‘The Ben Hecht Show’ highlights spiritual side of the Oscar-winning screenwriter
His star has largely faded with the years, but in his day — the 1920s through the mid-’60s — writer Ben Hecht was an icon. James Sherman, who created and performs a one-man play about Hecht called “The Ben Hecht Show,” currently at the Zephyr Theatre in West Hollywood, said he particularly admires Hecht’s versatility as a journalist, playwright, novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter.
He also pointed out that though Hecht was adept at screwball comedies such as the films “Monkey Business” and “Twentieth Century” and the play “The Front Page,” which drew on Hecht’s experiences as a newspaper reporter and was adapted for the screen several times, he was equally skilled at crime vehicles, such as the movies “Scarface,” “Notorious” and “Underworld,” which earned him the first Academy Award for best story in 1927 (the category later became best original screenplay).
But “The Ben Hecht Show,” set in 1943, is concerned with other aspects of Hecht’s life.
“What excited me about doing this show was Hecht writing about his own experience as an American Jew, dealing with his upbringing and with his growing consciousness about his connection to Judaism, and I think it’s a great story,” Sherman said.
He added that Hecht’s growing awareness of anti-Semitism is personally meaningful to him. Sherman’s own consciousness as a Jew was raised in the late 1970s, when a neo-Nazi group wanted to march in Skokie, a Jewish neighborhood in Illinois.
The Skokie controversy prompted Sherman to ask some of the same questions Hecht had asked in response to the Nazi threat of the late 1930s and ’40s: “ ‘What is my response to this? What is my connection to Judaism and to American Judaism?’ When one decides to confront these questions, one can’t help but go on a journey — for answers,” Sherman observed.
He stressed that all the dialogue in his play comes from two of Hecht’s books: the autobiographical “A Child of the Century” and “A Guide for the Bedevilled,” in which Hecht deals specifically with his Judaism.
Sherman explained that the narrative begins as Hecht recounts a lunch he had with a Hollywood starlet, described as more famous than intelligent. “She asks him if he wants to talk about what’s wrong with the Jews. And he says, ‘This is the first time in my life that anybody ever addressed me as a Jew, and so I had to be one.’ ”
As the show indicates, Hecht learned about what was happening to the Jews in Europe during World War II from Hayim Greenberg, editor of the New York weekly The Jewish Frontier, who showed the writer eyewitness documents that came to him through Switzerland.
According to Sherman, those revelations prompted Hecht’s activism, beginning with his article “Remember Us,” which was published in the February 1943 issue of Reader’s Digest and helped bring the fate of European Jews to the attention of the widespread American public.
But Hecht’s attempts to enlist prominent Jews in helping publicize and address Nazi atrocities were met with unexpected and startling resistance. In the play, when he gathers 30 Jewish writers at the home of George S. Kaufman, his request for help elicits silence, even hostility.
“When Hecht gathers these 30 literary celebrities together that all happen to be Jewish,” Sherman said, “Beatrice Kaufman says to him, ‘By asking them to portray themselves in public as Jews, you’re asking them to give up the fact that they’re Americans, which is what’s so important,’ as if those are mutually exclusive things. That’s what drives Ben Hecht crazy.”
Subsequently, in a particularly humorous section, Hecht, Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Billy Rose convene 32 leaders of Jewish organizations to help plan a pageant titled “We Will Never Die,” as a memorial to the 2 million Jewish dead of Europe. What ensues is heated infighting, in Yiddish and English, with the leaders denouncing each other as socialists, fascists, Christians and other “villains.”
Sherman said he surmised that this explosion erupts because the pageant is viewed as “a shanda for the goyim.”
“The idea of it being ‘a shanda for the goyim’ is [that] we don’t want to portray ourselves, because then it’s like we’re giving them more reason to dislike us. I think in the play Hecht’s examination of Hollywood is fascinating, because of this industry that was invented by Jews, but there are no Jews in the movies, you know? And I think that’s part of the same thinking.
“The product that they put out to the world, they were very determined for it to remain as un-Jewish as possible. … Because of that, because the Jew vanishes from popular media, that actually serves to activate the rise of American anti-Semitism, because then the only people who are talking or writing about Jews are the anti-Semites.”
Sherman also said that, beyond its discussion of Judaism, his show is about whether people choose to remain complacent or to speak up when the times demand it.
“The choice to speak is a very powerful choice that Ben Hecht makes, so I’m trying to set an example for that. I also think this play is important because people don’t know who Ben Hecht was, and I think he was really important.”
Sherman concluded, “There’s a lot of food for thought, and I’m excited to be able to lay out that buffet.”
“The Ben Hecht Show” runs through Aug. 16 at the Zephyr Theatre.