Story of the century’s biggest literary catfight

by Ellen Fagg Weist | Salt Lake Tribune

Slipping back into character as playwright Lillian Hellman is the chance of a stage lifetime for Reb Fleming.

“I love her passion,” says Fleming, who in 2007 played a female King Lear in a Salt Lake Community College production. “I admit to being able to relate to her angers. It is her angers that make her who she was. She was always angry about something, and most of all — in my research and study — she was passionate about equality.”

A decade ago, Fleming played Hellman in Pygmalion Productions’ “Cakewalk,” a memory play by Peter Feibleman, Hellman’s much-younger lover, with Utah actor Lane Richins playing Feibleman.

Now, Richins directs Fleming, who plays an older, still-chain-smoking Hellman as she faces off with Barb Gandy’s Mary McCarthy in Pygmalion Productions’ “Hellman v. McCarthy.”

Playwright Brian Richard Mori’s script outlines the $2.25 million slander lawsuit Hellman slapped on novelist and critic McCarthy, also naming PBS and TV host Dick Cavett.

“The situation, dramatically, had built-in conflict,” says Mori, who drew upon the writers’ novels, memoirs and plays, as well as their correspondence, news articles and court documents, to shape a play that is interested in telling a story about more than just literary history. “I admired them both, although I’m not sure I would want to be stranded with either of them on a desert island.”

Adds Gandy: “They’re awesome, even if they are unpleasant.”

Hellman wrote numerous plays and screenplays, most notably “The Little Foxes,” and was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the late 1940s, as was her longtime partner, writer Dashiell Hammett.

McCarthy worked on the editorial staff of The Partisan Review and went on to publish more than 20 books of fiction and criticism, many expressing biting views of marriage, an institution she experienced and left four times. She’s remembered for her 1957 memoir “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood” and her 1963 novel, “The Group.”

The precipitating event to one of the most explosive literary feuds of the 20th century occurred in 1980 when McCarthy listed Hellman as an overrated writer on Cavett’s PBS talk show. “I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,’ ” opined the writer known as “Contrary Mary.”

Hellman’s lawsuit dragged on for four years and wasn’t settled until after her death in 1984. The legal battle seems to have cast long shadows on the reputations of both writers. In 1976, Hellman was depicted draped in a fur for Blackglama’s “What Becomes a Legend Most” national advertising campaign, yet now her plays are rarely produced. (Although perhaps Utah is experiencing a mini-Hellman revival, thanks to that 2005 run of “Cakewalk” and a recent production of her play “The Children’s Hour” at the University of Utah.)

“Hellman v. McCarthy” profiles two fiercely intellectual writers and unconventional women, while considering more universal questions about who has the right to free speech. While the play’s events are set in the 1980s, its questions about who has the right to express criticism seem newly relevant in an era of nearly instantaneous public shaming via social media.

The play asks questions about different interpretations of the same words, and how much responsibility you have for what you say. It’s a play for talkers, thinkers and readers, says the director. It’s also about “what do you have to hold onto in the end when you’re desperate, and when you’re fighting, and the last two words you have in the world are your name,” Richins says.

“It’s a funny, witty, sharp little piece of theater,” adds Fran Pruyn, Pygmalion’s artistic director. “These are two cranky old ladies who are both sensational and funny, and survived in a male-dominated world by pure force of personality. They are absolutely forces to be contended with — that in and of itself is fabulous to watch.”

In the New York debut of Mori’s play last year, Cavett played himself. He’s continued in the role at Beverly Hills’ Saban Theatre, where the show runs through March 1. The Salt Lake production will be the first where an actor, Ogden’s Allen Smith, steps into the character, as Mori says he originally intended.

“I never dreamed that Dick would actually do the play,” says Mori, who will come to Salt Lake City for the opening of the regional premiere. He predicts that Smith taking on the role of another legend, Cavett, will shift more of the audiences’ attention to the leading female characters.