THOUGH no one talks about them much, Ernest Hemingway wrote two plays. The first, finished in 1926, was “Today Is Friday,” a forgettable one-acter set on the evening of the original Good Friday, when three Roman centurions get together at a tavern to discuss memorable crucifixions they’ve seen, including the one that afternoon. Not surprisingly, they sound a lot like Hemingway’s Nick Adams. “He looked pretty good to me in there today,” one of them says admiring Jesus’ stoicism.
His other play, “The Fifth Column,” which the Mint Theater Company in Manhattan is presenting, beginning Feb. 26, is a full-length drama written in 1937, when Hemingway was a correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War.
The play takes its name from Franco’s remark that he had four columns advancing on Madrid and a fifth column of loyalists inside the city ready to attack from the rear.
“The Fifth Column” is not about Franco sympathizers, however, but about an American war correspondent who is a secret agent for the Republicans, and Hemingway worked on it while holed up in the Hotel Florida with all the other war correspondents.
In an unpublished letter just recently discovered he explained, “In those days” Herbert Matthews of The New York Times, Henry T. Gorrell of United Press, “Sefton Delmer of the Daily Express, Martha Gellhorn of Colliers, Virginia Cowles, then for Hearst, now of the London Times, Joris Ivens, who made the ‘Spanish Earth,’ Johnny Ferno, who photographed it, Josephine Herbst for various American weeklies and for humanity in general, Sidney Franklin working for me, all International Brigade men on leave, and the greatest and most varied collection of ladies of the evening I have ever seen all lived at the Hotel Florida.”
In an introduction to “The Fifth Column” Hemingway wrote that the hotel was bombarded numerous times, adding: “So if it is not a good play perhaps that is what is the matter with it. If it is a good play, perhaps those thirty shells helped write it.”
In the letter he goes into more detail: “In the fall of 1937 when I took up playwrighting, there weren’t any top floors to the hotel anymore. Nobody that was not crazy would go up there in a bombardment.
But the two rooms where we lived were in what is called by artillerymen a dead angle. Any place else in the hotel could be hit and was. But unless the position of the batteries on Garabitas hill were changed; or unless they substituted howitzers for guns; rooms 112 and 113 could not be hit because of the position of three different houses across the street and across the square.
“I was absolutely sure of this after being in the hotel during twenty-two heavy bombardments in which other parts of it were struck. It seemed eminently more sensible to live in a part of a hotel which you knew would not be struck by shell fire, because you knew where the shells lit, than to go to some other hotel further from the lines, the angles of which you had no data to figure and where you would maybe have a shell drop through the roof.
“Well, I had great confidence in the Florida and when Franco finally entered Madrid, Rooms 112 and 113 were still intact. There was very little else that was though.”
The Mint Theater Company normally specializes in revivals of neglected plays, but its production of “The Fifth Column” is really a premier of sorts, Jonathan Bank, the company’s artistic director, said recently.
“I want to be precise about this, so maybe I should say this is the first time Hemingway’s play has been done professionally in America,” he explained. “There might have been an amateur production. There was a production in the Soviet Union in 1963. And from a reference I saw in a biography of Michael Powell, I know he directed a production in Scotland in the ’40s.”
What was billed as an “adaptation” of “The Fifth Column” by Benjamin Glazer, directed by Lee Strasberg, was put on by the Theater Guild in 1940, to mostly mixed reviews. Hemingway by that point had washed his hands of it and for good reason, according to Mr. Bank. “I would say that it’s 80 percent Glazer and 10 percent Hemingway out of context,” he said. “It’s completely restructured and, well, awful.”
* By CHARLES McGRATH (NYT/February 10, 2008)