In the early 1930s, as a roving correspondent for Fortune magazine, Archibald MacLeish had an unrivalled platform to comment on the collapse of the American economic system. He had chronicled the squalor of the Hoovervilles, witnessed farmers spilling milk they couldn't sell on the highways, hungry coal miners striking for a living wage. He had more than once encountered former classmates from Yale selling apples and pencils on the sidewalk near Grand Central Station. • He laid the blame for this catastrophe squarely at the feet of the businessmen and politicians whose greed and failure of imagination lead to "one of the most dreadful, contemptible, horrible mismanagements of the society I'd ever heard anything about," he once said.
But MacLeish was foremost a poet and one who, as he said, "keeps up a running quarrel with his time." At different times he argued against the fascists in Spain and for U.S. intervention in World War II. He was the son of a wealthy Chicago merchant and for many years depended on dividend income to sustain his writing career. Politically, he described himself as "way over left" and he counted Communists among his friends, though never joined the party.
But one of his strengths as a writer and a thinker was his lack of ideology; other artists demeaned work as too topical, but he wanted his poetry to have relevance to Americans, and he took pains to use a language that made it accessible to them. In mid 1934 MacLeish was gripped by one of his periodic urges to transcend fact-based reportage and address some larger themes. So he asked his boss at Fortune, Henry Luce, for a six-month leave.
To write a play. In verse.
He titled it Panic, and he intended it as a critique of capitalism, but also of Marxism, whose adherents smugly claimed the depression was proof of capitalism's inevitable failure. MacLeish loathed this notion of predestination, so he fashioned a protagonist named McGafferty, the country's leading industrialist, a man who has the power to head off a bank run, but who succumbs in the end to the prophecy of his own doom.
MacLeish's Panic was most definitely a play of ideas, rather than character development, but because those ideas belonged to Archibald MacLeish -— winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1933, veteran of World War I, Harvard-trained lawyer, friend of Hemingway and Dos Passos — Panic found a number of key people willing to bring it to the Broadway stage.
The most prominent of those people was John Houseman (later of Paper Chase fame) who had just started the Phoenix Theater group. Houseman brought in Jimmy Light, a hard-drinking director with a number of Eugene O'Neill's plays under his belt. His boldest choice was a 19-year-old Orson Welles to play the lead. At first MacLeish bridled that a teenager had been cast as a 50-year-old tycoon, but then he heard Welles speak. "He was a fabulous creature, an extraordinary man," MacLeish would say later. Martha Graham, the great dancer, choreographed the bankers and unemployed who formed the play's Greek choruses.
The play ran for three nights.
It would have closed sooner if the local Communist party had not bought out the Imperial theater for 50 cents a seat in exchange for a postperformance chance to grill MacLeish, whom they found to be insufficiently enlightened on the subject of dialectical materialism.
MacLeish would go on to write better dramas for radio and the stage. Most notable was his verse play J.B., a retelling of the Book of Job in light of the death of so many innocent people in World War II. (It, too, featured a millionaire banker in the lead.) In 1959, it won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award.
But Panic all but disappeared from view, done in, MacLeish later acknowledged, by its datedness. Any intellectual charm Marxism may have had during the worst of the Depression evaporated under the evidence of communist tyranny; capitalism may have had its problems but Marxism wasn't even worth serious debate.
MacLeish died in 1982 — a quarter century before the Great Recession. Read the first lines of Panic standing in a bookstore in Florida, as I did several years ago, and suddenly the play doesn't seem so dated anymore.
Factories closing doors…
Billions in balances frozen …
Doors closing … foreclosed …
C. David Frankel, the artistic director of the Tampa Repertory Theatre, knew and admired MacLeish's work, but he didn't know Panic. He heard the same echoes I had when I showed it to him. He suggested a staged reading of the play in the runup to the Republican National Convention.
"At a time when the economic system of the United States still struggles, some of the questions the play raises continue to resonate," he wrote in a release announcing the production Tuesday at Studio@620.
It is always risky to project someone's opinions onto events long after his death, but MacLeish was such a prolific writer and he left so many clues — in his poetry, in his public speech, in his political causes and government work — that it feels safe to imagine he would have taken a dim view of the unregulated excesses responsible for today's mess just as he had during the Depression. And the absurd income inequity today would have looked dispiritingly familiar, too.
He was always an advocate of the bolder, forward-looking solution, which is why he favored Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. He scorned the politicians of the 1920s and 1930s who seemed to think that life would soon return to its precrash comforts. "A sadder, stubborner, more timorous, whistle-in-the-graveyard lot never before lived on earth," he said.
It is harder to know what he would have made of the tea party, or the Occupy movement for that matter. He might well have shared their devotion to individual liberty, and their revolutionary spirit. But I suspect he would have found the tea party's implacable distrust of government simplistic and self-destructive. And as disparaging as he was of the greed of Wall Street bankers, he would have groaned at the inability of the Occupiers to articulate solutions rather than mere slogans. "From hatred there springs no life," he said.
That might be MacLeish's most enduring legacy — his sensible, sometimes even heroic optimism in America and Americans. Distilled to its philosophical essence, that is the meaning of Panic. As MacLeish's biographer, Scott Donaldson put it: "The country and its economic system were not fated to fail at all, and that one man strong enough to believe in himself more than historical determinism could turn the tide."
Bill Duryea is the Times' enterprise editor.