The feud between the writers Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy began on public television, so it’s fitting that the play about their quarrel, “Hellman v McCarthy,” with the great Roberta Maxwell as a rude, cantankerous Hellman and Marcia Rodd as the caustically witty McCarthy, has just been broadcast on public television, as part of the new Theater Close-Up series.
As a guest of the Dick Cavett Show on PBS in 1980, Mary McCarthy said that Lillian Hellman was a dishonest writer. When Cavett asked her to elaborate, she replied: “I said once in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
Hellman happened to be watching the program and was incensed. She filed a lawsuit for millions of dollars, pursuing the case for the next four years. It ended only when she died.
This has been called (by “Hellman v. McCarthy” playwright Brian Richard Mori among others)”the greatest literary feud in modern American history,” which says more to me about literary feuds — and literati — than it does about this particular feud. In any case, it has already been the subject of a Broadway play, “Imaginary Friends,” with Cherry Jones as McCarthy and Swoozie Kurtz as Hellman, which marked Nora Ephron’s Broadway debut a dozen years ago, a weird interesting mess of a play with music that lasted little more than two months.
“Hellman v. McCarthy,” which ran Off-Broadway last Spring, is not weird nor a mess, and it would not be especially interesting either, except for the portrayal of Dick Cavett by…Dick Cavett. To have the former talk show host, now 77, play his 44-year-old TV-host self on stage as if on television in the Abingdon Square Theater production was intriguing enough. But to have that performance broadcast on television reached a level of Marshall McLuhan provocation. Here was Dick Cavett delivering a monologue of 30-year-old jokes in a fake TV studio but to a real TV audience.
During the live run, Cavett would take questions from the audience in a kind of informal talk-back, something that could not happen last night on the tube.
Something else didn’t happen – we learned very little about the work of these writers. As good as the actresses were on “Hellman v McCarthy,” they were not of course the real thing. One can argue that any show that treats these two brave writers primarily as colorful celebrities (i.e. difficult old women) cannot be the real thing. What does this say about our culture – is this a subtle example of misogyny or ageism, or just another lesson in the price and primacy of fame? Luckily, there are still places to experience the work that made these writers celebrated – the public library for Mary McCarthy; the stage for Lillian Hellman’s plays: The Little Foxes was last revived on Broadway in 1997, and New York Theater Workshop presented it as recently as 2010, in an aggressively re-imagined version by director Ivo van Hove, who is very busy this season re-imagining Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, while leaving both Bergman and Kushner alone.