Show Trial: on Stage

Mary Grabar

In the 1960s, Mississippi writer Eudora Welty famously declined to write fiction that crusaded against segregation, even when pressured with middle-of-the-night phone calls and “harangues.” Welty was prompted to address the challenge in more detail in the October 1965 Atlantic Monthly, where she answered the title of her essay, “Must the Novelist Crusade?” negatively. Using E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India as an example, Welty wrote, “What a lesser novelist’s harangues [about “race prejudice”] would have buried by now, his imagination still reveals.”1 Years later, she told interviewer Jean Todd Freeman, “I felt like saying I didn’t need their pointers to know that there was injustice among human beings or that there was trouble. I had been writing about that steadily right along by letting my characters show this.”2

Sadly, instead of heeding Welty’s advice, our literati have taken up the old Soviet project of using literature to advance political agendas, illustrated by the transformation of English departments into forums on race, gender, and climate change,3 and by awards like PEN’s Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

These renewed political expectations were highlighted in the summer of 2015 with the much-awaited publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which, although written before To Kill a Mockingbird, deals with the same characters twenty years after the events that occurred in that novel. Watchman plunged Lee fans into an existential crisis over Mockingbird hero Atticus Finch. In Watchman, Finch serves on the board of the local segregationist Citizens Council, to defend against dangerous changes in local and federal government and to monitor potentially violent members. Michiko Kakutani, however, wrote in the July 10 New York Times that Watchman makes for “disturbing reading” because of its “hate” and “bigotry.”4

She and others failed to see in Watchman a young writer grappling with the changes being imposed on a society that had established a complicated racial order—and with the cardinal rule of fiction: to “show” instead of “tell.” The topic was too big for the beginning writer. The editorial suggestion that Lee focus on the flashback to her childhood and recast the story from a child’s point of view in 1930s Alabama solved the thematic and structural challenges. The story of Atticus Finch’s noble but ill-fated defense of a black man wrongly accused of rape hit at an opportune moment when Mockingbird was published in 1960.

The novel, though not a crusading work, was employed in the civil rights crusade. Roy Wilkins brought it to James Farmer to read in jail in 1961.5 It inspired students to enter law school.6 Through the projections of critics and junior high school teachers it became a “redemptive” novel.

Atticus, however, was never a crusader, but a Southern moderate dutifully doing the right thing in accepting Tom Robinson’s case. In fact, in his famous closing argument he invokes the Jeffersonian principle “that all men are created equal,” but makes a distinction between equality of condition and of opportunity that provides a good template for arguments against later notions of affirmative action or proportionate outcomes on tests, employment, or school discipline: “We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe—some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.”7 The one “human institution” that does guarantee equality, however, is the court; it “makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein.”8 (The acclaimed 1963 movie version excises these lines that distinguish between equality of rights and equality of condition. Gregory Peck insisted that the children’s scenes be cut in order to spotlight his role as Atticus. Mockingbird the film is less a coming-of-age story than a drama about a star legal crusader.)

Still, the designation of Mockingbird as “our national novel” by talk show and book club doyenne Oprah Winfrey holds. Winfrey, as one of the celebrities interviewed in the documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird and the companion book Scout, Atticus & Boo: Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird (2010), recalled reading and rereading the novel as a girl, and identifying with Scout, the white protagonist.9

Mockingbird, therefore, would be a natural for a community-wide “read,” as it was this year for Central New York Reads One Book, a consortium of public and private cultural, educational, and social service organizations, coordinated by the Onondaga County (Syracuse) Public Library.10 Book discussions, film showings, lectures, art exhibits, and comedy routines took place January through March 2016 in an eight-county region. They involved both Lee novels, as well as related works about Lee’s biography and racial injustice, with a website offering book discussion group and teaching guides. One of the first activities was a reading of passages from Mockingbird by local celebrities at a New Hartford Barnes & Noble, satisfying the kind of audience one might find at an Oprah taping. The highlight, though, was the performance of the 1970 stage adaptation of the novel by Christopher Sergel. Sergel wrote the adaptation for schools,11 but it was given a professional production in February and March, including fifteen student matinees, at Syracuse Stage, a theatre company in residence at Syracuse University, founded in 1974 and boasting several Tony and Emmy award winners.

A close-up of the condemned Tom Robinson on advertisements and the marquee, I assumed, signaled a refocusing on the character who is often criticized as serving as a mere cipher for Atticus’s heroism. But the program note from director Tim Bond, recipient of the 2016 Interworks Racial Justice Award, was political. “As this election cycle approached,” he wrote, “I suspected that some candidates would engage in race baiting to rile up certain elements in our society who have been very unhappy about Mr. Obama as our president.”12 Invoking the names of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and “other unarmed black men and boys who have been killed,”13 Bond said he thought a play would provide an apt vehicle to help in “confronting the issues that divide us and to take action to pull our nation together.”14

But Bond’s directorial strategies, like his comments, serve the opposite of “pull[ing] our nation together.” According to Bond, the narration of the adult Jean Louise of the events in her childhood enables the audience to “realize how far we haven’t come from that time in the 1930s.”15

Although much in the performance was good—the portrayals of Calpurnia and Reverend Sykes, the incorporation of spirituals, the use of members of the community as courtroom spectators—it was marred by overacting by some of the cast members as they attempted to convey Bond’s message. Disturbingly, the thoughtful Atticus of the novel, the debonair Atticus of the film, and the “quietly impressive, reserved” Atticus who is directed by Sergel’s script to speak with “controlled passion,”16 became a loud crusader on Syracuse Stage. Worse, the prosecutor repeatedly shouted the N-word, diverging from the use of “boy”—insulting in its own right—in the novel, film, and Sergel adaptation. The insertion of overt but unrealistic racial slurs, especially in today’s highly charged climate, was both gratuitous and jarring.17

The caricaturing of Mayella Ewell and her father, Bob Ewell, in the film was made even worse in the play. Mayella, overplayed by Rachel Towne, was painful to watch. I was glad that none of my friends from Georgia, where I lived for nearly thirty years, were with me. Rather than recapturing the nuances of the novel or adding depth to Tom Robinson’s character, Bond chose to perpetuate stereotypes of working-class whites as villains and blacks as victims, pounding in the idea that a certain segment of the American population (primarily white Southerners) hold the same ideas as a lynch mob.

It might well have made Harper Lee cringe. When she went to New York City in the 1950s to pursue writing, she was aware of Southern stereotypes in such forms as Senator Beauregard Claghorn on the Fred Allen radio show and the illiterate Southerner played by bandleader Phil Harris on the Jack Benny program.18 Although Lee eventually became a “recluse,” her public statements in the years immediately following Mockingbird’s publication and the film’s release reveal that she was uncomfortable with the “crusade” read into her novel. In March 1963, at a Chicago press briefing, she said in response to a question about holding herself back in the book, “Well, sir, in the book I tried to give a sense of proportion to life in the South, that there isn’t a lynching before every breakfast. I think Southerners react with the same kind of horror as other people do about the injustice in their land.”19 In response to a question about the Freedom Riders, Lee expressed her disapproval of their publicity-seeking tactics that often brought violence; she preferred the strategies of Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP.20 The black newspaper the Chicago Defender reported that Lee claimed that there were very few racial problems in Monroeville and that “integration is progressing fast enough…on the face but not underneath.”21 Such complicated views were what Lee had tried to express unsuccessfully in the original manuscript that became Go Set a Watchman.

Likewise, she expressed her appreciation of what was good in Southern life again in 1964, in one of the last interviews she gave before giving up on rewriting the second novel. She told WQXR radio host Roy Newquist that she hoped to continue to “chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain. This is small-town middle-class southern life as opposed to the Gothic, as opposed to Tobacco Road, as opposed to plantation life.”22

In 1993, the long-established recluse signaled her continued reluctance to crusade through her refusal to write even an introduction for a British publisher. “Please spare ‘Mockingbird’ an Introduction,” she wrote to her agent Julie Fallowfield. “As a reader I loathe Introductions. To novels, I associate Introductions with long-gone authors and works that are being brought back into print after decades of interment. Although ‘Mockingbird’ will be thirty-three this year, it has never been out of print and I am still alive, although very quiet.”23

Harper Lee came to see, what Eudora Welty knew—that fiction should not “tell,” but “show.” Showing involves discovery, a pleasurable undertaking. Even introductions interfere with the purpose of fiction; they “inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity.” “Mockingbird still says what it has to say,” Lee stated curtly.24

Of course it does. In classroom lessons, reading group discussions, and dramatic performances we should respect the integrity of the beloved American classic.

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