Let There Be Light...!
Stage adaptations of movies often degrade the original, trivializing the work in the name of satire or camp or flattening nuances to make room for songs, special effects, monstrous scenery, or the adapters' egos. Rare are the projects that actually transform a film into a work of drama that can stand alone. In their elegant, intelligent adaptation, Jen Ellison and Dave Stinton didn't worry about being faithful to John Huston's wartime documentary Let There Be Light. Instead they appropriated his interviews with shell-shocked war vets and added their own agenda and dramatic structure, even though some might consider this sacrilege.
Let There Be Light was the last of three documentaries Huston made for the army's Signal Corps. Shot in 1945 at New York's Mason General Hospital, it seems intended to show how well the military was curing GIs of the pesky "psychoneurotic illnesses" they'd picked up during the war: stuttering fits, twitches, hysterical paralysis, night terrors, weeping spells, mysterious bouts of amnesia. Soldiers were ramrodded through an eight-week therapeutic program and expected to emerge happy, whole, and ready to contribute to society again.
I've found nothing in Huston's autobiography that indicates he wanted to subvert the military's happy-talk message. He spent three months at the hospital with a full crew of cameramen, led by Stanley Cortez (who shot The Magnificent Ambersons and The Night of the Hunter), filming individual and group therapy sessions. And over the course of the hour-long film we witness more than a few psychiatric miracles. In one scene, sodium pentothal is used to treat a soldier's psychosomatic paralysis. In another, hypnosis cures a patient.
But from the moment the film begins--with a statement that the amazing results we're about to see are possible only in military hospitals dealing with war-related psychological problems--sensitive viewers will discover less positive messages about military psychiatric practices. Many of the individual therapy sessions, for example, are conducted not in private offices but in assembly-line fashion, in long rows of open cubicles. Huston drives home the fact that GIs had greater privacy when they called home by showing long rows of fully enclosed phone booths. Ultimately we don't
really know which side Huston was on. There's even something disquieting about the way he shoots a baseball game at the end: a handful of players are dwarfed by the huge, carefully manicured lawn surrounding the playing field and by the huge, faceless hospital, looming like Kafka's castle in the background. Yet the game's explicit message is that our boys are cured and able to enjoy the great American pastime.
The military must have sensed the ambivalence at the heart of Let There Be Light--it refused to give the film a general release. At one point in the late 40s Huston was granted permission to screen his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but the army changed its mind at the last minute and sent two military policemen to confiscate the film minutes before it was shown. Thereafter no public screening was allowed until 1980, when the White House interceded and the ban on Let There Be Light was lifted.
Perhaps more alienating to modern viewers than the film's ambivalence, however, is Huston's "documentary" style. Everything seems staged and artificial, even the interviews with patients. This was no fault of Huston's, who was just following the conventions of his time: first he interviewed subjects off camera, and if he liked their answers he interviewed them again on film. Similarly, shots of therapy sessions are really reenactments of therapy sessions. Accustomed as we are to cinema verite, these scenes come across as unconvincing, stiff, and boring. They lack the touch of uncertainty and spontaneity that makes reality TV--even faked reality TV--so compelling. The patients seem lost souls unable to sound convincing or even interesting as they reveal the terrifying details of their young lives.
It would be tempting to go for easy laughs in adapting a film like this to the stage, exaggerating the most manipulative moments and making the propaganda unmistakable, following the model of the Annoyance and Factory theaters. But Ellison and Stinton take a higher, more interesting road, using the material to create a fascinating serious drama. Or rather four interwoven dramas as they focus on four of Huston's soldiers. Then Ellison, who directs, tells their stories in a way that's much more compelling than in the film, embellishing her production as the actors do their characters and paradoxically turning Huston's unbelievable "truth" into convincing fiction.
This choice works in part because the actors playing the soldiers--Peter De Giglio, Chad Reinhart, James Yeater, and Peter James Zielinski--are adept at conveying their characters' sometimes extreme psychological problems with grace and subtlety. Even more important is the play's army doctor, who's much more hard-assed than any of the physicians in the film. While they seem kindly, attentive father and grandfather substitutes, this doctor--never overplayed by Joe Janes--has a stiff-necked Oliver North quality. He makes manifest the subtext of Huston's film, that the army's "nurturing" intent is to patch up the soldiers' psyches just enough to push them out the door and wash its hands of the matter.
In Ellison and Stinton's version we're aware of this fact from the get-go, an awareness that makes us care all the more about the four soldiers. By the play's end, we know that the magical quick fixes--the sodium pentothal, the hypnotism, and the Reader's Digest version of psychoanalysis--are not as permanent as the doctor and his hopeful patients pretend.
That Ellison and Stinton were able to create a viable work of drama from Huston's static film is remarkable. Then again, they and Michael Ross did create the 2001 version of WNEP's most sublime show yet, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, based on Chris Van Allsburg's children's book. In Let There Be Light...! Ellison and Stinton have brought us other mysteries, wisely leaving most of them intact. Unlike Huston or the army, they face the central enigmas of the soldiers' stories: why they became ill, how they recovered, and how long their recoveries will last.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Don Hall.