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Dialogue of Cultures

Robert Beltran Revives
Hollywood's Classical Drama

Clifford Odets' THE BIG KNIFE

by Harley Schlanger
January, 2004

Interview with Robert Beltran

Lyndon LaRouche on the Classical Principle

Related Articles

Theater-goers in Los Angeles during November and December had the privilege of seeing a live demonstration of one of the leading principles emphasized in numerous recent discussions by Lyndon LaRouche: that of the power of an effective presentation of a Classically-composed tragedy, to move an audience. Well-known stage, screen, and television actor Robert Beltran produced an excellent presentation of Clifford Odets' 1948 drama, The Big Knife in which Odets provided a penetrating insight into the socially corrupting effects of the onset of “Trumanism” in America.

Serving as producer and playing the lead role of Odets' character Charlie Castle, Beltran brought to the drama a highly-refined sense of both the historically-specific context of the play, and the principles of Classical tragedy. The result was a gripping journey back to the period following the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, providing a prescient sense of the tragedy which accompanied the ascent of Harry Truman to the White House—the consequences of which we still face today.

The timing of the play is notable, as it was written during the period when the “Red Scare”—a central feature of Trumanism—was being launched to silence opposition to the emerging Cold War, and to the post-war economic collapse precipitated by Truman's rejection of FDR's anti-Depression national economic development policies. Among the first victims of the Red Scare were screen writers, ten of whom were sent to prison for their refusal—during their testimony before the House Un-American Affairs Committee, the infamous HUAC—to “name the names” of “Communists” working in Hollywood. Many of these writers, and others brought before HUAC, were known by Odets. In The Big Knife, there are several references to the politics of the wife of the leading character, with the implication that she might be contributing to pro-Communist causes.

Odets' play tells the story of a popular, yet demoralized actor, who came to Hollywood with the dream of producing great works of art which could improve the world. Instead, he finds himself the captive of the “studio system,” which asserts total control over what he can and cannot do in films. The story is autobiographical, as Odets came to Hollywood after establishing himself as a dramatist in New York City theater, where he began his career as a member of the experimental, leftist Group Theater. He had hoped that, given the positive changes which had occurred during the Presidency of FDR, he could use his writing skills to produce films which would inspire audiences to pursue the ideals of social and economic justice which he believed to be the basis of American greatness.

Murder of a People's Highest Ideals

We see these idealistic beliefs in his main character in The Big Knife, the actor Charlie Castle, in the beginning of the play. Charlie, who we later learn is a World War II veteran, is being interrogated by an influential gossip columnist, who is probing for salacious material to feed to her millions of hungry readers (some things never change!). While poking around to find out if he and his wife have separated, or if she is contributing funds to questionable causes, she says, “The first time we met, all you'd talk about was FDR.” Charlie replies, “I believed in FDR.”

Clifford Odets unusual and incisive play is a tragedy written on Classical principles in 1948, warning audiences of the degenerating American character at that very time of “Trumanism.” Producer and actor Robert Beltran (right) played Odets’ autobiographical Charlie Castle, shown in Act I being sold a studio contract by has agent Nat Danziger, superbly played by John Apicella, director of Los Angeles’ classical ensemble the Antaeus Company.

Thus, from the outset, Odets conveys to the audience that an actual historical event—the death of FDR—is a matter of central concern in the drama. For Charlie, as for much of the nation, FDR's death became a metaphor for the death of idealism, of hope for a better future. Charlie returns to this theme often, as he is sinking ever deeper into a seemingly inescapable trap, one set largely by his own embrace of the corrupting influence of Hollywood.

This is seen, for example, in an intense argument with the one character who seems to stand up to the corruption, Hank Teagle, who serves as Horatio (Charlie's nickname for him) to Charlie's Hamlet. When Teagle challenges him to fight to return to his ideals, Charlie says that is no longer possible: “When I came home from Germany, I saw most of the war dead were here, not in Africa and Italy. And Roosevelt was dead, and the war was only last week's snowball fight; and we plunged ourselves, all of us, into the noble work of making the buck reproduce itself.”

The drama is full of this kind of dialogue, as Odets uses these characters to demonstrate the depth of corruption in the whole society—his society. This is difficult for a dramatist, as it is much easier to make such truthful comments about times which are in the past. Yet Odets faced his society with courageous truthfulness, with pungent observations.

For example, Odets takes on the obsession in post-war America with being “popular”—what Lyndon LaRouche often refers to as “wishing to be overheard as having the right opinion.” When one character states that the eagle is the symbol of America, Charlie's friend Hank/Horatio suggests that this is an “old-fashioned” view. “Of course,” he adds, the symbol of America today is “the cocker spaniel, paws up, saying 'Like me, like me, I'm a good dog, like me.' ” There are repeated sharp references to the way Hollywood is a corrupting influence to society at large, destroying the artists who went there with hope and ideals. As Charlie realizes he is trapped in a web of his own making, he sees himself as Macbeth who, “one by one ... kills his better selves.” But, he argues—in an effort to escape his own part in his downfall—this is the result of the system (the studio system of Hollywood, under which he had become rich and famous). “Why am I surprised by them?” he asks. “Isn't every human being a mechanism to them? Don't they slowly, inch by inch, murder everyone they use? Don't they murder the highest dreams and hopes of a whole great people with the movies they make? This whole movie thing is a murder of the people. Only we hit them on the heads, under the hair—nobody sees the marks.”

Sins of the Baby Boomers' Fathers

The real menace exposed by Odets was not that represented by Hollywood, though he made it clear that he had had his fill of it. Rather, there are repeated references to the subtle, but unmistakable results of Trumanism, which, in the hands of a skilled dramatist, provide truthful insights into how the generation of World War II veterans capitulated, due to fear and venality, to the overall corruption of the society—to the point that they gave birth to today's degenerated Baby Boomer generation.

This was brought out beautifully by the collaboration of Beltran and director Tonyo Melendez. It is expressed in the “Director's Note” which Melendez wrote for the playbill. The Big Knife is a cautionary tale written as a deeply felt reaction to the political and social trends of America immediately after World War II. Clifford Odets senses a cataclysmic paradigm-shift that profoundly disturbs him. Today, more than half a century later, his vision of America seems prophetic. At the very moment America is at its mightiest, Odets points to its flaws. Not a popular view, then or now.”

Beltran brought out the paradoxes posed by Odets in a stunningly powerful portrayal of Charlie; but his understanding of Odets' intentions in this play is reflected in the performances of all the actors. Prior to the production, Beltran and Lyndon LaRouche had a lengthy discussion of the drama, and of LaRouche's conception of tragedy.1

Most importantly, in this production, Beltran demonstrates that he fully shares what LaRouche has stated to be the essential commitment of Classical tragedy—to historical specificity. Real history is brought alive by the portrayals on the stage, a history that you may see only in part—as in Odets' use of his Hollywood, or Shakespeare's use of the royal court, as the setting—but the slice of the society that you see on stage, portrays truthfully what exists in that society as a whole. The pragmatism and corruption which ultimately brought down Charlie Castle were pervasive throughout post-war American society.

LaRouche has addressed this recently during his Presidential campaign, in his polemic on the “three generations,” discussing how the demoralization and eventual corruption of his generation—the World War II generation—directly led to the general immorality of their children, the Baby Boomer generation; and how this must be overcome if we are to prevent the final act of this tragedy from being played out today; i.e., the destruction of the United States by Cheney, Ashcroft, and the band of neo-conservative fanatics bent on reviving the most dangerous aspect of Trumanism, the American “right” to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes.

The Classical Principle Works

The final paragraph of Melendez's “Director's Note” shows that this principle of Classical drama can be brought back to life today—ironically, in this case, in Hollywood: “A great dramatist, Odets frames all these questions within the context of an American film star's fall from possible greatness. He skillfully weaves a Hollywood web of deception and despair that has become all too familiar to modern audiences. An American playwright at the height of his powers, Odets educates, enlightens, entertains. Could we ask more? We hope the metaphor continues to live in your imagination long after you leave the theater.”

Having seen this production three times, and watching its evolution and development under the creative guidance of Beltran and Melendez, the author can attest that this intention was fulfilled, that the tragedy of America due to the advent of Trumanism remained in the imagination of the audience. Classical works, well-written, and performed to meet the expectation of the gifted dramatist, can move audiences even in the jaded America of today.

We will now await, with great expectation, the fulfillment of the post-production promise by Robert Beltran to stage Shakespeare's Othello in the near future.

[1] In addition to his ongoing dialogue with LaRouche on Classical drama, Beltran is applying those principles in his work coaching members of the LaRouche Youth Movement, primarily in the works of Friedrich Schiller and William Shakespeare.

Interview: Robert Beltran

Approaching Classical Tradedy in American Life

The LaRouche ShowInternet audio broadcast for Dec. 20, 2003, featured a discussion with actor, director, and Lyndon LaRouche's collaborator Robert Beltran, after the end of the run of his production of Clifford Odets' The Big Knife in Los Angeles. The dialogue on “Trumanism and Tragedy” was moderated by Harley Schlanger, Western states spokesman for LaRouche and his Presidential campaign; and included questions and discussion from LaRouche Youth Movement organizers Freddy Coronel and Vicky Overing—currently also students in Beltran's Classical drama workshop—and others listening by phone and Internet around the country.

Harley Schlanger: We have a special guest.... Our topic, and our focus, is going to be on the question of Classical drama, and how you move a population that otherwise is subjected to non-stop bombardment of propaganda—between CNN and the Fox TV; the MTV; the modern Hollywood; and so on. It's very hard for people to actually have time to sit back and reflect, and realize that they are living in contemporary history.

Our special guest today is someone who has just taken on a project—and I might say, performed it brilliantly—a way of demonstrating the relevance of Classical drama and tragedy; how you can change a population through presenting a play which gives a real understanding of the actual history of its time.

I'm talking about Robert Beltran, who is familiar to many of our listeners. He is an actor, a director, and now a producer. He recently put on a brilliant performance of The Big Knife, a 1948 play by Clifford Odets, which we'll be talking to him about.

Robert is probably best known for his role on Star Trek Voyager, for which he was exiled for seven years, on the Voyager. But he's a Classical actor; one who has Classical training, but whose actual passion and love is for the way in which Classical drama can affect an audience, and change them. So, Robert, welcome to the show.

Robert Beltran: Thank you. Good to be here.

Why an American Tragedy?

Schlanger: The first question that struck me, when we'd been talking for quite a while about your desire to get back into theater, and I was hoping you'd do Othello—several years ago, you directed and starred in a production of Hamlet out here in Los Angeles—I was a little disappointed at first, when I heard you were going to be doing a play, The Big Knife, which I was not familiar with, by a playwright of whom I had some vague familiarity. How did you happen to choose The Big Knife as your project?

Beltran: Well, it was really a choice between Othello and something else! Because I had pretty much made up my mind that I was going to do Othello. However, it had been a few years since I had been on the stage; and I thought maybe I should do something prior to tackling Othello, which is a monstrous role, and a monstrous play to perform and to put up, as a total production.

So I was looking around for other things to, possibly, do; when I remembered The Big Knife, which was a play that I had always loved, and first read in college. And in re-reading it, the relevance and the timeliness, with where we are in our country today, paralleling what Odets was writing about in 1948; it just seemed so glaringly obvious and necessary, probably because I saw the larger metaphor more clearly in The Big Knife. And I was still searching for it, and am still searching for that huge metaphor for Othello.

So the play was clearer in my mind, as to what I could do with it, and what I wanted to say with it.

Schlanger: Now, when you say, the relevance and timeliness: What was it about the Odets play The Big Knife, that you saw as relevant and timely for the present audience?

Beltran: Well, it goes back to what I had been listening to, and absorbing in Lyn's [Lyndon LaRouche's] various speeches, about Classical drama—the relevance, and the way to approach Classical drama. I was hoping that I could find a way to demonstrate that, because I believe wholeheartedly in everything that Lyn has said about that.

Robert Beltran as the “successful” but self-doomed actor Charlie Castle, in Act I of ‘The Big Knife.’ Beltran discussed the prinhciple of this Classical drama with Lyndon LaRouchy before staging it, and he and interviewer Harley Schlanger hadin-depth discussions with the company, on the historical specificity and truth of Odets’ work.

Schlanger: And Lyn has written quite a bit about, in a sense, the backdrop to the play. Perhaps in a moment, you can tell people a little about the play; but what struck me, the first time I read it, and then when we started talking about it, is that it leaps off the pages: He's writing about what Lyn calls “Trumanism”! The post-World War II destruction of the optimism that came out of the victory over Nazi Germany. The sense of optimism about getting out of the Depression, which was associated with Franklin Roosevelt. And then, immediately after the death of Roosevelt, Harry Truman became President, and there was a complete transformation.

So, I assume that was something that leaped off the pages to you as well.

Beltran: Yeah, it did. And it's not stated explicitly in the play that this is a reaction to Trumanism. But it is quite clear that it's a reaction to the way the country shifted, after the great buildup and optimism before and during the war, the Roosevelt policies going into effect, and the great optimism that that caused in the population. And then, the complete turnaround in the opposite direction, that the country went into—the paradigm-shift, as Lyn describes it—that's exactly what Odets was writing about. The fact that Charlie Castle—who is the protagonist in the play—

Schlanger: And that's the character that you played.

Beltran: Yes—saw very clearly what was happening to him, and what was happening to the rest of the country, but couldn't find a way out; couldn't find the way to deal with it. In fact, the whole play is about—if you want to think of Charlie Castle as the metaphor for the country itself, America itself—you saw the corrupting elements that were slowly killing him.

'Falling from a Great Height'

Schlanger: Now, just so that people know a little bit about this—. And I would actually recommend that, if people can find this—because it's not that easy to find this play; it's not in most of the Odets anthologies—but the play is called The Big Knife; it was written in 1948; and it's about a character, Charlie Castle, who's a very well-known and famous actor, who is, in a sense, an indentured servant to “Hoff Industries,” Marcus Hoff, the studio chief. And in this sense, when you say he's a metaphor for the society, how does this unfold in the play?

Beltran: Well, if you think of Charlie Castle, when you read the play, as the United States: in that he is fabulously wealthy; has virtually anything that he needs at his disposal; and yet, he's profoundly unhappy. The very core of his soul is sick. And he knows why. And yet, he's juggling so many—so many people are living off of him, and making the golden goose lay his eggs; and as long as the golden goose is laying those golden eggs, everybody is happy, except for him.

So, everybody is living off of this man, and feeding off of him; and they're not at all concerned with the fact that he's slowly dying, and that they are contributing to his death.

Schlanger: Now, the scene is set right at the beginning, when he's talking to a gossip columnist who's trying to get a story—typical gossip columnist, trying to find out what's happening with his marriage—but it's really a telling thing, because you're less than two minutes into the play, and she says to him, “The first time we met, all you'd talk about was FDR.” And he replies, “I believed in FDR.”

Beltran: Right. I think—she's referring to when he first came to Hollywood, the idealist stage actor who came with all these ideas about how he was going to carry on his ideals into the movie industry, and make movies that meant something, and said something.

Schlanger: And you would say this was autobiographical for Odets?

Beltran: It's autobiographical for Odets, and possibly me! [laughs] But of Odets, definitely. Odets was very good friends with John Garfield, and I think a lot of the story was drawn from John Garfield's personal experiences with Warner Brothers—with Jack Warner.

We understand that Charlie Castle came to Hollywood as a different person. He's become something exactly opposite to how he first came to Hollywood—full of idealism, full of the political enlightenment of the Roosevelt policies, and what Roosevelt stood for and was trying to implement in the country. These were things that he believed in.

Schlanger: And there's even the shadow at the very beginning, and again, in an elliptical way—what Lyndon LaRouche said in the discussions we had with him—almost out of the corner of your eye; the Trumanism. When he's asked by the gossip columnist about his wife's contributions to political parties.

Beltran: Right. It's a veiled threat, in that she's trying to get gossip about his failing marriage and the impending divorce, and he's reluctant to give her that information. She threatens him with possibly revealing her affiliation with reprehensible political organizations, possibly Communism, I think that's what's implied in the play, that she gave some money to a Communist group.

Schlanger: And it's interesting that the play was written just about at the time of the “Hollywood 10,” with the beginnings of the Red-hunts out here on the West Coast....

We have two panelists who are members of the LaRouche Youth Movement, who we'll bring on in a bit; but they're also students of Robert Beltran in the work he's been doing with the LaRouche Youth Movement and the Schiller Institute. So we'll hear shortly from Vicki Overing and Freddy Coronel.

Now, on this question then: In a sense, we're titling this show today, “Trumanism and Tragedy.” What is the tragedy, then? What do you see that is the trap? And how does this fit the description of Classical tragedy in that it mirrors the whole society? Because after all, we're talking about a rich, handsome, powerful movie actor. So how does that have an effect on the audience, most of whom are not handsome, rich movie actors?

Beltran: Well, I think what the audience is meant to see, is how Charlie Castle is trying to save himself. And he is still trying to rise above the mediocrity, and the mercenary qualities of all the people who are around him.

For instance, he tries to have a meaningful discussion with his agent; and his agent says, “Charlie, you and your wife are two beautiful humans, and you can't settle one little problem—your marriage.” And Charlie says, “Well, maybe that's why empires have fallen, Nat, because just like me, millions can't settle one little problem.” And his agent says, “Who's got time to worry about empires? I just want to live in peace, and please my clients.” And Charlie says, “How do we know that America isn't dying of trying to please its clients? Did you ever think of that?” And he says, “No, I never did, actually.” And Charlie says, “Don't you feel it in the air? Don't you see them pushing man off the Earth, and putting the customer in his place?” And his agent says, “That's a very intelligent remark. By the way, getting back to this contract....”

So nobody wants to—this is a man who's dying to live a life that is consistent with his ideals. But nobody is interested. The bottom line for everybody is, how much money can you make for me? How can we keep the status quo? You are a commodity. We don't want the commodity thinking too much, because the commodity might see just how miserable he really is. And that's what Charlie's beginning to see.

The Classical Principle

Schlanger: Now there's an interesting problem that comes up for the audience. Because Charlie's wife appears to be relatively sympathetic; the person who's the noble sufferer. And it was interesting, for people that I know who went to see it: They were somewhat confused by the character of the wife. How did you see the character of Marian? And how does this fit in with this question of the draining of any remaining morality? Because he does say that she represents his idealism. So how did you see that?

Beltran: The wonderful thing about this play is that everybody is deeply flawed. Everybody is sick in some way, or dealing with a huge problem at their very core. The wife was complicit in the—the play hinges on an accident that happened before it starts. Charlie Castle was drunk with a woman in his car, a woman he was having an affair with, and he accidently ran over and killed a young child, in his automobile; and then had his best friend take the rap for him, and go to jail for him. And this is the great secret, and the great blackmailing event that the studio has over him, which is why he's basically a blackmailed, indentured servant. But the wife was complicit in that. She didn't fight that plan to send his friend to jail in place of Charlie.

But she has come to the conclusion that they cannot live this way anymore; and she begs him to leave Hollywood; not to sign the new contract that Hoff is threatening, blackmailing Charlie to sign, to keep him there in Hollywood for 14 more years. She's threatening to leave him; and she says, “Just leave it. Leave it all! We'll go back to New York. You can go back and do theater. And we'll live a relatively fine life, you can make a nice living in the theater still.”

But she is not so angelic—he calls her “Angel” all the time, and I think it's kind of ironic. Because at one point in the play, after he's decided that he's got to sign the contract, and commit himself for 14 more years in Hollywood, she decides to kill the young baby that—she's pregnant at the outset of the play, and she decides to have an abortion, because he's decided to stay in Hollywood for 14 more years.... And she doesn't tell him. She doesn't discuss it with him, she just does it on her own.

Schlanger: And he doesn't even know that she's pregnant.

Beltran: That's right.

So all of these people are deeply flawed, and I think they're meant to be—not in any kind of simplistic way—but I think they are meant to be indications of a society at large, the general society, American society at the time; all of them—the agent, the wife, the best friend, the journalist, the studio head, the studio head's right-hand man; all of these people are a microcosm of the society as a whole.

Schlanger: Well then, here's the question that many people have about tragedy. Some of the people here—some of the LaRouche Youth members who first saw it—said, “It was depressing, it wasn't uplifting.” And the purpose of tragedy is to actually change the audience, force the audience to rethink their own assumptions. How does that work in this play? And in tragedy in general?

Beltran: Yes, I don't think that when you go to Hamlet, you go out [of the theater] ready to have a party. It's meant to stimulate and provoke thought, and thinking about what actually happened on stage, and what is the playwright trying to convey? And so, when you have these events that happen in the play, this onslaught of terrible events, one after the other, that finally end in suicide, I think it's meant to provoke the audience into thinking, “How could he have saved himself? What could have possibly happened to change the course of events, and what were, really, the causes? What really caused this suicide?” And that's where the Classical principle takes its effect—making people think about how things could have changed, how the outcomes could have changed, what happened, why did these events happen, and how they relate to people individually and to our society as a whole?

That's the Classical principle. The Classical principle is not that everybody comes away happy; but that everybody comes out thinking, which is a validation of ourselves as human beings, as opposed to the animals that go to a rave or a hip-hop concert, and just dance away in some kind of flagellant hysteria. The Classical principle is that you go and you sit and absorb the events of the play, And you think about it afterwards.

Schlanger: Now, in the discussion that you and I had with Lyndon LaRouche before the play first opened, one of the things that you talked about with Lyn was the importance for you, of reading the journal of Odets from 1940. What did you get from that?

Beltran: Well, Lyn said it beautifully. He said, “Ah, you're getting into the mind of the creator of the play.” And he was exactly right, because in studying the journal of Odets, you really got to read what he was concerned about. And so the play takes on special significance, because what you understand, is that the play came from these deep, deep questions that he was asking himself about the nature of our country—where are we going?

He was deeply concerned. The journal takes place in 1940. He wrote it for one year. And the prescience that he showed in the journal, was that he saw clearly what was happening even before the war. He saw clearly what was happening to our society. And eight years later, it came to fruition in this play. And I think he was able to see it even more clearly, because he had eight years to watch what he had seen developing in the country. He had had eight years to see it come to fruition. And that's exactly what he wrote in the play.

All of those ideas and events that were happening before the war, during the war, and after the war, are exactly what he wrote about in the play.

'Popular Opinion' and Mediocrity

Schlanger: And there's an interesting sub-theme here, on this question of popular opinion, consumption, people who are looking out for their own pleasures—which we associate, more often than not, with the Baby Boom generation. But it's clearly one of the points about the corruption in the World War II generation. How does that come through?

Beltran: That's one of the great things about the discovery of this play. It's almost as if Clifford Odets had gone to a national Schiller Institute bi-annual conference, and listened to Lyn, and then decided to write a play.

What I had always caught from Lyn, was the importance of that paradigm-shift after the war, the beginning of “Trumanism.” Although I had no—and that's a problem with a lot of people. You have LaRouche talking about something, and you ask, “How can I validate this? How can I verify that this is exactly what happened?” And this play is one of those tools that you have, to see—and this is one of the things that Lyn said to me, when we were having our discussion together, that he was not the only one to see this.

Clifford Odets clearly saw what was going on. But this play is one of those fossils that you find in an archeological dig, that validates what Lyn has been saying about that paradigm-shift that happened. The rampant corruption that happened to that generation, and has been developing to the present day. And that's exactly why the play's so relevant now. Because it's based on a truthful current of thought about ideas that have taken hold of our society. And Odets saw it clearly. And this play, I think, is like a valuable fossil that is a piece of the puzzle that helps to see the bigger puzzle.

Schlanger: The way Lyn put it to me, in a discussion, is that from this slice of what is American royalty—Hollywood—you can see the corruption that, in fact, was in your own family, in your own generation, for the Baby Boomers to see it. And all the talk from [Tom] Brokaw and others, about “the greatest generation”—and it's true, the sacrifices and everything else, from the Depression to the post-war—and yet you also see the acceptance, after the war, of mediocrity, in the mass media.

[Break to identify the show. Questions directed to Robert Beltran on the discussion can be emailed to radio@larouchepub.com. More on the subject of LaRouche's writing and discussions of Classical tragedy can be found at www.larouchepub.com].

We're interviewing, today, Robert Beltran—actor, director, social critic [laughter from Beltran], and teacher, I might add.

I'd like to introduce our LaRouche Youth Movement panel. We have with us Vicky Overing and Freddy Coronel, two members of the LaRouche Youth Movement, who are very heavily engaged, right now, in the 2004 Presidential campaign. But they're taking a few minutes to join us today. Both of them are in the drama class that Robert does here at our office [in Los Angeles] on a regular basis. Freddy and Vicky, welcome to the show.... Do either of you have a question for Robert?

Organizing the Cast

Vicky Overing: Yeah. I was just wondering, what was the development process, or change, that you saw in the characters that worked with you in the play, and if it had a huge impact on them? What was their response to it?

Beltran: Are you talking about the actors, my fellow cast members?

Overing: Yeah.

Beltran: The cast was very, very united in the purpose of the play. And I know that one of the things that helped was Harley coming, very early, to one of our rehearsals, and discussing Trumanism. It was a wonderful discussion that we had with the entire cast, for about two or three hours. And what it did was open up the society—American post-war society—and it made clear what Odets was really saying.

And so, once the actors are all on the same page, of what the playwright is trying to say, then it makes the message clearer. It makes the goal of the entire production that much clearer. And everybody is working towards the same goal.

Schlanger: Well, I think also—and Vicky, I know the question that you're asking is one that you, as a budding young actress, are also experiencing, as you're getting deeper and deeper into the Julius Caesar that we're doing with Robert. But I had a chance to meet and talk with some of the actors, and there really was a change, throughout the period of the almost three months that you were working with them; to the point that, I remember one of the last discussions that we had with someone, the first thing he said was, “Before we go in to talk, let me check to see if I'm still wired.” A not-so-subtle reference to John Ashcroft.

But I think also, Robert, that this was a tribute to you; because it was your vision, in bringing to life the idea of Classical tragedy, which had the impact.

Beltran: Well, definitely. You know I've been studying LaRouche for a good two and a half years now; and I've really been chomping at the bit to implement those things that I have learned, and believe in, as far as how to present Classical principles on stage. This play gave me that opportunity. As I said, it's almost as though Odets had gone and listened to one of Lyn's speeches.

It was a great way for me to try to demonstrate the Classical principle in drama.

Schlanger: I'm not a critic, but I saw the play several times, from the beginning [of rehearsals]; and I think it performed that function brilliantly.

By the way, we do have a question from the conference call. Someone wants to know where they can get a copy of the play. Do you know where they can find it?

Beltran: Well, you can always go to Samuels & French [bookstores]; or you can try to get in touch with the Dramatists' Play Service, who is the publisher of the play. But you can always find it at a library. It's not one of his most produced plays, but it's usually around. If you can't find it at one of the big bookstores, then you can get it at the library.

The Tragedy of Odets' Life

Schlanger: The interesting thing is the tragedy which became Odets' own life, after this play.

Odets was one of the people who got caught up in the web of McCarthyism, which is Trumanism extended through Sen. Joseph McCarthy. [Odets'] name was presented to the infamous HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee. And then he himself went before the Committee, and testified, and gave some names. I think this makes very clear what Lyndon LaRouche has been saying on this: That the tragedy is, that out of a whole generation, even the best people—even someone who was conscious of this process himself—under the relentless pressure of the “Let's get on with society; let's not try to improve things; let's be practical; let's be like cocker-spaniels, paws up, saying 'Like me, like me,' ”—as Odets says in the play—unfortunately, most of the generation went through that corruption.

Beltran: As I said, Harley, that was always a theory in my head listening to Lyn's speeches, and him emphasizing this over and over. It became clear to me when I started working on the play, and reading Odets' journal. Because Odets, in the journal, quotes, and writes of extended conversations that he had with other luminaries of the time—people like [John] Steinbeck, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and so many people around Hollywood and New York at the time, in those circles. So a lot of people were discussing those things; and a lot of ideas were being tossed around. Odets was prescient enough to see all of this happening, and was able to distill it into the thoughts that he presents in this play.

An experienced, Classically-trained actor and director, and in recent years a collaborator of Lyndon LaRouche, Robert Beltran’s two years of dramatic workshops have injected a knowledge of ‘the stage of the human imagination’ into the expanding West Coast LaRouche Youth Movement.

Schlanger: But unfortunately, not strong enough to avoid being a victim of the same corruption.

Beltran: Yeah. In the play, Charlie Castle always sees himself as half a man; and that is directly from the journal. Odets says he's got to become a whole man, that he's only a half a man.

Schlanger: On that topic, we have an e-mail question here; we don't have the name of the questioner, but they ask you: “Can you elaborate on what it means to you when Hank Teagle—who is Charlie's, maybe one of his few friends in the play—tells Charlie, “You still know that failure is the best of American life”?

Beltran: To me it meant that, even if Charlie were to leave everything, public opinion would clearly see him as a loser, someone who failed, someone who was taken from his lofty perch and thrown down into the mud. But yet, it's that acceptance; it's that willingness to fail; the failure, in American life, is the person who may not necessarily reach his goal, but has, at least, striven to get there, and strives to get there with a clear conscience and a clear idea of what he would like to accomplish.

And that, I think, is really true of what's the best in American life.

Schlanger: So in a sense, the fact that Odets, though he himself never achieved the bright promise that he may have had in the 1930s, his play left with us an ability to reflect on that, so that we can improve. What Lyndon LaRouche talks of as the “simultaneity of eternity”; Odets' words came to life through that presentation of the play; which now is living in the minds of everyone who saw it.

Beltran: Well, look at some of the people whom, probably, we would classify as failures. Is John Kennedy a failure? Was Roosevelt ultimately a failure, because the society turned right around as soon as he died? Who's a failure, and how to you define failing? Surely Odets meant it to be a person who strives, and may not, ultimately achieve what he was hoping for. But it's the example of that person striving that remains behind, and is the best of American life.

Schlanger: That's the interesting irony at the end, where Hank Teagle—who is called, during the play, by Charlie, “Horatio,” and actually performs the same role that Horatio performed in Hamlet—

Beltran: He says, when Charlie kills himself—and Hoff's right-hand man says that he's going to “spin” the story, and call it a heart attack, and that his good friend and associate Hoff was there at his bedside, his doctor, his little son, his wife; it was a nice death that Charlie had, just a heart attack; he's going to completely whitewash the fact that Charlie committed suicide, cut himself in three places—Hank Teagle says, “No, that's not going to happen. I'm going to tell the truth. He killed himself because that was the only way he could live. You don't recognize an act of faith when you see it.”

That's exactly what Horatio does in Hamlet.

How Each Performance Is 'New'

Freddy Coronel: One question, in seeing the play: It seems as though the development of the entire play had “two personalities.” From one standpoint, it was holding on to that which was moral. And then, from the other, it was like you could see, more and more, a giving in to the whole Hollywood scene, and just a whole paradigm-shift that was taking place. I know there were certain points in the play—I remember a particular one, where you were drunk, just sloshed, and even though, in that state, you were telling this one woman, who was just a whore, “No, I'm not like you; I'm different!” And it seemed like you were just kind of fighting.

In acting, having the audience be able to recognize that fight, within that one personality, or within that one actor that's presenting these two personalities—the difficulty in doing that, and the challenge of just performing the same play; how many times, you played it four nights a week?

Beltran: Five nights.

Coronel: For how many months.

Beltran: It was five weeks.

Coronel: The challenge in being able to do that every day, to keep it new for people. You yourselves, as actors, being able to keep reliving, I would assume, something new, so that it can stay fresh—I'd like to have some discussion on that.

Beltran: I think that question comes up a lot in our drama classes: How do you keep something fresh after having rehearsed it for so many weeks, and performing it night after night? Really, the only thing that keeps it fresh, is to know it better, and better and better, so that you're always investigating, and trying to broaden and deepen it, give it more breadth, give it more depth. That's how you find the spontaneity in it.

Because in a great play—and I think that this qualifies as a great American play. Calling it a great American play is a qualifier, in itself. But within the context of American literature, it certainly is one of our great plays. You find the little nuggets that are there, the more you keep searching, the more you really try to find the crux of each scene, and the crux of the relationships of the characters. That's how you keep it fresh.

And also the fact that you believe in the play. You respect the playwright. You respect what his intention was. And you give yourself over to the intention.

Schlanger: You approached this as a mission-orientation, then.

Beltran: Definitely. For me, it was. The reason why I did this play—besides the fact that I love it, and it's a wonderful play—it has the capability to wake people up. It has the capability to provoke thought, and possibly touch one or two, or maybe more people in the audience, and make them think: “You know, that's exactly what's happening today; and that's why we cannot allow this to go on.”

Schlanger: In that light, we have an interesting e-mail question for you, Robert, or anyone else on the panel, from Matt, in Wichita, Kansas. He says, “I'd like to hear anyone's feedback regarding the situation in Iraq and the issue of tragedy, and what it can teach us—especially in light of the current, triumphalist feelings in the United States, after Saddam Hussein's capture.”

Beltran: What if Paul Bremer, all of a sudden, decides to walk into his bathroom, and sees his razor there—he's going to shave—and all of a sudden, he has a catharsis? And the catharsis is, he cannot continue this sham; and decides to commit suicide?

Or, what if he walks into his bathroom; sees his razor there when he's going to shave; and he looks into his mirror and says, “I cannot continue this sham; I'm leaving, and I'm going to do anything I can to stop the occupation in Iraq”? Paul Bremer has that choice. If he came to see this play, he would see himself in the person of Charlie Castle.

That's what I mean. People came to see the play, and I think that Odets was hoping that people would see themselves in Charlie Castle; and even on a larger scale, they would see their country in the person of Charlie Castle.

Can We Compose Classical Tragedy Today?

Schlanger: On the conference line, Angela would like to ask you a question.

Angela Vullo: Hi, Robert, this is Angela from LaRouche's campaign office in Virginia. I'm presently reading a newly-released biography of Arthur Miller—who, as you know, wrote tragedies in the same period as Odets, the most well-known [being] Death of a Salesman—and Miller has referred to Death of a Salesman as a Classical tragedy. He has compared it to King Lear. But he's been criticized, people have said, “Well, Willie Loman, he wasn't a king, or a JFK, or an FDR, or even a Charlie Castle. So, he didn't fall from any great height.”

I'm curious what you think about “the tragedy of the common man”; and if you think that Death of a Salesman was a Classical tragedy?

Beltran: Yes, I think so. I think it's so simplistic to think that tragedy can only happen to kings and queens. If you think of the sovereignty of each individual human mind: We're all equal, and we all have the capacity to fall from a great height. Anytime a human being contemplates taking his life—to exit this life, and this gift that we have, of being alive and being able to accomplish things for our fellow-man—once you start actually considering exiting, by your own hand, the world that you live in—that's tragic. That's a subject for tragedy.

And I think that if you cannot read a play like Death of a Salesman, or The Big Knife, or [Miller's] The Crucible, and see a larger metaphor, then you're missing a crucial element. And that is the element of the large metaphor. And I think great playwrights like Miller, and [Eugene] O'Neill, and Odets, even though they didn't always achieve greatness, in certain plays they did. And they achieved the status of a tragedy.

Schlanger: To follow up Angela's question, then: Do you think, as someone who's acted in Hollywood, who's done a number of movies, you've been on television—besides Star Trek, you've done a good bit of other television: Do you think that the current mass media has destroyed the potential for someone to write tragedy today? Or do you think it's possible that we could still have great writers of tragic drama, that live contemporaneous with Hollywood, and the networks, and cable?

Beltran: I think that what has to happen is that—the society is what produces individuals; and the ideas that prevail in a society are what creates individuals. Yeah, I think so. I think that maybe, there maybe a budding playwright or two in the LaRouche organization. I hope so. I think that should be encouraged.

The mass media is a money-making machine. It's totally at the mercy of making money, and the bottom line is, how much can you make? And that's one of the wonderful lines that Charlie Castle has—one of the great revelations that he has: He says—talking about the studios and the whole movie industry—“Why am I surprised at them? Isn't every human being a mechanism to them? Don't they slowly, inch by inch, murder everyone they use? Don't they murder the highest dreams and hopes of a whole great nation with the movies they make? This whole movie thing is a murder of the people, only we hit them on the head under the hair; nobody sees the marks.”

That's what we're fighting. The media has such a grip on our society, that we really have to nurture those people that can see through it, see beyond it, and rise above it; and nurture them into helping them create. And go beyond prolonging all of this mediocrity in pop culture, and try to nurture them into creating something greater and more worthy, closer to the Classical principle.

'Listening Acutely' to the Playwright

Schlanger: To ask a question about the work you're doing with teaching, and working with younger people: You see the same kind of problem when you hear the way people speak; and also, just as important, the way people listen, or rather, don't listen. How do you deal with the domination of this kind of media culture, with the “up-talk,” and everything else; to get people to start reciting Shakespeare, so that the actual Classical intention, and the beauty of the language come through?

Beltran: It really boils down to listening and hearing: How acute is your hearing? And you can develop that. My struggle with the students, is trying to get them to hear acutely, and to develop that.

Schlanger: When you say, “acutely,” you're basically talking about hearing with their “inner ear.”

Beltran: You're hearing intention; and you're giving back intention. And going back to Freddy's question about “keeping it fresh”: As long as you're continuing to study the scene and try to find things, once you start finding new things, it's because you're hearing something new. And when you hear something that you hadn't heard before, it stimulates something in you that causes a spontaneous reaction. Even if it's minutely subtle, it registers to the audience. And that's how you keep spontaneity. You keep it by the way you hear it. You keep hearing it freshly; you don't hear it the same every night.

And so, I'm talking about acutely hearing what you're reading off the page. It starts there. Acutely hearing how you prepare your scenes. I'm always asking the actors to pare down the thought to a concrete thought—you're emphasizing too many words; pare it down to the absolutely essential thought. And until you can hear the superfluousness of certain words, that are clouding the thought—until you can hear that, you're not quite there.

And that's what I mean. The essential thing is, how are you hearing? How acutely are you hearing?

Schlanger: So, to use the language of Lyndon LaRouche, acting, and drama, takes place in the complex domain, rather than in the realm of the senses.

Beltran: Last night, Harley, I was auditing a production of King Lear. And it was amazing to me to go through being totally caught up in the play, because of the truthfulness of what was happening, and then be taken out of it by certain actors that, for whatever reason, destroyed the illusion; and I was back in this little barn of a theater; I was back looking at the interesting choice of lighting colors that they used; and taken out of the play. And then, how I would be sucked back into the play, back into my imagination, when the truthfulness was resumed.

That principle is absolutely essential for everyone to understand, especially the actors that I'm working with: That as long as you're on that line of truth, the audience is with you. When you stop acting as a human being within the context of the play, then the audience is taken completely out of it, and they're thinking about what they're going to eat after the performance.

Schlanger: This hour has gone by quickly. I had some questions for you on how you present a historical period. One of the things that struck me very much, in seeing the play, is that your set really resurrected the late 1940s, complete with—one of the actors said—the bar serving as a kind of altar around which people engaged in worship. We've got a little more than a minute: Can you give a little sense of how you presented that? Also, I noticed you did the whole play. The movie that was done leaves out sections. That was a deliberate decision on your part?

Beltran: Oh, yeah. I wouldn't have cut anything from this play. If we were to compare it to a piece of music, I would say it's comparable to a great symphony by [Dmitri] Shostakovitch, maybe. Is it a Beethoven symphony? I don't think so. But in listening to Shostakovitch, I note there's rigor there; there's an intention that is there. And this play deserved all the respect. You just don't go ahead and cut stuff from a play like this. It's pretty thoroughly written. There aren't any loose ends.

Schlanger: I've really enjoyed having this opportunity, and I'm sure the listeners have, to discuss The Big Knife tragedy by Clifford Odets, with Robert Beltran.

Lyndon LaRouche Comments
on Odets and Trumanism

Clifford Odets

The Classical Principle:
LaRouche Remembers Odets

From a cadre school discussion, Nov. 26, 2003: I haven't seen it, but a professional actor and friend of ours in California, Robert Beltran, has produced a play from the 1940s by Clifford Odets. Clifford Odets is a writer of plays, dramas, which are well known to people of my generation, from the 1930s and 1940s. He went on to Hollywood, and he had a tragic life, in the sense that he allowed himself—in the play, which is autobiographical—he allowed himself to be corrupted by adapting to Hollywood, and then realized he'd adapted to evil; and then committed suicide as a result of seeing his life as futile, and the outcome hopeless, that he'd gone too far. That was wrong. But nonetheless, it gets the point across.

So therefore, in this case of Odets and his drama, which is produced by professional actors—and is rather moving, as I understand—you have a case of the Classical principle of drama being used in a modern setting. Because the reality was, that from the period from the end of the war, World War II—from the Summer of 1944, where a decent vice-president, Henry Wallace, was replaced by the Democratic Party, through the nomination of a bad, very bad, vice-president, Harry Truman—and thus, the sickness and death of Roosevelt led to the evil which took over the United States in the post-war period. Roosevelt was no longer there, and Truman went over to the other, Utopian side.

During this period of evil, I saw a transformation of my fellow soldiers and similar people, who in the main had been fairly good in their attitude about the post-war world, when I knew them during times of military service. But immediately at the end of the war, the United States made a right-wing turn; and what we called McCarthyism later on, was actually Trumanism, which began in 1945-46. It began essentially with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Iron Curtain speech by Churchill and Truman's endorsement of it. We had a right-wing terror, police-state terror, in the United States. This produced a transformation in the U.S. population. It turned people who had been my friends, into pigs, who adapted to the terror, out of what they perceived to be their self-interest. They turned against each other like animals. So, what Odets presents in this drama, as presented by these actors, is that situation.

So here we have a truly Classical tradition in drama, by a person who might be figured a minor dramatist in the Classical tradition, but a skilled one, who presents a very anguished picture of the horror, the corruption which seized so many people in the United States in the immediate post-war period. We look back at early history, and we see that. And that kind of understanding into ourselves, is the understanding of what we need to know to determine how we're going to respond, in terms of the effect of our decision on not only the society around us now, but on honoring the past who made us possible, and providing a basis for the hope of the future for those who come after us. That is what is essentially necessary. There's no other drama that's worth doing, and there's no other way to perform Shakespeare, or to perform Schiller.

From a pamphlet prologue written Nov. 30, 2003: All which deserves the name of Classical drama is a reflection of an impassioned reach toward a certain specific time and place in real history, and to be a special way of reviving a notable experience of that culture at that time, especially an experience which has radiated its effects across the intervening processes of human development, to the present time of that playwright, those actors, and that audience. It must, so to speak, bring a Socrates truly to life on the present living stage of the imagination of an audience. It must bring Julius Caesar to life, in the actual time and circumstances, which that audience must experience within its own mind and passions—the acts of his assassination and death-agony, in that actual time and place in which those events occurred.

The principle which governs, absolutely, the requirements for the composition, performance, and witnessing of Classical drama, is what theologians have sometimes identified as “the simultaneity of eternity.”

Take the case of a certain play by Clifford Odets. I have not witnessed the ... performance of that play, but I have enjoyed a meaningful discussion of the problem the play represents, and the authentically Classical intention of the director of the performance.

I reference this case, in large part, because of the appropriateness of my recollection of the relevance for the effect on today's Baby Boomers and also their offspring, of the real history which Odets' drama brings back to life. I recall Odets from radio productions of his [plays], performed during the 1930s and later, and because I have relived the times, the experience, and the historically specific relevance of that drama's subject for today's living population, and also generations which followed, and will follow yet.

The essence of that drama could not be grasped, or performed, unless the performance transported the audience into the period from the 1932 election of Franklin Roosevelt, through the growing optimism of the late 1930s and June 1944, and the subsequent moral decline of the U.S. and its people from Summer 1944 to the present. There is no audience today, which, wittingly or not, does not have what Odets' play represents, embedded within them. The moral degeneration of the American people in general, can not be understood without taking into account what the particularity of the drama epitomizes about the American experience of nearly a century, to present date.

We lived through the Depression, the rise to optimism under Franklin Roosevelt, and the great betrayal known variously as the despicable Roy M. Cohn's “McCarthyism,” and, more accurately, as “Trumanism.” To understand the American today, one must be able to recognize those experiences, and the transmission of the effects of those experiences, across more than three living generations, to the present moment.

Such a case as that of Odets and his relevant tragic play, exemplifies the essential meaning of both history and dramatic Classical artistic composition, both wrapped in one for their functional importance for what people do and feel today.

I have adopted that as an illustration here, because it is a bridging of the principal events of world history during my actual lifetime to date. People who do not know that set of connections, that process of unfolding development over this period as I do, really know almost nothing about themselves today. For that reason, any Classical drama whose chosen subject is specific to the period of Odets' play, must not attempt to move the significance of the events portrayed from the immediate time-frame in which the drama is situated. To move it to the 1960s, or the 1970s, or today, would be a damnable lie.

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