Imagining Horowitz v. Holtzman: What a Debate at Theater J Might’ve Sounded Like
Right-wing firebrand David Horowitz and playwright Willy Holtzman won't be debating each other tomorrow night at Theater J. Instead actors will read Horowitz's irate response to Holtzman's play Something You Did, and Holtzman's rebuttal.
But even if the two had agreed to appear on the same stage, it's doubtful they would've reached common ground. Horowitz says Holtzman's character Gene Biddle is him; Holtzman says he's not. Neither will budge.
The play, which pits a jailed '60s radical involved in a failed bomb plot that killed a policeman against a former '60s radical who is now a neo-conservative pundit, runs through Sunday.
"I’m not writing a play about David Horowitz and the character is not literally David," Holtzman said yesterday. "The character Gene Biddle is a character from an earlier play of mine. Bovver Boys had to do with an American Quaker pacifist who worked in Scotland, a community organizer...and when I started thinking my way through Something You Did I thought, 'What if he reconsidered his politics?'
"There’s some of him in [Gene Biddle]," Holtzman says, and there's some of Kathy Boudin—and others—in the play's Alison Moulton character. “David’s the only one who's come forward, and he’s done it in the most incendiary way. These two characters participated in Freedom Summer, unlike David. They're two idealistic teenagers and 40-some-odd years later they find themselves on the opposite ends of the political universe."
But where Holtzman sees an amalgamation, Horowitz sees a thinly veiled attack. He told me Wednesday: "It was very clever of him to make it hard to sue him for libel, but there’s something called a false light invasion of privacy. I don’t use these things because I think they're injurious to democracy, especially for people in semipublic life. But it’s more than disengenous to say it’s not me when he went out of his way in his program notes to libel me and put me in the same camp as a fucking murderer."
Ah, the program notes. In them, Holtzman writes:
Something You Did takes aim at the paradoxical nature of American political life. It is inspired by real events, namely the parole appeal of one-time Weather Underground extremist Kathy Boudin, who was an accomplice in an armored car robbery that left three men dead, incluing (sic) an African-American police officer. Boudin's release after more than 20 years in prison drew the fury of the PBA (Patrolmen's Benevolent Association) and the political right, yet no critic was more corrosive than former radical turned outspoken neo-conservative, David Horowitz. Horowitz was quick to label Boudin a terrorist and equate her with "Islamofascists." But he was not without his own moral baggage, having possibly contribute to the death of his colleague Betty van Patter through a misguided association with the Oakland Black Panthers.
That last part, about Horowitz's moral baggage and what responsibility he has for the 1974 death of Betty van Patter, the two hash out in letters that Theater J published on its blog (Horowitz's; Holtzman's).
But Holtzman insists he wasn't making a moral equivalency: The play doesn't allude to van Patter, nor to Boudin's involvement in the 1981 robbery and murder. "If I brought in that in the program notes in a too casual way, then I apologize for that," Holtzman said. "It obviously haunts him, but it wasn’t making an equivalency."
Holtzman said that Horowitz's reading of the letter shaded his reading of the play, which he said is critical of all of its characters and is as interested in moral obligation and forgiveness as it is in its characters' humanity.
Horowitz will agree that the Biddle character isn't wholly villified, and that Moulton isn't wholly forgiven. "Given the way some leftists think it could’ve been a total whitewash," he said. "But to me it’s more devious than a play that flat-out constructed a case for [Boudin's] innocence. It’s more sinister than that because it appears to be even-handed."
Again: Here the two won't budge. Horowitz sees a historical play that's twisted the facts. Holtzman sees counterfactual history.
Horowitz was actually itching to hash it out in person, he says. He wanted to debate Holtzman on stage. Then he read the play—and reacted, well, like this—and was told the event would have to be a panel, not a debate. He settled for having his letter distributed and read aloud.
Holtzman admits he didn't want to face Horowitz one-on-one. "David is a skilled debator and I’m not," he said. "He would’ve kicked my ass." He added that if the two went out to an alley and fought with fists, he's pretty sure he'd win, but it wouldn't resolve their dispute. "I think he’s not very knowledgeable about dramatic writing. Shakespeare had his history plays but they weren’t all faithfully historical. He wrote them to examine his own time."
And besides, Holtzman said: His play is about putting two people with far-flung politics in the same room so that they can discover a common humanity. "The irony of all this is that David is proving it one way. He doesn’t try to understand the play or ask any questions. He made inferences and assumptions and went on the attack with them. He’s proved with his assumptions that there’s a diminishing chance for political discourse now."
For Horowitz, the play is about something else: The crimes of the American left. "This play turns out to be a sophisticated cliché," he said, singling out one monologue by Alison Moulton in which she says she helped make a nail bomb because of the anti-personnel bombs the U.S. was dropping in Cambodia during the Vietnam War (the character also claims the bomb wasn't meant to take lives). He brought up another former '60s radical. "Eldridge Cleaver said something like, 'I’m a criminal and a rapist but all my crimes are absolved by Richard Nixon,' by bombing Vietnam. What a cheap argument that is."
Horowitz added: "My feeling is, you can draw different political conclusions from the same reality. I don’t expect people to agree. I think politics is very much the blind guys with the elephant. But what I don’t get about the left is their inability to examine what they did."