From theater to reality

A few years ago I was browsing in a bookstore when a book caught my eye—The Front Page: From Theater To Reality by George W. Hilton. As a longtime fan of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s pressroom romp, I immediately picked it up and discovered a treasure trove of historical insight into the world of Chicago journalism and politics. I found things in Hecht and MacArthur’s play I had never seen before—things that seemed to make this play even more ripe for TimeLine.

Hilton’s painstakingly detailed dissection of The Front Page includes historical analysis and page-by-page annotations, along with photographs and insight into the real-life personalities that inspired each character in the play. Most important, the book includes the earliest surviving text of the play, from August 1928. It is this original version that provides a revealing window into Hecht and MacArthur’s 1920s Chicago, warts and all. Plagued by censorship since the original 1928 production, the script has gone through numerous changes in various stage and film incarnations (including the classic gender-bending film His Girl Friday), mostly sanitizing the play’s language and softening its characters. The changes put a glossier finish on what was unquestionably a more rough-and-tumble world that Hecht and MacArthur aimed to celebrate and scorch. Though the overall story remained intact, celebration increasingly became the goal of each subsequent version. The cumulative effect of the changes, in Hilton’s assessment, was “to weaken the play.”

In revised versions, the wiseacres of The Front Page pressroom evolved into more lovable loudmouths, charming in their foibles and more endearing for their audacity. But to look back at the original text, much of their language and actions were deplorable—misogynistic, racist, foul and corrupt. It is that original essence and text that TimeLine aims to bring to light, not to validate the characters’ vernacular or boorishness but to present them honestly, as the flawed characters they were, as well as provide a snapshot of a particular time in our beloved city’s blemished past.

To accentuate that reality, and to strive against the presentational quality often associated with this play, director Nick Bowling and his design team have put the audience squarely in the middle of the action, sitting within the pressroom at Chicago’s famed Criminal Courts Building. The flexibility of TimeLine’s theater is being employed yet again, as this show is staged with the audience on all four sides of the playing area. So you will get to know, quite closely, the colorful personalities that populated Hecht and MacArthur’s world.

Newspaper journeymen, Hecht and MacArthur worked this town in an era that may seem foreign to us now. Their play showcases eight actual daily newspapers in Chicago. Yes, eight—eight print editions! And, truth be told, there were other Chicago papers in the ‘20s that weren’t included in the play. Today, the form may be rapidly shifting away from good old-fashioned newsprint, but the competition between news outlets to publish the story first—even perhaps before the entire story has revealed itself or been fully investigated—continues to ring true in our world of minute-by-minute online and cable-news reporting.

This point was never so clear to me than just a few weeks before we began rehearsals for The Front Page, watching the events unfold during the historic uprising in Egypt. The world was waiting for in-the-moment updates, and, in one critical instance, at least one of the media got ahead of itself. It was Thursday, Feb. 10, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was set to deliver what was being billed as a major speech. The widespread prediction was that he would finally cede power. Like countless others, I was hitting “refresh” on my computer in anticipation of historic news. And major media outlets were clearly at the ready, preparing headlines and “Breaking News” banners even before any news officially occurred. I was glued to a highly esteemed website midway through his speech when a breaking-news banner popped up: “Mubarak to step down.” I immediately clicked to another esteemed site to read its banner: “Mubarak refuses to step down.”

Site No. 2 had it right, and site No. 1 had jumped the gun, ultimately by a full day. (Mubarek did, of course, step down, but on Friday, Feb. 11.) But were the diligent, yet trigger-happy, journalists and editors at fault? They were giving us what we yearned for, instant gratification and insight—news while it’s happening in our media-frenzied world, even if at times the facts be damned.

Seeing that unfold a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think about the shoot-from-the-hip reporters in The Front Page. They became folk heroes for the lengths they would go to for getting stories and their blatant disregard for political correctness and sometimes the truth. It was a different era, to be sure, but you may find yourself surprised by the resonances that Hecht and MacArthur’s world have with modern media.

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