The technology of historical theater

Timeline Theatre Company’s staging of The Front Page (which runs through 12 June 2011) is an enjoyable, thoughtful comedy. But it also demonstrates the special value of this Chicago artistic enterprise.

The company loves to stage plays that delve deeply into specific times and places in history, or explore famous, infamous, or just interesting historical personages. Their production last summer of The Farnsworth Invention (by Academy award winner Aaron Sorkin) was a revelation to someone born into the “TV generation,” yet ignorant of its technological/historical context.

For the current production is re-create the historical milieu of Roaring 20s Chicago newsroom with an historian or a museum curator’s attention to authenticity. The props, costumes, audio and decor are faithful to history. And as with other Timeline productions, the show’s lobby is a high-quality museum exhibit that engages the theater-goer with huge amounts of relevant contextual information s/he can get before the show or during intermission. This is a theater company for the learner.

But in this case, Timeline’s producers have gone one step further toward historical accuracy:  they researched, found, and resurrected the oldest script possible for the show, which was received on Broadway in 1928 as a controversial, engaged piece of political theater. Tennessee Williams is quoted (in the show’s production materials) as having said that this play alone “de-corsetted” American theater with its foul-language, political corruption, racial politics, and un-savory journalists.   This is not your bowderlized Front Page, but the real deal.

For me the show was a far cry from the enjoyable, but by contrast tame productions I have seen on film, 1940’s “His Girl Friday,” and 1974’s Billy Wilder movie version.  Because of Timeline’s work, I was able to understand the racist, de-humanizing, and brutal job of journalists in 20s Chicago, who nonetheless resemble today’s “drive-by” electronic journalists. While the men in the news room used the dedicated telephone line as their communications technology, today’s journalist, with ubiquitous access to social media tools and Internet access, can also be careless of the truth, heedless of human damage, and, er, rather biased politically.

If you’re in Chicago before June 12, be sure to check it out!

ps. It is four days later, and I checked the version of the play being taught in our school’s Chicago Literature class. It is a Samuel French acting version, and claims to be from the 1928 production. Here’s the thing: it has all of the racial politics expunged from the movie versions, and in fact uses the N-word at each point the Timeline production uses “colored.”  

So I take back my unreserved praise and chide Timeline: come on, Director Nick Bowling–people could handle that truth, couldn’t they? And wouldn’t it add value to your production?

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