The Rubenstein Kiss: Spies who inspire

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for passing secrets to the Russians. Their story has given birth to novels, films and, now, a new British play. Christina Patterson reports
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The Independent Culture

James Phillips was working as a spear-carrier in a West End play when he saw a photograph of the Rosenbergs. He'd never heard of the American couple executed for spying, but was haunted by the image of them locked in a passionate kiss.

"It was in a book of 20th-century photographs," says the young playwright and director, "They were kissing in the back of a police van."

Three years on, his obsession has become a play. The Rubenstein Kiss, written and directed by Phillips, opens at the Hampstead Theatre in north London tonight.

The story of the Rosenbergs has everything a dramatist could seek: passion, controversy and betrayal. Julius Rosenberg was an electrical engineer, his wife Ethel an aspiring actress and singer. In May 1950, on the testimony of Ethel's brother David Greenglass, they were arrested for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. They were executed in prison on 19 June 1953.

The Rosenbergs were the only American civilians ever to be executed for spying. The evidence was flimsy, and later revelations contradictory. What's not in doubt is the couple's significance as symbols during a febrile time in American history,the McCarthy era. For the US right, the Rosenbergs were symbols of an evil virus that had to be stamped out. For liberals, they were victims of one of the worst miscarriages of justice in US history.

Phillips isn't the first to turn the story into art. EL Doctorow's novel The Book of Daniel (1971) is written in the voice of the Rosenbergs' - here the Isaacsons' - son. The Rosenbergs' two sons were adopted by two left-wing songwriters, but in the novel, their children are adopted by a professor of law and his intellectual wife. Daniel is married to a young hippie he abuses. Instead of a brother, he has a sister, Susan, a fanatical protester and chronically depressed.

The novel veers between the first and third person and leaps from one time-frame to another. It is full of astute observations on the times: "The necessary emotional fever for fighting a war cannot be turned off like a water faucet. Enemies must continue to be found."

It's a dazzling demonstration of how art can engage with politics while maintaining the complexity of its characters. Doctorow emphasises the legacy for the Rosenbergs' children; Daniel is profoundly cynical and cruel, and Susan commits suicide. They are victims not only of their parents' actions and refusal to save their skins, but also of their parents' passionate love for each other. The New Republic hailed this as "the political novel of our age... beautiful, harrowing, rhapsodic and exact".

No less dazzling, is Robert Coover's The Public Burning (1977), a melding of Rosenberg fact and fiction. Written largely in the voice of a young Richard Nixon, it weaves court transcripts, public papers, letters and journalistic accounts into a postmodern tapestry. The execution happens in Times Square as a "communal pageant" - "just what the troubled nation needs... to renew its sinking spirit". It is a searing satire on American politics and culture.

The most famous Rosenberg reincarnation is in Tony Kushner's play Angels in America. In the film version, Meryl Streep plays the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who haunts Roy Cohn, a gay lawyer dying of Aids. The real-life Cohn's cross-examination of Ethel's brother had led to her conviction.

"Everyone else has abandoned the struggle," Streep's Ethel tells Cohn. "My generation, we had clarity. We were unafraid to look deep in the heart of the miasma of the world." This is a portrayal of a Reaganite world of hypocrisy and corruption, an era that also sought safety in scapegoats.

So James Phillips has a lot to live up to. His version, quietly impressive, also incorporates a new element that is entirely fictional. It begins in a New York gallery in 1975, in front of the photo that first inspired him.

Matthew, a law student, and Anna, a teacher, get talking and fall in love. Scenes of their affair and interest in history and justice are interspersed with scenes of the Rubensteins (fictionalised Rosenbergs, of course), in the years prior to their trial and execution. The play raises questions about memory and identity, the legacy of the past and our power to escape it.

As a play about the rooting out of enemies in a time of terror, it has clear contemporary resonances. "Every war isn't a crusade," says Cranmer, the lawyer, to Jakob Rubenstein. "But you think we live in the time of crusades, don't you?" In a time of renewed crusades, it's a point worth making.

'The Rubenstein Kiss', Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020-7722 9301), tonight to 17 December