (picture): Picture version of the best-selling novel about anti-Semitism. It won an Academy Award and I think it is in a healthy American tradition, for it shows Americans exploring a problem and tackling a solution. Again it is opposite to the picture which Communists present of Americans....
Pinky (picture), 1949: The story of a Negro girl who passed for white in the North and returns to the South to encounter freshly the impact of prejudice. Almost everyone liked this except the Communists, who attracked it virulently. It was extremely successful throughout the country, as much so in the South as elsewhere....
Viva Zapata (picture, my most recent one), 1951: This is an anti-Communist picture. Please see my article on political aspects of this picture in the Saturday Review of April 5, which I forwarded to your investigator, Mr. Nixon.
The day after his testimony was given (in executive session), it was released, and the day after that (April 12, 1952) Kazan took an ad in The New York Times explaining his position and exhorting others to do likewise. Its logic--that the way to fight totalitarian secrecy was with free-world openness--seemed impeccable, if one accepted its premise (that all Communists were totalitarian conspirators), its asides (that the employment of liberals was threatened “because they had allowed themselves to be associated with Communists,” rather than because some freelance vigilantes had joined with HUAC to create and enforce a blacklist), and its rhetoric (Communist censorship is “thought control” but HUAC intimidation is unmentioned). It will be recalled--although Kazan didn’t mention it in the ad--that part of the reason he left the Party was because they wanted him to confess error and humiliate himself. Here is the ad:
A STATEMENT, by Elia Kazan
In the past weeks intolerable rumors about my political position have been circulating in New York and Hollywood. I want to make my stand clear:
I believe that Communist activities confront the people of this country with an unprecedented and exceptionally tough problem. That is, how to protect ourselves from a dangerous and alien conspiracy and still keep the free, open, healthy way of life that gives us self-respect.
I believe that the American people can solve this problem wisely only if they have the facts about Communism. All the facts. Now, I believe that any American who is in possession of such facts has the obligation to make them known, either to the public or to the appropriate Government agency.
Whatever hysteria exists--and there is some, particularly in Hollywood--is inflamed by mystery, suspicion and secrecy. Hard and exact facts will cool it.
The facts I have are sixteen years out of date, but they supply a small piece of background to the graver picture of Communism today. I have placed these facts before the House Committee on Un-American Activities without reserve and I now place them before the public and before my coworkers in motion pictures and in the theatre. Seventeen and a half years ago I was a twenty-four-year-old stage manager and bit actor, making $40 a week, when I worked.
At that time nearly all of us felt menaced by two things: the depression and the ever growing power of Hitler. The streets were full of unemployed and shaken men. I was taken in by the Hard Times version of what might be called the Communists’ advertising or recruiting technique. They claimed to have a cure for depressions and a cure for Naziism and Fascism.
I joined the Communist Party late in the summer of 1934. I got out a year and a half later. I have no spy stories to tell, because I saw no spies. Nor did I understand, at that time, any opposition between American and Russian national interest. It was not even clear to me in 1936 that the American Communist Party was abjectly taking its orders from the Kremlin.
What I learned was the minimum that anyone must learn who puts his head into the noose of party “discipline.” The Communists automatically violated the daily practices of democracy to which I was accustomed. They attempted to control thought and to suppress personal opinion. They tried to dictate personal conduct. They habitually distorted and disregarded and violated the truth. All this was crudely opposite to their claims of “democracy” and “the scientific approach.”
To be a member of the Communist Party is to have a taste of the police state. It is a diluted taste but it is bitter and unforgettable. It is diluted because you can walk out.
I got out in the spring of 1936.
The question will be asked why I did not tell this story sooner. I was held back, primarily, by concern for the reputations and employment of people who may, like myself, have left the Party many years ago.
I was also held back by a piece of specious reasoning which has silenced many liberals. It goes like this: “You may hate the Communists, but you must not attack them or expose them, because if you do you are attacking the right to hold unpopular opinions and you are joining the people who attack civil liberties.”
I have thought soberly about this. It is, simply, a lie.
Secrecy serves the Communists. At the other pole, it serves those who are interested in silencing liberal voices. The employment of a lot of good liberals is threatened because they have allowed themselves to become associated with or silenced by the Communists.
Liberals must speak out.
I think it is useful that certain of us had this kind of experience with the Communists, for if we had not we should not know them so well. Today, when all the world fears war and they scream peace, we know how much their professions are worth. We know tomorrow they will have a new slogan.
Firsthand experience of dictatorship and thought control left me with an abiding hatred of these. It left me with an abiding hatred of Communist philosophy and methods and the conviction that these must be resisted always. It also left me with the passionate conviction that we must never let the Communists get away with the pretense that they stand for the very things which they kill in their own countries.
I am talking about free speech, a free press, the rights of property, the rights of labor, racial equality and, above all, individual rights. I value these things. I take them seriously. I value peace, too, when it is not bought at the price of fundamental decencies. I believe these things must be fought for wherever they are not fully honored and protected whenever they are threatened.
The motion pictures I have made and the plays I have chosen to direct represent my convictions.
I expect to continue to make the same kinds of pictures and to direct the same kinds of plays.
Kazan’s status, testimony, apologetic curriculum vitae, and advertisement, and rumors that he could make a big-money deal with Spyros Skouras contingent on his naming names--these collectively established him on the left as the ultimate betrayer, even as he was hailed on the right as patriot and applauded by centrist liberals for doing the difflcult but right wing. He went on the letterhead of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (which condemned Miller for being insufflciently vocal in his condemnations of Soviet totalitarianism), and his first post-HUAC film, Man on a Tightrope (1953), had an overtly anti-Communist theme. The Daily Worker, picking up on Kazan’s having named his old Dimitroff co-author, Art Smith, asked with characteristic rhetorical overkill: “Isn’t it clear that Kazan, like Vander Lubbe, is repeating the same old vicious lies the Nazis invented to cover up their murderous aggression! And for a similar purpose--to aid Wall Street’s drive to world power?”
The Worker went on to observe that in Scene One of Dimitroff, Hitler puts his arms around Vander Lubbe and says, “This is the greatest moment of my life.” Said the Worker: “Kazan’s belly-crawling statement calling upon U.S. intellectuals to prostrate themselves before the Big Money sounds as if he too really believes (one can visualize the chairman of the Un-American Activities Committee putting his arm around him), ‘This is the greatest moment of my life.’ “It is the lowest moment of Kazan’s life, one which will haunt him forever.”
It soon became clear that whatever Kazan’s motives, his reputation as the epitome of a betrayer would outlast the Party’s ritualistic indignation.
When HUAC asked the folksinger Tony Kraber, another Group Theatre alumnus who had been named by Kazan, whether they had known each other in the Party, Kraber responded, “Is this the Kazan that signed the contract for five hundred thousand dollars the day after he gave names to this Committee?” To the day he died in 1977, Zero Mostel, who made it back to a stardom he had never known before he was blacklisted, referred to Kazan as “Looselips.” Sidney Zion, the editor of Scanlan’s Monthly, a brash magazine that flourished briefly in the 1970s, once ran an article called “Hello, Informer,” and to accompany it, he republished Kazan’s 1952 ad and sent him a check for $150. No matter how unrelated the occasion, few serious interviewers fail to ask Kazan about his informing.
Today, Kazan declines to discuss his twenty-odd-year-old decision to name names. He has, he tells me--in person and by mail--received dozens of requests for interviews on this subject, but with one partial exception he has turned them all down. He gives a number of reasons, some personal, some general, depending on who is doing the asking. It is, he says, not all that important. If he had the same decision to make again, he might decide the same way. In any event, he is now busy with other things--writing novels and traveling--and that’s what he would prefer to talk about. He will “do that scene” in his own way in his own good time, and he doesn’t intend to undercut his future eflfort to write about the 1950s. Another thing: the decision to name names was a difflcult decision, and a difflcult decision brings pain no matter which way one goes. “The liberals who think I did it for the money are simplistic. I’ve turned down million-dollar deals.” Besides, he would prefer to describe his position outside the “envelope” of someone else’s words. After all, he was there, and he is a novelist, and to capture the complexities requires a novelist’s ability to recreate context. He has been reading over his voluminous papers (which he donated to Wesleyan University, under terms that render them unavailable to the public until he has finished using them for his own purposes), and he finds them unique and personal and full of unexpected turns. The trick is not to attack others, but to try to understand some of the painful events in a context where personalities and past experiences and pressures interlock, and who is better qualified than he? The materials, after all, include intimate diaries, including his own notes following sessions with his therapist, letters from and to such varied personalities as Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Tennessee Williams, et al. It is all so intimate that he “wouldn’t show it to my own brother.”
The partial exception is Michel Ciment, the French critic who regards Kazan as one of the great film directors of all time and who was granted permission to ask Kazan whatever he wanted, provided Kazan had final editing privileges on the taped interview. Although they discussed the subject only briefly, what he told Ciment in 1971 was not inconsistent with his more generalized comments when ostensibly refusing to discuss the matter with others, a cross between ambivalence and justification:
I don’t think there’s anything in my life toward which I have more ambivalence, because, obviously, there’s something disgusting about giving other people’s names. On the other hand . . . at that time I was convinced that the Soviet empire was monolithic.... I also felt that their behavior over Korea was aggressive and essentially imperialistic.... Since then, I’ve had two feelings. One feeling is that what I did was repulsive, and the opposite feeling, when I see what the Soviet Union has done to its writers, and their death camps, and the Nazi pact and the Polish and Czech repression.... It revived in me the feeling I had at that time, that it was essentially a symbolic act, not a personal act. I also have to admit and I’ve never denied, that there was a personal element in it, which is that I was angry, humiliated, and disturbed--furious, I guess--at the way they booted me out of the Party.... There was no doubt that there was a vast organization which was making fools of the liberals in Hollywood.... It was disgusting to me what many of them did, crawling in front of the Party. Albert Maltz published something in few Masses, I think, that revolted me: he was made to get on his hands and knees and beg forgiveness for things he’d written and things he’d felt. I felt that essentially I had a choice between two evils, but one thing I could not see was (by not saying anything) to continue to be a part of the secret maneuvering and behind the scenes planning that was the Communist Party as I knew it. I’ve often, since then, felt on a personal level that it’s a shame that I named people, although they were all known, it’s not as if I were turning them over to the police; everybody knew who they were, it was obvious and clear. It was a token act to me, and expressed what I thought at the time....
I don’t say that what I did was entirely a good thing. What’s called “a difficult decision” is a difficult decision because either way you go there are penalties,tright? What makes some things difficult in life is if you’re marrying one woman you’re not marrying another woman. If you go one course you’re not going another course. But I would rather do what I did than crawl in front of a ritualistic Left and lie the way those other comrades did, and betray my own soul. I didn’t betray it.
If Kazan had fully refrained from discussing the issue of informing, that would indeed be unfortunate, since he has so much to tell us. Happily for students of the phenomenon, however, Kazan has been talking about informing for twenty-five years, although he has frequently put out his message in disguised form. Indeed, it can be argued that his film On the Waterfront, with its screenplay by Budd Schulberg (who also named names), makes the definitive case for the HUAC informer or at least is--among its considerable other achievements--a valiant attempt to complicate the public perception of the issue. The image of the informer is transformed from thirties-McLaglen to fifties-Brando.
After he unwittingly sets up young Joey Doyle to be pushed off the roof, the hero, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) reflects, “He wasn’t a bad kid, that Joey,” but he is quickly reminded, “He was a canary,” which by the waterfront ethic is supposed to justify the brutal murder.
The movie is rife with talk of “rats,” “stoolies,” “cheesies,” “canaries.” Terry Malloy has to choose between the waterfront ethic, which holds ratting to be the greatest evil, and the Christian ethic, which suggests that one ought to speak truth to power. The former is represented by the vulgar, vicious, cigar-chomping corrupt labor boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb, also a real-life informer), and the latter by the cleancut, gutsy, straight-talking priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden). Terry comes to maturity and wins the girl (Eva Marie Saint) when he gains the courage to inform. In addition he achieves heroic stature as he single-handedly takes on the mob at the risk of his life and in the process comes to true self-knowledge. “I been ratting on myself all these years,” he tells Johnny Friendly, “and I didn’t know it. I’m glad what I done.”
A particularly poignant moment occurs when Terry’s protege, Tommy, who has helped him tend Joey Doyle’s pigeons on the roof, confronts him after he has turned informer and throws a dead bird at his feet. “What’s that for?” asks Terry. “A pigeon for a pigeon,” says Tommy. Even here, however, the message is clear: The injunction against informing is all right as a guideline for an adolescent street gang like Tommy’s Golden Warriors, but it won’t do for adults who are obliged to look at each situation in its own moral context. (What’s ratting for them is telling the truth for you.) Squealing is relative.
Whatever else it may be, Waterfront seems an allegory for 1950s anti-Communism, with the Waterfront Crime Commission an analog for HUAC. The critic Peter Biskind [in the book Seeing is Believing] has gone further, ingeniously elaborating a religious metaphor. According to Biskind, when Terry decides to become a stool pigeon he fuses the spiritual and secular realms:
In Christian terms, Terry voluntarily assumes the role of the meek (the dove); in secular terms he assumes the role of the stool pigeon (the informer); and the one transfigures the other. The political informer as Christian saint. Terry is well on his way to crucifixion before he testifies. He puts his hand through a plate-glass window (stigmata) and later when his friends avoid him after his testimony he experiences the abandonment of Christ on the Cross.
But one needn’t accept either the cold war or religious analogies to recognize the fact of Kazan-Schulberg’s achievement: the creation of a context in which the naming of names is the only honorable thing to do--the maximum case for informing.
Kazan says life is ambiguous and his movies are meant to avoid black-and-white portrayals. “The librals’ answer to HUAC is simplistic. That’s what I think is wrong with Arthur’s plays,” he says, “and you know how I like him. But he’s always striving for an absolute, a single answer. That’s what I object to about Lillian [Hellman]. I respect her work but she’s an either-or person.” Yet Kazan-Schulberg leave no room for ambiguity in Waterfront. The most memorable moment in the picture is the taxicab scene where Terry tells his brother Johnny (Rod Steiger) that Johnny should have taken better care of him (“I couldda been a contender”). If his informing had meant that the loyal and loving Terry would be sending his brother to prison or perhaps the electric chair, then the dilemma posed by the act of informing would have been real. But Kazan-Schulberg have the mob rub Johnny out, thereby giving Terry a socially sanctified personal motive (revenge) for testifying against the mob, as well as the political one (anti-corruption): This denies the audience any opportunity for genuine consideration of the ambivalent and dangerous complexities of the informer issue. “Squealing” may be relative, but in Waterfront it is mandatory.
Waterfront is not Kazan’s only indirect reference to his HUAC experiences. In novels, films, and interviews he frequently includes material that justifies informing. After writing his number-one best-seller, The Arrangement, which was published in 1967 by Stein & Day (whose co-founder is the same Sol Stein who was formerly executive director of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom), and making it into a movie, Kazan let it be known that he was forsaking moviemaking, which had lost its magic for him, for full-time novel-writing. But two best-sellers later, he returned to the screen with a quite powerful low-budget movie he filmed at his country home in Connecticut, and which he directed at the request of his son Christopher, who had written it. The Visitors (1972) is the story of a gentle Vietnam vet who informed on two Calley-type buddies whom he had witnessed raping a Vietnamese girl in a My Lai situation. The film tells what happens when the brutal men he testified against are released from the stockade and journey up to Connecticut to terrorize him and his girlfriend.
In a number of conversations with me, the ostensible purpose of which were to (1) get to know each other but (2) explain why he wouldn’t talk about his naming of names, the subject of informing kept coming up spontaneously. John Dean was appearing before the Senate Watergate Committee, in its televised hearings, as we talked one time, and Kazan observed that Dean’s mouth seemed to move apart from the rest of his face; neither of us was unaware that Dean was an informer who might be said to be engaged in socially constructive betrayal. Kazan mentioned a jury on which he had served that was about to acquit a guilty man because the only evidence against him was provided by a police informant, until Kazan and the critic Alfred Kazin, who was also on the jury, intervened and carried the day. He lent me the transcript of a trial involving a Jewish Defense League police informer who was being persecuted by the police. And when we ran into each other on a Broadway bus a few days after Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was published, Kazan observed, “Isn’t it interesting that all of that was going on while all of what you’re looking at was going on?” The implication: If he was right about Stalinist brutality, perhaps he was not altogether wrong to name the names of those who denied Stalinist brutality.
Even if Kazan had really found it possible to resist the temptation to revisit the scene of his alleged crime, his historical connection with Arthur Miller probably of itself guarantees that for him there is no escaping the issue. For Miller, preoccupied as he is with the relationships between public and private morality, between the claims of the state and the claims of conscience, has returned again and again to the theme of betrayal, and each journey serves to remind those who care of Kazan’s counterpoint role.
Miller’s The Crucible, set in Salem during the witchcraft trials of the 1600s, tells the story of a community in the grip of terror. Its central character is John Proctor, who prefers to die rather than to give false testimony. When the prosecutor Danforth asks John Proctor to name names, he says:
I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another. I have no tongue for it.... I have three children--how may I teach them to walk like men in the world, and I sold my friends?
DANFORTH: You have not sold your friends—
PROCTOR: Beguile me not! I blacken all of them when this [a false confession he has prepared] is nailed to the church the very day they hang for silence!—
Miller had written the play from documents he uncovered in research, and it was his conviction that “the fact that Proctor and others refused to give false evidence probably helped to bring the witch trials to an end. Their character was such that it penetrated the mob. When it came time for Rebecca Church to be hanged, the mob surged in and had to be stopped by cavalry.
The critic Eric Bentley and others attacked the implicit analogy in the play between Massachusetts and Washington on the grounds that there hadn’t actually been any witches in Salem, whereas there were Communists in Washington. As Miller recalls it, “The Crucible appeared to some as a misreading of the problem at best--a ‘naivete,’ or at worst a specious and even sinister attempt to whitewash the guilt of the Communists with the noble heroism of those in 1692 who had rather be hung than confess to nonexistent crimes.... The truth is,” Miller argues, “the playwriting part of me was drawn to what I felt was a tragic process underlying the political manifestation.... When irrational terror takes to itself the fiat of moral goodness somebody has to die. I thought that in terms of this process the witch-hunts had something to say to the anti-Communist hysteria. No man lives who has not got a panic button and when it is pressed by the clean white hand of moral duty, a certain murderous train is set in motion.”
(For a somewhat similar film, see Big Jim McClain.)
Miller might have added that there was another sense in which his allegory was appropriate. The word “Communist” had come, as we have seen, to signify an amalgam of traitorous espionage-agent and conspiratorial, violent revolutionary, yet Kazan and the other entertainment community witnesses called before HUAC were not, and never had been, either of these. In that sense HUAC was hunting in Hollywood for something that wasn’t there.
To the charge that his play was agitprop against the McCarthy witchhunt, Miller, like Kazan, had a complicated answer:
It is not any more an attempt to cure witch hunts than Salesman is a plea for the improvement of conditions for traveling men, All My Sons a plea for better inspection of airplane parts.... The Crucible is, internally, Salesman’s blood brother. It is examining ... the conflict between a man’s raw deeds and his conception of himself; the question of whether conscience is in fact an organic part of the human being, and what happens when it is handed over not merely to the state or the mores of the time but to one’s friend or wife.”
Even as Miller argues that critics have misread the symbolic meaning of The Crucible, Kazan has suggested that it is wrong to read On the Waterfront primarily as an allegory in defense of his behavior before HUAC. “It was aimed at something more universal,” he told two interviewers in 1971. He cited the Mafia trials and the My Lai investigations as examples of situations where good people are conflicted between the social duty to expose and the ethic of silence. “That’s a very characteristic and very genuine inner conflict of man. As a matter of fact,” says Kazan, “On the Waterfront did not start with Budd Schulberg, it started with Arthur Miller.” And he tells the story of how, long before he knew Schulberg, long before his HUAC testimony, he went to Arthur Miller and said, “Let’s do a story about the waterfront!” They actually got as far as Miller’s drafting the screenplay of The Hook,” which was scheduled to be made by Columbia Pictures. “Then I got a phone call from Art,” says Kazan, “saying that he had decided he didn’t want to do it. I still don’t know why he did that.”‘ (The reason, according to Miller, is that Harry Cohn, Roy Brewer, and the FBI all suggested that Miller should substitute reds for racketeers as the force terrorizing the waterfront workers. When Miller said no, Cohn fired off a telegram to him which said, “Strange how the minute we want to make a script proAmerican, Miller pulls out.”)
Miller did not get around to his own waterfront drama until 1955; A View from the Bridge is the story of Eddie Carbone, an Italian immigrant who lives on the waterfront with his wife Beatrice and his niece Catherine, for whom he has an irresistible attraction. When a Sicilian cousin, Rodolpho, who has entered the country illegally, wins Catherine’s love, Eddie, consumed with incestuous jealousy, informs on Rodolpho to the immigration authorities, and soon thereafter suffers the fatal consequences of his betrayal.
Whatever Miller’s intention (he later told me, “We don’t want to forget the enemy--it wasn’t the informer. It was the state which forced people to inform”), the anti-informer theme is inescapable. The injunction against informing is underlined at the outset as Eddie explains to his family why it is best that they tell nobody about the illegals:
EDDIE: I don’t care what the question is. You--don’t--know--nothin’. They got stool pigeons all over this neighborhood they’re payin’ them every week for information, and you don’t know who they are. It could be your best friend. You hear? To Beatrice: Like Vinny Bolzano, remember Vinny?
BEATRICE: Oh yeah. God forbid.
EDDIE: Tell her about Vinny. To Catherine: You think I’m blowin’ steam here? To Beatrice: Go ahead, tell her. To Catherine: You was a baby then. There was a family lived next door to her mother, he was about sixteen—
BEATRICE: No, he was not more than fourteen, cause I was to his confirmation in Saint Agnes. But the family had an uncle that they were hidin’ in the house, and he snitched to the Immigration.
CATHERINE: The kid snitched?
EDDIE: On his own uncle!
CATHERINE: What, was he crazy?
EDDIE: He was crazy after, I tell you that, boy.
BEATRICE: Oh, it was terrible. He had five brothers and the old father. And they grabbed him in the kitchen and pulled him down the stairs--three flights his head was bouncin’ like a coconut. And they spit on him in the street, his own father and his brothers. The whole neighborhood was cryin’.
CATHERINE: Ts! So what happened to him?
BEATRICE: I think he went away. To Eddie: I never seen him again, did you?
EDDIE: . . . Him? You’ll never see him no more, a guy do a thing like that. How’s he gonna show his face? To Catherine: Just remember kid, you can quicker get back a million dollars that was stole than a word that you gave away.
In an effort to reconcile an impulse he doesn’t understand, Eddie forgets what happened to Vinny and why. He consults the lawyer-narrator Alfieri, a sort of Greek-chorus character. And when Alfieri understands what is on Eddie’s mind he says:
I’m not only telling you now, I’m warning you.... You won’t have a friend in the world, Eddie! Even those who understand will turn against you, even the ones who feel the same will despise you. Put it out of your mind! Eddie!’
Eddie is powerless to resist. And by his act of informing he betrays not only Rodolpho but the people he loves most. He has no place to go, as the people who knew him and accepted him--the neighborhood--reject him. And so he dies.
By the time Miller was called to appear before HUAC on June 21, 1956, he had already found his way onto a number of blacklists, including that of the New York Board of Education, which canceled a contract with him to write a film on street gangs. His performance before the Committee almost lived up to his art.
Like Proctor, Miller was willing to talk about himself--and he did, at considerable length--but not to name others. Thus, asked why the Communist Party produced his play You’re Next, he remarked, “I take no more responsibility for who plays my plays than General Motors can take for who rides in their Chevrolets.” He also told the Committee, apropos his brief flirtation with organized Communism, that “I have had to go to hell to meet the devil” (which led Lillian Hellman to quip that he must have gone as a tourist). But when asked whether he had attended a Communist Party meeting at the home of one Sue Warren, which was chaired by Arnaud d’Usseau, author of the play Deep Are the Roots (directed, as it happens, by Kazan), he declined to answer. Unlike most resisting witnesses, however, he did not invoke the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination. Instead, he invoked the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and, by implication, the right to silence. Whereas the straight Fifth would, under prevailing doctrine, have definitely kept Miller out of jail, “taking the First” risked incurring the fate of the Hollywood Ten. Under these circumstances, many people on the liberal left perceived him as something of a heroic countersymbol to the prevailing informer-as-hero type. But the reality was somewhat more ambiguous than that, since Miller conceded the Committee’s right to inquire into his own political opinions, which is more than many resisters wanted to grant; also, by 1956 the worst ravages of the anti-Communist terror seemed to have passed, and Miller after all had at his side his fiancee, the nation’s reigning sex queen, Marilyn Monroe: The reason he wanted a passport in the first place (the ostensible subject of the hearings) was to take her to London, where they planned to honeymoon and see one of his plays. Finally, although if convicted he was subject to a maximum sentence of $1000 and a year in prison, he was so polite that Chairman Walter thanked him for his testimony, leading some to believe he might never be cited for contempt; in the event, he was fined $500 and given a suspended thirty-day sentence.
In arguing on appeal from his contempt of Congress citation, Miller’s attorney, Joseph Rauh, was able to ask a unique rhetorical question: “What could have a more restraining effect on a man’s future writing than forcing him publicly to perform an act openly condemned by his current writing?” At the very moment the Committee was interrogating Miller, A View from the Bridge was being performed in various parts of this country and was being readied for production in England.
It was not only those who agreed with him who saw Miller as the archetypal anti-informer. The liberal Richard Rovere found that what Miller did before the Committee involved “a certain amount of moral and political confusion.” Even if Miller was morally justified in refusing to bow to the Committee’s procedure of testing the good faith of witnesses by demanding that they name names, Rovere thought, he was wrong in trying to elevate the refusal to inform into a “universal principle.” Otherwise, wrote Rovere, we should supplement the Fifth Amendment with another one saying, “No man could be required to incriminate another,” and if we did that, the whole machinery of law enforcement would collapse because, “If any agency of the community is authorized to undertake a serious investigation of any of our common problems, then the identities of others’ names are of great importance.”
But Rovere attributed to Miller a position he never took. Miller the witness was articulating a point of conscience, not a legislative program. Miller the playwright never pretended to take his characters beyond their context. Moreover, although Miller may have been the informer’s most visible symbolic enemy, his own attitudes on the matter were in flux. Marilyn Monroe, who had worked with Kazan at the Actors Studio and had an affection for him, got the two ex‑friends back on speaking terms. Miller revised A View from the Bridge, so that it was less a condemnation of Eddie Carbone-as-informer and more a legend of the human condition. In the final version the lawyer Alfieri makes a new speech that gives Eddie a dignity he originally lacked:
Most of the time now we settle for half and I like it better. But the truth is holy, and even as I know how wrong he was, and his death useless, I tremble for I confess that something perversely pure calls to me from his memory not purely good, but himself purely, for he allowed himself to be wholly known and for that I think I will love him more than all my sensible clients. And yet, it is better to settle for half, it must be! And so I mourn him--I admit it--with a certain...alarm.
In 1963, when Miller and Kazan--who had separately dreamed of working with a national repertory theater--were invited to serve as resident playwright and director, respectively, of Lincoln Center for its first season (1963-64), the reconciliation between these two was hard for many to understand, much less accept. This was especially true since the play on which they were to renew their collaboration was Miller’s autobiographical After the Fall, which had as its protagonist Quentin (Jason Robards), a one-time Communist who breaks with a friend about to turn informer before a congressional committee. At the time most of the gossip focused on blond, beautiful, vulnerable Maggie, modeled, it seemed, on the late Marilyn Monroe, but the insiders knew that Kazan was also directing an informer-character based on Kazan. The New York Times critic wrote at the time, the play recalls “those who would name names and those who wouldn’t.... After the Fall seeks to understand, not to judge.”
One member of the company recalls: “I couldn’t believe what was going on. Gadg in his own really paranoid way thought he was the hero of this play--not that he ever asked Arthur. He thought it was about him, not Marilyn. He and Jason had a big battle about that long naming-names speech. That’s when Jason vanished--went off on a week’s binge and they couldn’t find him. It was a bitter, dark, and terrifying fight they had over that speech. “At first Miller thought Kazan understood his play--then he thought Kazan used Barbara Loden (Maggie) to take it away from the central issue. I mean, he looked at things sexually instead of intellectually--he made her play it in a see-through dress--and that was a road to escape. “The problem with Arthur is that he was an ‘informer.’ He was informing. Gadg kind of had one over him because he was really ‘naming’ Marilyn and the rest of them. The invasion of privacy is what made it so sick.”
Miller never accepted the criticism that he had invaded Marilyn Monroe’s privacy. The critic Tom Prideaux probably had it right when he wrote, “For many years, whoever sees After the Fall will be haunted by Marilyn’s golden image. It comes with the territory....Miller points out that those who were vicious to her alive were most quick to condemn the alleged portrayal of her dead. “The hypocrisy which bewildered and finally enraged her in life indeed seems to be following her in death.”
Many of Miller’s friends never forgave him for reuniting with Kazan. “The irony of Kazan doing After the Fall,” notes Norman Rosten, a friend of Miller and Monroe, ‘was that Miller thought he was getting the same man who directed Death of a Salesman, and Kazan was not the same man. It was not the same setup. Miller was looking for a replay of his past triumphs and the plays were different, the times were different. Kazan--because of what he had gone through--was not the same man and the chemistry was different.”
Kermit Bloomgarden, too, blamed Miller for the play and its director. “He gave the Kazan-character a flag of honesty and then he attacked the people who took the Fifth Amendment.”
Even Miller’s close friend and publicist on all his plays, James Proctor, stopped talking to him for two years. He remembers the day in 1958 he was to appear before the Un-American Activities Committee: “At seven-thirty in the morning my doorbell rang and it was Arthur. He was there to bolster my morale.” Now Proctor was bafffled as to why Miller, who had never waivered on what he himself would do, would allow Kazan to direct his play. (But then, Proctor had what some might characterize as a bias. He had been named by Kazan--specifically, Kazan had told HUAC that Proctor had signed Molly Kazan’s name as a sponsor of the Waldorf Peace Conference--the 1949 popular-front gathering attacked for its Communist participants--without her permission, and that he had later apologized for this.) Proctor is a moralist who says, “I’ve always believed that why a subject behaved as he did was a proper subject for medical study, but how he behaved was a proper basis for judging a person.”
“It was a time when everybody became an expert on everybody else’s life,” says Conrad Bromberg, the son of the actor J. Edward Bromberg, who was named by Kazan and appeared before HUAC under compulsion and against doctor’s orders. He declined to cooperate and died shortly after. Conrad (who has written and rewritten a dozen drafts of a play called “The Death of a Blacklisted Actor,” the titular character being based on a combination of his father, John Garfield, and Edward G. Robinson) observes, “There was a great Brownie point system set up, depending on which way you wanted to jump. Who was more cowardly? Who was more courageous? Lee Strasberg [director at the Group Theatre and Actors Studio] was a big adviser on what to do. His position was that artists have no place in politics, and if you get caught you get out. Everybody was meeting in living rooms and everywhere the same argument occurred. On the basis of what do you take that position? It was not so much a defense of the USSR as a question of how far do you bend in order to survive? If it doesn’t bother you, you bend all the way, with the knowledge that it will affect others. For two years my father ducked subpoenas. But that didn’t matter. Anything this side of giving names and addresses of your best friends was okay. Whether you talk to them or lie to them or evade them didn’t matter.
“You were constantly in the position of asking, Who am I in relation to other people? Do I trust my impulses, my humanity, my own sense of living, or do I follow others? Is it all matter of power? Arthur Miller made a decision, in spite of an awful lot of advice the other way. People said, ‘You are blowing your career.’ Either he was braver or smarter than they were or he could not be in the company of corrupt men for too long and live well with himself. There’s a kind of healthy arrogance that many creative people have. They don’t want to be bothered with hustlers. And you certainly don’t want your life controlled by them. Would you want to be a prisoner of Victor Riesel, who could tell you to appear at a certain meeting? That’s what it came down to--that you belong to somebody else who was not even your peer.”
Conrad thinks “Kazan made a very pragmatic decision. He takes the offensive whenever possible. Clifford [Odets] named names out of ego--he never liked to be made to look like a schmuck. and something like taking the Fifth Amendment smelled, and I don’t think he liked that. But Gadg knew that nobody opposed the Committee and came out with a whole career. You knew that up front. And he wasn’t about to be destroyed. Business was involved, too. Twentieth Century-Fox had pictures in the can directed by Kazan. In a sense he had leverage. He also had a contract for several hundreds of thousands of dollars. So if he did a number for them they had to do a number for him.
“I’ve seen Gadg since.... I ought to be angry at him but I’m not. The obligation fights the reality. When I see him, I keep thinking he’s a figure out of my childhood.”
Conrad Bromberg is a man who has come to terms with personal ambiguities. Others see his father, Joe Bromberg, as victim, perhaps martyr, and Kazan as victimizer. These nagging I.D.’s won’t go away. When in 1972 Kazan appeared on WNBC Television’s hour-long interview show Speaking Freely, to discuss with Edwin Newman among other things his latest novel, The Assassins (which has an informer-character in it), two-thirds of the way through the following exchange took place:
NEWMAN: Some of [the Group Theatre’s actors] got into political difficulty in Hollywood which is a subject that I really cannot avoid. In 1952--and this is, I suppose one of the things for which you were most criticized--you appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and confessed that you had been briefly for eighteen months a Communist when you were young. And you named I think it was seven other people who had been Communists. A good many people thought you shouldn’t have named any other names whatever you said about yourself. You have never over the years said much about that. Is there anything you want to say about it?
KAZAN: Well, not really, in the brief context of a program like this, Ed, because I’m going to write about it. I think when it is understood from the point of 1972 it is one thing and when it is understood in the context of what was going on in 1952 and how we felt in 1952 [it is another]. Also then I think there is something disgusting about naming things, naming names and all that, that I felt ambivalent about. But on the other hand, when we knew about what Khrushchev reported in his book, we had close contact with it. We knew about a society that the left was idealizing then, the Russian society. We knew that it was a slave society. We had a good idea how many people were being killed. I’ve often wondered how some of the people who criticized me went through those years and stayed behind Russia, . . . continued to idealize it when they knew what was happening.... [WoodyAllen] I’ve felt sad about it or bad about it, and I’ve sometimes felt--well, I would do the same thing over again.... To talk about regrets, I do have some and I don’t have some. I think I spoke up not for any reason of money or security or anything else, but because I actually felt it. If I made a mistake, then that was a mistake that was honestly made.... It was a part of a thing that has to be understood in terms of that time. Now, when I look back on it, you know hurnanly I feel some regrets, and as a symbolic gesture I don’t. I feei that I didn’t tell a lie, I didn’t tell any falsehoods, I didn’t speculate, I didn’t do a lot of the things that I would feel dishonorable about. And as I say, to write about it, to speak about it, very briefly and simply, I think is not what I want to do. I’d rather in my own time, in my own way speak about it at length.”
One evening in 1978 I was driving home from the country and the radio talk-show host Barry Gray announced that his next guest would be Elia Kazan, who as it happened was plugging his latest novel, An Act of Love. Before the program was over Gray asked Kazan about his HUAC experience, and inevitably the listening audience was duly informed that that was in the past, that nobody, especially Kazan, was really interested in it anymore, that it wasn’t worth talking about, that the subject was in any event too complicated to cover in two minutes on the air but that he was writing a book about it where he would tell his side, and so forth.
There is method to Kazan’s reticence. It’s a strategic silence, as much mystification as anything else. There is about it the strong hint that were he at liberty or inclined to tell all, had he but the time to say his say or get it on paper, the painful nobility of his action would at last be appreciated. But don’t get him wrong, it was a tough decision either way and he is as ambivalent today as he was then.
At the time, Kazan urged all former comrades to follow his example and fight totalitarian secrecy with “the facts.” Now he prefers to keep his counsel, to take, as it were, a retrospective Fifth.
It says something that those like Miller and the Hollywood Ten, who claimed their right to silence then, now miss no opportunity to tell their tale, whereas many, like Kazan, who talked at the time, citing the compulsion of history, today invoke their preference for silence.
Kazan has written, “My favorite quote is from Jean Renoir: ‘Everyone has his reasons.’” And yet for his own reasons he hasn’t fully shared his reasons. His thesis--that in certain contexts to inform can be an act of honor, and that therefore it is simplistic to condemn all informers--sounds reasonable. But it begs the question of whether his own “token” betrayal occurred in such a context.
His silence, however, has resonance. Without giving a single American interview on the subject, he has sent the message that the decision he made was a painful but honest one, that given the same context he might do the same thing again, that the Communists rather than the informers were the betrayers, that he injured no one by his conduct, that perhaps Kazan really believed what he said, that he will tell his story in time, and that the whole thing is not really all that important, not worth talking about.
In fact, it is so “unimportant” that he refuses to talk about it. Yet each of Kazan’s hints are themes that anticipate or echo more elaborate justifications advanced by other informers more willing or able to share their experience, to explain and try to understand out loud why they did what they did, to subject their “reasons why” to the tests of conversation, consideration, logic, analysis.