In today’s era of targeted content and niche cultural production, a career as varied and prolific as Ben Hecht’s is difficult to grasp, much less fully comprehend. Many of us think of him as either the bard of the everyday for the Chicago Daily News; or the Hollywood hustler who had a hand in writing Scarface, Gone with the Wind, His Girl Friday, and The Man with the Golden Arm; or the memoirist who titled his autobiography A Child of the Century, a gesture that can be seen in retrospect as a kind of proto-humblebrag.
Largely forgotten today are Hecht's efforts to convince Americans of the gravity of Hitler’s systematic extermination of Europe’s Jewish communities during World War II. Hecht's weapon against American indifference, of course, was the pen, which could lacerate with caustic precision when deployed as an op-ed, or bludgeon with blunt emotional appeals when placed in the service of mass spectacle.
One of these spectacles was We Will Never Die. Written by Hecht, scored by Kurt Weill, and produced by Billy Rose and Ernst Lubitsch, We Will Never Die played to two sold-out crowds in Madison Square Garden in March of 1943 before storming across the rest of the country. In each city, the pageant marshaled hundreds of actors across the stage to demonstrate the breadth of Judaism’s impact on Western civilization as well as Jews’ sacrifice to the Allied war effort and their suffering in German-occupied lands.
By many accounts, Hecht’s production was incredibly moving, even if it failed to influence public opinion on a scale Hecht had hoped it would.
Designed to serve a political purpose rather than achieve literary greatness, We Will Never Die did not end up enjoying the same longevity as some of Hecht's other work. But in the eyes of Chicago playwright James Sherman, it represents a courageous act of bearing witness at a time before the world had universally condemned Hitler and his "Final Solution." (Listen to an excerpt of We Will Never Die.)
Based on research using the Newberry's Ben Hecht Papers, Sherman wrote—and will star in—The Ben Hecht Show, a one-man performance where Sherman (as Hecht) ruminates on how the colorful writer came to identify mid-life as a Jew and how he committed himself to fighting anti-Semitism with such vehemence, eloquence, and tirelessness.
The more Sherman learned about Hecht while preparing to write the play, the more he saw parallels between his own life and Hecht's.
“My first play with Victory Gardens Theater reflected on my upbringing as an American Jew and was written in the wake of the Neo-Nazis who petitioned to march in Skokie in the late 1970s,” says Sherman. “I was amazed to learn that, a few decades earlier, Hecht had followed a similar train of thought as he confronted his own Jewish heritage—except he was writing in response to the Nazis.”
The Ben Hecht Show will make its world premiere at the Piven Theatre in Evanston June 10.
By Alex Teller, Manager of Communications and Editorial Services
An extended version of this article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of The Newberry Magazine. A subscription to the magazine is a benefit of membership in the Newberry Associates.