They were a perfect pair of antagonists for the television public: Columbia University English professor Charles Van Doren, the tall, handsome scion of America’s WASP cultural elite, and Herb Stempel, the short, schlumpy little Jew from Queens, working his way through the City College of New York. The two young men, different in so many ways, met on a battleground where they could fight as equals: the NBC quiz show Twenty-One. There on the studio set, where each man stood in a soundproof glass booth to respond to questions from emcee Jack Barry in front of millions of viewers, disparities in class, culture and looks became irrelevant. Only the contestants’ minds mattered.
Or so it seemed until a couple of years after Stempel, Twenty-One’s first champion, was bested by Van Doren in 1956. Following revelations that another game show called Dotto had been rigged, Stempel came forward to claim that Twenty-One was also a hoax that Van Doren had only won because Stempel had taken a dive. Stempel had set out to expose the sham earlier, but Twenty-One’s producer, Daniel Enright, made it appear that Stempel was a mentally unstable blackmailer, overreacting to his on-screen defeat. Not until Nov. 2, 1959, did Van Doren whose stint on Twenty-One had made him a national celebrity confess in a congressional hearing that he had participated in quiz-show rigging.
Van Doren was exposed as a liar, and Stempel was vindicated. Yet somehow Van Doren emerged the hero–a quintessential prodigal son whose soul-searching confession served as both personal cleansing and public catharsis. (“God bless you,” pronounced Congressman Oren Harris as he congratulated the penitent Van Doren.) Stempel, meanwhile, was sneered at as a sore loser and quickly became a forgotten man. In the public eye, Van Doren was a sacrificial scapegoat on a grand scale; Stempel was a schmuck.
In The Wizards of Quiz, playwright Steve Feffer airs his own ideas on the scandal. Having sought to put forth an objective account of the affair in a 1988 docudrama that he wrote as part of his master’s-degree studies at the University of Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop, Feffer turned his focus to more personal questions in this play, presented in December and January at the National Jewish Theater in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. (The production, directed by NJT’s co-artistic director Jeff Ginsberg, reflected significant revisions from its 1991 world premiere at the Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays.)
A fool-hero brought low
The most sweeping question the play asks is: Why? Why did Stempel take part in the fraud, and why did he try to expose it? In attempting to arrive at some answers, Feffer’s bitterly witty play paints Stempel as a hero-fool brought low by personal flaws–pride, greed, gullibility, arrogance born out of insecurity as well as by a cruel, gigantic force that shapes our lives as much as the Olympian gods did the Greeks’: the television industry.
Using a TV studio as its principal location, and employing a pair of glass booths as both quiz-show settings and congressional witness stands, The Wizards of Quiz recalls an era in which people trusted television. The astounding popularity of the big-money quiz shows, beginning with The $64,000 Question, reflected the public’s belief in TV’s integrity: If a schlemiel like Herb Stempel could win $49,500, people thought, at least he did it honestly. In reality, the games were scripted for entertainment value (the air conditioning in the glass booth was even turned off so Stempel would sweat more dramatically). Packaged as the penniless ex-G.I. working his way through college, Stempel–played with a compelling blend of cockiness, grubbiness, sarcasm and pathos by Edward Jemison in the NJT production–quickly won the audience’s sympathy with his astounding photographic memory. But when Stempel’s novelty faded and audience interest reached a plateau, the script had to change and Stempel had to lose.
Thus, when Stempel is told the public is tired of him and that it’s time for him to lose which means he must cheat, since his vast knowledge guarantees him almost certain victory in an honest game he’s sure anti-Semitism is a key factor. The viewers don’t like to see Jews keep winning or the marketing specialists who chart popularity ratings think they don’t. (Institutionalized anti-Semitism in the TV industry, though real enough, has always been tacit: In a TV Guide interview published during Wizards’ NJT run, Carl Reiner revealed that he originally intended to star in the situation comedy that became The Dick Van Dyke Show until he was deemed “too Jewish” for public consumption, though no one ever told him that to his face. “In those days, there were just a lot of important network and agency people who thought that way,” Reiner told TV Guide.)
A visit from Marty
Whether he’s a victim of prejudice or just paranoia, Stempel’s fixation on being a Jewish icon is twisted into overwhelming guilt when he agrees to throw the game; he becomes possessed by a sense of cultural as well as personal dishonor. “I’ll be banished to the wilderness,” he cries to his wife. “Herb, you’re in Forest Hills,” she responds, but her practicality is no use. Unable to tolerate losing to the echt-goy Van Doren, he pursues a self-destructive vendetta that drives him to a breakdown.
Set in various locations during the period 1956-59, Feffer’s script shifts fluidly between past and present–and reality and fantasy–as it charts the unraveling of Stempel’s illusions and the temporary unhinging of his mind. (The NJT production employed a unit set that represented various locations; a “Geritol” sign promoting the sponsor of Twenty-One dominated the set throughout the show, an ironic reminder of the corporate commercialism behind the scandal.) At one point, Stempel receives an other-worldly visit from the title character of the film Marty the Bronx butcher played by Ernest Borgnine. Like Stempel’s appearance on Twenty-One, Borgnine’s character was a tribute to the nobility of the common man. (It was a question about whether Marty won the 1955 best-film Oscar that Stempel was ordered to forfeit to Van Doren.) Near the play’s climax, Stempel dreams of tracking down Van Doren who has gone into hiding to avoid questions about the scandal–and enjoying a brotherly reconciliation with him. “Why would you want everyone to know you cheated?” Van Doren asks Stempel. “I wanted everyone to know you cheated,” Stempel sheepishly responds. In the dream, Stempel convinces Van Doren to confess but in the next scene, when Van Doren appears before Congress, he gives credit for his change of heart to an unknown fan who wrote him a letter, ignoring Stempel completely.
Weakest in its efforts at domestic drama–the character of Stempel’s wife Toby is functional at best–Wizards is most interesting when it focuses on the weird triangular relationship between Stempel, Van Doren and the medium that brought them together. For both men, TV represented not only fame and fortune but an avenue to the American mainstream, a channel to transmit ideals of honor and intellectual aspiration. Instead they were sucked in by a medium whose unparalleled power has expanded many times over in the years since the Twenty-One scandal–a medium concerned almost entirely with selling the most products to the most viewers for the most profit possible. In a day when crucial activities of public life are increasingly shaped by, slanted for, and conducted on this medium, The Wizards of Quiz is a cautionary history lesson worth heeding.