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  February 12, 2001

McCarthy Era Writers Relied
on Metaphor, Says Murphy

Many of the writers whose careers were sidetracked by the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 50s wrote passionately about the experience, employing metaphors from classic literature, says Brenda Murphy, a professor of English.

Her new book, Congressional Theatre: Dramatizing McCarthyism on Stage, Film and Television (Cambridge University Press, 1999), explores the broad period from 1947 until the early 1960s, during which America's paranoia about Communism was most pronounced.

While examining the extent to which the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the 1947 Hollywood Ten hearings, and related anti-Communist movements impacted the overall fabric of American life, Murphy zeroes in on an aspect of McCarthyism never before covered by a literary historian in a single volume. Congressional Theatre reveals how a remarkable group of writers not only survived the witch hunts, but dramatized the effects of HUAC and the moral issues its actions raised for Americans.

The image of American anti-Communism as witch hunt arose from Arthur Miller's use of the Salem Witch Trials in his powerful play, The Crucible. "When people think of this period and theatrical writing, The Crucible is the one work that most people know," says Murphy. "The assumption of many historians is that it stood as the definitive expression of writers' and artists' outrage over anti-Communist zealotry and the profoundly negative effect of blacklisting, which made it nearly impossible for many writers to earn a living."

As Murphy researched her book, however, she discovered that many dramatists were writing directly about the HUAC and McCarthyism, but were doing so, as Miller did, through the use of analogies. Where Miller employed the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for HUAC's dangerous probes, Bertold Brecht, for instance, borrowed the story of Galileo and his death at the hands of the Inquisition. Lillian Hellman employed the story of Joan of Arc, with whom she identified. Hellman responded to HUAC's demand that she testify with a letter in which she said she would testify about her own involvement with Communism, but flatly refused to identify others who might have had involvement.

In addition to Miller, Brecht and Hellman, major writers and theatrical figures covered in Congressional Theatre include Maxwell Anderson, Elia Kazan, Barrie Stavis, Herman Wouk, Eric Bentley, Saul Levitt, Budd Shulberg, and Carl Foreman.

Murphy's book doesn't focus only on theater and films. The story of how blacklisted writers like Abraham Polonsky, Walter Bernstein and Arthur Manoff found employment as television writers by using "fronts," a story recounted in the Woody Allen film The Front, is also told.

Jim Smith