Donald Freed is a pain in the ass. Not only does his writing not fit into any of the tidy categories that make the lives of theater critics easier, but he doesn’t even compose his manuscripts on computer, preferring to do his writing in longhand. ”I‘m now two centuries out of step,“ he says, noting that the typewriter that he long eschewed is today obsolete.
This playwright, novelist and screenwriter, who teaches at USC and Loyola Marymount, is currently absorbing the reaction to his newest play, American Iliad, a sprawling journey through 100 years of American history that uses as its focus Richard Nixon. The 37th president was the subject of Freed’s most popular work, Secret Honor, a one-man play in which a deposed Nixon drunkenly rambles on about his past and futilely searches for the fork in the road at which his career made a wrong turn. As essayed by Philip Baker Hall in its original Los Angeles Actors Theater production, and later in Robert Altman‘s film version, Secret Honor was a brilliant, malarial probe — part stream-of-consciousness confession, part self-interrogation — that not only examined the ruin of an ambitious politician but also looked into the diseased heart of the American Dream. Think Krapp’s Last Tape performed by Willy Loman — or Captain Queeg.
American Iliad works on far more ambitious and fanciful levels than Secret Honor as it follows a ”90-year-old“ Nixon on a near-death reverie in which he encounters John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and J. Edgar Hoover. The play‘s improbable muse is the Chautauqua circuit, that movement of moral searchers who sought to educate and unify post–Civil War America through public dialogue and mass meetings.
”The same skills Richard Nixon possessed could have been used to help make the American Dream come true,“ Freed says. ”He could have been one of Chautauqua’s straw-hatted assembly leaders. He could have been the Music Man! Why did he instead become the psychocop of the American nightmare? Why didn‘t he grow up to be the Quaker hero his mother wanted him to be?“
Such questions have stoked Freed’s imagination for decades. In person, he hardly resembles a fevered polemicist or obsessed seeker of historical truths. At the handsome West Los Angeles home he shares with his wife, Patty, Freed — a sonorous Westwood Brahmin who looks much younger than his 69 years — cuts an impressively calm figure.
The Chicago-born Freed is mostly the product of Southern Jewish gentility; in 1939 his family moved to Alexandria, Louisiana, where his stepfather became a prosperous merchant thanks to the many military camps that sprang up in Rapides Parish before World War II. It was a cush life, complete with black servants, although the young Freed always felt a little bit the outsider, a sense that led him to adopt a Southern accent. The move south afforded him the kind of direct contact with African-Americans that Chicago would not have, but the ”Southern Babbitry,“ as he calls provincial Louisiana life at that time, always had an ominous undertone.
”It ranged from a cheerful anti-Semitism to a Klan-ish ideology,“ he says, ”although I was never exposed to a nightmare version of that. And even I‘d put on minstrel shows in high school, which of course were deeply racist, but accepted.“
Alexandria was a pleasant enough backwater, a place where Huey Long’s ghost still strolled and where middle-class families opened their doors to soldiers for Sunday dinners. But peace brought profound change — when the wartime boom soured, Freed‘s stepfather committed suicide. Although he wasn’t exposed to much theater as a kid, bit by bit, from high school to community theater, the young Freed moved into acting and directing, eventually working at Chicago‘s Goodman Theater and spending a little time in New York.
Now he was acquiring skills and ambitions; now he felt it was time to bust out of Chicago for a more potent stage laboratory, not in New York or London, but — in Tarzana. In 1955, he’d received an invitation from an uncle to stay with him in Los Angeles, and, while earning money selling magazine subscriptions door to door, Freed landed a part in Terence Rattigan‘s The Deep Blue Sea at an out-of-the-way theater in the town built by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. Before long, he acquired control of the Valley Playhouse, where he taught acting and staged indoor and outdoor productions of plays that were perhaps better known to local residents as films: Mister Roberts, Bus Stop, The Rainmaker, etc. In 1961, he took over the Coronet Theater in West Hollywood, first directing a successful Summer and Smoke, followed by Endgame.
It’s good to remember that Freed, who is chiefly known today as a political playwright, was up until the end of the 1950s an apolitical stage director and actor, whose professional history is a significant part of Los Angeles‘ overlooked theater past. But even provincial L.A. theater was feeling the currents of the ban-the-bomb and civil rights sentiments that were roiling the waters elsewhere in the arts. Freed’s involvement in political action led him to join the Operation Bootstrap efforts to resurrect Watts following the 1965 riots, and to organize coffee klatches among segregated Los Angeles‘ whites and blacks, eventually introducing members of the Black Panther Party into Westside and Valley parlors. However, the initial spur to Freed’s activism was not racial injustice or the threat of nuclear annihilation, but something that had haunted many Jews for a generation: the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
”I was ignorant of the Rosenberg case,“ he says of the time he worked at the Goodman Theater, whose stages are located underground. ”The Second Coming could have been going on upstairs on Michigan Avenue, and I wouldn‘t have been aware of it.“
His interest in the Rosenbergs was awakened by Walter and Miriam Schneir’s 1965 book, Invitation to an Inquest, which inaugurated a national debate about the case that continues to this day.
”In the heavily censored culture of the 1950s, there were people all over New York who would never openly discuss the Rosenberg case,“ Freed remembers, ”but when a play, film or book forced open the closet, then many people rallied to it. The Rosenberg case opened very raw feelings for Jewish people in theater.“
Freed began his writing career with two plays, one about Gandhi and the other about the Rosenbergs. Inquest was first staged in Cleveland in 1969, an event that caught the attention of the Rosenberg trial‘s presiding judge, Irving R. Kaufman. According to Freed, Kaufman alerted his friend J. Edgar Hoover — whose agents duly opened files on everyone involved in the project, and even stole a copy of the script for analysis.
”The great critics of the American theater are in the FBI,“ Freed says ruefully. ”They are institutional criticism, and they will tell you just how important your work is.“
In 1970, the play moved to New York and starred George Grizzard and Anne Jackson. Freed says strange things began to happen, including the disappearance of a paragraph from Clive Barnes’ New York Times review. By this time, however, Freed had become a pro at spotting the hand of government security agencies in shaping public opinion. His epiphany in this regard can be summed up in one word: Dallas. According to Freed, the Kennedy assassination and its alleged cover-up unleashed ”the great rip tide of disbelief and dissent“ across American campuses that truly launched the radicalization of its youth.
”The psychological effect of the shock of the murder of the president in the street,“ he says, ”was compounded by the transparent denial that there was a conspiracy. It was right before your eyes, and the campuses became electrified.“ Soon, Freed joined not only the growing number of ordinary citizens who doubted the Warren Commission‘s conclusions, but the small corps of professional skeptics grouped around Mark Lane and New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. He remembers that exciting time as though it were yesterday: ”You were watching films, listening to tapes, reading transcripts, looking at diagrams and ballistics. Science and history and politics and forensics were all wrapped up in one magic bullet.“
Despite the way many people perceive him, Freed claims he is not a conspiracy theorist. ”I don’t see conspiracies explaining everything,“ he says. ”But an entire culture became toxic because major elements of the establishment set out to brand as crazy anyone who would not accept what was patently unacceptable to anyone with any intelligence.“
Still, his investigations with others have caused him to discern government voodoo behind many subsequent tragedies, including the SLA and Jonestown catastrophes, and the murders of Nicole Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey. Perhaps it‘s a tribute to Lane and Freed’s early work that so many Americans today mistrust official explanations, that we view the contemporary historical landscape as one vast Roswell, with Washington functioning as a kind of Area 51 of top-secret government. This also might explain why a simple Internet search for ”Donald Freed“ quickly leads to outre Web sites speculating about government mind control, satanic murder cults and other X-Files topics.
Freed‘s translation into theater of his jaundiced view of official explanations might be explained by the fateful alignment of John Kennedy’s assassination occurring at the very moment Freed was auditing a theater course at Cal State Northridge. It may account for why he views politics as dramatic metaphor. (”The Panther and political trials of the late ‘60s were the best shows in town — tremendous drama.“) It certainly explains why he sees the mission of writers as ”setting up a series of myths that run against the myths of official power.“
For Freed, storytelling is the sole impulse and skill that makes our species immortal. ”All that Homo sapiens have accomplished is found in storytelling,“ he says. ”All that will be left of our 10,000 years will be those handprints on the cave walls, and drawings of pregnant rhinoceros and buffaloes.“
Of course, the more rebellious those handprints appear, the better: ”There is nothing more disturbing and subversive than theater — by its nature, it tells a different story from the establishment’s, which is the story of the winners. Art is telling the story of the losers.“
Certainly, Freed‘s own oeuvre is a robust inventory of alternative interpretations of our age’s crimes and misdemeanors: Alfred & Victoria: A Life (about Alfred Bloomingdale and his doomed mistress, Vicki Morgan); The General & the Archbishop (Manuel Noriega and the Vatican‘s man in Panama); The White Crow (Eichmann in Israel); and the JFK-assassination novel Executive Action, co-written with Mark Lane and adapted into a film.
These and other works make Donald Freed one of the great California apocalypteurs, who, along with historians like Mike Davis and artists like Robert Williams, see the past and present colliding in a great fiery mural of greed and desire, out of which, hopefully, some humanity will survive. ”The great suspense [of history] is ’Which story will prevail?‘“ he notes. ”Will it be a human story, or will it be a story of superpowers and techno-chemical fury from above?“
For Donald Freed, the storytelling will always be greener on the grassy knoll; there will always be a second gunman, a second Oswald, a second killer of Nicole Simpson, a CIA spook planted in Jonestown . . . an Untold Story. And, for better or worse, that is what makes Freed and his work so provocative, providing the establishment with a kick in the shins at a time when the dozy electorate appears willing to accept anything the powers that be hand it. This playwright with the thick FBI file who doesn’t type can seem spectacularly out of place in his own time.
”You‘re born into all this junk,“ he says of gadgets and technology. ”But each individual has to make his or her own story. And that’s where the arts come in, to reinvent the wheel each time for each individual, for each generation, for each culture. And over each power and each censor.“