Special Convention Fever Issue -- Chicago '68
by Irving Wardle
[ed. The following was written as an introduction to The Chicago Conspiracy production presented by Charles Marowitz at The Open Space Theatre and published in 1974 by Penguin Books under the title Open Space Plays. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the author, Irving Wardle, who was for many years the lead drama critic of The London Times.]
(Swans - June 2, 2008) Feliks Topolski, our most indefatigable chronicler of current events, has described the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968 as one of the great theatrical experiences of his life. And if the Convention was street theatre, the ensuing conspiracy trial was a still more self-conscious dramatic performance. The defendants were, and are, actors; rebels who settle for role-playing as the most effective and enjoyable way of screwing the system. The Yippies have converted Revolution into a form of show-business, not forgetting the royalties. Even when the trial was on, they were out on bail snapping up television and lecture engagements; and one of their first acts after the court's judgment was to offer Judge Julius Hoffman a starring role in the movie they planned to make of the case.
Any scripted replay of the Convention or the trial has therefore a case of its own to answer. Can the theatre add anything independent; or must it simply take its modest place in promoting the whole multi-media Yippie carnival?
As it happens, a comparison is available. About a year before its production of The Chicago Conspiracy, The Open Space staged a 'freedom-collage' by David Mairowitz called Law Circus. Based partly on Abbie Hoffman's book Revolution for the Hell of It, this featured the ace shit-stirrer defending himself on the charge of wearing a shirt made from the American flag. Mairowitz paired this Yippie trial with a parallel German case involving two members of West Berlin's Kommune 1 who were accused of practising custard-pie scare tactics in protest against the Vietnam War. True to his title, Mairowitz projected the legal chamber as a den of cartoon fanatics clad in parti-coloured tights and outsize stovepipe hats. It was very funny, but translated the whole situation into a Yippie dream as remote from socio-political meaning as the trial of the Knave of Hearts.
Judge Hoffman's court may have been ludicrous, but it was no mere pack of cards; and the first thing to be claimed for John Burgess's Chicago script is that it resists any temptation to present the case through the eyes of the defendants. I have not studied the full transcript of the proceedings, but what emerges unmistakably from the stage condensation is a principle of stark contrast which gives every side its due. There is no question here of the Yippies taking over the show, whatever their entertainment value.
Sporadic reporting of the case in British newspapers conveyed the impression of a barbaric legislature grinding enlightened dissent underfoot. Most notorious, of course, was the binding and gagging of Bobby Seale in open court. The interesting thing about the Burgess version (even more striking in performance) is that while the injustice of this is as clear as ever, one is grateful for anything that cuts short the torrent of Seale's thunderous self-righteousness. No one is thereby in danger of mistaking this for a fair trial (any more than the Federal Government itself, which quashed the convictions in November 1972 and dropped the incitement-to-riot charges the following January). On the other hand, no one's judgment is likely to be fuddled by the rhetoric of martyrdom. And given the number of would-be martyrs involved (not excluding Judge Hoffman himself, with his plaintive invitation to the defence to read what 'one of the finest newspapers in the State' had said about his career), this is all-important to the script's effect.
Like Law Circus, The Chicago Conspiracy draws on some marvellous raw material: coupling momentous public debate with farce as profoundly American as the tangling of Captain Spalding and Mrs Rittenhouse. To that it adds the factor of acute editorial selection, disentangling clean lines of personal and political conflict from the unwieldy mass of the four and a half months' hearings. Viewed in long-shot, it is a drama of individual conscience against the social order. In greater close-up it shows the variety of forces opposing the state machine: the old-style good guy liberalism of Dellinger, the clown anarchy of the Yippies, the Californian mysticism of Ginsberg, and the racial fury of Bobby Seale. While, at point-blank range, it presents the personal temperaments behind the public gestures, revealing Judge Hoffman himself as a bewigged oddball.
Created for a London theatre, The Chicago Conspiracy ranks as a piece of long-range political pamphleteering. In itself, this form needs defence. The stage has a responsibility to widen the public conscience and prolong the life-span of important news stories. But why not some event closer to home, like Joan Littlewood's (legally stifled) documentary on Ronan Point, or Bristol's Trials of Oz? Or, alternatively, a real act of political suppression, like the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial, whose defendants had to purchase their martyrdom with something more than quashed sentences and television engagements.
Charles Marowitz silenced these objections by casting. It often grates to see professional actors capitalizing on the actions of living political victims. Marowitz's idea was that if anyone had the right to speak for the Chicago Eight it was other Americans like Carl Foreman and Donald Ogden Stewart who had themselves suffered from their country's political justice. The master-stroke was the casting of William Burroughs as Judge Hoffman. The transformation of the author of The Naked Lunch was extraordinary. Expressionless as a glacier, never raising his voice above a monotone and favouring the more obstreperous speakers with a mild gaze from his pale-dead eyes, he became an unnerving emblem of the quietude of power confronting the belligerence of the weak.
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