I recently saw the wonderful film ‘Good Night. And, Good Luck’ which received rave reviews when it opened in America late last year. It is now nominated for several Oscars including George Clooney (Supporting Actor, Direction) and David Strathairn (Actor in a Leading Role), among others.
For those not familiar with the plot, the film is a docudrama of 1950s events that saw Senator Joseph McCarthy chair the House Un-American Activities Committee, widely regarded as a Crucible-like witch-hunt isolating individuals the government believed had Communist sympathies while living in America. The film follows the battle of CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow and his public stance against McCarthy.
People in the arts were not left unnoticed at this time. Two of the most famous people in 20th century theatre were also called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to explain themsleves. Ironically, these included The Crucible’s Arthur Miller and famous German playwright, director and theorist Bertolt Brecht.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Brecht decided writing plays about an all-powerful Nazi world was not the way his artisitc direction was heading. So he fled Germany and resided in Scandinavia for a few years until settling in Santa Monica, California during the 1940s. It was here that he once again found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Brecht appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in September 1947 with ten other people who worked in the Hollywood film industry as actors, screenwriters and directors. Brecht was the only member of the group who testified (the others chose silence), stating he had no Communist sympathies and certainly was not a Communist living in America. The others became known as the Hollywood Ten and all received brief jail terms, while Brecht left America the very next day.
In 1957 Arthur Miller, who is almost as famous for marrying movie star Marylin Monroe as he is for writing two of the greatest plays of the 20th century in Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, was convicted of Contempt of Congress for not mentioning the names of alleged Communist party writers at the Senate hearing, of whom he had meetings with ten years prior. It took Miller two years of legal wrangling in the courts to clear his name and overturn the conviction.
I find it intriguing that not many people involved in the performing arts seem to know that Brecht and Miller were subpoenaed to appear before the Senate Committee, much less know what the House Un-American Activities Committee actually was! So, there’s more to the history of theatre than the Greeks and Shakespeare!