In his collegiate 20s, Ernest Joselovitz was an English major bitten by the bug of history. The delayed result is "Splendid Rebels," the most effective drama in the seven-year career of the New Playwrights' Theater of Washington.
Two years ago, Joselovitz was introduced to NPT through a play that was frankly personal memory, "Hagar's Children," which Joseph Papp subsequently spotlighted at his New York Public Theater, an invaluable showcase for works less than commercially sure-fire.
"Hagar's Children," based on the author's Canadian teaching experience, concerned retarded children striving to find the joys of Christmas in a small, charity-created home. A less likely subject for dramatic tensions is hard to imagine, but Joselovitzz wrote with such sensibilities in lines of character and simplicity that the memoir achieved an indelible beauty, as well as depicting those tensions of modest lives so difficult to state dramatically.
"Splendid Rebels" posed a completely opposite challenge: a study of Emma Goldman, the self-acclaimed "anarchist" of the late 19th century.
Surely, in all American history, there has rarely been a more irritating, scrappy, dislikable figure. Goldman, from her teens, fought in every cause -- from abysmal working conditions to international peace. She took up women's rights, in particular the right to decide against bearing children. Yet Margaret Sanger pointedly avoided Goldman's aid for many, many years. Exiled from her adopted American, Goldman returned to what she thought would be paradise, Soviet Russia. In a mere 18 months she came to despise the new heaven on earth and her scorn split her from her longtime comrades-in-anarchy.
Even her book on her Russian experiences suffered from the misunderstandings or intrigues fate constantly tossed in Goldman's way. Arranging for its American (and first) publication while in Europe, Goldman discovered what "My Two Years in Russia" had been retitled "my Disillusionment in Russia" with its final 12 chapters unprinted. There had been a shift in publishing houses, with the result that once again Goldman's message to the world had been garbled.
Personally, Goldman was hardly attractive, and her loud, irritating style was alien to the restrained retitudes of a WASP culture. For years she lived, unmarried, with an anarchist as angry as herself, Alexander Berkman. But "Sasha," as his circle called him, sought privacy as characteristically as Goldman aimed for attention; and if, from time to time, she embarked on passionate love affairs with men a generation or so younger than herself, Sasha stuck around to suffer in pained silence.
One must understand all this public and private record to grasp how well Joselovitz has coped with his task. A primary source is Goldman's autobiography, "Living My Life," a thousand pages which still throb with her passionate alliances and enmities, all recalled in such exactitude that one quite understands why she was such an irritant. When it appeared in 1931, she still had another nine quirky years ahead.
But, for all the heat, she spoke with damning clarity and truth -- dynamic characteristics Joselovitz has grasped. His play has architectural from in its exposition, courtroom climax and private resolutions; and he writes strikingly speakable dialouge, the sine quanon of solid playwriting.
Now 36, Joselovitz confesses that he's consiciously been working on dramatizing Goldman for 10 years:
"I met her in my history readings and began to get curious. Early on, I found Richard Drinnon's 1961 biography and, working at the University of San Francisco, I was lucky because the library there had the complete records of the government's case against her in the World War I conscription issue. Those records, as a 1936 book on the FBI revealed, became public before John Edgar Hoover had clamped down on his agency's official documents.
"The court records were astounding. I came across young John Edgar Hoover's persistence in deporting what he called 'enemy aliens.' I found Clarence Darrow a quite different character from the dramatization of him in 'Inherit the Wind.' I was intrigued with the efforts of the Labor Department's Louis Post to be scrupulously fair.
"I began to discover Emma's relationship with her mother, living up in Rochester, N.Y., and how her family at first was alienated by Emma's early causes. As emigrees, they had been trying to fit into their new country and here was Emma.
"I'll never know exactly why I took an acting course at UCLA, but it taught me a lot about playwriting. It taught me I couldn't begin to dramatize Emma's whole life, that I had to settle on one issue, a critical case.
"At that time the Vietnam protests were on and the conscription issue of World War I, which would lead to her deportation, seemed the logical episode for a play.
"The play's first form was in a public reading arranged by Edward Hastings of San Francisco's ACT [Actors' Conservatory Theater]. That taught me where we had to focus in.
"During 'Hagar's Children' here, I told Harry [Bagdasian, founder of NPT] about my Emma play and her arranged a reading last year for the new version. With Rovert Schulte as director, we evolved this script and now, once the run is over, we know several aspects we wish to stregthen. It's been a constant case of winnowing out, narrowing in.
"As apparently happened in their own relationship, I've only gradually learned the importance of Sasha to Emma. As his figure evolved, she somehow has become more human and it's this that takes the curse off what you consider her obvious, irritating qualities. Yes, I have had to make some elisions about time.
"Her nephew's character, a musician who enlists and is killed in World War I, is essentially true and that relationship illuminates Emma. So does her concern for Rose Spencer, whose motiavtions I'm still not convinced I've gotten into focus.
"No, it's not been easy at all to put Emma onto a stage but it's in such a theater as this that playwriting can be developed without the horrendous costs of full commercial production.
"New York won't ever lose its primacy in our theater but the regional development is now vital and very alive. I've worked in growth situations in both San Francisco and Washington. Play don't just happen. You can't throw documentation on a stage."
The affecting, illuminating drama of "Splendid Rebels" is reflected in the fact that it has sold-out houses at 1742 Church St. NW. The run has been extended through Dec. 31 and ultimately "Splendid Rebels" will find audiences far away from the old brick gym near Dupont Circle.