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Hemingway's "Fifth"

Date: Mar 13, 2008


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"It really is an awful business. Until you have had a success in the theatre, the entire attitude is that you cannot possibly know what you are doing. And that a good play should be just like the last play that was good or like portions of several other plays that were quite good. Since it costs about $50,000 to put a play on, the one putting up the money feels that the play should be made absolutely fool proof to protect that investment."

The lament of a struggling playwright? An off-the-cuff comment by a disenchanted producer on an arts panel?

The relatively low budget figure should clue you in, even if the rest of the sentiments expressed seem curiously timeless: The excerpt dates from 1939, and its author is none other than Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to his mother-in-law.

He had some reason to complain, because he'd had a play of his called The Fifth Column chewed up--or so he felt--by the prevailing theatre system, as represented by the Theatre Guild. He had written the play in 1937 after spending time in Spain working for the Republican cause, and he desperately wanted it to be produced while it could still sway public opinion to the anti-fascist side in that pre-WWII conflict.

So Hemingway had it published in a collection of short stories in 1938, and then later consented to an unusual deal with playwright Benjamin Glazer. Jonathan Bank--artistic director of the Mint Theatre and director of a new world premiere production of Hemingway's Fifth Column in its original form--explains.

"The deal he and Glazer made was that Glazer would make suggestions, and if Hemingway agreed with him, then Hemingway could decide to write new scenes and the play would be produced under his name," says Bank. "If he didn't agree to the changes, then Glazer could write new scenes and the play would be produced under Glazer's name--and billed as 'Adapted and arranged from a published play by Ernest Hemingway.' Either way there would be a 50-50 split of royalties. But there was no provision for Hemingway to cancel the deal."

The result? For one thing, the play was produced after the Spanish Civil War had ended with victory for General Franco. Worse, as Bank relates, "Hemingway was appalled by what Glazer had done to his play, despairing over his inability to pull the plug on the whole business, and preoccupied with his new novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was in its final stages. So when the play was finally headed towards a production, he just washed his hands of the whole thing and walked away.

"He never saw the production, and in fact made sure that he was out of the country when it opened. He didn't want to have to answer any questions about it because he knew he wouldn't have anything nice to say--but at the same time, he wanted it to be a success. Don't forget, he still was due a 5 percent royalty."

In Bank's opinion, though, Hemingway's distance from the Broadway production did the play no favors.

"I think the circumstances of that first Broadway production just put a stink on the play that it couldn't shake off," Bank says. "Hemingway grossly underestimated how that would be interpreted and what it would mean for the play and the future of the play. Once the production was up and running he told Lawrence Langner, the Guild's leader, that no financial rewards could ever compensate for the damage done to his reputation from allowing Glazer to rewrite his words."

The Mint Theatre, an acclaimed Off-Broadway company, has made it its mission to revive little-seen or largely forgotten American plays that are worth another look. According to Bank, the original Hemingway play definitely deserves a revival.

"The strength of this play has never been its topicality. The Spanish Civil War is now history, but what lives on are the needs and desires of some very interesting individuals," Bank says of the plot involving a counter-espionage agent and his relationship with a journalist, with the war as backdrop. "The conflict between responsibility to the greater good vs. personal fulfillment is as compelling today as ever. And let's not forget, Hemingway was a great writer. The dialogue is wonderful and surprising and funny."

One aspect of the play that made it a bit ahead of its time--and which in fact Glazer objected to most strongly--is the substantial and free-spirited female lead, based on Hemingway's love at the time, Martha Gellhorn.

"She was a woman who knew what she wanted, and what she wanted was to be with Philip Rawlings, Hemingway's hero," Bank says. "Glazer called her a 'nymphomaniac'--i.e. a woman who enjoyed having sex and was willing to have it with a man she wasn't married to. This made her completely unsympathetic in Glazer's mind, and in the minds of others as well."

While Hemingway did not expertly handle his dealings with the "awful" theatre business, he was vindicated in one seemingly naive notion. As Bank puts it, "He thought the play was preserved for posterity by its publication no matter what happened on Broadway."

The Mint production proves that Papa knew best, after all.

Click here for information about The Fifth Column.