A play about the relationship between the screenwriter of one of the most acclaimed films ever made and the legendary producer behind the movie remains as relevant today as in 1939, when Ben Hecht was hired by David O. Selznick to rewrite the script for “Gone With the Wind.”
“Moonlight and Magnolias,” written in 2004 by Irish playwright Ron Hutchinson, tells the fact-based behind-the-scenes story of Hecht’s interactions with Selznick, and delves into a critical aspect of their relationship: the attempt by Hecht, a champion of Jewish causes, to convince Selznick to become more open about being Jewish.
All this took place while they were locked in an office for a week, along with director Victor Fleming, frantically working on the screenplay of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War novel.
Director Jeffrey B. Martin, the head of the Department of Performing Arts at Roger Williams University, in Bristol, first staged “Moonlight and Magnolias” in July, at the university’s Barn Summer Theatre, and it is being performed eight more times, Aug. 16-26, at The Wilbury Theater Group, in Providence.
Martin, 68, who has directed more than 75 plays, discussed the play’s themes in an email interview. An edited version follows. (For an expanded version, go to www.jvhri.org.)
Q. “Moonlight and Magnolias” focuses on Ben Hecht’s struggles to push studio executive and famed producer David O. Selznick to acknowledge his Judaism and to support Jewish refugees. Talk a little about the conflict between Hecht and Selznick, who, like many studio executives of his day, considered himself more American than Jewish.
A. Most of the studio executives wanted to live the American dream. This was both personal and professional. They wanted their films to be perceived as American, untainted by Jewish influence or a Jewish perspective. Selznick, like [Irving] Thalberg, was a little different from most of the studio founders in that he was second generation, born and raised in America, as was Hecht.
But in a period of rising anti-Semitism and xenophobia, [Selznick strived for] the American ideal, the attempt to become American by allegiance and behavior rather than by birth. This was a period where the melting pot was supposed to erase our origins, rather than the current multicultural thinking, which envisions us as a stew or quilt, bonding together but maintaining our individual backgrounds and heritages. In his attitudes, Hecht was ahead of his time; Selznick was a product of his.
Q. The different approaches toward being Jewish displayed by Hecht and Selznick in 1939 have only intensified nearly 80 years later. What does the play say to those American Jews who are dealing with similar pressures, such as those faced by Selznick, “to be a better Jew?”
A. I think it’s more nuanced than that. Hecht thought Selznick was in denial about how he was perceived. He thought the idea that one could discard one’s identity was self-deceptive, that the larger society wouldn’t allow it. He also had disdain for what he called self-hating Jews. He felt that no one would stand up for the Jews except other Jews, and in this he was largely correct.
Hecht was combative; if someone was going to attack him, he was going to fight back in any way possible. In 1943, he published “A Guide for the Bedeviled,” in which he tried to explain anti-Semitism. In it, he does not try to defend or apologize. It is a full-throated attack on hatred and bigotry.
Q. What advice do you have for people struggling to navigate the conflicts between secular and religious Jews in this unforgiving social-media age?
A. Hecht was not a religious Jew. He was comfortable with being Jewish and cherished his heritage. As he put it at one point: “My tribe is Israel.” As far as I know, he never engaged in secular versus religious issues or conflicts.
If you’re asking how he would have reacted to extreme Jewish fundamentalism, I think he would have found much of their lives and practices familiar and nostalgic, but I think he would have been opposed to the imposition of their views on others or their authority to speak for Jews or Judaism.
Q. Hecht raised money for the Irgun, the radical arm of the Zionists who blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946. His involvement led to Hecht’s films being blacklisted in England. How do Hecht’s experiences translate in 2018, when many American Jews must deal with charges of being “disloyal Jews” because of their opposition to some Israeli politicians and their policies?
A. He would have been right with them. He was outraged at the way the Labor Party in Israel treated the Irgun at the end of the War for Independence, and he had no problem voicing that opposition. He didn’t feel that anyone or any movement was above criticism and wasn’t afraid of airing that criticism.
Q. If you could wish for theater-goers to come away from “Moonlight and Magnolias” with one lesson regarding Jewish identity, what would it be?
A. As with many plays, the message is mixed because different characters express different points of view. I think the play, through Hecht, says: be who you are. Be proud of your Jewish background, but also remember that it carries with it an obligation to seek justice for others, not merely to defend yourself.
On the other hand, ultimately, Selznick produces a piece of popular entertainment which does not embody those ideas, which was an enormous critical, financial and cultural success. Although the racial attitudes and historical perspective it [“Gone With the Wind”] embodies make it difficult to watch today, it remains an enduring cultural icon.
LARRY KESSLER is a freelance writer who can be reached at email@example.com.