This review of Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men at The Heights Players' John Bourne Theater was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
All The King's Men
Written by Robert Penn Warren
Directed by Ed Healy
The Heights Players' John Bourne Theater
26 Willow Place
Brooklyn, New York 11201
All The King's Men was a novel written by Robert Penn Warren in 1946. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 and a movie was made and released in 1949. That film won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Robert Penn Warren adapted the book for the stage in 1959 and the play, All The King's Men, enjoyed a five-week Off-Broadway run at the Seventy-Fourth Street Theater. There was also a 9-performance run of the show Off-Off-Broadway at the Equity Library Theater during the 1966-67 season.
The central character in the play is Willie Stark (often referred to simply as "The Boss"), an idealistic lawyer who is fired as County Treasurer for not signing off on a corrupt contract to build a school that eventually causes the death of eight children because of the use of "rotten bricks." Apparently rewarded for being a "good government guy," Stark is nominated for Governor but later realizes he is simply being used as a pawn in a larger political game. He learns quickly and transforms himself into a charismatic candidate and powerful governor by embracing various forms of corruption, using patronage, making back-door deals, and intimidating/blackmailing his enemies into compliance. He is a realist and when accused by Judge Irwin of packing the Louisiana Supreme Court to get it to uphold the constitutionality of his legislation, he responds by saying, "All Courts are packed from the start. It just came my turn to pack it." Stark's view is that people would like to think they are pure and innocent, but that, in reality, there is always something that can be found in a person's past. Quoting from Calvinist theology regarding original sin, Stark says, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud." In his view, "no one is pure and unblemished" and "no man is invulnerable to sin under the right circumstances." When his methods are criticized, he defends his ways by giving the example that "people love steak but they don't want to visit the slaughterhouse because there are men there who are mean to animals." This cynical viewpoint turns into a moral imperative for Willie Stark who believes "if you want something, you should be willing to pay the price necessary to get it." Otherwise, you are just a coward.
Willie Stark's character is often thought to have been inspired by the life of Huey P. Long, former governor of Louisiana and that state's United States Senator in the mid-1930s. Huey Long was at the zenith of his career when he was assassinated in 1935, just a month after declaring his intention to run against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the Democratic Presidential Nomination in 1936. Just a year earlier, Robert Penn Warren had begun teaching at Louisiana State University. Stark, like Long, was shot to death in the state capitol building by a physician, and the title of the book possibly came from Long's motto, "Every Man A King." In his introduction to the Modern Library edition, Warren did not deny that Long served as an influence or inspiration for Stark but clearly stated that "Willie Stark was not Huey Long. Willie [Stark] was only himself." Explaining further, Robert Penn Warren wrote, "The difference between the person Huey P. Long and the fictional Willie Stark, may be indicated by the fact that in the verse play [Proud Flesh] the name of the politician was Talos [Talus] - the name of the brutal, blank-eyed 'iron groom' of Edmund Spenser's late 16th century work The Fairie Queene, the pitiless servant of the knight of justice. My conception grew wider, but that element always remained, and Willie Stark remained, in one way, Willie Talos. In other words, Talos is the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself. The book, however, was never intended to be a book about politics. Politics merely provided the framework story in which the deeper concerns, whatever their final significance, might work themselves out."
The play asks the philosophical question whether the end justifies the means. If Willie Stark enabled The Tom Stark Memorial Hospital to be built (named after his son, an All-American who died due to brain trauma and paralysis suffered during a football game), is the hospital a "good" in and of itself if it provides free health care ("not as charity, but as a right") to all the citizens of the state? Does it matter what political deals had to be made to make the idea of the hospital into a reality? Do the people care what Willie Stark had to do to get new roads built or to raise taxes for improved public services? Should we take into account Governor Stark's motives? Does it matter if he is seeking political power for himself or is truly trying to improve the lives of his constituents? If those around him need to be shown the moral impurity within themselves and their family members in order to help Stark achieve his worthy goals, is it wrong for him to have shown them the darkness in order to get them to join him in building the hospital and to help him fight an impeachment attempt? These and other questions are addressed in the play.
This adaptation of All The King's Men shows us the rise and fall of a powerful political leader through multiple short vignettes presented over three acts. Bill Barry plays Willie Stark. The King's Men include three men and one woman. Terry Ellison is Jack Burden, an investigative reporter who does a lot of the Governor's dirty work as his personal aide (and believes the Boss means well and is trying to accomplish good results for the people); Steven Lerner, who is Sugar-Boy, a stutterer, and the Governor's personal bodyguard (who admires the way the Boss speaks); Joe Pacifico, who was extremely believable and excellent in the role of Lt. Governor Tiny Duffy; and Emily Mathis, who played Sadie Burke, the Governor's political advisor and mistress, who when thrown over after the Governor decides to return to a monogamous relationship with his wife Lucy, plots with Lt. Governor Duffy to spread a vicious rumor that directly leads to the Governor's assassination at the hands of Dr. Adam Stanton, played by Marc A. Hermann. Other actors included Raymond O. Wagner as Judge Irwin; Kerry Wolf as the Professor; Jesse Pimentel as Tom Stark; David Moseder as Frey/William Larsen; Dena Rysdam Miller as Anne Stanton; Natali De Assis as Jack Burden's mother; Chelsea Marie Logan as the Woman & Slade; and Geovanni Cedeno as the Man. All of the actors in this ensemble cast worked very well together and succeeded in putting on a production of All The King's Men that is engrossing and entertaining. The play, just under three hours, will hold your attention from the beginning to the end.
The 1930s was a decade that saw the rise of a number of strong leaders (e.g. Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Franklin Delano Roosevelt), each that promised to serve the people. The fictional Willie Stark was one such man; a populist in the style of George Wallace and Donald Trump. Robert Penn Warren wrote the character as a man who was simply using the system as it was to do good for the people of Louisiana. He wrote with what I thought was admiration for the man who is willing to pay the price to achieve his goals. As Willie Stark said, "There's a lot that you'll never get if you wait until you're asked." The world will step aside for the man who knows where he is going. According to how this play is written, it is also evident that women like strong men of action who know what they want and have a plan to get it. Even though she loved Jack Burden, she rejected him for being too complacent and for not being out there in the world with "goals and purposes." So instead, Anne sleeps with Willie Stark and when he dumps her to return to his wife after his son died, she views this as a sign of weakness revealing that she "loved him for what he might have been."
With the perspective that "truth is the last ambition," Stark directly confronts the legislature regarding Larsen (a corrupt general contractor), kick-backs, and pay-offs influencing its votes and decisions. Lt. Governor Duffy can smell the blood in the water recognizing that "the Governor isn't what he used to be - he no longer has the juice." That is why he agreed with Sadie's plan to spread the false rumor that Dr. Adam Stanton only got the appointment as Chief of Operations at The Tom Stark Memorial Hospital because his sister Anne was sleeping with the Governor, and in addition, that since the Governor blames him for not saving his son, he dumped his sister and plans to fire him from his position at the hospital. They leaked that story to the press resulting in Dr. Stanton killing Willie Stark, and Suger-Boy, in return, killing Dr. Stanton. After being blackmailed by Jack, Judge Irwin committed suicide instead of choosing to face his own past indiscretions, which apparantly included fathering Jack and then agreeing with his mother to keep it a secret from him. So much deception! So many people living and perishing in flame!
All The King's Men is not a comedy but it is a very interesting play that will leave you with a lot to think about. I highly recommend you see it. Tickets cost $20.00 for adults; $18.00 for seniors and children under 18 years of age. It plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through April 17, 2016. For more information, call 718-237-2752 for reservations or visit http://www.heightsplayers.org/