Former Talk Show Host Dick Cavett Revists Literary Feud in Brian Richard Mori’s Hellman v. McCarthy
y: Ellis Nassour
Many called it "the greatest literary feud in modern American history" even though, unlike Rocky Balbao and Apollo Creed, they never entered a ring. It was all verbal ballast, egged on by age and ebbing of influence, between prolific critic and author [the controversial The Group, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood], right wing political activist Mary McCarthy went ballistic against famed Jewish author, playwright, left wing political activist, and longtime paramour of author Dashielle Hammet Lillian Hellman [The Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour, Watch on the Rhine, The Lark, Toys in the Attic, and the short-lived 1957 musical adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide, with Leonard Bernstein, Richard Wilbur, John La Touche, and Dorothy Parker].
It’s the backdrop of playwright Brian Richard Mori’s "ripped from the TV screen" play Hellman v. McCarthy, described as " a roller coaster ride filled with comedy and pathos," at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex’s June Havoc Theatre [312 West 36th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues], through April 13, directed by Jan Buttram, Abingdon’s artistic director.
It all began, not so innocently, on The Dick Cavett Show on January 25, 1980 when McCarthy, then 67 [she died in 1989] went into a tirade about rival and her political opposite Hellman, then 75. Cavett, charming, known to play innocent and self-effacing, knew a good thing when he heard it and allowed McCarthy to rant that "every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’" That sparked Hellman’s ire and she sued McCarthy, Cavett, and PBS for libel in a $2.5-million suit, which lasted more than four years — until Hellman’s death in 1984, when McCarthy dropped it.
Cavett said recently, "Poor Mary had the horrible disappointment of seeing Lillian die before it could be resolved. As she said famously, ‘I didn’t want her dead. I wanted to see her lose in court.’"
The "feud" had actually been simmering from the late 30s over their ideological differences, particularly Hellman’s support for Stalin’s Popular Front [political coalitions in France, Spain, and Russia]. It’s been said of the trial that "the defamation suit brought significant scrutiny, and the decline of Hellman’s reputation, by forcing McCarthy and her supporters to prove Hellman had lied."
Hellman v. McCarthy also stars Drama Desk and Obie Award-winner Roberta Maxwell [Equus; Summer and Smoke, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, numerous classics] as Hellman and Tony-nominee Marcia Rodd [Shelter; I’m Not Rappaport] as McCarthy and features Peter Brouwer, Rowan Michael Meyer, and Jeff Woodman.
Tickets are $40. To purchase, call (866) 811-4111, or visit www.abingdontheatre.org, where you’ll also find the playing schedule.
[Trivia: the Hellman/McCarthy feud formed the basis of Nora Ephron’s play Imaginary Friends. McCarthy’s brother Kevin over seven decades, beginning in the "Golden Age" of live TV drama, became a respected and popular actor. Though never a leading man, he played Biff in the 1951 screen adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, opposite Frederic March; and starred in the cult classic The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the TV series Flamingo Road and The Colbys.]