Our next offering, RED HERRING by Michael Hollinger, is unmistakably a flat-out comedic riot. It’s one of those scripts that makes you laugh just reading silently by yourself. We’ve got a terrific cast to deliver the fun, but also the heart. Great comedy derives its greatness from the truth underneath, from characters grappling deliberately with the dire circumstances and challenges in front of them, unaware that what they say and do might be hilarious to the onlooker. And, in retrospect, the circumstances swirling around 1952 America – when RED HERRING is set – can be seen as incredibly challenging, and to me, unendingly fascinating.
Probably because I started life in 1954, I’ve had a strong curiosity about what the world was like then, as well as what came before and the connections to what has transpired up to the present day. Most of us Baby Boomers are the product of parents who endured the Great Depression, served the country during the Second World War and emerged to benefit from economic conditions that provided unprecedented opportunity for security and advancement.
Images of the time and in our memories reflect accelerated consumerism, pent-up war savings and an unfulfilled demand for goods and services: houses, cars and appliances, innovative products suddenly deemed “essential” by their promoters. Television was exploding: a powerful new form of entertainment and national communication was emerging, perfect for advertising … and also for demagogues.
Joe McCarthy’s demagoguery over communism emerges in RED HERRING, mostly in the form of a couple of brief TV clips. They’re reminders of Tailgunner Joe’s extreme stance and reckless attacks on reputation. From our distant perspective, America’s anti-communist fervor of the 1950s is often noted with a knowing ‘tsk-tsk’ as hysteria and witch-hunting. However, we sell our history short if we ignore the actual communist threats that were prevalent in the world of post World War II, leading into the Fabulous Fifties.
During the globe’s second great conflagration, the United States and communist Soviet Union worked as allies to defeat the Axis Powers. The Soviets absorbed tremendous, punishing blows from the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. Millions of Russians – soldiers and civilians – were sacrificed in defense of their homeland as Hitler made his fatal decision to open up the Eastern Front. Finally done in by Russia’s brutal winter, it’s no wonder that the Soviets began their inevitable advance toward a brutal victory of their own, culminating at the Elbe River where they celebrated with American troops and then pushed on to Berlin.
Shortly before that historic meeting of two great armies, the ambitious and headstrong leader of the Free French, General Charles De Gaulle, had forced his way into Paris to prevent France’s communists from establishing a new French government upon liberation from the Nazis. De Gaulle achieved his goal and though the French communists remained present, they did not achieve real power.
The Allied occupation of Germany and in the eastern zone, Berlin, was a conflicted and troubled affair from the start. The Soviets had battered, raped and pillaged their way into Europe’s once-great capital city (already laid waste by Allied bombing) wreaking vengeance for their horrific losses at home. From the West came the dictum that the defeated, emaciated Germans should receive no aid, no comfort, no consideration of any kind above the barest of minimums. Germany’s industrial capacity was systematically destroyed; she would never again be allowed to arm for war.
But for the next three years, the Soviet occupation became more obstructionist, devious and aggressive toward Berliners and their Western occupiers alike. On June 22, 1948, diplomatic relations broke down completely and two days later, the Soviets blocked all traffic and supplies, especially food and fuel, coming into Berlin. It seemed their aim was to starve the people into accepting Soviet policies and government, enlisting their cooperation in driving the Americans, French and British out.
Arguably, this single act, perhaps more than any other, changed the world. While a few were adamant in wanting to call the Soviets’ bluff, President Truman and his advisors did not want to risk open warfare. The West had quickly de-militarized postwar, and by 1948 were outnumbered in the region by more than 5-to-1. Had open war broken out, there would not have been enough military opposition to prevent the Soviets from occupying the entire European continent. The Iron Curtain might very well have been drawn along the Atlantic coast.
But quietly, modestly, a miraculous effort to supply Berlin by air had begun. For nearly a year, despite logistical nightmares, political pessimism and ever- challenging weather, US air crews and the citizens of Berlin were locked into a life-and-death commitment to preserve both life and democracy. Berliners persevered with even less than before but together with the Airlift, they gave new purpose to the Western powers to withstand any further advance by the Soviets. The communist blockade – essentially trying to starve a city into submission – eventually turned into a public relations nightmare. After nearly a year, the battle had been won. It was arguably the first Cold War victory for the West, and perhaps its most important one.
Succeeding events added to the tension. To name a few: August, 1949, the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb. October, 1949, Mao’s Chinese communist revolution declared victory. June, 1950, North Korean communist troops (with Chinese and Soviet support) invaded South Korea. May, 1954, Ho Chi Minh’s communist Vietnamese forces prevailed over the French.
In the midst of unbridled prosperity in the Great 48, there must have been a non-peaceful, uneasy feeling about the world at large, and consequently, within our own borders. Reflecting then on Michael Hollinger’s crazy, Cold War comedy, RED HERRING, he seems to be tapping into this tension of the times, keeping his characters on edge: wary, suspicious and twitchy as they deal with their dire circumstances. This kind of energy serves the comedy well, as it also tends to keep the audience guessing, inquisitive and surprised. Hollinger has done a masterful job at arranging the surprises, and that usually means you’re in for a good time.
See you at the theatre.
Tickets for RED HERRING are now on sale at https://nextact.org/shows/red-herring/?tickets. This production is offered live at 255 S. Water Street as well as virtually. Performances run November 24 – December 19, 2021