The last 20 pages of Vol.4, No.1 are more provocative than the earlier essays and articles because they are written in the more argumentative style of the Editors and close members of the PR circle. Here we find reviews of recent books, and in the section called “Ripostes,”the polemical style prevails in the factional arguments within the Communist movement in the period of the Moscow Trials.
Under the rubric, “Theatre Chronicle,” Mary McCarthy offers her first contribution as the journal’s theatre critic. It was the occasion for McCarthy to give her knives an airing. Her witty, insightful, and cruel operation on the Theater Guild’s production of Ben Hecht’s To Quito and Back displays McCarthy’s sharply honed way with words as she impales progressive, non-commercial theater in the 1930s. The Theater Guild, which grew out of the Washington Square Players, was designed to have all functions of the Theatre, from administration through performance, organised by a Board of Directors. It had become famous with its productions of G.B.Shaw’s plays, and plays by Eugene O’Neill, and it ran productions from 1918 through the 1990s.
Mary McCarthy, then 24 years old, had recently divorced her actor husband, Harold Johnsrud. While at work for the publishing firm, Covici-Friede, who published Ben Hecht’s The Front Page, McCarthy had read Hecht’s To Quito and Back in manuscript, and with her links to the theatre world she was able, in her review, to puncture Hecht’s authority (he had already written the screenplays for The Front Page, Scarface, and The Twentieth Century by this time) and criticise the Theater Guild. The production had gutted the play of all intellectual content by substituting for it ‘stage business’:“The characters in the midst of what ever they were saying were bounding about the stage, jumping up and sitting down, climbing over furniture and pacing the floor. . . The Guild directors, between them, carved the play into a turkey.”
McCarthy is also irked by the Hamlet echoes Hecht uses to portray the irresolution of the hero.“It is not,as Mr. Hecht believes, the irresolution of a man who is able to see all sides of a question; it is the impotence of a man who is afraid of making a fool of himself.The play, indeed, is a small undignified monument of social and intellectual terror. The see-sawings of the hero are merely an objectification of the nervousness of the author.”
Her main charge is that Hecht is a timid, embarrassed radical:“Mr Hecht, it would appear, has been converted or frightened by intellectual fashion into giving lip-service to radicalism. Yet this radicalism he does not face squarely in the drawing rooms of New York or the studios of Hollywood. He must transport it and himself ( in a somewhat flattering disguise ) to a comic-opera Ecuador, where revolutionary generals are just-too-pricelessly-funny, Emperor Jones Negroes are commissars, the working class is represented by a sentimental servant girl who sympathizes with the communists but knows her place just the same.”
She ends by attacking Hecht as a man: a phony radical, “his agonised sincerity must be rated as the final, most vulgar sham.”
McCarthy had come to New York City after graduating from Vassar College, and she found work writing reviews for The Nation, and the New Republic, and as she remind us in her Intellectual Memoirs, 1936 was the opening of the Popular Front — which involved an appeal to liberals to join with Communists against Fascism. She was not a member of the Communist Party but she was now living within the New York literary milieu that had to face up to the splits between Trotskyists and Stalinists, many of whom soon found themselves outside both the CPUSA and the liberal periodicals. And new though she was to the New York scene of dissident Party members and fellow-travellers, McCarthy agreed to be on the Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky, drawing her closer to the anti-Stalinists at PR.
At the time she was Philip Rahv’s girlfriend, and some of her friends have speculated that she was given the title of Theater Critic because theater was something that “the boys” of the Editorial Board didn’t care much about. In her introduction to a collection of her theater reviews for PR, McCarthy recalled:
“All my habits of mind were bourgeois, my fellow editors used to tell me.
They were always afraid that I was going to do something, in real life or
in print, that would “disgrace Partisan Review”; this was a fear that
worried me even more than it did them. I used to come down to the office on
Saturdays (I worked for a publisher during the week) and listen to the men argue, in the inner room, beyond the partition, pounding the table and
waving their arms in the air. Once a month, late at night, after the dishes
were done, I would write my ‘Theatre Chronicle,’ hoping not to sound
bourgeois and give the Communists ammunition.”
Her first review must have surely shown those ‘boys’ in the ‘inner room’ her flair for incisive and polemical writing.
read the review — click on the link below.