Anti-Semitism was never far below the surface of the notorious blacklist of the 1950s. Did sexism play a role as well? In Julie S. Halpern’s new play, “Diminished Fifth,” two women with Jewish roots, writers Lillian Hellman (Stacey Scotte) and Dorothy Parker (Jacquelyn Poplar), along with three non-Jewish women, broadcaster Jean Muir (Mary McGloin), actress Margaret Webster (Elaine LeGaro) and civil rights activist Eslanda Robeson (Ronalda Ay Nicholas), grapple with the shattering experience of being blacklisted. The play began performances this week at the Producers Club in Midtown.
Halpern, who is Jewish herself, is the artistic director of Lovestreet Theatre, a company that provides opportunities for female performers and actors who are over the age of 40. “Diminished Fifth” commemorates last year’s 60th anniversary of “Red Channels,” a black and red pamphlet published in 1950 by the anti-Communist journal Counterattack that purported, with scant evidence, to reveal the names of 151 television and radio personalities, mostly in New York, who were secret Communists, sympathizers, or “fellow travelers.” Those who were tarred as “controversial” in the booklet became ripe for questioning by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
A third of those named in the booklet were women, leading Halpern to wonder if women reacted differently to the blacklist than men. In her research, Halpern found that many women who were called to testify in the federal hearings pled a variation on the Fifth Amendment known as a “diminished fifth,” which meant that they would incriminate themselves but not name anyone else. (A “diminished fifth” is also a musical term that connotes an interval of six semitones — half steps between notes.)
Blacklisted women have received increasing attention in recent years. In her book, “The Age of McCarthyism” (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), Ellen Schrecker noted that it is “hard to have a witch-hunt without witches.” And Milly S. Barranger’s “Unfriendly Witnesses” (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) dubbed Hellman and Parker as “defiant ones” who were treated with great disdain because of their gender. Indeed, HUAC Chairman John Wood famously declined to send Hellman to jail for refusing to testify: “Why cite her for contempt? After all, she’s a woman…”
In an interview, Halpern noted that “fear makes people do really dreadful things.” Despite the fact that many of the women who were blacklisted were strong women who were “not used to being pushed around,” they often panicked when called to testify. Many were forced to forfeit their careers, their health, their sanity, their property, and sometimes — in the case of suicide — their lives.
The playwright compared the situation in the 1930s, when many artists first became involved with the Communist Party, to her own experience in college during the Vietnam War era. “People wanted to feel like they were part of things. As artists, they thought that getting involved in politics made them interesting. I don’t think that any of them were spies.” But even if they were, she added, “We have the right to be Communists in this country. It’s not against the law.”
Richard Schwartz, the author of “Cold War Culture,” is a retired professor from Florida International University in Miami. He told The Jewish Week that there was little difference in the way that HUAC treated women. “They were looking for big names that could get them a lot of publicity,” he said, “and most of those names were of men.”
Nevertheless, Schwartz speculated that women were affected differently by the blacklist. Schwartz cited the case of Irene Wicker, star of a children’s television show, “The Singing Lady.” After she was blacklisted, Schwartz recalled, her agent was told that no one in the industry “would touch her with a ten foot pole.” This opprobrium led, Schwartz surmised, to terrible emotional consequences for women. “They had a sense of helplessness,” he said, “because they were in a bigger bind. Their options in society were fewer.”
Perhaps female traitors were perceived as worse than male traitors, Schwartz said, invoking the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951. “They put Ethel Rosenberg to death because she typed up notes and because she wouldn’t talk.” Like the women who were blacklisted, “she violated the societal idea of what a woman should be.”
“Diminished Fifth” runs through July 3 at the Producers Club, 358 W. 44th St. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18, call TheaterMania at (212) 352-3101 or visit www.theatermania.com.