The American Legacy
Metropolitan Playhouse
The American Legacy

220 East Fourth Street  ~  New York, New York   10009
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Shadow of Heroes

“If we haven't done things for some greater good, Julia,
then we're common criminals and that's all”


Ideals remain ever beyond our grasp...hence the name.  And yet we uphold them: aspirations to which we may ever strive.
Should we?  When does devotion to an ideal beget an ideology? And if we cleave to it too tenaciously, blinkered creatures that we are, might we be doomed betray the very dream to which we aspire?

Robert Ardrey’s Shadow of Heroes begins here and plunges into thorny political, moral, and even epistemological quandaries.  The play does so with dramatic flair and heartfelt passion, showing historical movements through the lives and relationships of human beings in all their pathos, humor, frailty, and transcendence. The result is not only a philosophical confrontation, but exciting, moving, funny, and frightening theater.

Based on actual people and events, Shadow of Heroes is an American author’s account of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. We begin in a Budapest safe house in 1944, the eve of the Nazis’ defeat, as three resistance fighters plan to make contact with their Russian liberators.  The extraordinary stories of the three—committed Communist leader László Rajk, his wife and partner Julia, and his deputy János Kádár—unfold as they help to create a post-war government under Party directives from Moscow. The twisting history sees János, an obedient worker, ascend almost in spite of himself to party leadership; László, whose popularity threatens the state’s authority, convicted of treason one year, but rehabilitated seven years later; and Julia imprisoned, then released, and then embraced as a martyr who inspires the rebellion well as the Soviet tanks that crushed it.

This fictionalized but essentially true story celebrates idealists. Unflinchingly devoted to a better future for all mankind, they face political foes, one another’s mistrust, and their own crises of faith. Their world becomes a hall of mirrors in which personal truth is distorted beyond recognition.  Guided by an ironical but feeling narrator in scenes that are by turns touching, tense, and even absurdly funny (much like Armando Iannucci’s recent film Death of Stalin), the play’s characters include unyielding visionaries, compromised flunkies, self-serving Machiavels, petty bureaucrats, sadistic enforcers, and innocent children.

What Goes Around
In 1958, Shadow of Heroes was as urgent as it was philosophical. The story of the Hungarian Rebellion two years before had received less notice in American papers than the concurrent Suez crisis, which bore more immediately on American economic interests. Ardrey drew attention to what he called the “Hungarian Passion” in horrified sympathy.  It is said he may have achieved more than a stage triumph with its London opening, which starred Peggy Ashcroft under the direction of Peter Hall: within two weeks, Julia Rajk and her son were released from Soviet imprisonment. Even so, the play was never performed on Broadway. We know of only one New York production, in 1961 at the off-Broadway York Playhouse, and another in Seattle in 1964.

Shadow of Heroes scrutinized the power and mechanics of the Soviet Union under Stalin and Khrushchev, but it is not leftover propaganda from the Cold War. It remains current and broadly meaningful. For those with a taste for irony: another distraction for Americans in ‘56 was the presidential contest, in which both Eisenhower and Stevenson accused the Soviet premier of election meddling. More deeply, Ardrey’s topical drama asks complicated questions that echo in 2018. Its concerns are the topics of headlines from a riven and polarized America, and from nationalist movements and autocratic states around the world. We hear these echoes in reports of fake news, anthem protests, church scandals, the #MeToo movement, and innumerable state repressions and cover-ups. The play details the many ways that ideological zeal may corrupt its adherents.  It reveals how the self-interested may manipulate information to protect their own power.  It exposes the anointed leaders of a faith betraying its central tenets, even in the name of preserving that faith’s practice. It unveils the chaos and suspicion that infest and undo autocracies.  It shows how one person’s celebrity may be manipulated to serve multiple political ends. It affirms that one woman’s suffering brought to light may ignite  national change. 

Ardrey’s work always closely engages the complexities of human social and political behavior. Indeed, to many, he is better known for his controversial anthropological nonfiction, such as The Territorial Imperative (1970). But, author of numerous screenplays as well, including the Oscar-nominated Khartoum, he was at heart a dramatist, gifted in bringing his inquiries to life. His closest companions in our theatrical tradition might be Tom Stoppard or Bertolt Brecht.  His plays range in style from fantastical (such as Thunder Rock) to literal (the Civil Rights play Jeb) to the documentary Shadow of Heroes, which recalls the Federal Theater Project plays performed at Metropolitan: Power, One-Third of a Nation, and Injunction Granted.

Those plays from the 1930’s were also idealistic. In the end, we need ideals, just as we need martyrs, to set impossible standards to guide our paths.  May we be ever mindful of our own capacities for arrogance and frailty, as well as for grace.
We are proud to present Shadow of Heroes, a play that embraces the promise and danger of tenacity with such complexity and heart, in our 27th season, the Season of Perseverance.

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