A Life in Inches
By Mark Peikert
Photograph by Andrew Eccles
Repression, the 1950s -- they’re so hot right now. The last few years have seen an influx of productions with closeted homosexual characters of that era, from Salvatore on Mad Men to director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s J. Edgar. This month, Tony Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright David Auburn joins the fray with The Columnist, his political drama about the real-life gay Washington power broker, Joseph Alsop.
A relative of the Roosevelts, Alsop parlayed his family connections into a decades-long career as a syndicated political columnist whose impeccable Georgetown home played host to fellow politicos -- when Alsop and his wife weren’t having dinner with John F. and Jackie Kennedy.
Though the Alsops dined at the White House, Joseph is mostly forgotten now, despite his ardent anti-Communist stance, which led to one of the oddest stories to come out of the Cold War. While in Soviet Russia, Alsop had a tryst with a young man who turned out to be a KGB agent. Threatened with being outed, he went straight to the U.S. embassy and confessed everything—and then began a waiting game. “In the play, I have him say, ‘If I’m going to be destroyed, I’d rather be destroyed by my country than by yours,’ ” says Auburn. But in the end, it wasn’t Alsop’s sexuality that ruined his career; it was his politics.
Best known for Proof, Auburn doesn’t want to give the impression that he has written a steamy play about a closeted man leading a double life. Auburn is more fascinated by all of Alsop’s inner conflicts, including what turned a New Deal Democrat into one of the loudest and most vitriolic of pro-Vietnam cheerleaders. The Columnist focuses on what Auburn describes as Alsop’s most powerful years, the late 1950s to the late ’60s, from championing Kennedy to Vietnam.
“He became a kind of joke at the end of his career,” says Auburn, “a symbol of what was wrong with that kind of old Washington man.”
The character of Alsop requires an actor of charm and nuance, someone who can make him worthy of empathy. And Auburn is confident that he and director Daniel Sullivan have found that star in John Lithgow (pictured above).
“He has the forcefulness and the wit that I think Alsop had, but there’s a core of sympathy you have for Lithgow,” Auburn says of his star. “Because Alsop is this outsized and frequently abrasive figure, I really don’t want the play to be a hatchet job. I wanted an actor who would be in touch with the human part of the character.”
The most human aspect of Alsop is arguably illuminated in The Columnist’s first scene, which begins shortly after Alsop has had sex with the young Russian man. From then on, the threat of exposure hangs constantly over his head. But in a different era, the love that dared not speak its name was rarely dragged out into the public eye -- particularly when the names involved were politically powerful. “It seems like an immensely courageous act to me. When he was threatened with exposure of his homosexuality, he took that information to the people who could destroy him, rather than give in,” Auburn says. “He was willing to endure a lot, even the destruction of his own reputation, to preserve it. He’s so complicated, you can never get to the bottom of who he was. And this play is an attempt to do that.”