Observations: A survivor of the blacklist

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The Independent Culture

Why would a writer publicise a letter from his father about masturbation? Is it filial revenge or sexual propaganda that motivates Christopher Trumbo's play, in which the letter is read to the audience? The answer is the desire to present a rounded picture of the man who, famous as a screen writer, became even more famous for surviving and defeating the Hollywood blacklist of the Fifties. The hilarious letter is one of many comprising Trumbo, a one-man show starring Corin Redgrave, which premieres in the UK next week at London's Jermyn Street theatre.

Since 1998, 49 years after Dalton Trumbo's appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the play has been seen in 16 cities and has starred Paul Newman, Steve Martin, Gore Vidal and Nathan Lane. It consists of letters Dalton wrote to family members, authors, politicians, bureaucrats, and various other friends and enemies.

Dalton was one of the ten writers and directors imprisoned for refusing to testify about their association with the Communist Party or to inform on others. As the author of screenplays for such crowd-pleasers as Kitty Foyle and 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, Trumbo had the best contract in the business. Not only was his pay the highest, but he was also not subject to a morals clause.

All this changed when Dalton was summoned to Washington. He put the committee members' backs up from the beginning of his testimony, with answers so long that he was ordered to reply with a simple yes or no. He was sentenced for contempt of Congress but it was after Dalton's release from prison that his real troubles began. The studios, fearing government repression and public boycott, said they would not hire anyone who refused to declare under oath that he was not a Communist.

As this violated the same principle for which Dalton had gone to prison, it meant a dozen years of low-paid and uncredited work. Though Dalton offered to write a script for free if he were given credit, he got no takers. But in 1957, he saw that his abilities were as highly regarded as ever. That year he won the Oscar for best original story, for The Brave One or, rather, it was won by "Robert Rich", a nom de plume. The Screen Writers' Guild, which had joined the attacks against Dalton, was told that Rich was unable to appear, and the award was accepted by their vice-president. It was not until the next day that he discovered that Rich did not exist.

17 to 28 March (020-7287 2875)

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