Unfinished Women

By Kaufman, David | The Nation, January 27, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Unfinished Women

Kaufman, David, The Nation


The public feud between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman continues to warrant our attention long after its two vehement opponents have left the stage. To be sure, the nature of their dispute transcended the specific questions it raised regarding Hellman's misrepresentation of her past. Truth versus mendacity, fact versus fiction, call it what you will--at the heart of their argument was one of the more troubling developments of the twentieth century, which has only intensified as we've moved into the twenty-first: the culture's growing tendency to conflate fact with fiction, both diluting and polluting our reality.

In retrospect, the war between the Jewish leftist Hellman and the Catholic liberal McCarthy seems to have been inevitable. Hellman was a playwright and memoirist who clearly believed in a writer's artistic license to embroider. Though McCarthy based some of her novels on her own life, she was a stickler--and ultimately a crusader--for the truth.

What might be viewed as their lifelong rivalry culminated in 1980, when McCarthy famously said of Hellman during a TV interview with Dick Cavett: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" In spite of Hellman's bringing a $2.25 million lawsuit against her, McCarthy has been vindicated over the years, as we've come to learn that the plaintiff indeed lied about any number of things in her ostensibly autobiographical trilogy: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time.

While the hyperbolic thrust of McCarthy's remark would probably have proven indefensible in a court of law, Hellman's charges never made it to trial--not until now, that is, via the playful and bitchy imagination of Nora Ephron. In Imaginary Friends, her new "play with music" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Ephron has these grande dames of American letters confront each other in a handsome and stylish red set in hell, where they bicker over everything, from how often they actually met to how the play that contains them should be staged. (When a relatively sedate McCarthy asks if there really has to be music, the more flamboyant Hellman says, "Why not? We have musicians.")

It's both sad and ironic to realize that while Hellman's own plays are produced with less and less frequency, Imaginary Friends is at least the third play to feature her as a main character, following William Luce's Lillian and Peter Feibleman's Cakewalk. (Neil Simon has written a fourth, Rose and Walsh, based on Hellman's relationship with Dashiell Hammett; it is to begin previews in Los Angeles at the end of this month.) But then, as Robert Brustein wrote in his tribute to Hellman shortly after her death in 1984, "It may be that her life, with its strong alliances, combative courage, and abrupt domestic scenes, will eventually be considered her greatest theater." And in a witty defense of his subject's tendency to dissemble, biographer Carl Rollyson also emphasized Hellman's sense of theatricality when he claimed, "She suspended her own sense of disbelief."

Ephron herself is no stranger to the blurring of fact and fiction, having based her novel Heartburn on her marriage to Carl Bernstein, which she subsequently adapted for a Mike Nichols film of the same name. She is best known as a writer for the screen (in addition to Heartburn, she wrote the screenplays for Silkwood and When Harry Met Sally ...) as well as a film director (Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail). In view of her uneven script for Imaginary Friends, it comes as no surprise to read in the program that this is her first play.

Without really having anything new to say about either Hellman or McCarthy, Ephron has found a highly unusual way for saying it, via comic routines, music-hall numbers and old-fashioned vaudeville shtick. Her cartoony approach may seem inappropriately matched to such hardcore intellectuals, and it's bound to offend literary purists.

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