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Most Oak Parkers have heard a lot about Oak Park native Ernest Hemingway: Nobel-prize-winning writer and war correspondent, legendary sportsman, and one of the most famous people on the planet late in his career. But few are aware that he wrote dramatic works although he seemed to have something of a love-hate relationship with the theater.
Hemingway was a fairly good student at OPRF and he did well in his English classes. He also wrote a bit for the high school newspaper and literary journal, the Trapeze and Tabula. We know that he appeared in his senior play titled, Beau Brummell. It was about George "Beau" Brummell, the late 18th- and early 19th-century English dandy who revolutionized men's dressing habits.
In typical Victorian manner, the play treats the central character as something of a romantic hero, with some faults but very forgivable. It all but ignores the manner in which Beau Brummell gambled his wealth away, and it says nothing of how he contracted syphilis and died in an insane asylum. Ironically, the treatment of Beau Brummel in the play is the exact opposite of what Hemingway later tried to do in his fiction, which as he put it was to "tell it like it was."
Even more ironically, the character Hemingway played, Richard Sheridan, is a famous and enduring playwright from the late 1700s. He wrote School for Scandal which was required reading in my college theater history class, and some other early English comedies of manners. Judging by Hemingway's high school writings, he seems to have enjoyed the social aspects of his high school play.
But it's ironic that he played a famous playwright because — at least later — Hemingway was not a huge fan of the theater. He once wrote to a friend: "I hate plays. Did you ever listen to the dialogue of a play with your eyes shut?" Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that he published very little drama.
Today is Friday, an irreverent one-act play, was written during the time he wrote his only full-length play, The Fifth Column. I guess you could say playwriting was a phase Hemingway went through. Today is Friday seems almost to have been written on a whim. If I were to introduce the play to you like a joke, I might say, "So there's these three Roman soldiers in a bar, and one says to the Jewish bartender …" The play suggests that the three soldiers have stopped for a few drinks after having crucified Christ, and their attitude toward Jesus ranges from indifference to admiration at the stoic manner in which Christ faced his death on the cross.
His more serious full-length play, The Fifth Column, like Today is Friday, was written in 1937 and grew out of his experience as a foreign correspondent living in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway, whose sympathies were pro-loyalist, could be quite prescient on world matters, and he ventured at the time of this war that it was only the beginning of many years of undeclared wars.
"The Fifth Column" is a three-act melodrama about counterespionage, love and duty, and Fascist atrocities during the war. The play's protagonist, Phillip Rawlings, is probably a case of Hemingway self-projection. Posing as a hard-drinking journalist he is, in reality, an agent assigned to uncover "fifth columnists," fascist civilian sympathizers who committed acts of sabotage and murder. The play received mixed reviews, and when subsequently produced on Broadway, it had only a modestly successful run.
One critic wrote: "You would think that so theatrical a character would write better theatre." But despite some failures in its structure and implausible or underdeveloped characters, I agree with Hemingway that the play "reads well."
Neither Hemingway's The Fifth Column nor Today is Friday are produced often, but I'd jump at the chance to see a good production of the plays, or a good dramatic adaptation of one of his stories.
It's an aspect of our most famous native son — dramatist — which is worth remembering.