A Whirlwind Calmed

Despite the fine Lisa Emery, a bio-play fails to capture the iconic Martha Gellhorn

How much factual information should a historical play contain? Like most big questions, this one leads to further questions rather than simple answers. Is the play there to teach history, or is the history there to give the play's excitement a cachet of reality? Playwrights who forget their drama and start replacing the excitement with data-laden lectures, like Tom Stoppard, tend to produce a mind-numbing effect. In contrast, those who falsify the history to heighten the drama, like Aaron Sorkin in The Farnsworth Invention, produce the resentment that comes from realizing you've been conned. And then there are the unlucky souls who, neither overloading nor falsifying, try to make the history do their playwriting work for them, and so wind up with something that's neither historically informative nor dramatically gripping—which, history being the great source of theatrical stories that it is, usually means a great idea wasted.

That, sadly, is the maddening truth about The Maddening Truth, David Hay's play about the life of Martha Gellhorn (1908–1998), a woman who carved out a fairly impressive place in history for herself. Gellhorn probably deserves to be the heroine, or the anti-heroine, of a far more substantive work than this one—a work, in fact, that might justify the care, power, and truthfulness which Lisa Emery manages to pour into her performance as Gellhorn despite the inferior script she's stuck with. The taut chin and karate-chop gestures of Emery's Gellhorn constantly arrest the eye. When she grabs her whiskey glass to take yet another gulp, or her lighter to ignite yet another cigarette, you always think she might be about to slug someone with it. She's the essence of the woman as take-no-prisoners journalist, always wearing an ideological chip on her shoulder, just above her press badge, combatively ready to prove her mettle in the midst of battle. Emery's performance—she catches the emotionally vulnerable, defensive side of Gellhorn equally well—embodies this Martha who isn't in the script, the one you can read about in other people's biographies, diaries, and memoirs, or in the many books she turned out herself. This, you think, is the woman who drove an infuriated Ernest Hemingway to ask, "Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?" This is the woman who, when she couldn't get press credentials to cover the D-Day landing, disguised herself as a stretcher-bearer to be with the troops on Omaha Beach.

Peripatetic, passionate, and incisive as well as combative, Gellhorn went through life like a whirlwind; she once computed that in 40 years, she had set up households in 19 different locales. (I freely admit that I pulled most of the material in this review from her one-page bio on Wikipedia, which contains about 200 times as much excitement as The Maddening Truth.) Restlessly traveling wherever there was armed struggle—Czechoslovakia, Finland, Burma, Singapore, Israel, Vietnam, Central America—she scattered the smithereens of her personal life behind her as she went, divorcing husbands, disowning her adopted son, and finally medicating herself to death when she was 89, cancer-ridden and almost totally blind. It would take a master playwright to capture this astonishing blend of Nellie Bly, Edith Wharton, and Emma Goldman.

Combat ready: Emery as Gellhorn
Theresa Squire
Combat ready: Emery as Gellhorn

Hay doesn't do it. The most frustrating aspect of his play is that it makes the ungovernable, irrepressibly argumentative Gellhorn into a slightly cranky but basically tame spirit, alternately quiescent and defensive, mainly notable for the things other people say about her, in particular a persistent English interviewer (patiently performed by William Connell) whose role alternates press-release gush about her experiences with book-review-digest critiques of her personality flaws and literary shortcomings. In between bouts with him, as the uneventful action skitters from the Spanish Civil War to 1970s swinging London, Hay's Gellhorn spars stylistically with Hemingway (Terry Layman), gets quietly consoled in maturity by Laurance Rockefeller (Richard Bekins), drives through Africa, records for the BBC, and never does anything that conveys the dramatic core of the actual Gellhorn's exceedingly dramatic life—a life encompassing so much of 20th-century experience that it could stand in, onstage, as an icon for modern history. For that to happen, though, you would need not only the historical information but a playwright who can dramatize it. Carl Forsman's production for Keen Company, soft-toned and simple, seems to lie in wait for the big powerful words—and the big powerful facts—that will allow Emery to stride across the stage and take charge. Instead, dishearteningly, The Maddening Truth offers her only a few bare footnotes.

 
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