Written in the summer of 2007 for a production of The Front Page at Williamstown Theatre Festival. It was eventually replaced by an interview with Ron Daniels, the director, perhaps because I insisted on writing about the play as if it addressed serious themes rather than lighthearted good times. -DL
In their 1928 comedy, The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur look back on their youths as Chicago reporters and find much to ridicule (everyone), much to despise (the wealthy, powerful, and corrupt), and much to love (everyone who isn’t). The play is an idealized snapshot of a specific time in American history, filled out with a sweeping palette of urban types. Indeed, the litany of ethnic surnames spouted by the reporters almost becomes an idiom unto itself, a lingua franca of melting-pot Chicago, from Apfel (Charlie) to Zobel (Irving). The blur of names is never-ending, democratic in its bias, and decisively American. As English theater critic Michael Billington of the Guardian notes, The Front Page is a “classic satirical farce about power, corruption, and newspaper life as a religion that puts more of America onto the stage than any play of the Twenties.” From the heights of municipal governance to the lowliest scrubwoman, Hecht and MacArthur use an ocean of humanity to chart the twisted paths of power as they entertain.
The only figures in this Falstaffian universe who seem to be pursuing truth and justice, in fact, are those lowly denizens of the pressroom who appear at first to be mere unseemly boyos. As Ben Hecht’s mentor and editor of the Chicago Journal, Sherman Duffy, once said, “Socially, a journalist fits in somewhere between a whore and a bartender, but spiritually he stands beside Galileo. He knows the world is round.” If written today, the play would likely be rendered as a televised police procedural, along the lines of Law & Order. In Prohibition-era Chicago, rife with bootleg gangs and machine politics, the police and government are more criminal than the gangsters. Our “braves of the pressroom” preside over the dysfunction, a kind of comic chorus that also determines public justice. Since Hecht and MacArthur aren’t monolithic in their characterization, the reporters in the play are also the dramaturgical ancestors of our modern-day paparazzi, as prone to exaggeration and sheer fabrication in their swarm as they are to the divination of the truth.
The Front Page is an unusual comedy, bereft of the genre’s typical platitudes and certainties. Instead of portraying polarities of good and evil, the authors paint a morally ambiguous landscape, laced with a cynical worldview foreign to the melodramas of the era. As figures on all sides of the queasily corrupt law parade across the stage, their actions contort into a frenetic dance of survival and competition. Almost no one is trustworthy. But all remain sympathetic figures, even if you wouldn’t trust your mother (or mother-in-law) with them. Perhaps the play’s greatest achievement (and its most distinctly American) is its deep affection for all types of people, particularly the powerless, the helpless, the marginalized and dispossessed, the denizens of the gritty underbelly who, like the reporters, appear at first mere sketches. They are presented with sterling clarity and sympathy: the anarchist who is on the side of the boys who are dying in an absurd war(s), the whore who is prepared to die to preserve a moment of dignity in her life. Even the innocent out of towner who ends up drunk in a dingy flophouse with the Mayor card in his hand. The Front Page‘s farcical elements cohere brilliantly with the play’s prescient politics and its extraordinary capacity for humanist warmth.