Putting the Kingfish Together Again By Dave Denison OKS AND THE CULTURE SEVERAL MONTHS AGO I saw, for the first time, the 1949 movie version of Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men. It is a painfully bad movie, full of melodramatic acting that must have been difficult to take seriously at the time, much less now. On the way out of the theater I ran into an acquaintance who was also disappointed but for a different reason. “That was such a conservative movie,” he said sadly. For it portrayed the corruption of the populist governor, Willie Stark, and seemed to vindicate the comments of the nervous aristocrats who had said all along that Stark was robbing the state and was heading for a fall. The movie had made the reactionary rich look good. My friend’s disappointment was due to his enduring sympathy for Huey P. Long, the famous Louisiana governor who was the inspiration for Warren’s Willie Stark. To him, and to many others still. Long was a man of the people, the Kingfish, the one who took on Standard Oil and the big boys. and built the bridges and the highways. Charges of “tyrant” and “demagogue” are the calumnies bestowed by the ruling class. But, of course, either perspective is only half the story. An independent documentary released last year \(entitled gave an especially powerful account of how both the populist idealism and the political corruption came to exist in the same man. One segment of the documentary is hard to forget: I.F. Stone, the radical journalist, admits that he felt a kind of relief when he heard Long had been assassinated. “I believed then that he could have gone on to become the first American dictator,” I recall Stone saying. I have another friend who shares that wary view of Huey Long and who happened to overhear the “conservative movie” remark. Perhaps overstating the the somewhat, this friend claimed that such a remark demonstrated, in just one sentence, “everything that is wrong with American Left today.” It was the sentimentalism and naivete about Long that he was objecting to, and, I inferred, a tendency among those on the Left to go soft on certain abuses of power in the service of a greater good. \(Perhaps he would call to mind left-wing sympathies with Third World revoluThese days, though, one is especially aware that ignoring the means for the ALL THE KING’S MEN Directed By Adrian Hall Dallas Theater Center end is hardly exclusively a fault of the Left anymore than it is of the Right. The methods the current government in Washington has used to combat international demons in the name of democracy are methods worthy of the Kingfish himself there is the small circle of powerful insiders, the secret stash of funds, the public rhetoric that is meant to bamboozle the voters. S O THESE ARE interesting times in which to revisit the world of Willie Stark a world of scandal and corruption and “polly-tics” the profession of trading little evils for bigger goods. Last month, the Dallas Theater Center brought All The King’s Men to the stage, adapted and directed by Adrian Hall, the highly regarded head of the Dallas company, as well as the Trinity Repertory Theater of Provi dence, Rhode Island. The production \(which ran from November 23 to affecting, certainly a successful adapta tion of a book that is ill-suited for the Warren’s novel is the poetic language and the tone of the writing, the personal version of events as told by the brooding Jack Burden, a newspaper reporter who becomes Stark’s flunkey. And there is the problem of capturing the much larger-than-life character of Stark him self. Partly through clever directing and partly on the strength of Jack Willis’s performance as Willie Stark, Hall is able to make it work. The director uses songs Randy Newman wrote when he lived in Louisiana and, although the cast would not win awards for their vocal talents, the effect is often powerful. “What has happened down here is the winds have changed” is the opening line of Newman’s song “Louisiana,” and it becomes the opening line of the play lovely and to the point, just as the opening lines to the novel were. \(“Mason City. To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway “Rednecks” \(“We’re rednecks, rednecks . . . keepin’ the niggers goes back in time to the early days when Stark was an unknown and unloved politician in the sticks and Jack Burden was first assigned to cover his story. Stark is an earnest bumpkin, despised by the good ol’ boys because he is against a rigged-up contract to build a school. Burden \(played by Peter and engages them in talk about the new schoolhouse. They’re of the opinion that Stark has gotten too big fer his britches. “Wants ’em to take the low bid and git a passel of niggers in here,” says one. “To put white folks out of work,” says another. “You want to work alongside a nigger?” they ask Burden. “And specially him a strange nigger?” “And white folks needin’ work.” One of the old timers is played by Randy Moore, who in a matter of moments becomes the county sheriff, leaning back in his chair, his boots propped up on his desk, his hat pulled down over his forehead. Burden questions him about the schoolhouse. “You come a piece to stick yore nose into somebody else’s bizness,” says the sheriff. Burden says his editor wouldn’t see it that way. “It ain’t any of his bizness either,” says the sheriff. But what’s it about? asks Burden. “It ain’t any of my bizness. I’m the sheriff.” Moore’s timing is masterly, and though his roles are minor he somehow stands out as one of the most memorable characters in the play. The settings are memorable as well. The audience surrounds the action, as in an arena, with the world of the rich at one end, represented by a large opulent bedroom, and the world of the poor at the other, shown by a wood THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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