BY MICHAEL HOLLINGER
THE PUBLIC THEATRE
A STUDY GUIDE BY
CHARLES A. DANA PROFESSOR OF THEATER
I. THE AUTHOR.
(The information in this section of the study guide is quoted verbatim from New Dramatists and Playscripts Inc.)
Michael Hollinger is the author of Red Herring, Incorruptible, An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf, and Tiny Island, all of which premiered at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company and have together enjoyed numerous productions around the United States, in New York City, and abroad. These plays are all published by Dramatists Play Service; Tiny Island also appears in New Playwrights: Best Plays of 1999, published by Smith and Kraus. Mr. Hollinger has written seven touring plays for young audiences, including Eureka! and Hot Air, both published by Playscripts, Inc.; he also wrote the 3D Laser Show Extreme Choices for New Jersey's Liberty Science Center. For PBS, he has written three short films and co-authored the feature-length Philadelphia Diary. Awards and honors include the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center's Fund for New American Plays, a Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play, the F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Theatre Artist, a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award, a commission from The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology Project, and fellowships from the Independence Foundation, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Mr. Hollinger is a resident playwright at New Dramatists and Assistant Professor of Theatre at Villanova University.Michael received a Bachelor of Music in viola performance from Oberlin Conservatory and a Master of Arts in theatre from Villanova University. Because of his background as a musician, Michael considers his plays compositions: characters are instruments, scenes are movements; tempo, rhythm, and dynamics are critical; and melody and counterpoint are always set in relief by rests--beats, pauses, the spaces in between.
II. THE SETTING: The play moves almost cinematically through a number of locations that are suggested with a few spare scenic details: Lynn’s parental home in Wisconsin; a ship in the South Pacific; a morgue, a fish pier, a boarding house, a confessional, and a government office—all in Boston. This free-wheeling, even centrifugal, treatment of space underlines love’s contrasting centripetal power, its miraculous ability to pull people together despite differences of personality, geography, and politics.
As important as the play’s physical locations is its temporal setting, its historical context. The action is set in 1952 during the presidential election campaign between Republican General Dwight Eisenhower, then president of Columbia University and formerly supreme allied commander in World War II, and Democrat Adlai Stevenson, governor of Illinois. This election was a watershed moment in American politics. After twenty years in the White House, the liberal party of Roosevelt and Truman would lose to the conservative party of Dewey and Taft. As Harry, the ardent supporter of Eisenhower, remarks, the New Dealers will finally be ejected from the Oval Office.
This moment of national transition formed the background for the stormy career of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Sen. McCarthy claimed that the Communist party had made deep inroads into the highest levels of American government during the Roosevelt administration, adducing as evidence the case of Alger Hiss, a State Department official accused of acting as a Soviet spy. Indeed, Hiss had been a participant in the Yalta Conference, the summit meeting near the end of World War II during which the United States agreed to allow the Soviets to occupy postwar Eastern Europe. This fact prompted dark speculations about treasonous conspiracies at the highest levels in Washington. Such speculations and the anxieties they produced seemed to lend credibility to Sen. McCarthy’s charges of widespread espionage and betrayal, charges he investigated at the head of his Senate subcommittee. McCarthy's charges and tactics were widely criticized, earning him eventual censure by the Senate. The play represents him as having a wife and grown daughter in 1952. As a matter of fact, he did not marry until 1953, and his only child was a daughter adopted in 1957, shortly before his death.
Meanwhile, the United States, having seen its monopoly on the atomic bomb usurped by the Soviets—with the assistance of American spies in Los Alamos and New York—was developing an even more devastating weapon: the hydrogen bomb. (Coincidentally, Edward Teller, the immigrant Hungarian physicist chiefly responsible for developing that bomb, died only a few weeks before the opening of this production of Red Herring.)
Like the fishermen in the Winlow Homer painting that is the play’s visual emblem, the characters in Red Herring, struggling amid this stormy sea of politics, strive to find a safe harbor.
III. THE PLOT. Red Herring follows the attempts of three couples to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of love and marriage.
First we meet Frank and Maggie, both in their mid-thirties. He is an FBI agent; she is a Boston police detective. Each is on a big case. Frank is trying to crack a ring of Soviet spies who are conveying nuclear secrets to Russia. Maggie is trying to capture a murderer who has been operating for years under a string of aliases, a prey she likens to her own personal Moby Dick. In fact, she fobs off the eager Frank by telling him, “I can’t get married while he’s still out there.”
Next we encounter Lynne and James. She is the seemingly prim daughter of the notorious Senator McCarthy; he is a young scientist who is working on the H-Bomb. As it turns out, their religious differences—she is a Catholic, he a Jewish atheist—are as nothing compared to the political gulf that separates them. A dedicated peacenik, he feels the only way to prevent nuclear warfare is to make sure both super powers are equally armed, thus preventing one from attacking the other. He has therefore become a link in a chain of spies conveying nuclear secrets to the Soviets. So convinced is he of the need to provide the Russians with the H-Bomb that he asks Lynn to take his place on a secret mission. While he is in the South Pacific observing a nuclear explosion, she is to hand over microfilm to his Soviet contact on the Boston fish pier. Smitten by love, Lynne agrees to betray her family's principles and join the spy ring.
Meanwhile, Frank and Maggie are investigating a body that has mysteriously appeared in the waters off the Boston Fish Pier. The corpse is identified by Mrs. Kravitz (Florence, to her friends) as that of a Russian fisherman, Andrei Borchevsky, a tenant at her boarding house. Frank believes Borchevsky to be one of the links in the spy ring--the man who actually delivers the microfilm to Russian ships at sea. As it turns out, however, the body is that of Mrs. Kravitz's husband, Nathan, a nasty man whom she has murdered so as to be free to escape to Cuba with her lover, the real Andrei. We further learn that Andrei is indeed the last link in the chain of spies that begins in New Mexico, and that Nathan is himself an intermediate contact. Moreover, Andrei is being compelled to act as a spy by the Soviets, who are holding his wife, Olga, hostage. Though he loves Florence now, he feels morally bound to preserve her life by obeying his Soviet masters, which makes it impossible for him to run off with Mrs. Kravitz
Amid this welter of confusion and deception, the followings events occur: Frank, while trying to obtain a marriage license, discovers that Maggie already has a husband; dashed, he drops off the wagon and goes on a drunken binge, in the course of which he is mistaken by Lynn for the Soviet contact to whom she is supposed to deliver the microfilm; Maggie and Andrei meet in a bar; Maggie discovers that the corpse on the pier is not Andrei, but rather her husband, who himself is the many-named killer she has long been pursuing; James experiences a moral epiphany--and goes temporarily blind--while observing a nuclear explosion.
In the end, Andrei learns that Olga is no longer being held captive, James decides to renounce spying, Frank agrees to look the other way despite having cracked and captured the espionage ring, and the three couples reconcile their differences, marry in a spontaneous Quaker rite, and face the future together, like the fishermen in Winslow Homer's boat.
IV. CHARACTERS. Red Herring is a farce, and like all farces it is peopled by characters who are driven to distraction by their desires. Mrs. Kravitz loves Andrei so desperately, she kills her husband; Andrei is so devoted to his wife's safety that he constantly risks life and limb; James wants peace so much he betrays his country--and so on, through all the dramatis personae.
But that is not to say there are no significant distinctions among these characters. Through strongly driven, they are variously driven. Among the variables is the difference in the nature of their various motives and their justifications for action. Some characters are marked by what we may call "ethical" imperatives; some by considerations of expediency, between those characters who are propelled by a sense of right and wrong, and those who act out of purely self-interested motives.
James, the peacenik idealist, is a character driven by ethical considerations. He commits espionage, he believes, for a "higher good." Here is his reasoning: "Down there in the desert, we're building a bomb. . . . so powerful no nation in the world should keep it to themselves. . . . [I]f only one man has a gun then everyone else is in danger. But if two men each have a gun . . . we all stay safe." His logic may be unsound, but his moral convictions are clear and forceful. Indeed, given his willingness to risk his own happiness to pursue them, he almost has the stature of a tragic character. Even when he flip-flops under the pressure of erotic appetites that match his ideals in strength and urgency, he does so with moral conviction, as we see in the blinding revelation he announces at the end: "fusion is stronger than fission. . . . all that matters is life--you, me, and our love, forever!"
At the other extreme is Mrs. Kravitz, who makes no bones about her desire for immediate gratification, consequences be damned. When Andrei pleads his duty towards his wife, Olga, as a reason for cooling their affair, Mrs. K. is impatient with such high-mindedness, her instinctive response being, "Forget about Olga." In other words, forget about whatever is inconvenient, whatever stands in the way of our satisfaction.
The ethical and the expedient are more complexly mixed in the other four main characters. Lynn's erotic yearning for James--expressed in her dream about sex in a rowboat--is so powerful that it accompanies her into the confessional, popping up in her mind as she tries to inventory sins as insistently as a cookie on a computer. But this desire is so sublime as to amount to a kind of ideal state of absolute enthrallment.
The Russian sailor, Andrei, who will not abandon the wife he no longer loves, is clearly a character with an ethical consciousness. And yet he has also been conducting a clandestine, adulterous affair with the wife of his partner in espionage. This moral conflict also gives him a degree of insight into the problems of human relationships that seems deeper than anything the other characters achieve.
. . .marriage is a little dory. . . take my word, young bride-to-be . . . any good boat can take a little leak. . . BUT if you ignore this leak. . . and both say, 'Let other one bail,' you drown.
In effect, this becomes the "message" of the play.
Frank and Maggie are likewise pulled by conflicting ethical and expedient motivations. She feels duty-bound to capture the killer that she mistakenly married, but she also wants to satisfy her desires and marry Frank. She can't do the latter until the former is achieved. Frank wants to capture the Soviet spies--a matter of professional obligation--but in the end he agrees to allow them to escape to insure personal happiness for himself and Maggie.
V. THEMES. First, the title. Literally, a red herring is a smoked herring with a reddish tint. Not only was their color notable, but their smell was also powerful. This made them useful to hunters who wanted to divert their dogs from the trail. A piece of red herring, tossed in the opposite direction, would lead the dogs astray for the time being. This literal use gave rise to a figurative meaning for the phrase: a misleading piece of information that diverts attention from the primary goal or issue.
With its confused assignations, its mistaken identities, and its misunderstood relationships, the play is full of such diversionary "red herrings." Also, on a second level of figurative meaning, the "red" in "red herring" refers to the pervasive presence of communism, Soviet agents, and McCarthyite anxiety that pervades the play.
The many red herrings in Red Herring form a series of pitfalls along the road to true love, and in the manner of classic comedy the play tracks the triumph of its characters over all these barriers. The play's many obstacles fall into two broad categories: the personal and the political.
For example, Lynn and James face the familiar problem of religious difference. She is Roman Catholic while he is a secular Jew whose only god is physics. Lynn’s parents are the obstacle. If they knew about James’s beliefs, they would try to prevent the marriage. The solution is a classic piece of comic plotting: an absurd lie. Lynn decides to tell her mother that James is a Quaker. It’s not as bad as being Jewish, and it has the advantage of being the religion of the current Republican candidate for vice-president, Richard Nixon.
This couple also faces a political obstacle, which looms quite independently of the religious problem. James is spying for the communists, while Lynn is the daughter of Senator Joseph McCarthy, America’s fiercest anti-communist politician. No one doubts that Senator McCarthy would object to his daughter’s marrying a red, let alone assisting him in carrying out his treasonous operations. Thus this couple is doubly obstructed in its path to the altar, challenged by hurdles both personal and political.
For Andrei and Mrs. Kravits the problem is somewhat more intricate. Andrei resists love and marriage with Florence because he feels bound in conscience to his Russian wife, Olga. She has been taken prisoner by the Soviet authorities and is being used as a hostage to force Andrei to spy on America. Should he abandon espionage and run off with Mrs. Kravits to Cuba, Olga, he assumes, would perish. Thus, even though he no longer feels any deep attachment to his wife, he feels morally committed to her survival. In this situation, the personal and the political are inseparable.
Maggie and Frank present a third lane on the rocky road to love. What seems to be a purely personal impediment to their bliss—namely the fact that she is already married—turns out in the end to have its own political dimension. That husband, we learn, is a vital member of the Soviet spy ring that includes both James and Andrei.
The play, then, seems to delight in spinning variations on the comic theme of adversity overcome in the name of love. The image of this condition is the Winslow Homer painting that provides both a visual and thematic background for the action. Andrei sees this painting, The Herring Net, not as the image of two fishermen hauling in their catch, but rather as a husband and wife trying to keep the leaky boat of their marriage afloat. The leaks are the problems presented by the vortex of personal difficulties and the tempests of political conflict. What we must do if we are to keep from sinking—if, that is, we are to keep love alive—is to bail with all our strength, together. If we do that, then perhaps we can transform our storm-tossed dories into the play’s other boat—the one that rocks rhythmically in Lynn’s erotic, wave-tossed dream of perfect fulfillment.
VI. QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Why did the playwright call his play Red Herring? What are some of the implications of this title?
2. What is the difference between Russia and the Soviet Union?
3. James wants the Soviet Union to have the H-Bomb to help insure peace. Who ruled the Soviet Union in 1952?
4. What was life like there? How did it treat its neighbors in Eastern Europe?
5. What is the importance to the play of the Winslow Homer painting, "The Herring Net?"
6. Who was Winslow Homer? What are some of his other paintings?
7. In the dispute between Mrs. Kravitz and Andrei about Olga, whose side are you on? Why?
8. Do you agree with James's reasons for committing espionage? Why?
9. Why is Maggie so obsessed with finding the Mercury-dime murderer?
10. Do you agree with Andrei's interpretation of the Homer painting? Why?