Shame! Scandal! Hold The Front Page!
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In 1972, the National Theatre's literary manager, Kenneth Tynan, decided that it should revive one of his favourite stage comedies: The Front Page (1928), Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's scabrous Broadway hit about amoral reporters covering an execution.
It had not been staged in England since a short-lived London run in 1931 (though it was widely known thanks to several screen versions). One of the National's associate directors, Michael Blakemore, was hooked on Hecht and MacArthur's "scepticism, authority and wisecracks" and volunteered to direct The Front Page, for a July 1972 opening at the Old Vic, where the NT Company was based.
A rights application was submitted to the authors' widows in America. Helen Hayes, who had been married to MacArthur from 1928 until his death in 1956, and had appeared in The Front Page on Broadway in 1970, quickly said yes; Rose Hecht was apparently "very delighted".
Shortly before rehearsals began, however, Rose decided an NT production would dishonour her husband's fierce Zionism. Through his speeches, articles, a theatrical pageant (A Flag is Born, 1946) and fund-raising drives, Ben Hecht had worked as hard for the creation of Israel as any American Jew of his generation. Profits from A Flag Is Born bought a yacht, SS Ben Hecht, which was carrying Jewish immigrants when it was seized by the British on arrival in Palestine.
Funds raised by Hecht and Jewish gangster Mickey Cohen purchased weapons that were shipped to the Irgun and other groups fighting for an independent Jewish state and, in May 1947, Hecht paid for a full-page advertisement, published in 15 major American newspapers: a "LETTER TO THE TERRORISTS OF PALESTINE", in which he told his "brave friends" that "every time you… let go with your bombs and guns at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts."
Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail called Hecht a "vitriolic Zionist volcano"; Lord Beaverbrook's Evening Standard ran a letter branding him "a Nazi at heart". In 1948, the Cinematograph Exhibitors' Association, representing 5,000 UK cinemas, refused "to circulate any film with which Hecht had been involved", a ban that lasted until 1952.
'We believe that Rose Hecht would refuse to set foot in the hated British isles' - the advice of Lord Goodman, the NT's lawyer
On May 2 1972, eight years after her husband's death, Rose Hecht's bitter memories of British hostility suffused the letter she airmailed to Laurence Olivier, director of the National, from her home in Manhattan.
She could never sanction a revival of The Front Page by English actors, whose country had persecuted the Hechts. Invoking the hundreds of "Jewish souls" who died aboard the Struma and Patria, refugee ships sunk during the Second World War, she appended handwritten chords from Beethoven's String Quartet op. 135, headed The Difficult Decision, with text added by the composer: "Muss es sein? (Must it be?) / Es muss sein (It must be").
Her answer to an NT Front Page must be "No".
Mrs Hecht could injunct the Old Vic revival, or make a claim for substantial damages if it opened, because Britain's Copyright Act (1956) stated that an author or literary executor with equal rights to a co-written play could not unilaterally "grant a licence… binding on the other". If the NT proceeded, knowing that consent from Helen Hayes was therefore invalid, its board could face criminal charges as well as civil action. Cue uproar within the NT and its board, chaired by millionaire Jewish property developer Sir Max Rayne.
Rayne favoured cancellation, and Hecht's inflammatory Zionism made this a very personal situation for the chairman, a hugely generous supporter of Israel, and of peaceful Israeli-Palestinian co-existence in particular.
Sir Max had developed a close relationship with Teddy Kollek, then Mayor of Jerusalem, and donated significant sums to promote harmony between the city's various populations.
He must have contemplated the damage to this philanthropy if an NT Front Page itself became front-page news. "Britain's National Theatre Defies Ben Hecht's Widow" would have made a banner headline for the Jerusalem Post – and painful reading for Rayne.
Tynan focused on this aspect in a memo composed on June 22, a fortnight before the scheduled opening night: "The object… is to preserve… the good name of the NT. This is unlikely to be achieved by cancelling… because… [newspapers] will rapidly establish that the… NT has spent approx. £10,000… on a production it was not legally entitled to present…
"It will readily be apparent that the board - headed by a Jewish chairman and including several other Jewish members [including Victor Mishcon and Harold Sebag-Montefiore] - has given in to pressure from the widow of the man who applauded the deaths of British soldiers… A cancellation will lead to a press explosion".
Rayne was due to visit New York on business on June 25-26 and wanted to meet Mrs Hecht and/or her lawyers. This, Tynan argued, would be "very undesirable", because "she is known to be a violent opponent of the present Israeli regime (which Sir Max financially supports); and her political disapproval of Sir Max might intensify her inclination to oppose the NT. Clearly, if Sir Max sees her or her representatives and they turn down his arguments, the NT would be compelled to cancel… It might be held that Sir Max's faith and politics had dictated Mrs Hecht's decision."
With Blakemore and general manager Anthony Easterbrook, Rayne formulated a damage limitation plan to be used if The Front Page were replaced by three other productions already in the NT repertoire. There would be a vague press release explaining that "unforeseen difficulties respecting the copyright have arisen."
Proceeding with The Front Page would require a calculated gamble, outlined by Tynan: "Although Mrs H. could initiate a legal action… by means of an affidavit, she would have… to appear as a plaintiff in court; and we… believe that she would refuse to set foot in the hated British Isles."
Rayne accepted Tynan's argument only when it was endorsed by lawyer Arnold (Lord) Goodman, who recommended proceeding, because Mrs Hecht's "paranoid hatred" of Britain would keep her out of court.
Hecht and MacArthur had mined their work on Chicago newspapers in the 1920s to write The Front Page. It is set in a prison press-room, where reporters josh, cuss and play poker while they wait for Earl Williams, a left-wing radical convicted of killing a black policeman, to go to the gallows.
Denis Quilley played ace reporter Hildy Johnson, the Chicago Herald and Examiner veteran about to give up the inky trade in favour of wedded bliss and a cushy job in Manhattan with his father-in-law-to-be's advertising firm. Alan MacNaughtan was Walter Burns, the Examiner's managing editor, determined to keep Hildy from quitting.
The hacks' chauvinism and jokes at the expense of press, politicians and police seemed so fresh that Blakemore's cast accused him of updating their dialogue. "Not a word," he insisted. He commissioned special effects from Pinewood Studios, and when a volley of gunfire ripped through the press room a jagged line of bullet-holes appeared along a side wall.
Blakemore describes the public dress rehearsal of The Front Page going "better than we could possibly have imagined. One guy in the front row got quite hysterical and started thumping his feet against the front of the stage." Irving Wardle's Times notice said the play had been rescued from the commercial scrap-heap and, in the Windy City, the Daily News reported on London critics hailing this "rowdy comedy about Chicago newspapering."
Blakemore thought The Front Page "about the best thing I'd ever done". He digested "a nice press" and set off for his holiday home in Biarritz.
He returned to a letter from Helen Hayes saying this was the finest Front Page she had seen, and "complete silence" from Rose Hecht, whose agent had urged her "in light of the fabulous [London] notices" not to do "anything adverse". Her last documented contribution to the affair was an instruction on where to send the royalty payments.
Daniel Rosenthal is the author of 'The National Theatre Story', to be published in December by Oberon Books, £35