Shelley Berman reads from and discusses his role in "The Value of Names"
BROADCAST: Apr. 4, 1983 | DURATION: 00:49:31
In the play, "The Value of Names," Shelley Berman plays Benny Silverman, a role which he says is him, an actor from the Hollywood black list. Berman said being in Chicago, acting the role and working with the cast has been THE best experience of his life and when the show closes, it will be the saddest day of his life. The director of the play, Sandy Shinner, said she knew of the Hollywood black list but didn't know about all the personal stories. There is an excerpt of Vic Navasky.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel There's a very exciting evening of theatre for a number of reasons at the Victory Gardens. It's a play called "The Value of Names" by a young Chicago playwright named Jeffrey Sweet. But the reason for the excitement and the exhilaration, one of the reasons, is Shelley Berman's performance as the lead character Benny Silverman. It's a play that dealt with a traumatic period in American history, the blacklisting time. Particularly this concerns theatre and movies, and Shelley Berman who was one of the most original of comedians and observers too, is a serious actor in this instance, something a number of us have known for some time. And he's there with his two colleagues, Byrne Piven and Jill Holden, directed by Miss Shinner. And in any event, "The Value of Names" has received enthusiastic reviews from our critics. The powerful--at Victory Gardens every night except Monday at 8:00 and then matinee on Sunday and two performances Saturday. In a moment then, Shelley Berman, my guest after this message. [pause in recording]
Shelley Berman I discovered this afternoon why I don't like buttermilk. [laughter] No. I'm going to get into that because first of all, I'm not the kind of a guy who forms a snap judgment about some white innocent fluid. And again, it seems to me that people who do like buttermilk love buttermilk beyond anything in existence. They have a thing over buttermilk which I won't go into detail about. It's a little pornographic. [laughter]
Studs Terkel Of course, this is the beginning of one of your celebrated routines. So thinking about you, Shelley, the stand-up comic in different cities of the world and different media and the serious actor. It's always serious actor you wanted to be from the Goodman Theatre days on.
Shelley Berman Well that's what I prepared myself for. That's how I started. With a good academic background in the theatre and an empirical knowledge of the theatre because I worked in stock, and then I studied it for a few years with Uta Hagen in New York.
Studs Terkel You know, Geraldine Page, who was a schoolmate of yours at Guttman, said you were one of the most exciting actors she'd worked with.
Shelley Berman She's absolutely right. [laughing] She's an old friend. Yes. And she of course--
Studs Terkel What attracted you to this play, "The Value of Names"? What attracted you to it?
Shelley Berman The beautiful writing, first. Not to mention the concept which is a historical concept and it's very, very much an American story.
Studs Terkel Let's be less abstract. This deals with a certain period in American history.
Shelley Berman Yes. It deals with the blacklisting period. However, we're talking about a time 30 years after that fact. That's when the play takes place. What attracted me was, of course, a beautiful role in a beautiful play, but I could identify with it to some degree since due to some mistakes I made in my own life, I found myself persona non grata. But not to the degree that I threw away everything.
Studs Terkel Shelley, this is interesting. This Benny Silverman, I'll ask you about this guy. The character you play, Benny Silverman, who meets the fellow who informed on him 30 years before, Leo. Was blacklisted, many actors and directors and writers were for political reasons. But you're implying that you, in a sense, suffered a blacklist for more personal reasons.
Shelley Berman Yes.
Studs Terkel Involving temperament, for one.
Shelley Berman Involving what was thought to be.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Shelley Berman And although I confess that I read something last Sunday in the "Tribune", an interview in which I believe that the "Tribune" had suddenly turned itself into the "National Enquirer". I believe Cheryl Lavin took a very easy course and wrote an exaggerated view.
Studs Terkel You see what you're doing Shelley, now this is you now. Everything you take, of course, is very personal. It's not just about you. But see, you're above that to me. You see, you named a writer of an article that you felt negative to you. That's not that important at your stage of life and career at this moment.
Shelley Berman Perhaps. Perhaps, but
Studs Terkel I'm offering you a sermon.
Shelley Berman Thank you very much. I just--I would just like to clear the air there. I mean, I'm not walking around with a tin cup and I would like to be able to make that statement. I just feel that it was a little bit exaggerated.
Studs Terkel Let me ask about this play. Who is Benny Silverman, the character you play? Who is he to you?
Shelley Berman He is me to me. I see him as an amalgam of actors. I see him as representative of a great number of very successful people who lost a hunk of their lives and may have returned. But still, returning to one's existence doesn't change the fact that there was a time of discontinuance. So I see him as many performers, not just as the comedian Benny Silverman, but as many actors.
Studs Terkel It's now 30 years later. It's somewhere in Los Angeles. His daughter, a talented young actress, of course, who knows very little of this time. She was born after this event. She's appearing in a play directed by a guy named Leo, an old friend of Benny who informed on Benny before the House Un-American Activities.
Shelley Berman Yes. Now--then comes the--well the inevitable confrontation between Leo and Benny. Leo, the man who did the talking and named Benny Silverman 30 years ago, and Benny.
Studs Terkel And Leo is going to come--now it involves a decision by the daughter, doesn't it? About--she's found out. She's found out now about the relationship of her father and Leo.
Shelley Berman Yes, she's learned that because she's interested in her father's life.
Studs Terkel You know, you don't mind if we do little--just pieces from it. You do Benny and now, of course, and this in a way helps this play come alive to the audience listening who I assume are going to see it because of your performance and that of your two colleagues.
Shelley Berman Well, Byrne and
Shelley Berman Are just--oh, they're such talent. And Jill Holden, incidentally, who plays my daughter, she's dying to meet you, Studs. She wants to meet you. She's
Studs Terkel On page 10 at the bottom, Benny says, "It happened before you were born". Just for do,
Shelley Berman He's talking to Norma now. She's asking questions. "It happened before you were born. It had nothing to do with you. Why should you be bothered by it?"
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "You expected me never to find out?"
Shelley Berman "What did it matter whether you found out or not?"
Studs Terkel [as Norma] "If it didn't matter, why keep it from me?"
Shelley Berman "You were a kid! Your mother and I figured between homework and puberty, you had enough to handle. What did you need to know about something that took place nearly six years before you were even conceived?"
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "It might have helped me understand you better."
Shelley Berman "Understand what?"
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "Why you are what you are, why you do what you do."
Shelley Berman "You expect to understand all that? Nothing like modest ambitions."
Studs Terkel And then she talks to the audience. This is her story, Norma. "I went to the library, took out a stack of books about the Committee and about McCarthyism. Palm in front of me and went through the indexes looking for his name and I read about my father."
Shelley Berman "Well, at least some good came of it. It was always murder to get you to crack a book."
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "Can I ask you something?"
Shelley Berman "No. What is it?"
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "There was another book I found on theatre in the 30s and there was a picture, a photo of the Labor Players."
Shelley Berman "The New Labor Players."
Studs Terkel And then--this goes into the scene. I find this very familiar territory, by the way. I was in a Labor Theatre Group. And there is you next to Leo Greshen. There's a picture she sees. She sees you--this is your old pal of 30 years ago. And he's the one who--
Shelley Berman Yeah, he gave the appearance of being my friend for a while, I say something like that.
Studs Terkel Of course, this play really deals with something else deeper, deals with the whole theme of forgiveness, doesn't it?
Shelley Berman I think it deals with whether forgiveness is legitimate. I think one will have to argue about the legitimacy or the requirement of forgiveness, although it's one of man's loftiest attributes. One wonders whether it is essential to forgive. I imagine that perhaps even Jesus might have had trouble with this one.
Studs Terkel You know, you are raising--see, it's funny, Shelley, who was born after. That is, you were too young. You were about 10, 15 years too young for this. But Shelley, you are very rough on--I get the implication, on some of those who informed, who did a terrible thing. But this is the big debate among those who were hurt and harmed by the singers. But Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, had a big dispute with Albert Maltz, another Hollywood--on this very point. Trumbo says all were victims one way or another. And Maltz says the hell with that. They did something, they hurt people. Irreparable
Shelley Berman I don't know if I'm that rough. I try to be objective about it, of course, the character of Benny. Well, I play with Benny plays, so I do what Benny does. My own view is to have seen it. I did see something. I had a man--I was working at the hungry i, where incidentally this record, the piece that you played, was recorded. And during that time there was a man who was a--well, a lackey. He straightened the dressing room out and he did the light scene work, the blackouts that we required. I only knew his first name, Alvah. I didn't know who he was. He had a mustache, he was balding, and he was just a man. As far as I'm concerned, he's just a bum who worked there and couldn't do any more with his life. And one time I started to scold him about having missed a cue. I asked him to toe the line in working with me, and he got angry. And he said, "You sit down, young man. I want to talk to you about something, about toeing the line." He said, "I'll bet you don't even know who I am or what I do." Well he began by telling me his name was Alvah Bessie. And then he told me about his life. And I realized who had been running errands for me. Well, I was so stunned by that. I was so shocked by it. I was so horrified.
Studs Terkel You better tell the audience who he was.
Shelley Berman Well, he was one of the Hollywood Ten. He was one of the Hollywood Ten. He was a man destroyed. He was a great, great movie writer, an influential man. He had done marvelous work in his life and now he was my servant for my performances. I was disgusted with myself, with everything around me. And I would find it very hard to forgive those who hurt him.
Studs Terkel Isn't this fascinating? Here were you, the celebrated comedian at hungry i, which is a very interesting place where Shelley worked and Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. And here's this guy just doing janitorial work, lights. And that's the guy, one of them hurt. So you already had a little hook here, an emotional hook.
Studs Terkel In accepting this role.
Shelley Berman Oh boy. Oh my. I'll never forget that. I won't forget that. Now that's--I'm not sure that that's as close as I've ever come to it. I did meet John Henry Faulk later. We appeared in a movie together. I know a little bit about his life too.
Studs Terkel We're talking about informing at a certain time, and Vic Navasky did a marvelous book called "Naming Names", which sort of--it's not simply polemic, it isn't, it's very moving. Some call it a moral detective story. Suppose we hear part of the conversation with Vic just to set it, as to informing and not informing during this period, just a piece of it. [To Vic] We have to come back again to those who informed, don't we? And why and the circumstances and the rationalizations and the shame some of them would. And there was a comment made by one of the writers who defied the committee about John Garfield who died before--when he said he didn't want to name. And how is it again? He comes from a tough street. How does that go again?
Victor Navasky He said about Garfield, he said, "You know, Garfield, his testimony wasn't so terrific." He said, "But he didn't do the one thing that he said--the one thing he would never do." He said, "Because in his mind, he comes from the street where he lives." He says, "On the street where he lives, there's one thing you never do. You're not a stool pigeon."
Studs Terkel But we have to question--you have something called on the subject of candor toward the end. Of course, the obvious question is if these guys felt they weren't unpatriotic and belonging to the Communist Party, why'd they come out and say "I am"?-- [To Shelley] Yeah, that became another question. But the point about listening to this, Shelley, the matter of informing, of course is--this is something we learned as kids on the street, don't we, about squealing or snitching.
Shelley Berman Well, we learned about squealing and snitching, but we also learned about survival. And here, now I begin to take the other side. These were men who had a choice to make between living or dying. They saw it as a very big problem and to those who told, they felt--they had probably felt or could rationalize that what they were doing wouldn't matter in the long run anyway. Those who would be hurt would be hurt anyway. They might have rationalized conceivably if the first one who told hadn't told, maybe the others wouldn't
Studs Terkel See that, by the way, is one of the big questions that always comes up. If the first one hadn't told--it was a matter of courage being contagious perhaps, just as cowardice may be contagious too.
Shelley Berman But they did tell and they thought the ones who did tell lived. The others died, and--for a while anyway. And of course, then there was a reversal in which there is today, I'd say, another kind of almost blacklist of those who did tell now finding themselves out of favor. They're not totally destroyed as were the others in that time. But
Studs Terkel I'm not sure we're there, quite frankly. I'm not sure we're that much out of favor or not.
Shelley Berman Really?
Studs Terkel No, I don't think so. That's one thing that's always--the big thing is in the play, Jeff Sweet, as Vic Navasky offers both sides, the human aspect of both something human involved or even on the cowardice itself.
Shelley Berman Well, Navasky is part of this, incidentally mentioned in this play and dealt with the Navasky book.
Studs Terkel There's a scene--of course we come to another generation that hasn't really been told about it or so vaguely. Shame, certainly on the part of those who informed and a sort of, I suppose double bitterness, on the part of those who were informed upon. But the girl, Norma, she--in this [unintelligible] there is a circumstance in this play "Value of Names". Will she or will she not appear in the play directed by the guy who squealed and ruined her father's career?
Shelley Berman Well at that point--that's Jill Holden who does a fantastic job incidentally. She--yeah, she won a deal with
Studs Terkel Yeah, could we? I'm 17, for the moment I'll do Norma.
Shelley Berman Page 17, we're reading now. I'm not acting, we're just reading.
Studs Terkel Reading. And Benny says--[pages turning] she wants to know. And Benny says, "I'll only say one thing." That's you, Benny, in the middle of the page.
Shelley Berman For the members of your audience who don't quite understand this, when you're acting the play it's a totally different thing than reading the lines. "I will only say one thing, and this is not to in any way influence your decision. If you were to stay with the play, I wouldn't be able to go to it."
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "You hate him that much?"
Shelley Berman "I used to go to see his stuff. And when it was good work, I'd be angry. And when it was bad or didn't work, I'd get some satisfaction. And then I thought, what am I doing to myself? I mean, this is stupid. I've got myself to the point where I'm happy about bad work and miserable about success, as I was letting the guy twist me into knots. Plus a percentage of my ticket money was going into his pockets so that I was paying for him to do this to me. So I stopped. I don't go to see his stuff. I don't go to see the stuff, some of the others. And you know something, the world doesn't end because I miss a play or a movie."
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "So there are people whose work you won't go to see?"
Shelley Berman "I think that's what I said."
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "Because of their political beliefs?"
Shelley Berman "Well because the way they express these
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "I guess you wouldn't work with them either."
Shelley Berman "No, I wouldn't."
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "When you were on "Rich But Happy"-- [To Shelley] Now this was a TV show I take it,
Shelley Berman Yes.
Studs Terkel And you were a pop--Benny was a popular comedian.
Shelley Berman Yes, this is afterwards,
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "When you were on "Rich But Happy", did the issue ever come up? Was there ever a time when the producer wanted to hire one of these guys that you wouldn't work with?"
Shelley Berman "No, they knew not to do that."
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "But they knew there were certain people you didn't want hired?"
Shelley Berman "Yes." Now, here's a cut here. This line is not in the play. There were sensitive
Studs Terkel You know what, there's something interesting here. You're the star of this TV sit--comedy. Now you have the capacity to blacklist someone!
Studs Terkel Ah, so now we come to
Shelley Berman She says, "Was there a list?"
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel You see, Ring Lardner Jr. was one of those informed upon and hurt for a long time. And Dalton Trumbo said, "We don't have a list." In other words, they would not be as hard on them as some of their colleagues who were hurt were,
Shelley Berman No, they don't have a
Studs Terkel list. That becomes a theme.
Shelley Berman But I would say that--Benny says to her that, "If I prefer not to work with people who kept me from working or help those who gave support to people who kept me from working, I think I'm within my rights. I suppose you don't have to have a written list to know who you want to work with or who you don't want to work with."
Studs Terkel Of course, it always comes back. It always comes back to the whole theme of--years have passed, the theme of forgiveness. That is, again and again, as to what--how right is righteousness even though one is justified, you see. This is one of those big imponderables,
Shelley Berman Well, of course it is. And one can easily see when you look at the script objectively, which I can't do now as an actor who has taken a position. But one can see that Leo has paid a terrible price for what he has done in order to--
Studs Terkel Leo is the friend who informed.
Shelley Berman That's correct. He's paid a great price. Not necessarily in terms of his career, but in terms of his soul. He needs to be redeemed. We don't know what Leo is dreaming. We don't know what he says to himself when he's alone. We don't know about the torture of his guilt. But one can assume that it's there. It can't be denied. He's a human being.
Studs Terkel It is there. Again coming back to Navasky's book "Naming Names" in which he visited a great deal of people, those who did and those who didn't. And those who were hurt and those who hurt. And he says "no doubt the great many of them were in a great deal of conflict with themselves".
Shelley Berman Oh sure, at the time and afterwards. They did continue to exist, but one wonders about whether the existence is worth it. There--we equate success with being at a certain level of finance and the opportunity to do one's job. We equate success with that. We think of you know being able to pick out the color of car you want rather than the price of car you want. But what--success seems to me happiness in one's life with one's doings. Well, if one has all of these things but not happiness with one's doings, those materials may not amount to a hill of beans. We may find a very unhappy man successful.
Studs Terkel You know, some would ask as you, Shelley Berman, and now talking, whether you're being autobiographical or not at this moment, you know.
Studs Terkel Conflict within yourself too.
Shelley Berman Well, we might. But I must tell you very frankly that my period here in Chicago doing this play is without question the happiest, most comfortable, most thrilling time I have ever had in all of my life ever, ever. It's the most wonderful experience I have ever, ever had! It's better than having anything. Than having the best seat in the restaurant, than signing autographs and I am signing them, than having the car of one's desire, than having a swimming pool and I have a swimming pool. But it's better than anything that has ever happened to me. Reading the reviews was on that morning, on that beautiful, beautiful Thursday morning, the acceptance and--which was phenomenal and good. And then going to work that night and getting on the stage with a confidence I don't think I've known since I was a schoolboy. With a pleasure of working with other actors, looking into their eyes, and having them respond to me and seeing the audience in love with us, laughing when we wanted them to laugh, crying when we wanted them to cry. That experience, there's nothing like this. And when May 8th comes, when we close here, I will regard it as one of the saddest days of my life.
Studs Terkel It's an exhilarating experience for another reason too, Shelley. It is your return, native's return.
Shelley Berman It's incredible. All things begin for me here. I wrote two notes, two thank you notes, one to Glenn [Unintelligible] and one to Dick Christiansen. And in both the notes, which were different notes, in both the notes I said, "Chicago. How often will I begin here?" Because it seems to me that I have to come back to Chicago to begin and that it's happen to me all my life.
Studs Terkel Of course we think of Shelley also beginning here way back with the theatre groups, the improvisational comedy groups, and then out there, out there! Out in the wilderness, you might say. And then back.
Shelley Berman It's kind of crazy. So I keep--
Studs Terkel As--this time as a serious actor.
Shelley Berman Oh yes. My goodness, yes.
Studs Terkel It's made, before we--as we take this break, of course we had to come back to those incredibly moving scenes and powerful ones with you, Benny Silverman and his old friend Leo who comes to the house for a moment. It's at the Victory Gardens, "The Value of Names" by Jeffrey Sweet with Shelley Berman as Benny Silverman and Byrne Piven as Leo and Jill Holden as his daughter, Benny's daughter, Norma, and Sandy Shinner--
Shelley Berman Shinner.
Studs Terkel Shinner?
Shelley Berman Excuse me for correcting you, it's Sandy Shinner.
Studs Terkel Sandy Shinner. She's
Shelley Berman She's a nice young lady and she's a good director.
Studs Terkel Well obviously from what I
Studs Terkel And so it's every night but Monday. Sundays at 3 and Saturdays 6 and 9, and we'll resume in a moment with Shelley Berman after this message. [pause in recording] So resuming, Shelley, this play, Benny. Now we come to the moment his old friend--because this deals with friendship.
Studs Terkel There's several things. You mentioned redemption, friendship. What is a friend? Does it finally end when someone informs on someone? Forgiveness, and you use the word and it's a keyword, redemption. The guy is looking, Leo, the other guy, is looking to be redeemed. And here's a guy who--will he or will not end, I say? And so Leo--he's coming in. What's the scene? He's coming in to see the girl, the daughter.
Shelley Berman Ostensibly coming to visit the daughter.
Studs Terkel Ostensibly, but will she be in his play or won't she? But his real reason--
Shelley Berman I think he wants to see Benny.
Studs Terkel Got to see his friend.
Shelley Berman Yeah.
Studs Terkel Now they were very close, weren't they?
Shelley Berman Yes. They love each other.
Studs Terkel And so on page 25. Page 25 he's come under Benny's house, Leo. And Benny--the part about "if you think you're going to prove something
Shelley Berman Oh yes. Well she's already said to him in the scene prior to my entrance--
Studs Terkel Norma.
Shelley Berman Benny's entrance. Norma has already said are you here--do you think you're going to prove--you not going to--are you here to prove something to my father? Which accounts for the line that I say. I say, "She's right, you know." Leo says, "Oh?" "If you think you're going to prove something to me."
Studs Terkel [As
Shelley Berman "You proved all you had to prove to me a long time ago."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "The book is closed."
Shelley Berman "That's the way it is."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "You know, I've got an Aunt Sheila, saved my cousin Ernie's baby shoes. A friend of mine, he saves matchbooks from restaurants. But you, you know, you collect old injuries."
Shelley Berman "It's a shame, isn't it?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "I think so."
Shelley Berman "It's a shame and a waste. Do you feel sorry for me?"
Shelley Berman "I'm touched by your concern." [pages turning]
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "I can tell."
Shelley Berman "No, really. It comes a little late, but what's 30 years in the grand scheme of things?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "I've always been concerned."
Shelley Berman "That's why you made that wonderful phone call to me, right?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Believe it or not, I was trying to help."
Shelley Berman "I weep for you, the Walrus said. I deeply sympathize. You know, I believe him. I believe his tears are genuine. I have my doubts about the Carpenter, but the Walrus is a feeling man, or as feeling as a walrus can be. You too, Leo."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Same old Benny."
Shelley Berman "Some people are born Walrus. Some people achieve Walrus. Some have Walrus thrust upon them. You can't blame the people who were born Walrus. After all, that's all they know, but the ones who choose it."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "It's so nice and simple for you, isn't it?"
Shelley Berman "Why don't I throw you off my patio?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Maybe you don't want to."
Shelley Berman "Why wouldn't I want to?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "It's been almost 30 years."
Shelley Berman "You say that as if there's a statute of limitations."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Are you going to throw me off your patio?"
Shelley Berman "I'm thinking about it. You want a beer?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Couldn't hurt." And then Norma says, "You want me to bring this bastard--" Oh,
Shelley Berman I say that to Norma. "You want to bring this bastard beer?"
Studs Terkel [As Norma] "What about you?"
Studs Terkel She leaves. [As Leo] "She looks like her mother."
Shelley Berman "We're divorced."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "I hurt him, I'm sorry."
Shelley Berman "She isn't. She's a very divorcee. She told me so
Studs Terkel And so they go into this now and that--this is a very moving scene, by the way.
Studs Terkel And I can see you and Byrne doing it. But again, we come to the question--I don't how the audience feels about this. It's a younger audience except for those who are my contemporaries. But they know about it, the great
Shelley Berman Oh, what a mix. What a mix of
Studs Terkel Yeah, I want to hear about audience reaction
Shelley Berman What a mix of audience!
Studs Terkel Yeah, a mix of audience.
Shelley Berman Oh my goodness! We have from teenagers through the elderly. It's an incredible mix. And Sarah told me, my wife Sarah who's been in town for a couple of days to see--and is watching the play, tells me that it seems in the comments she hears after the show that many, many people either know someone or have had it happen to themselves, seem to know a great deal about this issue. And for those who don't know about the issue, they are happy to learn about it.
Studs Terkel You know this is it, Shelley. You know, as Sandy, your director, Sandy Shinner, Sandy for a moment. Come join us on this very theme we're talking about.
Shelley Berman Not if she's going to give me notes.
Studs Terkel No, I'm not going to give you notes! And also, don't take away from the center of attraction, Shelley. [laughter]
Sandy Shinner Hardly,
Studs Terkel That's basically why he was disturbed.
Shelley Berman Star time here! Star time
Studs Terkel Now just that word! You're of a younger gener--a much younger. Now what led you--what did you know about this period?
Sandy Shinner I actually didn't know that much. Certainly I knew it existed and I knew that the hearings were taped and had been televised and things like that. But I--based on the play and Jeffrey's mentioning of the Navasky book, read that book and that became the cornerstone for my research into the period.
Studs Terkel Did you know much about it before this?
Sandy Shinner No. I didn't know. I didn't know the personal stories. I just knew it existed.
Studs Terkel Now here's the director. Then we come back to it, Shelley,
Shelley Berman But she did research, of course.
Studs Terkel Yeah. But I'm talking about how history [snapping] is cut off and forgotten. They didn't know of that period.
Shelley Berman They should know.
Shelley Berman Should know. It isn't that I don't think it's a part of the curriculum. It should be.
Studs Terkel Can we continue? Page 29, now we come to something of the past. The past is always coming back, a close friendship with the guys.
Shelley Berman Incidentally you're not a bad actor you doing great.
Studs Terkel Thank you. [laughter] On page 29--
Shelley Berman Where
Studs Terkel The big ones, the last--because Benny now had been blacklisted for a long time.
Shelley Berman But he got back
Studs Terkel And recently came back.
Shelley Berman Well, no he's been back
Shelley Berman He's been back for a while. Benny's life has come back to him.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Shelley Berman He's been on a television show for the last 15 years or something or 10 years, and he's done alright. He's good, Benny's come back.
Studs Terkel I suppose you could say in real life with someone like Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford.
Shelley Berman Yes. Coming back.
Studs Terkel These are two guys who are--
Shelley Berman Having returned.
Studs Terkel And came back. Well I ask--Leo. That's me asking Benny, on top of 29. [As Leo] "When's the last time you did a play?"
Shelley Berman "Half a dozen years ago."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Which?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Who'd you play?"
Shelley Berman "Pincus."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Remind me."
Shelley Berman "The little schmuck with the message from the governor."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Bet you were good."
Shelley Berman "Me? I was terrific."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Not a big part though."
Shelley Berman "It was one of those all-star casts, limited run. I did it for the fun of it."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Was it fun?"
Shelley Berman "Sure."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "So why not anything since?"
Shelley Berman "Wasn't that much fun."
Shelley Berman "Besides, nobody sent me a script I really wanted to do in a long time." This is a very telling line.
Shelley Berman After all he is now, although he has come back, he has missed his prime. So much of his prime was taken from him. Now he's an older man and he's not getting the parts that he should be getting. He's not being offered scripts. Oh yes, he's come back. He's got a nice house on the Pacific. But it's not--he's not getting plays. He's not getting the things he wants to do.
Studs Terkel And so something is here, unwritten but in it in a scene with Leo. Something that was stolen from him. A certain crime, a prime period of his life was stolen from him by Leo.
Shelley Berman Yes. Yes. So this is a very important line. He says, "Nobody sent me a script I really wanted to do in a long time. God, the things they call musicals these days! Most of them seem to be about some kid screaming how he wants to be a star. I've also been sent a lot of scripts about people dying. Think they're trying to tell me something? Sometimes you get an adventurous blend of the two about celebrities who die. From what I can tell, nobody's writing about anything anymore but show business and cancer, as if there were a difference."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Don't you think you're overstating the case?"
Shelley Berman "Not by much. No."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "You could always revive Capitalist Heaven."
Shelley Berman "At least that was about
Studs Terkel Now this is a throwback to the 30s of this Labor Theatre Group. [As Leo] "Yeah, it was about something. It was about 25 minutes."
Shelley Berman "You didn't think so at the time."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "At that time was at the time."
Shelley Berman "What a way with words you have!"
Studs Terkel You were talking about you--
Shelley Berman We were talking about you doing a play.
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "We were
Shelley Berman "What do I need to hold my ass down in some drafty theater 8 times a week? It's not like I need the money."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "That I noticed." Oh, he's living in a pretty nice house!
Studs Terkel And by the way, Benny has taken up painting, hasn't
Shelley Berman Yes, as a hobby. He's not very good at it, but he paints.
Studs Terkel I notice about that. And then--oh, now comes an interesting moment! [As Leo] "Is the inside as nice as the outside?"
Shelley Berman Oh, he's talking about the house,
Shelley Berman We're on the patio. We're outside.
Studs Terkel But he wants to get inside--
Shelley Berman That's right. And I say--
Studs Terkel He wants to get inside
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Is the inside as nice as the outside?"
Shelley Berman "You'll have to take my word." Which is very, very big moment.
Shelley Berman Big reaction from the audience there because they understand now that this man is not going to invite him in. That's it.
Studs Terkel While we're stopped, that audience. Now we come to something interesting, and Sandy too. Were they rooting for you to forgive him?
Shelley Berman You have a feeling that they're taking sides. But Leo's argument is so cogent and so reasonable. You can only find your audience somewhat dichotomized in their emotions. They're ambivalent sometimes. Sometimes there are people who will actually say to me when it looks like I might forgive him, there's a point there that you'll hear sometimes a whispered "no".
Studs Terkel Really?
Studs Terkel This is very fascinating about the audience itself because this is, as in Vic Navasky's book "Naming Names", the readership is split, as indeed some of the readers are themselves split within themselves too. That's why they don't like--
Shelley Berman There's some arguments afterwards between the people among themselves about whether the outcome is the way they would have wanted it to be. And I don't want to say the outcome.
Shelley Berman But there is some argument about that among the people, but nobody leaves this theater quietly. Nobody leaves the theater quietly. They walk out having felt something and they've got an argument inside of them. So
Studs Terkel So as--and of course, you're thinking as when you first accepted this role, you were also thinking about that incident at the hungry i. Meeting this man who
Studs Terkel Doing just janitor work, ordinary donkey work. That's right, you see. So you saw someone ruined, you say.
Shelley Berman I saw a--I couldn't believe, first of all, I must tell you I didn't believe him. I just didn't believe it. I thought oh, this man is making up this story. And which I think speaks about me, too. Or perhaps because I'm not an uninformed human being. Even then as a very young man getting started as a comedian, I was informed. But I resisted his truth, not because I didn't really believe him. I just did not want to believe him. I couldn't accept that I am a man of my time and could allow this to have happened to any human being.
Studs Terkel So what makes this play such good theatre, I mean theatre in the very good sense, in that it's provocative. Here's what happens to friendship too. What happens to friendship and the suspicions and the fears? What happens? And so on page 36 of the script [pages turning]--I'm really milking.
Shelley Berman I want the people to come and see
Studs Terkel No, they do. [laughter] But we have to
Shelley Berman I don't want them to know what happens. [laughing]
Studs Terkel You forget, Shelley, there's a ham in me
Shelley Berman Oh yes, I know.
Studs Terkel On, page 36--no [coughing] this is where they're recreating. It's the moment before, one of those terrible moments before. Leo--I guess the committee is visiting Hollywood and he's called up before the committee. Is he or isn't he going to--and does he--did he call up Benny?
Shelley Berman He called me. He made a phone call letting me know what he was going to do, that he was going to tell. And that phone call is referred to several times
Studs Terkel And his rationalization, that is mine. [As Leo] "I want you--I don't want to hurt you and maybe you could do what I'm doing possibly."
Shelley Berman Yes.
Studs Terkel Benny, "just one problem Leo".
Shelley Berman Oh that's when I say, "Just one problem, Leo. When you called me up that night, you didn't call me because you thought you were right. You called me because you felt lousy about what you were going to do."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Benny, I never said I felt good about
Shelley Berman "But you did it."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Only a fool fights the drop."
Shelley Berman "You want to translate?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "You've seen enough cowboy movies. If the bad guys have got the drop on you, it's crazy to try to draw on them. You're only going to get gunned down."
Shelley Berman "So now we're cowboys."
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Thank you for taking what I have to say seriously."
Shelley Berman "Seriously? Okay, Leo, not only did you not fight the drop. You helped the bad guys gun down some good guys. What would the kids on the balcony say if Roy Rogers shot Gabby Hayes?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Alright, it's a rotten analogy."
Shelley Berman "It's not only the analogy that's rotten. Leo, do you remember anything about how or why we put together the New Labor Players?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Oh, for Christ's sake!"
Shelley Berman "For Christ's sake, what?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "Benny. [laughing] You weren't seriously gonna hit me with the New Labor Players?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "All that agitprop, [unintelligible] the slogans, screaming our throats raw--"
Shelley Berman "Worthless?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "All we ever did was play to people that felt exactly like we did! Invigorating? Sure. Fun? Absolutely. And a great way to meet girls. But don't try to tell me we ever accomplished any great social good. I doubt we ever changed anybody's mind about anything."
Shelley Berman "That's how you measure it?"
Studs Terkel [As Leo] "You measure it different?"
Shelley Berman "Seems to me there's some value in getting a bunch of people together, letting them know because they laughed or maybe cheered at the same time with a bunch of other people, letting them know that they aren't alone. That there are other people who feel like they do."
Studs Terkel Now, you see, this is very personal [even for me?]. A certain moment in the 30s, you see, and it's very exhilarating. Both these guys were young. It was the Depression and the CIO was being organized. All this was going on when this theatre group called the New Labor Players, I call it the Chicago Repertory Group, and it was almost--it was a prototype of this, in a sense, as there was such [unintelligible]. And the young actors were terribly excited.
Shelley Berman Well they had the Group Theatre up in New York.
Studs Terkel Oh, the Group Theatre in New York, of course, was the daddy of them all. But then most people in that audience were already among the converted. But it was very exciting. And that's what they're talking about.
Shelley Berman Yes it is very import--whenever you see a rally today, usually the people who come to the rally are people who are already sympathetic to the cause, which I have always felt a bit, somewhat of a redundancy. But Benny explains that it is not so much the redundancy that we think that it is. "It's very important to keep these people thrilled with the cause. It will make them move. It will make them act. And it'll let them know that they're not alone in this movement."
Studs Terkel That I think, see, there's something exhilarating because there was a morale boosting moment. There was also the other thing we forget and that's a biological thing. They were young, you see. They were young and now they're two older guys who were talking.
Shelley Berman Yeah.
Studs Terkel And we're not going to tell how this comes out. What does Benny do? That's the big question. What does--and it's very, you see, as in mystery plays, [the others?]. Who did it? What's gonna happen? Now here it's very simple. Does Benny forgive? Is Leo redeemed? It's said that we used two biblical phrases, don't we? Two biblical words,
Shelley Berman I think so. I think so and I made a reference before to the fact that perhaps even Jesus would have trouble with this one.
Studs Terkel Oh no, Jesus would forgive. There's no doubt
Shelley Berman You think he'd forgive?
Shelley Berman Yes, he would have to, wouldn't he?
Studs Terkel Of course. But you see, this deals with two vulnerable and
Shelley Berman But then Jesus wouldn't have had--wouldn't have carried with him any hard feeling through that past time.
Studs Terkel That's right. He would not have.
Shelley Berman So then, of course, forgiveness would have been unnecessary.
Studs Terkel But we're not talking about Jesus. We're talking about two very fallible humans, you know, egotistical. Also one badly bruised materially, the other badly bruised spiritually by what he did. And so you've got a fantastic combination for theatre.
Shelley Berman Interestingly enough, it's a comedy. Much of it
Studs Terkel Oh, we haven't talked about the humor of course.
Shelley Berman Interestingly enough, it is an entertainment. It is not merely a concept which is to motivate, think. It is not necessarily a "think" piece. It is a good piece of theatre. It's a great deal of fun to play. There is laughter even in this--in the most serious scenes with Leo and Benny.
Studs Terkel Well when you get right down to it, they're pretty comic figures. [laughing] When you think about it, if a guy wants to be coolly objective in a phony way, because there are many of those who are detached, you know. I love their detachment. You know, he jests never felt a scar, you know, whenever something
Shelley Berman Felt
Studs Terkel But never felt a wound. [laughter] "He jests at scars, he never felt a wound!"
Shelley Berman Come on, old [unintelligible]. [laughing]
Studs Terkel And it's so easy. But nonetheless it is funny.
Shelley Berman Joyous funny! Yes there's--you can't help the fact that there is some humor there because these men are not only as big as life. They are sometimes bigger than life and equally sometimes smaller than life. There is a pettiness too because they're human, they're frail.
Studs Terkel Shelley Berman is my guest, and it's a very enthusiastically received play. "The Value of Names" by Jeffrey Sweet, young Chicago playwright.
Shelley Berman Yes.
Studs Terkel Who is now writing more and more works at the Victory Gardens Theatre, has a good batting average. And Shelley Berman, and Byrne Piven and Jill Holden, his two colleagues. It's at 2257 North Lincoln. It's every night but Mondays and twice on Saturdays and 3:00 matinee on Sundays. Oh, I know what I want to ask you. What do you--perhaps this is a sort of postscript. The play obviously will be seen by a good many and be fully enjoyed, "The Value of Names". But what--did you sense a trend in humor since you were one of the most celebrated of humorists? Do you sense a trend one or another the past, say, 20 years or so?
Shelley Berman I see humor emerging. I see humor and humorists emerging as all art emerges as a reflection of the time, that's all. When we had--when our nation was in a great state of ferment during the War in Vietnam and we--and the Blacks becoming quite impatient with that, which was agreed that they should have. That coincided and we saw riots in universities and people who were escaping to Canada didn't want to fight a war. Well, we had a time of rebellion in our country and we became overtly hostile. And so the spokesman, the overtly hostile comedian, came about. Although he was sitting in the wings and working, Don Rickles now became an important entity because it was overt. It was strong. It was powerful. And Buddy Hackett, who said things in a rebellious way, came out. And then the Black spokesmen, the Black comedians, suddenly emerged saying what they had to say, Dick Gregory and Godfrey Cambridge.
Studs Terkel Isn't all humor--aren't comics basically hostile?
Studs Terkel Comics themselves, aren't they basically hostile too? They're rebels. They're challenging in a way.
Shelley Berman I don't know about that. I don't like to apply such terms. And I think if you really dwell upon it, that's too simple. No, they're not basically hostile. Comedians are not necessarily--there's nothing hostile about a man talking about buttermilk.
Studs Terkel You're not hostile, of
Shelley Berman Well, I am. I am when I have to be. But it all depends on what we're thinking. We have--now we have a time in which people want to say what they have--what they've got to say. And you have the emergence of people, fine comedians, who are saying what they have to say. You have Richard Pryor, you have George Carlin, who are saying what they have to say in the way that they want to say it. And that is wonderful.
Studs Terkel Well they others want to--see, I got to disagree with you because you're talking about guys who are social comics like Dick Gregory, who make a social commentary. I think that's very legitimate, as legitimate as the other commentary. It's more personal in nature.
Shelley Berman Yes. I'm only saying that it's the time that calls for them. All I'm saying is that they emerge and take on importance as their time requires them.
Studs Terkel In your case, there's a fusion of two, isn't there? I mean, there is the you in your works, your standup works. And now you the actor. So you've been a combination of both at all times, haven't you? Because even your humor, even your gags are not gags. They're parts of vignettes, they're characters sometimes.
Shelley Berman For the most part. For the most part, they have a kind of universal quality and--which makes the pieces stand up for longer. I think I was just a pragmatist. I wanted to be able to use the routine again. And so I was not that topical. But there's another kind of comedy which has reemerged since we came to a time in which very little was making sense. We're running out of water, running out of trees, running out of oil. We're running out of the world and we're building up a stockpile of weaponry which can destroy us all in a moment. And it could be this moment. When sense made no sense, suddenly a man appeared on a stage with an arrow through his head and another one said [nanu nanu?]. Well, we are the spokesmen of nonsense. Now you look at television, you might find that the Three Stooges have reemerged. Why? Why are they suddenly important to us? Because they are nonsense. Because nonsense has become very valuable to us now. It relieves us of the sense of the day.
Studs Terkel Of course, the question is the line of demarcation between what is loony and what is sane is such a narrow one too, as you think of what official figures are doing and saying. In any event, Shelley Berman is my guest and I am delighted. And does this mean more serious roles for you in the future?
Shelley Berman If it doesn't, I'll be vastly disappointed because I--well, serious roles. I just want plays. I only want ensemble production. That's all I ever wanted was to work with other actors. Of course I want to be the leading part. [laughing]
Studs Terkel Shelley Berman, my guest, and again at the Victory Gardens every night but Monday in this play "The Value of Names", a carefree--
Shelley Berman We've got to let the people know that Byrne Piven is a bit better than you.
Studs Terkel Oh, Byrne Piven is better than me.
Shelley Berman Well maybe not better, but at least he's rehearsed.
Studs Terkel And he's good, and Jill Holden there too.
Shelley Berman [Coughing] They're marvelous
Studs Terkel So it is ensemble playing.
Studs Terkel Directed by Sandy Shinner and it's every night except Mondays, and danke schon.