59 E 59th Theatre, together with Fallout Theatre, presents Personal Enemy, the world premiere of a lost 1953 play by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton. Set in the United States in the year of its writing, the play was rediscovered in the Lord Chamberlain’s archives. Written in the year Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was first produced, it takes a fascinating look at the paranoid world of the McCarthy era and ultimately makes a powerful case as a play for our time as well. On the morning of her birthday, we meet Mrs. Constant (Karen Lewis), attended to by her husband (Tony Turner), daughter (Joanne King), son-in-law (Mar Oosterveen), and son Arnie (Peter Clapp), along with her Polish neighbor Mrs. Slifer (Genevieve Allenbury) and, later on, the Reverend Merrick (Stephen Clarke, who also plays librarian Ward Perry and an investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee). On this day, the world is in order; even the pain over the loss of the older son Don in the Korean War has given way to the comfort of hero worship.
However, the domestic idyll is soon shattered, from within and without, when a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass turns up with the dedication “To Arnie, with love from Ward.”
Suspicion about Arnie’s sexuality and Ward’s influence over the son mushrooms into obsessive investigation when it is discovered that Ward (an atheist and former member of the Communist Youth) had given a copy of the same book, with a similar inscription, to the lost son, who, as the family finds out, did not die in Korea but decided to join the small group of American POWs who, though able to return home, elected not to come back.
The confluence of (never explicitly mentioned but much hinted at) homosexuality, communist ideology and atheism leads to a climate, in the Constants’ household and the small-town world around them, where everyone is suspected and suspicious, and the mother’s mantra of “live and let live” turns into “attack everyone in sight.”
John Osborne and Anthony Creighton’s play, written in 1953 but not produced until 1955 (and then in a version severely censored by the Lord Chamberlain), is a long play overloaded with narrative expository detail. But just when I began to tire of the many stories that make up its narrative, Personal Enemy began to grab me again. The corrosive energy of the anti-gay, anti-intellectual attitudes, the viciousness with which anyone thinking differently from the powers-that-be is subjected to attack, the intolerance towards the non-believers (whether in God or in the American way of life) that drives this family to ruin suddenly struck me as the stuff of today’s politics.
David Aula’s brisk staging, an excellent cast of British actors with near flawless American accents, and an interestingly designed space (a scrim invokes the mountains of Korea, allowing for “out of focus” moments that make the set appear deeper than the small stage allows) create a complex world. Sound was used to enhance the set (cars arriving and driving off) and, in several moments on TV, to invoke the early folk-music, Beat generation of the fifties.
The costumes clearly place the play in the fifties, although I felt that the Act 2 dresses of mother and daughter, made from an urban camouflage print fabric, emphasize in a perhaps too obvious manner one of the flaws of this play. Osborne-Creighton have the two women shoulder most of the hard-driven, shrill hatred and intolerance, while the men, with the exception of the Reverend and the Investigative Agent, are the sensitive ones ultimately victimized by a hatred that mirrors, in a single household, the lynch-mob violence of a town and a country.
Expecting a literary curiosity, I was gratified that this production presents a play that is very relevant to today’s political and social debates. It is a play that would benefit from a larger stage, and deserves to be seen by anyone concerned about the obdurate anti-intellectualism, hypocrisy, and intolerance against those who are different that fuels tea- and other parties.