When Gail Burns and Roseann Cane reviewed the play about reporter Dorothy Thompson, they undertook not only a critical assessment, but did a little fact checking too. While enjoying Cassandra Speaks, a one-woman tour-de-force featuring Tod Randolph, they questioned some historic elements that were included, and some that were not.
It is likely that few people know more about the background of Thompson and Cassandra Speaks than Tod Randolph. She worked very closely with playwright Norman Plotkin on the development of the script, owns the rights to it, and sent us this commentary to clarify the concerns in their original review.
H. Tod Randolph
Let me begin by saying thank you for all the lovely things you said about the show… it’s incredibly gratifying to know you enjoyed it! Thank you very, very much.
And… you raise a couple of important points about the script. I don’t disagree that it is flawed and imperfect, but in defense of Norman (who passed away in 2010), I just want to underscore the difficulty of capturing an entire life, particularly such a complex, full, exceptional and extraordinary life as Dorothy Thompson’s, in one 80-minute evening of theatre. It is true that by the time Dorothy met Maxim Kopf, she had been divorced from Sinclair Lewis for several years, and had indeed, finally, let go of him in her heart. And you are absolutely correct that she was head-over-heels for Max, and quite determined to marry him. But for the purposes of dramatic tension, and to enable one actress to tell both love stories in the space of an hour, Norman decided to set the play on the day of her third wedding, and to assign Dorothy the (completely fictional) indecision, regret, doubt, uncertainty and nostalgia for “Hal” which allow her to experience, and share with the audience, both relationships at the same time. Historically speaking, it’s an imperfect solution – but it does give the play a strong dramatic structure, which is harder than you might think for a one-person piece. Dorothy has to make a huge, life-altering decision, and the audience gets to witness that process.
You also said, “I suspect that Plotkin used the device of Thompson’s wedding day to substantiate a theory that what drove Thompson was a deep-seated need for rescuing and caretaking. I don’t buy it. I think it minimizes and degrades her magnificent lifelong fight against injustice.”
Thompson was a profoundly complex human being, and I would say that, looking at her personal and professional lives, she embodied both “a deep-seated need for rescuing and caretaking,” and the “magnificent lifelong fight against injustice.” I don’t myself think there is any contradiction between the two, and I don’t agree that the one minimizes the other – on the contrary, I see them as complementary – and if there is any contradiction between these two driving psychological forces, well, we human beings are not always known for our consistency! Her desire to save Sinclair Lewis from himself was one of her primary reasons for marrying him. She acknowledged this herself any number of times. No one could argue that throughout her life, she fought like a lioness to try to make a better world – what was that impulse in her, if not caretaking on a global scale? She felt it to be her sacred responsibility.
And she was histrionic. One of my favorite quotations from the Peter Kurth biography came from Jack Alexander, who said she was “incapable of doing the simplest acts without infusing drama into them in some way… she clips her nails with indignation.” (American Cassandra, p. 260) So even if, in the play, her over-the-top panic about the impending nuptials is fictional – which it is – Norman’s intent was to reveal a documented aspect of her character. She possessed deep insecurities, as well as great confidence – the one manifested for the most part in her private life, the other in her public life – again, a complex, fascinating, large human being, containing multitudes.
One more thought, which is that I too am sorry there couldn’t be more in the play about her son and her step-son, both of whom were deeply important in her life. A playwright has to make hard choices when treating an historical character, and for the sake of clarity, brevity, and theatrical construction, the vast majority of possibilities have to be excluded from the tapestry – it’s just the nature of the art form. (Thompson’s relationship to FDR could make an entire play all by itself, just to give one example). But there is a moment, as she remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor being announced on the radio, when Dorothy weeps for “all those boys”… I like to think that her overwhelming grief at the death of Wells Lewis (who wasn’t killed until 1944, sixteen months after the play is set) is at least represented there, in some small way.
Thank you again for your wonderful review!
Cassandra Speaks runs from May 25 through September 2 in S&Co.’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre in Lenox. To view a complete schedule, receive a brochure, or inquire about discounts, please call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353 or visit www.shakespeare.org.