Monday, February 1, 2021

458. SCRATCH. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975.

Will Mackenzie, Will Geer, Patrick Magee.
SCRATCH [Drama/Fantasy/Period/Political/Trial] A: Archibald MacLeish; SC: Steven Vincent Benet’s short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster”; D: Peter H. Hunt; S: John Conklin; C: Patricia Zipprodt; L: Feder; P: Stuart Ostrow; T: St. James Theatre; 5/6/71-5/8/71 (4)

Will Geer, Patrick Magee.
Archibald MacLeish, distinguished poet, playwright, teacher, and statesman, was 79 when he wrote this, his last Broadway play (he was best known for J.B.). He had intended it as a drama in which the historical character of statesman Daniel Webster would be put on trial, in the playwright’s view, for having sold his soul in 1850 by agreeing to support a policy that would favor Southern slave owners (although he was a professed abolitionist) while managing to prevent dissolution of the Union for at least another decade. Thus, the relation of morality to politics was a chief concern. (Perhaps some present-day playwright might consider updating the tale to our current political situation.)

MacLeish used as his inspiration the famous Benet story (required reading when I was in grade school) in which Webster (Patrick Magee) acts as a defense lawyer for the farmer Jabez Stone (Will Mackenzie) when the devil, called Scratch (Will Geer), comes to claim the man’s soul in return for having made his farm prosperous. The jury, selected by Scratch, is an assortment of the ghosts of notorious villains and rogues. In the MacLeish telling, Webster himself becomes the victim, rather than Stone. (Stone? Hmm. How curious.)

Roy Poole, Patrick Magee.

Cast members included Roy Poole, Rex Robbins, Joanne Nail, and Thomas Barbour.

Martin Gottfried said it was “empty and archaic,” excessively high flown, and “a disaster, boring beyond belief.” Jack Kroll condemned it as “an inflated and disastrously abstract play ,“ while Clive Barnes discarded it as “a ponderous piece . . . pedestrianly written . . . raising pseudo-moral issues that it answers with a kind of chop-logic.” 

On second thought, perhaps it would be better to ponder an updating than to try actually doing one.