Cancel culture is nothing new. In the 1950’s, it was called blacklisting, or Communist witchhunting. It was a political tool for consolidating support and silencing dissent, and it was especially effective in stifling writers… at least until it got to Broadway. And what happened when "cancel culture" attempted to invade Broadway is an example today for a world that is rapidly becoming more and more polarized and censorious.
It was June 22, 1950. The names of prominent Broadway playwrights Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman had just been published in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. The brainchild of three FBI agents, this official blacklist named 130 organizations and 151 individuals—actors, musicians, writers, and broadcast journalists, and it was intended to flush out subversives in the media and, in contemporary parlance, to “no-platform” them. The question on everyone’s minds, “Would Miller and Hellman now face the same fate as the ‘Hollywood Ten?’ Would their careers be destroyed? Would they also go to prison?”
“Canceling” these playwrights would be a significant feather in the cap for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was holding the hearings to investigate the so-called infiltration by Communists. HUAC had every reason to feel confident, because just a few months earlier, eight screenwriters, one film producer and one film director (the “Hollywood Ten”) had all begun serving prison sentences up to a year for their non-cooperation with HUAC in 1947. Refusing to name names, the Ten had been cited for contempt, and after two years of exhausted appeals, they faced the inevitable. Hollywood had turned its back on them.
Things were not looking good for Miller and Hellman… but what HUAC didn't understand was that Broadway was not Hollywood.
In Hollywood, it was possible to shoot an entire film and never meet most of the cast. The actors did not engage directly with their audiences. The film would be shown long after it was wrapped and the actors had moved on to other projects. In other words, the bonds of camaraderie in Hollywood were forged in social and political activities, not in the course of producing a film.
The prison-bound Hollywood Ten all saw their careers terminated for a decade, but the Broadway artists had an entirely different experience. The production of Death of a Salesman continued its Broadway run into the fall of 1950, five months after the publication of Red Channels. That same year producers Kermit Bloomgarten and Walter Fried sent the play out on national tour. In spite of the fact that one of the authors of Red Channels attempted to organize local boycotts of the play at every stop, the tour was a success. One month after Salesman closed on Broadway, Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People opened. And in 1953, one of the most enduring artifacts of the McCarthy era premiered at the Martin Beck Theatre. The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials, is often interpreted as a commentary on the McCarthy witchhunts. Called to testify before HUAC in 1956, Miller was asked about this, and his response was sardonic: “The comparison is inevitable, sir.” In 1955, A View from the Bridge and A Memory of Two Mondays both opened on Broadway.
And what about Hellman? In 1951, her play The Autumn Garden opened at the Coronet Theatre, and in 1956, the musical Candide, featuring Hellman’s libretto, won a Tony Award for Best Musical.
In other words, Broadway continued to support Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman. Let's look at how and why this happened:
One month after the hearings of the Hollywood Ten, the heads of the major film studios met at a posh hotel to issue what would become known as “The Waldorf Statement.” In part, it read: “Members of the Association of Motion Picture Producers deplore the action of the [Hollywood Ten]… We will forthwith discharge or suspend without compensation those in our employ, and we will not re-employ any of the Ten until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist.”
In 1951, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) voiced their support of HUAC and sanctioned the blacklist with this warning to their members: “… if any actor by his own actions outside of union activities has so offended American public opinion that he has made himself unsaleable [sic] at the box-office, the Guild cannot and would not want to force any employer to hire him.” Two years later, SAG would go even further, requiring potential members to sign a loyalty oath as part of their application to the union. This mandatory signing was in effect until 1967, when the Grateful Dead refused to sign and the provision was made optional. In 1974, SAG finally removed it from their by-laws.
Workers in the film and television industries were frightened into silence, or worse, frightened into naming names in order to protect themselves. But three thousand miles away, on another coast and in an alternative universe, Actors Equity Association, the actors' union, took a very different course of action. They rejected the blacklist and supported their members who had been named.
To understand their decision, it’s important to look at how Actors Equity worked. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, it was a union centered in New York, but with branches in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco… but—and this is important—regional decisions had to approved by the New York council. In other words, Broadway actors ran the show. Actors Equity already had taken a progressive stand against segregation of audiences in 1947, effectively causing the closure of the National Theatre in Washington.
The final resolution was, however, unequivocal in its repudiation of the Communist witch hunts:
“Whereas the aforementioned practice of “blacklisting” is by its very nature, based on secrecy and prejudiced judgement and results in conviction by accusation without an opportunity given to the accused person to be heard and to defend himself… now therefore be it resolved: That this Association again condemns the practice of “blacklisting” in all its forms, and that this Association will act to aid its members in their rights to obtain a fair and impartial hearing of any charges that may be brought against them.”
The union stood by the blacklisted actors and offered them support, and they were the first and the only performing arts organization to do so. Following their lead, the Broadway producers joined with Equity in their condemnation of the practice. A paragraph regarding blacklisting became standard in Equity’s basic agreement:
“The Manager and Actor admit notice of the anti-blacklisting provision contained in the basic agreement between Equity and the League of New York Theatres…”
Most of the 29 subpoenaed theatre artists were actors, and they had done what actors do: they had rehearsed. Some of them literally played characters at the hearings, costumes and all—"the dumb blonde,” “the Southern belle.” They deployed time-honored, scene-stealing tactics that included stalling for time to run out the clock. They held dramatically extended conversations with their attorneys, and they infuriated their interrogators by answering questions with more questions. These subpoenaed witnesses faced an unpleasant choice between naming names, going to prison for contempt, or taking the Fifth Amendment--which sounded like an admission of guilt. But, as actors, they knew how to milk a scene, and they were experts at exactly how far they could go before losing their audience. As witnesses, they would venture dangerously close to the line of contempt, and then pull back before crossing it. They would approach it again, again pull back, and then, seconds before they were cited for contempt, they would pull out the Fifth Amendment. In other words, they put on a damn good show. After four days, HUAC threw in the towel, cancelling the fifth day of the hearings. In the end, only one witness had named names. The 22 non-cooperative witnesses went back to work at their respective theaters without any repercussions.
As an interesting footnote to the 1955 hearings, the process servers had a heck of a time serving these theater artists with subpoenas. Denied entry into their homes, these servers often tried to track down their prey at the theaters where they worked. They were met with stage managers or box office staff who insisted the actor had not yet arrived or had already left the building. Often the servers were sent on a wild goose chase, while the actor’s cast members helped them sneak out of the theatre using an alternative exit.
And so the blacklist that had ruined so many reputations, destroyed so many careers, broken up so many families, and shattered so many lives in Hollywood did not succeed in New York. HUAC returned in 1958 to try again, but this time eighteen of the nineteen witnesses refused to cooperate. The record of these hearings is comparatively meager, because the Supreme Court had handed down a ruling in 1957 that severely restricted the kinds of questions HUAC could ask. These hearings were more of a denouement. Joseph Papp was let go from his television job at CBS after his 1958 hearing, but he opted for arbitration and became the first person to win reinstatement during the blacklist. Shakespeare in the Park, which Papp had founded in 1957, continued that summer and in 1962, expanded into the open-air Delacorte Theatre where it continues to flourish.
HUAC had been thoroughly upstaged by a community whose primary commitment was to each other and to freedom of speech, thought, and association. As radio commentator Dorothy Thompson noted, “Give the actor a stage, without which he simply does not exist. Not a stage in a court room. A stage in a theater. His judge will never be a Congressional Committee. It will always be an audience.”
Recommended reading: Broadway and the Blacklist by K. Kevyne Baar, published in 2019 by MacFarland & Company.