Witness by Whittaker Chambers recently turned 60, and journalists and scholars met at Yale University to celebrate this literary landmark and seminal text of the conservative movement. The discussion brought out divisions on the Right that actually go back to the Cold War.
This classic memoir, about the author’s defection from communism and testimony against one of his former comrades, Alger Hiss, was an instant bestseller in 1952. Chambers pulls the reader into his strange life: his service to Soviet military intelligence, his disillusionment and flight from the communist underground, and the obloquy he faced when the East Coast establishment circled the wagons around Hiss, a veteran of the U.S. State Department.
When Random House published Witness, Hiss sat in prison for having denied under oath that he passed government documents to the Russians. The international context was one of steady gains for communism: the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia, Mao’s triumph in China, and the Kremlin’s acquisition of the bomb. This is why Chambers wanted to make his book more than a spy story. Emulating Dostoevsky, he cast his account in dramatic philosophical and historical terms:
The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.
There’s nothing like having the wind of public opinion at your back on a controversial issue. I used to, but the wind changed. Gay marriage will come to my adopted state if voters let stand the Maryland legislature’s recently passed same-sex marriage law. The gradual leftward shift on this, in Maryland and nationally, defies a prediction I made years ago. Mine is no longer the clear majority view – and it certainly never was among my fellow homosexuals. Ignoring the matter as long as possible has been my response. But time’s up. The November 6 vote is near. Having consulted my conscience, I find that my opposition remains.
It would be wimpy to tiptoe quietly to the polls. Not when the “Yes on 6” side is having so much fun mobilizing politically, financially, and even theatrically. Three local stage companies have put on plays intended to boost support for same-sex marriage in the run-up to the election. I decided that, forced to again take up this question, I could at least mobilize myself to enter the civic arena and attend some live theater.
My field trips, about which more below, prompted rumination about plays for the opposition to mount – if so inclined, which of course they’re not – that would cast an approving glow over heterosexual matrimony. Eugene O’Neill? Edward Albee? The more I thought about it, the more obvious it was that a staple of the modern theater has been husbands treating wives perfectly shabbily and vice versa. Well then, what about that old stand-by, Shakespeare, whose comedies end in nuptials? No. He only shows the first moments of marriage. For all we can say, Beatrice and Benedick, Orlando and Rosalind and the others wind up tearing into each other with all the sadistic zest of Martha and George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Despite how they were billed in the newspaper, the three productions I saw — two in Baltimore City and one in Columbia — addressed not same-sex marriage but the past prejudices that brought down upon us the cruel contempt of our fellow citizens. Who could disagree with preachments in favor of toleration? Two out of three so preached, I should say, for “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?”, being the “edgiest” of the lot, was a total loss. A two-man play, it arrived in 2006 as British dramatist Caryl Churchill’s way of floating her theory that the UK’s close foreign policy collaboration with the United States was rooted in an erotic attraction between Tony Blair and George W. Bush. The piece has been revised to make it less keyed to those individuals and more symbolically about the evils of capitalist-imperialist Uncle Sam. But it was still expressionism, and we were still Baltimoreans. In the Q and A after the show, audience members did not hesitate to share their bafflement.
The other two were staged biographies: “The Temperamentals,” about Harry Hay, founder of the earliest gay rights organization, and “Breaking the Code,” about Alan Turing, the British computer science and artificial intelligence pioneer who played a crucial role in defeating Adolf Hitler. (Turing broke the Nazis’ Enigma code.) The latter drama, which was written by Hugh Whitemore in 1986, was well-acted. It was pitiful and searing to watch a world-historical figure being humiliated by the government he served.