Hellman v. McCarthy

by Nita Congress · March 26, 2014

New Play: Nita Congress looks at Hellman v. McCarthy playing at the Abingdon Theatre

In a TV interview with Dick Cavett aired January 25, 1980, critic, novelist, and renowned lady of letters Mary McCarthy said of playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” This not only stoked a vicious feud and instigated a $2.25 million lawsuit, but also sparked at least three plays (including the present Hellman v. McCarthy and a 2002 musical play by Nora Ephron [discussed here in a contemporaneous issue of Slate by Dick Cavett himself]), and a 2011 Yale University Press tome by academic Alan Ackerman (Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America [discussed here in the New Republic]).

Listed as the fifth of seven great literary feuds by the Huffington Post (and the fifth of ten by Flavorwire), the comment and its aftermath have been a source of continuing fascination (at least in some circles) for almost thirty-five years. It has been analyzed from almost every conceivable angle—the differences between the combatants (critic/playwright, Stalinist/Trotskyite), the similarities between them (unhappy childhoods, famous male mentors/lovers), the differences between their time, when the Cold War was still a hot issue, and ours, when this seems just a PBS-launched bit of reality show snarkiness. So what can this new rendering offer?

For one thing, it offers one of the actual participants, live and onstage. Dick Cavett plays himself, shifting (albeit not as neatly as could be hoped; a change of jacket, perhaps, to indicate the change in time would have been a helpful device) between past and present to tell us the story first hand as it happened. It also features some solid acting by Roberta Maxwell as Hellman and Marcia Rodd as McCarthy, giving us strong, broad outlines of these two powerful women. The play by Brian Richard Mori is alternately funny and bitchy. The direction, sets, and lighting by Jan Buttram, Andrew Lu, and Travis McHale, respectively, are clean, crisp, stark, and bright. And there is a dramatically satisfying (if fictitious) confrontation between the two, during which they berate, deride, beseech, and disparage each other—and resolve nothing.

Lillian Hellman died four years after initiating the lawsuit; the case was dismissed; five years later, Mary McCarthy also died. Dick Cavett, in a talkback after the show, observed that while the suit seemed to keep the vindictive Hellman alive and kicking, it drained McCarthy financially and emotionally.

The highlight of the piece is the opportunity to see Dick Cavett as he recreates an interesting moment in time for us. And then, best of all, he comes out after the show to take a couple of questions from the audience. He is charming, pleasant, warm, and disarmingly friendly and funny, and it is real pleasure to be in his company.

I couldn’t help but contrast what a good time he and we were having with the misery the play’s two protagonists wreaked on each other and their beleaguered lawyers, and how ultimately they both died bitter, rancorous—lonely and stubborn to the end. Cavett, the remaining party in this literary ménage, seems to have thrived in the intervening years. And maybe that’s the lesson to take away from Hellman v. McCarthy. Maybe all the weighty literary and cultural analyses and explanations really don’t matter in the end. Maybe just letting things roll off your back charmingly and disarmingly is the key.





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