Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers
Also see Bob's review of The Vertical Hour
For Americans of a certain age, the release of the Pentagon Papers was one of those watershed events after which nothing would ever seem the same again. For some, publication of the Papers was an act of national betrayal and a demonstration of the reckless and self-aggrandizing tendencies of the press. For others it provided undeniable evidence that some of the highest officials in our government had been lying to us for years and were willing to sacrifice countless lives in a futile war rather than admit their own mistakes.
If you weren't around, or weren't paying attention, in the early 1970s, you can get a quick précis of the story at a performance of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, a touring production by L.A. TheatreWorks which played the Edison Theatre at Washington University on January 25 and 26. The Pentagon Papers were a study of the history of American involvement in Vietnam, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and completed in 1969: the final report ran to over 7000 pages in 47 volumes. The Papers were intended to be seen by selected eyes only: originally only 7 copies (or 15, depending on which version you believe) of this top secret report were made and, with true government logic, were kept away from practically anyone who would actually want to read them. Although much of the information in the Papers was already public knowledge (a fact which would prove vital in the Post's argument that they should be declassified), there were also new and significant revelations: for instance, that Lyndon Johnson was making plans to escalate the war at the same time he was running for president as the "peace candidate."
A key player in the story of the Pentagon Papers doesn't appear in Top Secret: Daniel Ellsberg, an expert on the Vietnam War who contributed to the Papers and whose high-level security clearance gave him access to the entire collection. Having become disillusioned with the cynicism and hypocrisy of American leadership and their disregard for the human cost of the war, Ellsberg determined to make the contents of the Pentagon Papers public. He secretly photocopied them over a three month period and provided a copy to the New York Times, who published several articles based on their contents before a court injunction prohibited them from continuing. At that point editor Ben Bagdikian of the Washington Post obtained a copy of the Papers and the Post was faced with the dilemma which occupies this play: publish and achieve a journalist coup while potentially risking jail time and financial ruin, or fail to publish and lose the scoop as well as their self-respect as journalists?
Even if Vietnam-era politics don't interest you, the basic issues are as relevant today as they were in 1970. Government officials still play the National Security card to suppress embarrassing information unrelated to any true security concerns. Should we give them a free pass in this regard or do such claims need to be balanced against the public's right to know and the media's right to publish? Who gets to make that decision? Does release of information which displays the United States in a less than positive light give aid and comfort to the enemy, or is it proof of the strength of our democracy? Does the validity of information, and the media's decision to publish it, depend at all on how the information was obtained?
Top Secret is basically a radio production on stage, with speakers at microphones and an onstage Foley desk manned by several cast members in turn. Many of the actors play more than one role, with small variations in costume (the basic Washington business suit) to differentiate the characters. Staging is minimal as well, an approach that works nicely for this text-heavy script. Top Secret is no dry history lecture, however: the cast uses the limited means at their disposal to do everything necessary for a good dramatic performance; tell a good story with interesting characters, create and resolve dramatic conflict, and don't neglect the potential for humor.
Of course, there's more at work in this story than just striving for Truth, Beauty and the American Way, and Top Secret is not shy about revealing the careerist ambitions of its characters. The chance to achieve a journalistic coup, with a source who basically fell into their laps, is never far from the reporters' or editors' minds. And considering that the Papers were already two years old when the Post received a copy, and that some of the events related occurred 10-20 years previously, time was of the essence primarily in the artificial world of journalistic deadlines. Of course there was also the need to get something out while they could: the injunction against further publication by the Times, which provided the Post with a window of opportunity to publish based on their exclusive access to the Papers, could be ended by a similar injunction directed at the Post.
Further information about this play and the historical background are available from the website www.topsecretplay.org.
Next up in the Ovations! series at the Edison will be The Campbell Brothers and The Louisiana Blues Throwdown in Sacred Funk on February 15, 2008.