Another Chapter in the History of World War II Women Journalists Unfolds in the Berkshires
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Another Chapter in the History of World War II Women Journalists Unfolds in the Berkshires
Shakespeare & Company
America has been flooded over the summer with plays and films about the embattled women journalists of World War II. HBO aired a movie about journalist Margaret Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway covering wars in the 1930s and 1940s, the Mint Theater in New York staged a play about two women journalists in World War II Italy, and now Shakespeare & Company, the thirty-five-year-old summer theater festival in Lenox, in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, is producing the world premiere of Cassandra Speaks, a one-woman show about writer Dorothy Thompson, a journalist who wrote a column syndicated in one hundred seventy newspapers, hosted her own radio show, wrote several books from the 1920s to the 1920s, and covered pre-war Germany.
Cassandra Speaks, written Norman Plotkin and staged at the company's Elayne Bernstein Theater, is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how female foreign correspondents did their job. The women had to cover the war, and the politics of it, as well as fend off men intent on romantic relationships. They succeeded, too. Several dozen served as correspondents for U.S. newspapers, magazines and radio stations and brought the war home to America through their stories.
Dorothy Thompson was one of the best. The Syracuse University graduate started as a foreign correspondent in the late 1920s and in 1931 managed to get a lengthy interview with rising German political star Adolf Hitler. She was in Germany, on and off, for nearly four more years, until she gained international celebrity by being the first journalist tossed out of Germany by Hitler, who was irritated by her anti-Nazi stories. She returned to the U.S. in 1934 to much acclaim, becoming a star on the lecture circuit. From the late 1930s to the 1950s she continued writing columns and several books.
Time Magazine called Thompson the second most influential woman in America behind Eleanor Roosevelt. She was said to be the basis for the main character in the hit 1942 movie Woman of the Year.
Thompson was married three times. Nobel Prize winning novelist Sinclair Lewis was husband number two.
Thompson is played by actress Tod Randolph, who does a fine job of bringing the hard-working 1940s journalist to life on stage. The play takes place in Thompson's Vermont home in 1943, on the day Thompson is to be married for the third time to artist Maxim Kopf. She talks about all the problems Thompson had getting recognized as a correspondent in Europe and then doing her job, and doing it well. At the same time, Randolph shows the troubles Thompson had with three husbands while she pursued a career. Women journalists were few in number in those years and they faced the same prejudice that all women did who had careers in thay era of the stay at home mom.
The strength of the play is the combination of Thompson's success in covering Hitler and the Nazis and, at the same time, her struggles with a very busy personal life with her husbands and son. It is a difficult balancing act for anyone, and Thompson had her hands full and failed at the dual lives most of the time. Actress Randolph soars as she shows the exhaustion of Thompson at many points in her career.
Parts of the play are brilliant, such as Thompson talking about her first interview with Hitler. The future Fuehrer did not impress Thompson at all. She said she felt pity for the man, who seemed a hollow wreck of a leader. She did not see how he could rise to be head of a political party, much less the dictator of Germany who would launch World War II. Later, Thompson spoke vividly about her work in Germany and how she had to deal with Nazi leaders who were furious with what she wrote about them (she was very proud that the Gestapo kept a special file on her).
The drama is a nice look at history. The audience not only learns a lot about Thompson's life, but about Nazi Germany and its relations to European powers, the U.S. reluctance to get into World War II until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the brave attitude of young men as they scrambled to volunteer for the army when the U.S. finally did get into the conflict. It is a vivid look at a world at war and a woman who covered it in her stories.
The set, by Patrick Brennan, is a collection of several rooms in a home merged into one. It is surrounded on three sides by the audience. The handsome set, filled with comfortable furniture, conveys Thompson's success in life and, at the same time, her need for more luck in her domestic life.
Tod Randolph is superb as Dorothy Thompson. She tells the her story as a reporter covering the world, explaining events and flushing out larger than life characters such as Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt. At the same time, she lets you get inside Thompson's head to understand her own motivations. And, while all of this is going on, we see Thompson struggle with her personal life and her fame. She did not have an easy life and Randolph conveys that. The third wedding day date for the play is perfect for the drama. Dorothy constantly worries if wedding number three will work, argues on the phone with husband number two and answers a dozen calls from co-workers and editors. Actress Randolph gives a fine portrait of a pretty much forgotten historical figure.
The play has its weaknesses, though. We are never told why Thompson became a journalist, such an odd career for a woman in that era. We do not learn why she stuck at it, despite the troubles her busy career brought to her marriages. We also do not learn what happened to her after 1943. The beginning and end of the play are wonderful, but it sags in the middle when the story is muddled with lengthy personal tales that do not have enough energy. Director Nicole Ricciardi, who does a superb job working with Randolph in the play, needs to tighten up that area.
Despite that, Cassandra Speaks is a superb history play and a chance for audiences to learn much about journalism and World War II.
PRODUCTION: Produced by Shakespeare & Co. Sets: Patrick Brennan, Costumes: Kara D. Midlam, Lighting: Stephen Ball, Sound: Michael Pfeiffer, the play is directed by Nicole Ricciardi.
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