Happy birthday, George F. Kennan
John Lewis Gaddis is a distinguished History Professor at Yale who has just published a biography, GEORGE F. KENNAN An American Life , that has been hailed in reviews in the N.Y. Times and other publications.
Kennan, an important 20th-century statesman and ambassador to the Soviet Union, was born in Milwaukee Feb. 16, 1904, and died at age 101 in 2005. I met him in October of 1992, as a member of Theatre X. The following exchange of letters xplains how and why that happened. Kennan’s diary entry lets you see a great man of, and out of, his time.
On 12/21/11 1:25 PM, I wrote [note: slightly edited for publication in TCD]:
Back in the mid 90’s, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist came to us in Theatre X and told us that George Kennan, a native Milwaukeean, was returning to appear at a symposium to be named for him. The hope was that it would be an inaugural event.
The Mayor told us that rather than name a bridge or something after Kennan, would we like to adapt Kennan’s book, Sketches of a Life, into a theater piece and present it at that time? Since we fancied ourselves theatrical anthropologists and had made about 50 plays from scratch by then, we said we’d give it a try.
Being ignorant of Kennan’s life and work, we read Sketches and then everything else we could find and were overwhelmed by his intelligence, insight and sensitivity. We wrote him for permission to adapt the book and he later approved our script. We only edited his words, never adding anything except voice and an occasional action. We created a piece where 5 of us, men and women, moved about in a kind of library setting and told his stories, from Riga to Gorbachev. There was a bicycle ride on stage as he crossed Wisconsin and we added a few things like the X paper. All of us wore Cardigans and dark slacks.
For some reason, it worked quite well and audiences were large and appreciative. The Mayor loved it and the next year we wrote to George about trying to arrange a performance for him. He shied away from this idea, of course, but we persisted and finally arranged to take it to the Smithsonian and do it there for State Dept. people and other politicos. A conservative foundation paid the way, which was interesting given our 20-year record of political work across the U.S. and in Europe. Kennan agreed to attend, under the strict condition that there would be no recognition of his presence. The Mayor came along and introduced the piece.
In Sketches, he describes his return to Ripon College in the early 50’s to speak. It was soon after his banishment from the State Dept. Ripon was Sen. Joe McCarthy’s back yard.
After a lackluster lecture, he found himself looking out the window of his father’s old dorm room, where they had housed him. In a near blizzard, he calls aloud to his father’s spirit, to ask if he has done right by choosing the path that led him to this bleak point in his life. He wrote of hearing his father answer: take heed of “the strength and indifference of the snow.” That allowed him to go on.
That phrase is the title of our play, so I had to get it right. It is a haunting and beautiful account and I had edited it and had to speak it from the front of the stage as if I stood at that window. As an actor, to make his words work , I had to get out of their way, to own them and not try to manufacture any false emotion. Another Milwaukee guy, Spencer Tracy, said, “Don’t let them catch you acting.” It was one of the most daunting performances I’ve ever had to give in my 40 professional years and 200 plays.
At the end, we bowed and received our applause. After a minute or two, down the aisle came George, smiling with tears on his cheeks, telling us what a wonderful play we’d made from his meager tales. We shook his hand and exchanged profound thanks for his great work and the chance to do ours. What a fine man. I am lucky to have been there and I look forward to reading your book.
Whitefish Bay, WI
Dear Mr. Kishline ,
Thanks for this. I knew about the dramatization of Sketches, both from what George told me at the time, and from the attached entry in his diary, which I thought you might be interested in seeing. The original is in the Mudd Library at Princeton. You’ll see from this how thorough his diaries were, which confronted me with some painful dilemmas as to how much I could include in the biography within the space I had. Unfortunately, I had to leave out the Theatre X production — and much else from his later years. But it obviously evoked complicated emotions in him, as did so much else. I very much appreciate your getting in touch.
With best holiday wishes,
Here is Kennan’s diary entry:
Monday, October 5th, 1992
Two years ago, a small theatrical group in Milwaukee produced, under the stimulus of Milwaukee’s mayor, John Norquist, a two-act (if one may call them “acts”) theatrical program composed solely of the enactment of episodes take from my Sketches and using only my words. I knew nothing, either of the idea, or of the intentions, or of the realization of this project.
This—an entire evening of the words of a single person, as recorded in his diaries at various stages of his life, devoid of plot, of continuity, and of dramatic tension, was bound to be a theatrical tour de force of the first order. It would have challenged the imaginations and the talents of a group of actors far stronger and more experienced than these. I doubt that any such group would ever have even considered undertaking the task.
Well, some weeks ago, I was surprised to learn, rather accidentally, that this performance was to be put on in Washington, under the auspices of the organization known as the Smithsonian Associates—put on in one or the other of the halls over which the Smithsonian disposes in that city. A formal invitation to attend this performance reached me very belatedly—only a week or two before the event. It was not easy for me to decide whether or not to attend it. Obviously, my presence in the hall, if I were to attend, would be an ambiguous one. Yes—I once wrote the words; but I did not arrange them for dramatic development, nor did I recite them. The words, in fact, were only the raw material. It was the actors and the producer who had taken this material and had shaped it into a stage performance. For me to appear, and be recognized, among the audience would be, as I have said, an ambiguous event. For whom would the applause be?—for the cast, or for me? If the performance went off well, I did not want to take, publicly, any of the credit. If it did not, I saw no reason why I, having had nothing to do either with the origin or the realization of the effort, should be saddled with any of the opprobrium.
On the other hand, here these people were. They had arranged to bring their performance to the east coast. They had meant well. It had been conceived as an expression of their admiration not only for what I had written but also for what I was, or what they thought I was. They would, I was sure, be disappointed, perhaps even discouraged, if I showed no interest in it and failed to appear. So I accepted the invitation.
Annelise and I went to Washington by train, on the day of the performance…. It was a beautiful day—a Saturday—and Washington, at least that eastern part of it, was at it magnificent best: all the park and open spaces (of which, I am told, it has more than any other city anywhere) still glowing with their summer gardens and greenery, people out everywhere, running, strolling, using the playing fields, boating on the river—all so pleasant, lovely and cheerful that it was hard to remember that only a few blocks away there was all the wretchedness and crime and misery if the black ghetto. What a strange people we Americans are! And how persistent our belief that if we only follow consistently our traditional political and economic practices, all problems will eventually be solved!
(Here was a digression into his past during a Georgetown walk)
Enough, however, of Georgetown. We all proceeded, that evening, to the performance. It took place in the auditorium of the American Museum of Natural History, on the Mall. It was evening. Darkness had fallen. The museum itself was closed. The hall was in the back of building; to reach it you walked through deserted echoing nocturnal corridors.
I was met and escorted most kindly by the president of the Smithsonian Associates, who was to be my official host for the evening. The hall was a large one, a bit too large for the occasion (but they could not know how many were coming). Annelise and I were seated in the middle of one of the center rows, where it was thought, I was told, that the acoustics would be good. (To me, it seemed that was not at all the case; but that could be attributable to my deafness).
Where I sat, in the center of the hall, I could be seen from all sides; and all sorts of people, some of them old friends, trooped up, pushed into the row in front of me, and leaned over the shake hands and exchange a few words. (So much for the anonymity I had hoped to enjoy on this occasion.)
The show, played (except for one or two parts) by the original cast, was much as I remembered it from the tape I once saw. Whether it was my ears or the faulty acoustics, I could not tell; but I could not hear a great deal of it. I would have liked to warn the actors that such a performance, consisting solely of words once spoken or written by a single person, required very clear enunciation, and not too fast. Beyond that, there were some scenes and passages I thought could well have been omitted. Altogether, it seemed to me that I could have helped with the directing. But some of the passages were effectively spoken. Attention was sustained, for the most part, by lively, if at time strange stage direction; and there was generous applause when it was over.
[Omitted here: Two paragraphs of Kennan’s pondering over a troubling remark directed at him by a friend about an issue raised in the production.]
The actors came down from the stage and I went down the aisle to meet them. I found it hard to tell them of my feelings. I did say, I believe, that I could recall, of course, what most of these things meant to me at the time when I said them; but that, more important, today, was what these same things meant several decades later, to people more than a generation younger than myself; and this they had shown.
It was late in the evening before we came away from the museum. We repaired to a swank Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant for a very late and slowly served dinner. The Mayor of Milwaukee (who had come, with wife and child, to be present at the performance) was there, as were two of the actors—nice persons, both of them. I enjoyed talking with them and, from a greater distance, with the mayor, a young man of Swedish origin for whom I have great and unreserved admiration.
Thus passed the evening; and it was long after midnight before we emerged onto a brilliantly lit but deserted nocturnal Pennsylvania Avenue, to search for a taxi while the troubled capitol, now grown to the stature of a “great city” slept all around us.
Did I do wrong in coming down to Washington for this purpose? From the standpoint of my own enjoyment, certainly. My presence could not, as noted above, have been other than ambiguous. I could take credit (or blame) for the words; yet the dramatic interpretation of them was that of others. But I think the visit was worth it for the comfort and understanding it gave to the actors. They, too, would have been brought up short, and filled with despair, had they been forced to feel that for them, too, there had been a getting-off place, beyond which understanding was not possible. — GFK
I still wake each day wanting another peek around time’s corner that might help make sense of the dilemma of my life: I was born. I will die. How do I amuse myself in between?
On that Washington mall, with a small theatrical troupe from Milwaukee, I understood hope for awhile that night. And 20 years later I learn of some understanding in return. My cockles warm and despair will have to wait until, at least, tomorrow. Right now, I’ve got a laugh that needs a cold beer.