December 1, 2010
Last night I attended an event at the Paley Center for Media in New York City that promised to showcase a true television rarity. As a tie-in to Stephen Battaglio’s new biography of David Susskind, the Paley Center planned to screen an unaired television pilot that Susskind produced in 1963: a videotaped adaptation of Edward Albee’s one-act play The American Dream, which was intended to launch a new anthology series called Command Performance. Susskind hoped to adapt works by modern and avant-garde authors (Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter) for the new show. It would have been an important follow-up to the classics that Susskind staged on Play of the Week and The DuPont Show of the Month, a way of bringing that commitment to televised literature up to date at a moment when television needed as many infusions of contemporary ideas as it could get.
But, as all of the awkward tenses in the preceding paragraph suggest, very few of those things came off as planned. Including, lamentably, last night’s screening of “The American Dream.”
After (and only after) members of the audience had bought their tickets and taken their seats, Paley Center curator David Bushman sheepishly announced that his organization had acceded to a last-minute “request” from Albee’s representatives that the Susskind program not be shown. (The not-terribly-inspired substitution was the famous East Side / West Side episode, “Who Do You Kill?”)
The reason no one ever saw “The American Dream” back in 1963, and presumably the reason Albee still objects to it, stemmed from a colossal error of judgment and ego on Susskind’s part. As a way of courting Albee (and, if the series sold, other important playwrights), Susskind offered him a Dramatists Guild contract for the show. Among other things, that guaranteed Albee a right rarely afforded to television writers: full approval of any changes to his script. During production, Susskind made some trims to Albee’s play (“several pages of dialogue and a few phrases,” according to Battaglio) which the author declined to approve. Susskind shot the modified script anyway. Albee watched the finished tape and refused to sign his contract. Susskind’s show was now worthless, since he did not have the rights to the underlying material. How could an experienced producer make such a rookie mistake? According to associate producer Jack Willis (a guest at last night’s non-screening, which was redeemed by a lively discussion about Susskind that also featured Battaglio, actress Rosemary Harris, writer Heywood Gould, producer George C. White, and Susskind’s son Andrew), Susskind was such a consummate schmoozer that he presumed he could simply charm Albee into complying. But Susskind was wrong. “The American Dream” was shelved and Command Performance died an embarrassing death.
When I read this account of “The American Dream,” I felt that Albee emerged as the hero of the story. Given an authority all too infrequently granted to writers, Albee exercised it in defense of his words. He refused to compromise in the face of pressure from commercial interests. The fact that the elisions made to his play may have been rather minor – a few years later, Albee expressed public approval for Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, even though it too made some cuts to shorten Albee’s play – only strengthens my admiration for Albee’s stubbornness. My work as an oral historian, with its focus on oral histories with writers and directors, has turned me into a near-absolutist in the defense of artists’ rights. Say what you will about Ayn Rand, but I’m on board with Howard Roark when he blows up those corrupted buildings.
However: 2010 is not 1963. Susskind, when he cut Albee’s text, did so for commercial reasons, and he hoped to profit financially from “The American Dream.” At the time, Albee’s play was relatively new. His dismay at the idea of a large television audience being exposed to the work in an altered form was understandable. But the Paley Center screening would have been in a historical context, not a commercial one. The audience, unlike the television viewers of 1963, would have been made aware that Albee’s play had been altered without his approval. Those alterations would have been fodder for a discussion among experts. The issue of authors’ rights, in general and in the case of “The American Dream,” would have received worthwhile public scrutiny.
And after forty-seven years, “The American Dream” is not the same artifact it once was. Then, it was a new, and arguably compromised, production of a work by a fashionable young writer. Now, it is a rare recording of an early play by a legend of the American theater. Botched or not, it has tremendous historical value. It’s also a collaborative effort. Albee, in suppressing it, buries not only his own work but the work of some gifted performers – Ruth Gordon, Celeste Holm, Sudie Bond, Ernest Truex, and George Maharis – and a talented director, David Pressman. (All of whom Albee approved back in 1963, per the terms of that same Dramatists Guild contract.) For Pressman, who is still alive at 97, “The American Dream” represented a comeback after ten years on the blacklist. I cringe at having to point out the irony that, decades later, this work that Pressman finally did get to direct cannot be shown publicly, for reasons that are altogether different but no less objectionable.
It’s very difficult for an artist not to hold the high ground in an ethical dispute, but in my view, Mr. Albee has managed to cede it in this instance. It’s an oversimplification, of course, but I’m willing to frame Albee’s 1963 showdown with Susskind as Art vs. Capitalism. Last night, it was Art vs. History. That’s a much tougher battle to take sides on, but here the latter trumps the former. It’s time for Mr. Albee to consider the bigger picture. And the Paley Center, which is an institution charged with preserving history, should have stood up to Albee and insisted on screening “The American Dream” – at its own legal peril, if necessary.
Last night, someone told me that “The American Dream” resides in the center’s permanent collection, which can be viewed by visitors in New York in Los Angeles. I can’t find it in their online catalog, but I hope that’s true. I’d sure like to see it someday.