Debate & discussion: The betrayals of Elia Kazan

Submitted by Anon on 26 November, 2003 - 11:31

Victor Navasky, in his classic study Naming Names, reported a story about Elia Kazan. In 1955, after Arthur Miller had completed A View From The Bridge. Miller sent a copy to Elia Kazan. The play is about a Sicilian waterfront worker who in a jealous rage informs on his nephew's 'illegal' immigration status. Kazan had directed Miller's Broadway hits - All My Sons and Death of A Salesman - but had broken with him over the issue of naming 'communists' to the McCarthyite House of Unamerican Activities Committee. Kazan had named names - and destroyed lives.

"I have read your play and would be honoured to direct it", Kazan is supposed to have wired back. "You don't understand," Miller replied, "I didn't send it you because I wanted you to direct it. I sent it you because I wanted you to know what I think of stool pigeons".

There are certain lines which revolutionaries never cross. One such line is collaboration with state witch-hunts against the left (and those named before the HUAC were a mixture of Stalinists, genuine revolutionaries and those attracted to the Communist Party because of its pre-war anti-fascism). I do feel that Jane Ryan's recent obituary of Kazan (Solidarity 3/40) could and should have made this point far more strongly.

She concludes her article by stating Kazan will remain one of the greatest American film directors of the twentieth century. However this ignores the context of his betrayal and the philosophical question of whether 'work' can be ripped from 'life' in this way. In particular of all Kazan's films she mentions it is conspicuous that there is one she fails to mention. This is Kazan's own cinematic justification for naming names - On The Waterfront.

Ryan also implicitly suggests that there is some sort of 'balancing' act to be done here on the critical front. Kazan's treachery can somehow be balanced by the quality of his subsequent movies. She compares, for example, Edward Dmytryk, who she claims only produced 'sterile works' after naming names. (At least Dmytryk had initially adopted a principled position of refusing to name names and had gone to prison as a result).

Ryan also claims that for Kazan the alternative to naming names was "to let himself be blacklisted and rendered unemployable." However many others made this principled and difficult choice and refused to name names. Because of his huge reputation Kazan was in a far stronger position than most to have done this.

Moreover in Kazan's case there was an alternative. His own roots were in New York theatre - where the blacklist never dominated. He could have returned there, directed his left-wing plays, ate well and avoided having to sing for his supper. It is this period that Lillian Hellman described as 'scoundrel times'. Kazan was a scoundrel.

Steve Cohen, Manchester

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