Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes are the foremost scholars of American Communism. In their brief Weekly Standard article “Black and white and red all over,” Klehr and Haynes document the difficulty the Times has had dealing with the historical record they (and Ronald Radosh) have unearthed.
The article is occasioned by Charles Isherwood’s New York Times review of Amy Herzog’s autobiographical play “After the Revolution.” Isherwood describes “After the Revolution” as “a fine and fiercely well-acted new play” and otherwise praises it effusively. Klehr and Haynes point out, however, that Isherwood is obtuse regarding the play’s historical basis and its disillusioned protagonist:
In the play, Joe’s granddaughter Emma is horrified to learn that the man whom she was raised to idolize as a principled and honest radical actually betrayed his country. She is even more disconcerted because as a recently minted lawyer, she has founded and heads a legal defense fund named for him that is devoted to defending political prisoners, most notably the convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Her subsequent conflicts with her family members and boyfriend over whether she should close down the fund and return its donors’ money is the result of her shock at learning that the political legends that had fed her youth were lies.
And how does Isherwood deal with this dilemma? In the only critical comment he makes about the play, he complains that Emma’s “unbending rectitude” stalls the action as she engages in a “long temper tantrum, ignoring the pressing needs of the fund.” In other words, the question of whether Mumia is as guilty as her grandfather is a distraction from the real concern, which, according to Isherwood, is “the atmosphere of fear that pervaded liberal circles during the witch-hunt years.”
Amy Herzog and her play, which grapples seriously with the ethical issues raised by her grandfather’s espionage, deserve better. So does the historical record.
Klehr and Haynes seek to rectify the Times’s injustice to Herzog. But Emma needs to deal with the truth about that lousy cop-killer every bit as much as she needs to deal with the truth about her Communist grandfather!