Hemingway on Stage: The Fifth Column, Politics, and Biography

By Raeburn, John | The Hemingway Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Hemingway on Stage: The Fifth Column, Politics, and Biography


Raeburn, John, The Hemingway Review


While The Fifth Column is artistically among the least distinguished of Hemingway's works, it raises tantalizing biographical questions about his activities in the late 1930s. The most important of these centers on his willingness to employ his talents to put forward an interpretation of the Spanish Civil War--and implicitly of the internal conflicts within the Republic--that cosmeticized and valorized the Communist Party's suppression of competing political formations. His biographers have neglected this commitment to a partisan politics and underestimated the intensity of his political interests.

THE FIFTH COLUMN is artistically one of Hemingway's least accomplished works, its characters wooden, its plot melodramatic, its use of language unexceptional. Like The Torrents of Spring and his poetry, the play is not integral to his literary reputation. Yet The Fifth Column raises several tantalizing questions about Hemingway's activities in the late 1930s. Why in 1937 did he write a play, a form in which hitherto he had shown little interest? How does the play illuminate his advocacy of the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War, and how Closely does its central character, Phillip Rawlings, correspond to Hemingway himself, both to his private life and to the celebrated public personality he had developed during the preceding decade? What are the politics of The Fifth Column? And, finally, to what extent does it encourage a revaluation of Hemingway as a political writer or at least as a writer vitally concerned with political questions?

He wrote the play in the waning months of 1937 during his second trip to Spain as correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance, but because of difficulties in finding financial backing a production was not mounted until 1940. This Broadway version, so completely adapted by Benjamin Glazer that it bore only modest resemblance to its original, had a two-month run, not long enough for its backers to break even. By then it was no longer timely, the Spanish war having ended the previous year. In published form, though, it first appeared in 1938, while the war was still being fought, with Hemingway's collected short stories.

Hemingway himself thought The Fifth Column read well, although he also knew it was vulnerable to criticism. Corresponding with Maxwell Perkins in mid-1938, he proposed that it be published with the short stories because "everybody will damn the play alone," but "together it is too big for them, too damned impressive." With all of this work appearing together, he told Perkins, "no matter how they damn them or what happens I won't feel bad because I know that there is the work that I have done, there you can see what I have learned, and all the vitality of dialogue and action is there in the play and it comes after all that solid body of work" (SL 471, 468). His instincts were accurate about the collection's reception, if not about the strength of the play. Reviews of The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories were almost entirely favorable, most of them warmly praising the stories and lightly dismissing the play. With production stalled his interest flagged and by early 1939 he was complaining that he wished he "had never heard of a play but had written a novel instead" (SL 476).

He gave two reasons for his turn to playwriting. One was that the Tereul offensive was supposed to begin sometime in the autumn of 1937, and he decided to fill the time while waiting to leave for the front by writing a play. The other was that his fellow correspondents urged him to do it. Neither of these assertions is very illuminating and their offhandedness invites further speculation.

Like all professional writers Hemingway was concerned about money. Sales of his last book, Green Hills of Africa, had lagged, and in 1936 he stopped writing his monthly Esquire letters, which for three years had provided a regular source of income. In September 1936, he told Arnold Gingrich, the magazine's editor, that he would be broke shortly, although this was a considerable exaggeration for the benefit of an editor with whom he might have further need to negotiate. …

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