The magical world of Disney seems a little less magical when you discover that those delightful little cartoons were written by bitter, chain-smoking alcoholics who hated their boss and their miserable jobs. In 1952, employees of the Walt Disney Studios had many reasons to drink their sorrows away while contemplating Mickey's next adventure. The writers were overworked, underpaid, unappreciated, and unable to unionize because this was the McCarthy era, when worker solidarity seemed uncomfortably close to a communist value. In Justin Sherin's riveting social drama, Mickey Mouse Is Dead, playing at 59E59 before moving on to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, we meet two disgruntled Disney writers, Finch (James Lloyd Reynolds) and Harris (Anthony Manna), members of a guild that is trying to unionize. As the nationwide communist hunt gains momentum, the guild grows increasingly worried that Walt will expose unhappy employees as communists to prevent a strike. Harris is especially worried when Walt dismisses one of his scripts, remarking that it is similar to one written by a former strike leader named Elroy. Harris whispers the name as if the very sound could have the FBI kicking down the door.
A deeply paranoid atmosphere is immediately established from the play's opening. We are introduced to the characters as they pace across a small, gray office, their lives unraveling before they can have their morning coffee.
Reynolds and Manna are excellent as Finch and Harris. They converse like two wartime buddies, looking battle-scarred and weary but most of all sad that their lives have come to this. They have endured many hardships in their years at Disney, including the soul-crushing moment when Walt claimed their Oscars as his own. But it is the streetwise Harris who knows the bottom line: "When it's down to you and me, just how sorry are you that you've got a checkbook?"
Though Walt plays a prominent role, the play is not an exposé of his life. The script alludes to real events, such as Walt testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee and his intimidation of union activists in the early 1940's, but the story centers on his writers' perspectives. Not only did a strike once cripple his studio but his beloved Mickey Mouse has an image to maintain. How far will he go to protect this image and his business? the play asks.
The union doesn't know, and it is this unknowing that prompts it to sacrifice one of its own: a cute little rich girl from the paint and ink department named Grace (Marnye Young). She must ask Walt if he thinks there are communists working in his studio. If he says no, the union is safe. If he suggests she look toward the union, it is not. In the worse-case scenario, he will see what Grace is trying to do and arrest her for being a communist. Finch, Grace's boyfriend, is adamantly against this, but if he stops her and the FBI descends on the union, it will point accusing fingers at him.
Harris, Finch, and Grace quickly find themselves caught in a web, with no way out but to sacrifice their own lives or someone else's. Their moral conflicts delve deeply into the dark side of human nature, focusing on a pivotal moment in people's lives when they find out what they are really made of.
We meet Finch, Harris, and Grace at a time when their kindness and goodwill toward others have succumbed to a raw survival instinct. Because everyone is behaving on such a self-serving level, they are not particularly likable, though they are sympathetic. Without a union they have no rights, but if they pursue forming a union, they run the risk of being labeled communists. Either way, it appears they will lose, and for that their anger and resentment is understandable.
Many films, plays, and books have examined the effects the McCarthy era had on the entertainment industry, but Mickey Mouse Is Dead feels different because of its setting. Disney is a place where good is supposed to triumph over evil, not submit to it. Sherin was wise to choose this studio for his setting, because it shows how dangerously out of control this witch hunt became. Many innocent people were unjustly blacklisted and persecuted for being communists, but you do not truly see how sweeping the FBI's net was until you realize that no one was safe—not even Mickey Mouse.