Volume 20, Number 51 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | MAY 2 - 8, 2008

Photo by Richard Termine

Kelly AuCoin and Heidi Ambruster in scenes from the Mint Theater’s production of “The Fifth Column”

Madrid 1937, in the Hemingway original

By Jerry Tallmer

We are in Madrid, in the Hotel Florida in Madrid, under heavy bombardment by the Fascist shells that come screaming in and bursting in the street, killing many people.

“The swine!” says Philip Rawlings. “They timed it for the minute the cinemas let out.” Philip Rawlings, pretending to be a useless playboy pretending to be a third-rate newspaperman, is in fact a counter-espionage American volunteer who, working with a tough old German anti-Fascist named Max, has killed or captured more than one member of the Fifth Column of Francoites boring from within as General Francisco Franco’s four rebel columns close in on the beleaguered capital of the Republic.

“I’m fed up with it,” says Philip to the older man.

“I’ve been doing this so long I’m bloody well fed up with it. With all of it.”

Through his broken mouth—the one the Nazis had applied a red-hot iron to—Max replies: “You do it so everyone will have a good breakfast…You do it so no one will ever be hungry. You do it so men will not have to fear ill health or old age; so they can live and work in dignity and not as slaves…you hear? You do it for all men. You do it for the children and sometimes you do it for dogs.”

It is the nearest that Ernest Hemingway ever got to enunciating a credo that had nothing to do with courage and cowardice, or winners and losers, or men’s relationships with women, even if “The Fifth Column”—the play by Hemingway that, 71 years after it was written at the Hotel Florida between bombardments, is premiering at Off-Broadway’s Mint Theater on West 43rd Street—ties Philip Rawlings up with not just one woman but two.

The only other known New York production of “The Fifth Column” was a 1940 Broadway version “adapted” by a Benjamin Glazer for the Theater Guild to suit the niceties of the era, no matter how impressive the cast: Franchot Tone as Philip, Lee J. Cobb as Max, Katharine Locke as Dorothy, his American Bedmate (a stand-in for the real-life Martha Gelhorn), and Lenore Ulric as Anita, a fiery Spanish whore.

The Mint’s is a premiere because Mint’s artistic director Jonathan Bank has dug out the never before staged original as Hemingway wrote it.

It was during Mint Theater’s recent focus on the meritorious Theater Guild of the 1920s and ’30s that the name of Hemingway jumped out at Bank from a pictorial history of the Guild.

“So I read the play,” says Jonathan Bank, “and it immediately became obvious that there’s a distinctive voice here, and some really interesting characters. When I came across Dorothy’s line—‘Why, I love you all the time. And you feel lovely. Sort of like a snowstorm if snow wasn’t cold and didn’t melt’—I knew I had to do it.”

One problem.

“I didn’t know a thing about the Spanish Civil War,” says the director who was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1959—twenty-one years after those four columns marched into Madrid and destroyed the Republic. “But the more I read the play, the more I understood what was going on. And I only had to read it twice to be sure I wanted to do it.”

“His actors are Kelly AuCoin as Philip, Ronald Guttman as Max, Heidi Armbruster as Dorothy, Nicole Shalhoub as Anita, with James Andreassi, Ryan Duncan, John Hayden, Joe Hickey, Carlos Lopez, Ned Noyes, Maria Parra, Joe Rayone, and Teresa Yenque in supporting roles.

Deep-dyed Hemingwayites will find all sorts of buried treasures in this play. For instance a use of the verb “provoke” that will re-echo from the lips of Pablo in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” a year or two later. Or this wisecrack, Philip to Dorothy: “You’ve been reading that American magazine, Esquire. You’re not supposed to read what it says, you know. You’re only supposed to look at the pictures.”

Well, Esquire was the magazine where the reader you are reading first came upon and devoured “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

Or, toward the bottom of Philip Rawling’s peroration about the shallowness and conformity of well-to-do American girls: “They have something called the Junior League I believe that the virgins work at.”

But for all its crackle and spark, “The Fifth Column,” like the real Fifth Column, and the Spanish Civil War itself, was and is no laughing matter.

Says Philip Rawlings, the predecessor to Robert Jordan of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”: “We’re in for fifty years of undeclared wars and I’ve signed up for the duration. I don’t exactly remember when it was, but I signed up all right.”

I don’t think he would sign up today. The wrong war. Many wrong wars. But Madrid 1937 lives on, on the third floor of 311 West 43rd Street.

The Fifth Column. By Ernest Hemingway. Directed by Jonathan Bank. A Mint Theater production. Through May 4 (or beyond), 311 West 43rd Street, Third Floor, (212) 315-0231, or minttheater.org.




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