These words of Howard Zinn's, the first I had ever heard him speak, electrified the crowd, and me, at the October 15, 1969, Vietnam Moratorium rally on the Boston Common
"I know this is a radical thing to say, and you're not supposed to say radical things, but: Who runs the city of Boston? Is it the tenants or the landlords?... The problem that people have all over this country and all over the world is to begin taking the power from the people who now have it and returning that power to large numbers of people suffering under it.... Somehow, on the critical matters, the men of wealth and power and privilege in America make the decisions of life and death for everyone else."
Those words of Howard Zinn's, the first I had ever heard him speak, electrified the crowd, and me, at the October 15, 1969, Vietnam Moratorium rally on the Boston Common. I phoned him and asked for a copy of his speech. It had been extemporaneous, he informed me, but WTBS at MIT had recorded it, and with a feed to the Harvard radio station WHRB, we managed to copy it and I transcribed it. Passages appeared in the program notes of my November production at Harvard's Loeb Experimental Theater of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock--the first in Boston since Leonard Bernstein's of thirty years earlier. Howard was there opening night, and pronounced himself bowled over, not only by the play, which echoed his words, but by the intermission feature: Elie Siegmeister's powerful setting of Mike Gold's poem, "The Strange Funeral in Braddock."
Sixteen months later, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Paris Commune, Howard and Noam Chomsky attended the US premiere of Bertolt Brecht's Days Of The Commune, in my adaptation and translation, at a packed Sanders Theatre. Each had tentatively agreed to take roles in the play, which featured furious debates on the question of violence versus nonviolence. Each had to turn down the role offered him, for lack of time to rehearse it, but both had very nice things to say about the enthusiasm of the cast and audience, which pelted the villains with fruit, reminding some in attendance of what Shakespeare's audience must have been like.
A decade later, I was inspired by a friend in Berlin who had been a Boston University student of Howard's, Charles Streeper, to read--and to marvel at--Howard's 1980 A People's History of the United States, finding inspiration in it for New World: An Opera About What Columbus Did to the "Indians," commissioned by the Puffin Foundation for the 1992 Columbian quincentennial, and graciously mentioned by Howard in every new edition of his book, beginning in 1999. I also read about Howard's play about Emma Goldman (Emma in America, Rebel In Paradise in England--so as to avoid confusing it with Jane Austen!), the script of which Howard sent me on request. I proposed making it into a musical, and sent him a couple of songs, including one I thought might be a title song. He wrote me back regretfully that he was "not enthusiastic," whereupon my collaborator (Karen Ruoff Kramer) and I decided to go a different way: to focus not on Emma's career prior to her 1919 deportation but rather on her years in exile, looking back on her life in flashbacks, as she tried to return to America (which she did, for 90 days, in 1934). Our new title was E.G.: A Musical Portrait of Emma Goldman, and we emphasized her commitment to (and imprisonment for) "free speech, free motherhood, and freedom from war." With the help of Candace Falk, Alice Wexler, Paul Avrich, Joel Sucher, Walter Lear, and many others, the work had performances first starring Elizabeth Parcells (twice) and then Helene Williams (forty-nine times)--in both Berlins, Amsterdam, Paris, San Francisco, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, on the radio with Bob Sherman and Studs Terkel, and numerous venues around New York and Boston, including Boston University (thanks to Howard) and Brandeis--which he attended, this time with enthusiasm. Here's a photo of him there, with me and Helene.
The morning after that performance, the Brandeis Justice had a glowing review by a student named David Weinstein. Fifteen years later, PBS presented a documentary on Emma. I called Howard up to ask: "Why didn't they interview you?" "And why didn't they use your music?" was his rejoinder. We then learned that the show had been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, on the recommendation of its senior program officer: David Weinstein, who wrote me he could "still remember" some of the songs. So Howard's play and our musical had made an impact after all!
In 1995, I invited Howard to be the keynote speaker at a symposium I moderated at the National Opera Association convention in Boston on the opera Sacco And Vanzetti, commissioned by the Ford Foundation for the Metropolitan Opera, begun but left unfinished by Marc Blitzstein. Since Howard had written the foreword to the 1977 reissue of Upton Sinclair's novel on the subject, Boston, he was the perfect person to give the historical background as to why the case was still important today. You can read his remarks in the symposium's transcription, published in Opera Journal. I credit Howard with being among those that helped persuade the Blitzstein Estate of the importance of the opera and the need for its completion, which I finished in 2001 and staged at the White Barn Theatre, three weeks before 9/11 made any thoughts of mounting an opera where the heroes were anarchists at least temporarily unfeasible. "The Case That Will Not Die" was the theme of Howard's keynote address at a Hofstra conference a year later, published in Representing Sacco And Vanzetti by Palgrave Macmillan in 2005. In my essay, in the same volume, I quoted a statement of Howard's published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which is mounted on my wall: "There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people."
The last time I saw Howard was at Cooper Union February 20, 2007, where I went to hear him speak--magnificently, as expected--and introduced him to my father and to Susan Blake, "the social conscience of Long Island" who succumbed to breast cancer a little over seven months later. The last I heard from him was in reply to my congratulatory message regarding the 12/13/09 History Channel broadcast of his The People Speak. A high school student I had interviewed for Harvard wrote:
I would like to thank you for recommending such an amazing documentary. It was packed with information I never heard of such as African American being elected to state legislation for a short time during reconstruction era, and how F.D.R's New Deal was created because of constant public rioting. The way it utilized popular individuals from the music and theatre industry to read and sing first hand accounts was power. I truly thank you for telling me about the special, the new information I learned will benefit me in my american government course.
Howard wrote me: "Thanks, Leonard. It 's these kids we always hope to reach!"
For the thousands he did reach, and the millions more he deserved and still deserves to reach, Thank you, Howard! Thank you for speaking truth to power, from the lectern, but also in the streets. Now we must continue to do so--to fight inequality, stop renditions, free Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier, end capital punishment, exonerate Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and support those who call for peace and reform in China, Iran and Israel--for the sake of justice, and now your memory.
Leonard J. Lehrman
Valley Stream, NY
Mar 6 2010 - 9:25am