Ben Pleasants exposes Hollywood hypocrisy on Stalin
By Thomas M. Sipos
I first met Ben Pleasant in 2002 at Los Angeles's libertarian Karl Hess Club, where he announced that his new play, Contentious Minds: The Mary McCarthy/Lillian Hellman Affair, was to be performed at Hollywood's Lillian Theatre. The play dramatizes a series of encounters between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman between 1946 and 1982, the women arguing about men, art, and politics -- with McCarthy accusing Hellman of lying to cover up Stalin's genocide.
Hellman had been a screenwriter (Watch on the Rhine), better known for her plays, who remained a fervent defender of Stalin through to her death in 1984. McCarthy was a leftist -- but anti-Stalinist -- critic and writer (The Group, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood). The two literary lionesses' decades-long clashes culminated on October 18, 1979, when McCarthy said on PBS's Dick Cavett Show: "Every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' "
Hellman filed a libel suit against McCarthy, Cavett, and the Educational Broadcasting Corp. The suit ended with Hellman's death before reaching trial. McCarthy died five years later, in 1989.
Before Contentious Minds, Pleasants wrote the similarly themed and structured The Hemingway-Dos Passos Wars. In it, Ernest Hemingway urges the leftist writer John Dos Passos (Manhattan Transfer, USA Trilogy) not to expose Stalinist murders in the Spanish Civil War.
Stalin-backed Communists were fighting a "civil war within a civil war," murdering their Trotskyite, anarchist, and democratic allies -- an event that would inspire George Orwell's anti-Stalinist satires: Animal Farm and 1984.
I interviewed Pleasants in 2002, when he told me, "Both plays deal with the same subject: the coverup of Stalin's crimes in America by writers like Hellman and John Howard Lawson, who attacked writers like Dos Passos and Koestler when they attempted to bring forward the murders of their friends, and the torture and execution of others writers in the USSR, like Babel, Bulgakov, and Gorky."
Contentious Minds reminds audiences that HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) was founded in the 1930s to investigate American Nazis -- and that HUAC was supported by American liberals and Leftists, including Hellman -- until it turned its attention to Communists a decade later.
Liberal support for HUAC -- even from Hollywood screenwriters -- is one of the uncomfortable truths that Contentious Minds forces its Hollywood audiences to confront. It exposes the irony of Hellman being celebrated today as a victim of HUAC -- when she was one of its initial supporters.
According to Pleasants, "After the HUAC, Hellman and Lawson were placed on Mount Rushmore as martyrs. They should be remembered as gangsters who attacked Dos Passos and James T. Farrell and Koestler, writers who addressed Stalin's crimes and charged [Hellman and Lawson] with lying and complicity [with Stalin]."
Why did Pleasants choose this now obscure area of history -- the 1930s Hollywood Left, Stalin's murders, the Trotskyite/Stalinist rift -- as a topic for two plays? He said, "I'm attracted to the subject because no one else will say anything."
Although the heroes in Pleasants's plays (Dos Passos and McCarthy) are Trotskyites, Pleasants says, "I have no sympathy for either side. I see no difference between Stalin and Trotsky. They were both murderers. If Trotsky had won, he would have taken out Stalin in the same manner.
"Mary McCarthy became a Trotskyite because she was sleeping with two of the editors of the Partisan Review, and was drawn into the mess when James T. Farrell (Studs Lonigan) asked McCarthy if she supported a commission headed by John Dewey to investigate Trotsky's death. She agreed in theory, but ended up on the letterhead of the group Farrell was sponsoring.
"Before McCarthy could chide Farrell for using her name, she started getting anonymous calls and threats in the middle of the night from Stalinists like John Howard Lawson, telling McCarthy not to support the investigation of Trotsky's death, and warning her that her own career would suffer -- that she would be blacklisted. And that got her started."
In The Hemingway-Dos Passos Wars, Pleasants interjects a libertarian message into the play. A minor character tells the audience: "We didn't get any grants for this play. ... You can do this stuff when you don't get money from the government. You can do anything!"
Said Pleasants, "Art supported by government rots the artist's soul. It's nothing more than the plutocrats' message. I raise my own money with no strings attached. Producers call me frequently about doing my plays. I just need to meet them face to face. Face to face is always better than email. I prefer letters rather than email. Email plays so nicely into the state. Before long, they'll rewrite it for us. I'm sure they do that in China."
Still, Pleasants does not call himself a libertarian. "I am an anarchist. I am completely anti-state. Governments would never support a play like this because it brings up issues like the Samuel Dickstein matter. He was the US Representative from New York City who created the HUAC to go after German-American Bundists. HUAC was supported strongly by the Left, passed in Congress by 340-42 votes, and had the support of the CPUSA. What interests me today is why this is not known."
The HUAC still touches raw nerves in Hollywood, as demonstrated by the controversy over the special Oscar awarded to Elia Kazan (a friendly witness at the HUAC) in 1999, and which was opposed by Daily Variety's Army Archerd, Steve Erickson, and many others. Yet despite this emotional atmosphere, Contentious Minds dares tell its Hollywood audience that, on the scale of evil, Stalin's genocide dwarfs the brief prison terms suffered by the Hollywood Ten.
How did Hollywood react to Pleasants's message?
Pleasants said, "When Contentious Minds was in rehearsal, we heard from Variety and NPR. We were informed that Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail) was doing a play about Hellman and McCarthy this summer in San Diego at the Old Globe, to open on Broadway in the fall. Both Variety and NPR wanted advance copies of Contentious Minds, and to see it in preview. I refused both requests.
"Variety reviewed Contentious Minds, defended Hellman and questioned the veracity of what I wrote. NPR's Iris Mann (who was once directed by Hellman in The Children's Hour as a girl of ten or so) came on opening night to sniff it out, and decided to do nothing. The L.A. Times's Don Shirley told my PR people flat out that they would not review it. I was glad they missed it. When they reviewed my Hemingway play, they put Dos and Hem on the side of the rebels -- which would mean they were fighting for Franco! But, it goes with the territory, as Chomsky says."
As for the L.A. Weekly, their critic wrote that the play "may contain both the most thrilling and squandered theatrical idea to come along in some time: the legendary rift between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman. Here's a drama potentially straddling and smearing the chalk line between fact and fiction. Unfortunately, in Pleasants's prodigiously researched work, the monumental figures merely name-drop and cat-fight. Jennifer Gundy's McCarthy and Melissa Jones's Hellman fail to connect. Stephanie Stearns plays a narrator with more charm than either of the central characters, which encapsulates the problem of Denise Gillman's staging."
Ironically for a "left alternate" paper, the L.A. Weekly seemed not to have appreciated that the "name-dropping" and "cat-fighting" was what Contentious Minds's playbill describes as its Russian Constructivism, a technique used by Soviet playwright Sergey Tretakov to broach ideas for discussion. Instead of advocating a single position, characters argue opposing sides, hoping that audience members continue debating after the play. Quoting Tretakov: "The theatrical show is replaced by the theatrical blow, by the immediate processing of the audience."
Pleasants added that Tretyakov, though a Stalinist, was eventually executed by Stalin.
Pleasants dedicated Contentious Minds "to Robert Conquest, who, single-mindedly, mapped the vast terrain of Stalin's terror network, making it possible for former Soviet citizens to find out, not only the final resting places of their murdered families, but also the names of their murderers!"
Contentious Minds starred Jennifer Gundy (Star Trek: Voyager, South of Sunset) as Mary McCarthy, and Melissa Jones (Spin City, Primetime Glick) as Lillian Hellman. Also featured were Stephanie Sterns and Ronald E. Wingate. You can watch it on YouTube: Act One and Act Two.
Apart from his plays, Pleasants's wrote for the L.A. Times, Herald-Examiner, L.A. Free Press, L.A. Vanguard, L.A. Reader, and Los Angeles Magazine. As a literary critic, his greatest achievement was rediscovering Ask the Dust, which was gratefully acknowledged by its author, John Fante.
Pleasants was also a friend to "meat poet" Charles Bukowski, who called Pleasants "the Beverly Hills anarchist" for his cushy bourgeois lifestyle, something Pleasants recounts in Visceral Bukowski: Inside the Sniper Landscape of L.A. Writers.
In 2010, Pleasants told me that he was working on a trilogy of plays about H. L. Mencken. "They're coming along about as fast as the replacement to the World Trade Center. Mencken is an ideal subject for rediscovery now. He was a true libertarian. Opposed to censorship, open to fresh ideas, at war with bureaucrats in the state, the church and the public weal."
I edited four of Pleasants's books: two novels and two plays, including the published version of Contentious Minds. But he never did complete his Mencken plays. To the regret of his many friends, Ben Pleasants died on April 18, 2013 at the age of 72.
Thomas M. Sipos writes satirical novels and film criticism. His website is CommunistVampires.com.