The Fifth Column: A Play by Ernest Hemingway

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The Fifth Column: A Play by Ernest Hemingway. Directed by Jonathan Bank. The Mint Theater. 311 West 43rd Street, New York, NY. 26 March through 18 May 2008.

The Fifth Column is generally regarded (when it is regarded at all) to be something of an anomaly in the Hemingway canon. The author's only full-length play, and one which has garnered little critical or commercial attention, it is, as John Raeburn diplomatically puts it, a work "not integral to [Hemingway's] literary reputation" (5). The Mint Theater in New York City, whose mission is to bring "new vitality to worthy but neglected plays," has recently given life to characters who, until now, have lain quietly between the covers of the 1938 The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories ("About"). The Mint Theater production, under the direction of Jonathan Bank, is also the first time Hemingway's play has ever been professionally produced according to its original script, so, in a sense, it is both a revival and a first run.

The play concerns the activities of counter-espionage agent Philip Rawlings, a hard-drinking man's man and Communist party operative posing as a war correspondent. He works out of the Florida hotel, tracking down members of the "fifth column" Fascist sympathizers working from within against Loyalist-defended Madrid. The other journalists in Philip's hotel, Dorothy Bridges and Robert Preston, think Philip is a "playboy" and a brawler, but Dorothy falls for him and dreams of a happy future in "St. Tropez or [...] some place like Saint Tropez was" (TFC 25-26). Philip captures a fifth column member whose confession under torture leads to the discovery of three hundred more fifth columnists. The violence takes its toll on Philip, and he questions the value of his work, ultimately deciding to break with Dorothy and to continue his mission.

Hemingway had intended to see the play produced in 1938, but a series of misfortunes delayed its debut--one producer died; and another was unable to secure financial backing. It was not until 1940 that the Theater Guild finally put the play on Broadway. By then the script had been largely re-written by Benjamin Glazer, the Academy-award winning screenwriter responsible for the 1932 film version of A Farewell to Arms (which Hemingway hated). The partnership between Hemingway and Glazer was not a happy one, and Glazer made so many fundamental changes to Hemingway's script that Hemingway eventually asked (without success) to have his own name removed from the production.

Glazer's heavily revised version of The Fifth Column debuted on 6 March 1940, to limited acclaim. Although not a complete flop, the show was not a bit either, running for a merely respectable 87 performances. Reviews were mixed, and critics recognized that Hemingway was not entirely to blame for the play's weaknesses: "Mr. Glazer seems to have forgotten that Hemingway's Frederic Henry is always embarrassed by such words as 'sacred,' 'glorious,' 'sacrifice' and 'in vain'" (qtd. in Davison 29). Others, however, were unimpressed with the now-outdated subject matter, which "sounded more like a too-familiar gramophone record of the Spanish war story than a news broadcast from Madrid" (qtd. in Davison 30).

The Fifth Column was written in Madrid in 1937 while Hemingway was working as a war correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance. In the preface to the 1938 publication, which the Mint's audience hears Hemingway read in a recording that plays after the lights go down to start the show, he explains that "the Hotel Florida, where we lived and worked, was struck by more than thirty high explosive shells. So if it is not a good play perhaps that is what is the matter with it. If it is a good play, perhaps those thirty some shells helped write it" (v). Hemingway diffidently points out that the play is a product of a specific historical moment, and this timeliness may account for its failure on Broadway. …