Thursday, August 23, 2007

the trial of the catonsville nine


from "Hollywood & The Catholic Church" by Les & Barbara Keyser; "The most dramatic attack on the Selective Service comes on May 17, 1968, when a ragtag army of priests, missionaries, nuns, ex-Peace Corps members and other morally indignant pacifists burns the records of Local Board 33 in Catonsville Maryland, using homemade napalm. Daniel Berrigan wrote a famous play about the aftermath of this event, "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," and actor Gregory Peck devoted his own personal fortune to seeing it filmed by director Gordon Davidson. The film, distributed by Cinema V, was a labor of love for all involved, and the principals all worked for union scale (most put their earnings right back in the production or contributed them to anti-war movements). No more literate and thoughtful indictment of American involvement in Viet Nam exists. Daniel Berrigan dramatically repudiates the whole tradition of Cardinal Spellman and Church blessings for modern wars, proclaiming the necessity to say no to such a Catholic Church. Berrigan wants everyone to know he is a Catholic, but a new kind of committed Catholic willing to embrace civil disobedience in pursuit of faith. In his testimony, he tells the world; "May I say if my religious belief is not accepted as a substantial part of my action then the action is eviscerated of all meaning and I should be committed for insanity."


My friend Doug emailed me this bit from the Variety review: "Theatrical, but fluidly controlled, direction by Gordon Davidson gives this a dramatic impetus despite static qualities and literary dialog."

Which surprised me. "Literary" dialogue. I had thought that the play was created from direct trial transcriptions, wonder if the Variety writer may have been hearing through his preconceptions: "It's from a play, must be 'literary'." Ironic if words that were actually spoken in reality play less real than lines that screenwriters write (which must by definition be less "literary" that ones in stage plays?). Struck me as an odd comment all round.

Wikipedia gives this; "Fr. Daniel Berrigan wrote a play in free verse, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, about the trial. The version performed is usually an adaptation into regular dialogue by Saul Levitt." Which made me wonder where I got the crazy idea about it being created from transcripts.

So I dug out my copy of the script. Flipping it open, sure enough, laid out like free verse. But reading the actual text, I wondered. Flipped to the Introduction.

"In composing this book, I have worked directly with the data of the trial record, somewhat in the manner of the new 'factual theater.' As I understand it, that form requires essential adherence to the letter of a text (in this case, some 1200 pages, supplied to us by the court stenographer). I have been as faithful as possible to the original words, spoken in the heat or long haul of the trial, making only those minute changes required for clarity or good sense.
"In condensing such a mass of material, it was predictable that a qualitative change would occur, almost by the law of nature, as the form emerged. And this of course was my hope: to induce out of the density of matter an art form worthy of the passionate acts and words of the Nine, acts and words which were the substance of the court record."

So. Literal and literary both. Reading the text, I can readily see that actors could ignore the line endings and essentially play the text naturalistically, or (to varying degrees) play the line endings and "verse" intentions of the playwright for a more stylized treatment.

I wonder about doing a staged reading of the play?


Used copies of the videotape at Amazon starting at 22 bucks.

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