War and secrecy are longtime companions, for reasons that can include protecting the lives of soldiers and protecting the reputation of a government that has lied about why and how a war is being conducted. When the news media chooses to break that secrecy in the public interest, a battle is often joined over the 1st Amendment, as was the case with the unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, a historic event that writers Geoffrey Cowan and the late Leroy Aarons turned into a radio play.
L.A. Theatre Works is reviving “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” with performances at the Skirball Cultural Center today through Sunday.
The putative secrecy of the Bush administration during the Iraq war has reminded some, including L.A. Theatre Works producer Susan Loewenberg, of the continuing relevance of the Pentagon Papers case and “Top Secret.” Last year, she and Cowan and actor-director John Rubenstein decided to revise the play for a new production that has been performed at 23 universities and cultural centers across the country before its last stop back home in Los Angeles.
“We’ve had time to work on it and think about it,” Loewenberg says. “As a piece of theater it’s better and more elaborate” than the original, produced during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Powers at the Post
In the new version, John Heard plays Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee and Susan Sullivan plays Post Publisher Katharine Graham, who ultimately had to decide whether to publish the classified documents. In the original, Ed Asner played Bradlee and Marsha Mason played Graham.
In the current production, which also features Gregory Harrison, James Gleason and Bo Foxworth, the Graham role has been enlarged, at the suggestion of Rubenstein. Graham, who died in 2001, has become the narrator of the events.
“She’s the right voice to be framing the story,” Rubenstein says. “The play is substantially the same, but I felt we needed to know a little more about what was going on with Nixon and Vietnam because so many people in the audience now might not know the background.”
The so-called Pentagon Papers were a secret 47-volume history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam commissioned by former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and made public by one of the project’s authors, Daniel Ellsberg, who released them to the New York Times and the Washington Post. Ellsberg did so in an effort to expose the official lies he believed had allowed the nation to pursue a tragically misguided foreign policy.
When then President Richard Nixon and U.S. Atty. Gen. John Mitchell tried to enjoin the newspapers from publishing this secret history of the Vietnam War, the two men succeeded temporarily, though ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the publication of the papers.
But the battle over the principles involved was the stuff of drama, thought Cowan. The former journalist and communications professor was teaching a media law course at UCLA when it occurred to him that the events and constitutional issues of the Pentagon Papers that he was discussing in class might lend themselves to a docudrama, relying on court testimony and historical records.
“The stakes are never higher than when it’s national security versus the press,” says Cowan, explaining why he was drawn to the subject material. He knew Aarons, who was a Post reporter, and asked him to help provide contacts at the Post as part of his research. The two ended up as collaborators, wrote the script and submitted it to Loewenberg, then head of a radio drama unit housed at public station KCRW.
Loewenberg brought in director Tom Moore, who helped Cowan and Aarons shape the script. Six weeks later, in the midst of the Gulf War, the play was broadcast live from Santa Monica across the nation on National Public Radio.
Seventeen years later, Loewenberg’s radio drama unit has moved to KPCC-FM in Pasadena, but the company records its live performances at the Skirball Center in West Los Angeles, with edited versions of the plays broadcast Saturdays on KPCC at 10 p.m.
As with other L.A. Theatre Works productions, “Top Secret” is staged for an audience, with the actors holding scripts and speaking into microphones, as in the days of live radio drama. “It’s a great form,” says Rubenstein, who is currently appearing in “Wicked” at the Pantages. “We’ve been doing it for 20 years.”
Act 1 is set in the living room of Bradlee’s Georgetown home, where top Post editors and Graham agonize over whether to risk the wrath of the Nixon White House by publishing documents already forbidden to the New York Times by a court injunction. Act 2 takes up the legal arguments heard after publication and is set in a composite courtroom representing different jurisdictions that came into play.
What went on at the New York Times remains mostly outside the purview of the play, Cowan says, because, for the sake of storytelling, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use the evening at Bradlee’s home as a nexus for the unfolding events.
Abe Rosenthal, the former editor of the New York Times, evidently did not agree because, when Loewenberg called him to participate in a post-performance discussion in 1991, she says, Rosenthal hung up on her.
“The New York Times is not onstage,” Cowan says, “but its presence is felt like a huge ghost. It’s just offstage. And the same for Ellsberg,” who is not a character in “Top Secret” but is talked about.
Ellsberg, in fact, went first to the Times, which began publishing parts of the documents for several days running in June 1971, until the government managed to get a restraining order. Ellsberg gave the documents to the Post only after the Times had to desist.
In the prevailing political climate leading up to and sustaining the war in Iraq, it’s an open question whether a document comparable to the Pentagon Papers would be published today with the approval of the courts, as Cowan is the first to admit.
For starters, both the New York Times and the Washington Post are generally considered to be more conservative than they were in 1971.
“A number of things are different,” says Cowan, who left UCLA to become dean of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and is now a professor there. “We’re in a state of war, a war on terrorism that may never end; the Internet has changed things; the Supreme Court has changed; and the papers themselves have changed.”
While today’s Supreme Court might not be as sympathetic to the release of classified documents, Ellsberg or another such whistle-blower could probably publish them on the Internet.
“Today it would be an attachment to an e-mail,” says Sanford J. Ungar, author of the 1972 book “The Papers and the Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle over the Pentagon Papers,” which served as one of the sources for “Top Secret.”
That scenario would be more convenient, but it might not have produced the 1st Amendment considerations and complications that led to the play.
“There was a clarity about this confrontation that it’s good to be reminded of,” says Ungar, now the president of Goucher College in Maryland. “I’m not sure the public today would support what Ellsberg did.”
‘Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers’
Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. today through Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday
Price: $20 to $47
Contact: (310) 827-0889