March 29, 2008 / 11:57 AM / 10 years ago

Unseen Hemingway play finally staged in NY

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The first professional U.S. production of Ernest Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War play “The Fifth Column” has opened in New York, 70 years after it was written, begging the question, “What took so long?”

Director Jonathan Bank says people should not assume the delay was because the play is no good.

“That’s the prejudice. That’s the huge hurdle that you have to get over,” said Bank, artistic director of the Mint Theater Company, which specializes in reviving long-forgotten or newly discovered plays at its 100-seat, Off-Broadway theater.

“Having done a couple of dozen very good plays that people have forgotten about over the years, I’ve realized there just doesn’t have to be a good reason a play falls out of sight,” he said in an interview.

Hemingway, who died in 1961, was best known for works such as “A Farewell to Arms,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” He wrote “The Fifth Column” in Madrid in 1937, when the city was under siege and he was staying in the Hotel Florida as a foreign correspondent.

The play is the story of foreign correspondent Philip Rawlings, who is working as a secret agent for the leftist Republican side, and a glamorous writer named Dorothy Bridges, inspired by legendary journalist Martha Gellhorn, whom Hemingway had an affair with in Madrid and later married.

Thursday’s opening night was attended by some of Hemingway’s relatives, including his son Patrick. He said he enjoyed the play but his father admitted he was not much of a playwright.

“You can’t expect that Hemingway could sort of descend from the clouds and write a masterful play like ‘Richard III’ or something,” Patrick Hemingway told Reuters.

“I especially enjoyed the parts that had to do with interrogation. Hemingway had caught on to that very early,” he said, referring to scenes in which Rawlings captures and delivers an enemy fighter to a police cell to be tortured.

The play examines the dilemma of a man who works for a cause he believes is right but feels uncomfortable about some of its methods. Bank said the play was a story of classic conflict with contemporary echoes. Rawlings is also torn between duty and the lures of domesticity and romance.

“There is nothing noble going on. There’s just a battle, there’s a kind of ends-justify-the-means attitude that is, I think, inevitably unsatisfactory,” Bank said.

A version of the play heavily rewritten by a screenwriter was produced on Broadway in 1940 but Hemingway disowned it.

“I have found that people either love or hate this play,” Bank said. “I can understand the frustration — that it’s either an action-adventure story that has a troublesome romance in the middle of it, getting in the way of the action, or it’s a romantic comedy with an unsatisfactory ending.”

A New York Times review on Friday was mixed, concluding “The Fifth Column” was “more a literary curiosity than the rediscovery of a dust-covered masterpiece.”

Hemingway’s introduction to the play describes writing it during an offensive in which his hotel was hit by shells.

“If it is not a good play, perhaps that is what is the matter with it,” Hemingway wrote. “If it is a good play, perhaps those thirty-some shells helped write it.”

Editing by Stacey Joyce

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