To most people familiar with his name, John Howard Lawson was the really annoying member of the Hollywood Ten who, in newsreel footage, is seen insisting on his right to read a statement to members of the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Lawson’s bellicose performance, splashed across the country’s movie screens in 1947, is sometimes credited with turning public opinion against the Ten.) Few remember that he was a co-founder of the Screen Writers Guild (which became today’s powerful Writers Guild of America) and served as its first president. Fewer still know that Lawson was a controversial New York playwright who, for 14 years, was the center of contentious critical debate — both championed and pilloried on the right by Brooks Atkinson and on the left by Michael Gold.
Lawson’s playwriting career ended in 1937, when he moved to a far more lucrative life in Hollywood, where he scripted such films as Blockade and Sahara. Although Clifford Odets is commonly seen as the source inspiration for the eponymous figure in the Coen brothers’ film Barton Fink, it wouldn’t be completely wrong to imagine the older Lawson also occupying Fink’s shoes. Jonathan L. Chambers’ book, Messiah of the New Technique, is a much-needed history of Lawson’s early life and stage work. (By an odd coincidence, a second Lawson book, Gerald Horne’s The Final Victim of the Blacklist, appeared in September, a few months after Chambers’.)
I should say here that I wouldn’t entrust Chambers, an assistant theater and film professor at Bowling Green State University, to inscribe a birthday card, so dry and humorless is his academic chronicle of Lawson and his tumultuous times. Chambers’ study is history by bibliography: Unlike Wendy Smith’s 1991 profile of the Group Theatre, Real Life Drama (whose Lawson sections covered some of the same ground as Chambers’ book), his research stands unblemished by a single interview. Still, Chambers deserves credit for delivering such an in-depth and sensitive portrait of Lawson and a between-wars American left that, contrary to popular assumptions, was fractured into divisions ranging from anarcho-libertarian, Leninist, liberal and progressive to utopian.
Lawson, the son of nonreligious Jews who practiced Christian Science, began writing poetry and experimental plays before America’s entry into World War I. During the war, Lawson volunteered in France, alongside John Dos Passos, as an ambulance driver. Despite the newsreel image of Lawson as a doctrinaire loudmouth, he began his writing life as a bohemian who lived in Paris and Rome. (William Z. Foster, the dean of American Stalinism, also, interestingly, had led a brief gypsy existence with an itinerant theater troupe after he left the Industrial Workers of the World movement.)
After the war, Lawson eventually returned to New York, where he carved out a significant niche as an avant-garde playwright of such modernist works as Roger Bloomer and Processional. Chambers carefully sketches the growing split in the arts, during the 1920s, between the older, “lyrical left” of Greenwich Village aesthetes and the more tyrannical left that was increasingly represented by the Communist Party. The great irony is how much the gap between Greenwich Village theaters and Broadway houses narrowed, particularly during the New Deal, when more radical plays began appearing on the Great White Way.
Chambers shows how Lawson’s drift into the undertow of orthodox Marxism was a remarkably slow — almost painful — process, jolted along by the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti and the prodding of literary critic Edmund Wilson. Unlike younger contemporaries who, like Richard Wright, practically swan-dived into the C.P. as soon as the Great Depression hit, Lawson only eased into its grip over a rocky, decade-long courtship.
It wasn’t until Lawson’s union organizing of fellow screenwriters in 1933 that Marxism’s class fables suddenly made sense to him; when Earl Browder, the party’s great enabler of errant intellectuals, embraced Lawson, the playwright’s membership was assured. That association would have painful consequences for the playwright who, unlike his onetime fellow traveler, Edmund Wilson, remained a blacklisted Marxist until his death in 1977. Lawson never got to read his statement to Congress, but at last his words are getting a reading. It’s tempting to think of how interesting a project it would be for a company like Actors’ Gang or New York’s Signature Theatre Co. to stage a season of Lawson’s works. Even at their worst, they would offer a welcome glimpse into a long-forgotten life.
MESSIAH OF THE NEW TECHNIQUE: John Howard Lawson, Communism, and American Theatre, 1923–1937| By JONATHAN L. CHAMBERS | Southern Illinois University Press | 268 pages | $55