When a playwright’s subject is the tortuous machinations of the Federal Government, he doesn’t need a wild imagination to figure out that the most suitable dramatic genre is likely to be farce. As Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s resident playwright John Leicht pored over the yellowing American Civil Liberties Union files of The Progressive case, he discovered that he had a surreal circus right in his hands. When reality turns as absurd as it did in Madison, Wisc. in 1979, the playwright’s job of turning public events into theatrical comedy is essentially Moot.
After his successful 1985 courtroom play, An American Journey, which focused on the late ’50s killing of a Milwaukee man by two local police officers (and that crime’s subsequent cover-up), Leicht had vowed never to write another play that involved wading through boxes of court transcripts. But lunch with Eunice Edgar, head of the Wisconsin chapter of the ACLU, destroyed that tenuous resolve. Knowing that Leicht had a penchant for dramatizing local political history, Edgar suggested he might enjoy reading how a tiny, alternative newspaper in Madison had taken on a fair-sized chunk of the government’s Executive Branch, with all of its expensive, dutiful lawyers. And it was the government that lost.Order now
The celebrated legal battles surrounding the Progressive are well known to students of legal arguments for freedom of the press. A young journalist named Howard Morland, concerned that the general public was being hoodwinked by scientific jargon and thus disconnected from the nuclear weapons debate, set out to write a detailed, yet simple, guide explaining how the hydrogen bomb actually worked. He figured that such an article would bring home the idea that the bomb was real, and contribute to an open national discourse on the subject.
Unfortunately for the well-meaning writer, the government took a dim view of such openness. Citing national security, the Carter Administration hauled out all its legal guns to stop publication of the article, now inaccurately branded as an instruction manual for backyard nuclear wannabees.
Secrecy and power
True farce ensued when it became clear that Morland’s article was based entirely on facts that were readily available on the shelves of public libraries — even though the information had never been officially declassified. The incredulous Leicht discovered that even Morland’s high-school physics book (where much useful information on nuclear matters could be gleaned) was, at one point, classified. During the trial, the defendants never received clearance to speak in their own defense, and one judge was not legally free to read the article he was supposedly judging. Ultimately the article was leaked to papers across the country on the Associated Press wires and the government found itself in the impossible position of needing to prosecute the entire newspaper-reading population of the United States. The slippery affair fell out of the government’s hands, and the attempt to obtain a restraining order was finally dropped, but not before the Progressive made headlines nationwide.
If the powers-that-be overreacted, Leicht found the affair’s liberal protagonists far from blameless — the Progressive’s editor loved the role of first-amendment martyr, while his writer was overly naive. Other media outlets were at first hostile to the magazine’s cause, then, when the case was almost won, rapidly change the color of their editorial ink. Leicht became increasingly convinced that this incredible chain of events was less about Morland’s article than it was about the government’s conviction that secrecy (however needless) goes hand in hand with absolutist power. The self-righteous figures on both sides were ripe for ridicule on stage, and Leicht decided that “they needed to be pushed into a still more absurd theatrical environment.”
A full-fledged circus
Moot, therefore, was cast as a fast-moving farce, full of clownish physicality and crackling one-liners. Names were changed (although hardly to protect the innocent) and no character escaped the brandish of caricature. The government side was dominated by a clown-faced, threatening lawyer (Daniel Mooney), reveling nastily in his quest for control, while the scatterbrained opposition became a merciless indictment of the self-serving, disorganized political Left. The countless rapid-free scenes were ideally suited to Leicht’s elliptical writing style.
A New American Play grant of $80,000 from the Charlottesville-based W. Alton Jones Foundation allowed the Rep to conduct several workshops of the piece, and enabled director John Dillon to fly with his concept of the production as a full-fledged circus — a bold choice that Dillon felt would encourage the actors “to take the biggest possible leaps.”
Dillon and his designers took off for the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisc., researching old-time circus music and hiring a clowning consultant. Interns were coerced into dressing as clowns and selling popcorn in the Rep’s normally staid lobby. Scenic designer John Story crafted a huge, intentionally overblown setting dominated by a massive red-lipped, laughing mouth — a cross between a circus big-top and a warped atomic cafe. Costumer Charles Berliner’s designs included eagle suits for the play’s chirping judges.
The prop department went into high gear and built a multitude of oversized wonders: colossal file cabinets from which faceless bureaucrats emerged to bark down phones; a typewriter-carrying desk-cycle that allowed the editor of “Bob’s Populist Review” to race on- and off-stage at top speed; a mechanical “media machine” with cameras and microphones as arms; a walking, talking, video box that screeched commands to underlings.
Sitting quietly in the opening-night crowd, watching his personal quest blown up to bigger-than-life proportions, was Morland himself. Having spent much of the ’80s on the lecture circuit speaking about the Progressive case, Morland found himself “immensely flattered and very amused” by the play’s take on the central events of his career. Erwin Knoll, his real-life editor, had also been to Milwaukee, and his initial skepticism about the script had turned into amusement when he saw Dillon’s raucous production. Still-radical Progressive assistant editor Sam Day (whom Leicht had unkindly characterized as a sniveling nerd) had thankfully not attended the show, being too busy protesting nuclear installations in Ohio.
Behind Morland’s good humor were hints of disappointment that the auspicious legal battle that had catapulted him to fame had been treated in Moot as a circus, but he insisted that Leicht had “caught all the spirit of the story,” even if considerable artistic licence had been taken with the chronology of events.
On the playwright’s part, there is fresh resolve to turn away from recent history as subject matter. His next project, he says, will be a play about Thersites, a minor character in the Iliad, and the first man in recorded history to speak out against authority. It remains to be seen whether Leicht will dress him in a police uniform or a business suit — or the baggy pants of a clown.