How a Minor Comment Turned Into a Major Production


Having heard that a sentence of mine was the inspiration of a play called “Noah Johnson Had a Whore,” I drove down to Costa Mesa the other day to see it.

It was being produced by the South Coast Repertory, along with a revival of “The Philadelphia Story.” “Noah Johnson” is author Jon Bastian’s first produced play, and it won second place in last year’s SCR California Playwrights Competition.

I met the playwright in the lobby of the SCR theater. He said he was reading my column about the origin of the word undertaker and came upon my comment that in the Civil War, “undertakers followed the battalions around like camp whores.” A light went on in his mind, Bastian said, and “Noah Johnson” was the result.


I wasn’t sure I cared about being the inspiration for a play so ghoulish that actor Jonathan McMurtry was said to have been reluctant to share a stage with a pile of rotting dead soldiers. He wasn’t sure the audience would know it’s supposed to be funny.

The story is simple. McMurtry plays Jeremiah Bentonville, a larcenous undertaker who contracts with the Union and Confederate armies to bury their dead. He not only robs the bodies of jewelry and gold teeth, but also fraudulently doubles the number of bodies on his bills, at the risk of being caught and hanged for profiteering.

Bentonville’s assistant is Noah Johnson, his son by a slave, whom he also cheats. Enter Lydia, a camp follower who is at least as unscrupulous as the undertaker. She has come to retrieve a locket from her husband’s body, since it has a picture of her posed provocatively in the nude.

Caught in the evil machinations between the undertaker and the whore, Noah loses his innocence. The plot causes him to cut off the head of a Union captain with a sword and shove his headless body onstage through the flap of a tent. Meanwhile, he retrieves various body parts from the pile and puts them together to simulate the whore’s husband’s body. Searching for the locket, she wantonly tosses arms and legs over her shoulder.

Believe it or not, this is all very funny, especially when Bentonville punctuates some new outrage with his macabre laugh--”Heh-heh-heh.”

Since it appears that I will never realize my ambition of writing a play, I will have to be content with having inspired “Noah Johnson Had a Whore.”

If I do write a play, it will probably be more like “The Philadelphia Story,” Philip Barry’s sophisticated comedy about a spoiled Philadelphia divorcee who can’t decide whom to marry. The prospects are her charming ex-husband, her stuffy fiance and a brash newspaper reporter who comes to her house to do a story on her nuptials.

The reporter is a classic stereotype of his breed. His clothes are ill-fitting, he chews gum, he wears a fedora in the house, and when he takes off a shoe his big toe sticks through a hole in his sock.

Nevertheless, he is intriguing enough to the heroine that when they are both snockered on champagne, she entices him into the pool for a nude swim, saying: “We don’t need any suits.”

We do not see them in the pool, of course, because of the theater’s limitations; but when they emerge in terry-cloth robes, he carrying her, we have no doubt that they have been together en deshabille. He carries her upstairs and puts her to bed, but we must believe him when he insists that that’s all he did. Her fiance is outraged.

There have been at least two movie versions of “The Philadelphia Story,” both done during the reign of the Hays Office. One was “The Philadelphia Story,” with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant; the other was “High Society,” with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra (as the reporter).

My wife remembers that the nude swimming incident was handled offscreen in both. (I can’t imagine any director persuading Hepburn or Kelly to appear in the nude.)

By the way, I am chastised in many letters to the editor for my disrespectful demurrer to Cardinal Roger Mahony’s appeal for a return to movie censorship.

Richard Procida, executive director of People Against Pornography, wrote: “Smith’s vile defense of violence and sexism in film was feculent.” Jim Henry of Pico Rivera wrote, “Jack Smith’s column belongs in the gutter where his mind seems to be.” Eleanor Perriau-Saussine of Brentwood wrote, “I thought Jack Smith had died or retired years ago, and for his ex-fans, like myself, it would have been better.”

I admit I didn’t know the meaning of feculent . It comes from feces , and it means, in a word, filthy.

Can’t win ‘em all.