In keeping with the Mint Theater's mission to bring lost or neglected plays to new audiences, it is fitting that it should be the one company in New York to ever stage a successful production of Ernest Hemingway's only play "The Fifth Column." In a letter intended to be published in The New York Times in 1940, three years after the play was written, the great Nobel Prize-winning author said that "the making part of a play comes after the writing of it. Other people do all the great detail that you just indicate when you write." Ultimately, he continued, "I had all the fun."
Well, maybe he had fun, but "Fifth Column" is anything but a laugh riot. It is a sober, angry, and bitter look at the lives of journalists and anti-Franco operatives living in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. As you might expect, there is sex, drinking, bombing, murder, corruption, exploitation, and lots of secret late night meetings, as well as a bit of moralizing and lecturing on the evils of war.
This original member of the Lost Generation -- so dubbed by Gertrude Stein -- was deeply disillusioned at the aimlessness and moral decay he saw after World War I, and his response, along fellow writers, was to turn his back on America and head for what was then the cultural capital of the world, Paris.
From Paris, in 1937, Hemingway traveled to Spain to report on the Civil War, sending dispatches back to the North American Newspaper Alliance. That this war had a profound effect on the writer is evident in "Fifth Column," and the "Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War" he wrote at the same time, but it wasn't until 1940, when he wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls," that he moved on.
Hemingway gives no reason why he chose the play form to express his thoughts, but one might assume that he needed a more creative outlet than newspaper articles, and in this case, the play was the thing.
"Fifth Column" is a semi-autobiographical drama about journalists Philip Rawlings and his mistress Dorothy Bridges, who were ensconced in the Hotel Florida as the city of Madrid was being shelled by the informally named Fifth Column. Franco had four military columns advancing on the city, and a group of secret Fascist sympathizers within Madrid were using terrorist tactics to bring down the government and make way for Franco.
Philip's entanglement with the underground forces that attempted to thwart Franco's impending victory is the fictionalized portion of the drama. In pure Hemingway adventure pattern, the action that unfolds gives us that sense of urgency, but stops short of allowing us real emotional connections to the characters. Phillip is misguided at best, not quite sure what his role is. Anti-Fascist, of course, yet the offered solutions of Comrades and Communism were just as unsettling for him.
Dorothy's inability and unwillingness to see the larger picture, makes her a caricature of a "woman in wartime" whose main concern is the fox fur she bought on the black market. Other political cartoon figures include the Hotel Manager, whose accent is colorful if undecipherable, and Anita, Philip's Spanish chiquita who conveniently disappears into the bathroom to take a bath every time she's asked to leave the room.
Comrade Max, played by Ronald Guttman, the cigar-smoking, work-boot-clad reformer spurs Philip into action following an unsettling botched mission. But the shallow Philip we've seen so far could not possibly aid the Cause, and the title Comrade does not come easily out of his mouth.
While writing about the war might have been "fun," he's not funny enough for the play to be considered satirical. And the characters are too one-dimensional, despite good acting performances from Kelly AuCoin as Philip, and Heidi Armbruster as Dorothy, to have any lingering effect on the audience. That moment in time has been long forgotten, and the play, in spite of Hemingway's pedigree, is also forgettable. See it only because it's Hemingway.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus