The Playgoer: The Theatre of Murdochism

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Monday, July 25, 2011

The Theatre of Murdochism

Lee Tracy, The Front Page, 1928 
As we take in the morass of sleaze unearthed every day by the ongoing NewsCorps scandal in the UK, it's good to remember there's some ripping good plays that document the tabloid-ethic at its worst.

First there's David Hare and Howard Brenton's satire of Murdoch himself, Pravda. (Note the ironic, Cold War era title.) Written back in 1985 and premiered at the National (with a legendary star turn by Anthony Hopkins I would kill to go back in time to see), the play tells how South African media magnate "Lambert Le Roux" intimidates politicians and spins the news with Orwellian manipulations of language.

Joe Penhall's more recent Dumb Show (premiered at the Royal Court in 2004) gets more into the tabloid tactics we're reading about now, as two Machiavellian reporters perform a sting operation to ensnare a gullible, pathetic, old TV comic into a scandal.

And here in the US we have our own classic, Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page from 1928.  Known best today in its 1940 film remake, His Girl Friday, the original play is actually rarely seen on stage. (As brilliant a screwball comedy as it is, Friday is actually a rather cleaned-up version of the play.)  One reason may be its sometimes shocking crudeness and cynicism.  Set in the press room of the Chicago Criminal Courts on the eve of a politically motivated hanging, the stage is populated by ruthless reporters who would make today's "hackers" look like Peabody winners. One of my favorite scenes--and probably one of the first to be cut in production today--is when one of the guys is on the phone getting breaking news of what at first strikes him (and his overhearing colleagues) as a delicious domestic violence story--until you see a sudden disappointment on his face. "Oh. Niggers," he says before hanging up, and the others on stage lose interest as well. After all, they do write for family newspapers. (It's one of those great moments that dares a director to see how repulsive you can  make your cast to the audience.)

Veteran Chicago reporter Jim Warren has a nice tribute to Front Page (and Pravda) in his Chicago News Coop column today. Meanwhile... any other journo-dramas you can think of?


George Hunka said...

In 1971 Arnold Wesker wrote "The Journalists," for the Royal Shakespeare Company -- a commission which led to a lawsuit. From Wesker's Web site:

"Actors refuse to perform the play. Artistic directorship sides with actors and break contract. Author sues RSC for loss of earnings. Case lingers on for seven years. Settled out of court."

It was finally produced on French radio in 1978 and in Los Angeles the following year. A synopsis of the play:

George Hunka said...

Oh, and don't forget Billy Wilder's 1974 film with Walter Matthau as Walter Burns (great casting) and Jack Lemmon as Hildy (not-so-great casting). It also featured Susan Sarandon, Austin Pendleton and -- as Mollie Malloy -- Carol Burnett. Not precisely a masterpiece, but of the three film versions, the only one which retains that classic curtain line in Act III.

Andrew said...

Love His Girl Friday. Would love to see The Front Page, uncut. Thanks for this!

Slim and Slam said...

Tom Stoppard's Night and Day. One of his less successful plays, actually.

Playgoer said...

So nice to hear you're a fan too, George! Actually the 1931 film DOES include the last line but winkingly bleeps out the words "son of a bitch" with some sound effect. I agree the Billy Wilder film is more faithful, but people should keep in mind he did a lot of rewriting of his own. And, as you note, outside of Matthau the casting is not perfect. (And the pace is slow, too, I feel.) His Girl Friday is hands down the best MOVIE (qua movie) of all the versions, and was made with Hecht & MacArthur's blessing (and probably script contributions). It certainly is the only one that captures the atmosphere and spirit of the slimy, ratatatat press room talk. BTW, John Guare has done a stage adaptation of "Friday" for London's National Theatre that never went anywhere. I'm surprised no one in the US has taken it on. It's a more popular title than "Front Page" AND has that great female lead.