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History Restored at Gunston

American Century revives little-seen Hecht play, ‘A Flag Is Born.’

Once again, Jack Marshall's American Century Theater brings to life a piece of American theater history not likely to be seen anywhere else. Indeed, "A Flag Is Born," a political propaganda play that premiered on Broadway in 1946, doesn't seem to have been performed since that production closed.

That it turns out to be a lot more fascinating history than it is satisfying theater is a reflection of both the bizarre story behind the play and the difficulty of recapturing the emotions of the time in which it was first presented.

It was written by Ben Hecht, the co-author with Charles MacArthur of such stage comedies as "The Front Page" and "Twentieth Century," as well as an Oscar-winning screenwriter. This wasn't Hecht's first foray into propaganda. He'd written the script for a patriotic pageant at Madison Square Garden, an Office of War Information film on the need for a United Nations, a War Department effort on the contribution of black soldiers during World War II, and even mounted an all-star piece designed to dramatize the Holocaust in 1943, when there was still something to be done about it.

Hecht wrote "A Flag is Born" in 1946 for the American League for a Free Palestine, which was fighting for the establishment of the state of Israel. It was classic propaganda pageantry, hitting its message with sharp, strong, simple images designed to resonate among an audience. The audience, and the country, was just beginning to comprehend the scope of the Holocaust’s 6 million dead and the remaining European Jews ill clothed, ill fed, homeless and unwanted in countries they had called home for centuries.

The ALFP mounted the show in the 1,300-seat theater on West 52nd Street in New York that is today called the Neil Simon, now home to the hit musical comedy "Hairspray.” Then known as the Alvin, the theater hosted the show for a few weeks, between runs of the musical "Billion Dollar Baby" and José Ferrer's "Cyrano de Bergerac." For the next two months, "A Flag is Born" played other Broadway theaters before touring to cities like Chicago and Baltimore.

<b>IT WAS SCHEDULED</b> to play the National Theater in Washington, D.C., but Hecht refused to allow a production in a theater that refused admission to African-Americans. Instead, the play was performed in Baltimore at the old Maryland Theater, but not until that theater allowed black customers to buy orchestra seats, not just segregated balcony seats.

The cast included Paul Muni, graduate of American Yiddish theater and veteran Broadway actor who had gained fame as a movie star. Also featured was a newcomer who a year later would take Broadway by storm in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire": Marlon Brando.

The play was a massive pageant built around the story of an elderly Jewish couple fleeing devastated, post-War Europe in hope of reaching the Holy Land. They made their journey despite not knowing the way, and despite the British administrators of the "Protectorate of Palestine," who were actively preventing Jewish immigration to the territory.

The couple pause on their wanderings for a night in a deserted cemetery. The old woman has no strength left and dies while her husband has hallucinations of visits from such historic characters as King David and Saul. A final hallucination is of the Angel of Death.

American Century's revival is based on a script that was unearthed in a library in Florida. The show had not been produced in over 50 years, and the copyright had apparently lapsed.

<b>DIRECTOR STEVEN SCOTT</b> Mazzola attempts to enhance the historical feeling of the piece by framing it as a pageant put on by the refuges aboard a ship attempting to run the blockade and take them to Palestine in 1947. This isn't much of a stretch for this particular play — some of the proceeds of the original production actually went to fund the refugee ships depicted in the book and movie “Exodus." Indeed, one of those ships was actually named the S.S. Hecht.

The framing device of staging the pageant onboard the ship helps but it can't turn propaganda into compelling drama. The production also suffers from too vigorous a performance by Joel Snyder as the worn-out old man. But there are impressive visual effects, especially using larger-than-life puppets as the spirits of Saul and David.

"A Flag Is Born" is a piece of theater history and a piece of international history not been seen for half a century, and it may not be seen again. This production may generate the interest to determine that fate.