John Howard Lawson and the Hollywood Ten

John Howard Lawson (center) with members of the Hollywood Ten
Design for John Howard Lawson's Processional by Mordecai Gorelik 

Called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in October 1947 during the second Red Scare, ten prominent film producers, directors, and screenwriters refused to answer questions regarding their possible communist affiliations based on their First Amendment right to free speech. Cited for contempt of Congress, they were sentenced to a year in jail and charged a $1000 fine. Blacklisted by the major studios, screenwriters like John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo were forced to sell scripts on the black market under pseudonyms.

Lawson’s father had changed his name from Levy to Lawson before John was born in order to minimize his family’s exposure to anti-Jewish discrimination. Nevertheless, Lawson faced bigotry at college, and his service as an ambulance driver in Europe during World War I opened his eyes further to inequality and the growing threat of fascism.

Lawson composed plays and scripts that drew attention to class struggle, and it was not long before he landed on Broadway in 1925 with Processional, where he worked with scenic designer Mordecai Gorelik. The modernist four-act play dramatizes the plight of striking coal miners under martial law and celebrates the working class with jazz music. Fellow experimental theater writers were enthusiastic about Processional, evidenced in the following congratulatory letter handwritten by Arthur Davison Ficke on his personal letterhead and signed along with Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ficke's wife Gladys Brown, and Millay's husband Eugen Boissevain.

Letter from Arthur Davison Ficke, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gladys Brown, and Eugen Boissevain to John Howard Lawson, complimenting him on Processional, January 21, 1925
John Lawson with a Russian wolfhound named Babushka, 1929

While the financial failure of the play turned the Theatre Guild against producing any more expressionistic plays, the revival of Processional in 1937 as part of the Federal Theatre Project was well received by critics and audiences. Later, when his commitment to the plight of labor was questioned, Lawson joined the Communist Party and served for a number of years as the head of its Hollywood division.

Support of equal opportunity by Lawson and his father is documented in correspondence. A letter from Lawson's father around 1930 advises Lawson to choose a name for his baby daughter that will later promote her career and predicts equal numbers of women and men in Congress by 1955, including a woman President of the United States in Lawson's lifetime. A letter from Langston Hughes to Lawson thanks him for assisting with arbitration for his play Mulatto.

Part of a letter to John Howard Lawson from his father, circa 1930
Letter from Langston Hughes thanking John Howard Lawson 
John Howard Lawson before serving jail time 

As one of the Hollywood Ten, Lawson was jailed and fined and found it difficult to work in the aftermath of the McCarthy era. Those who supported the Hollywood Ten were also threatened. British director and actor Charlie Chaplin was investigated by the FBI as a communist sympathizer after donating money to the defense of the Hollywood Ten and was denied a reentry visa to the United States in 1952. On September 9, 1955, he wrote a letter of support to Lawson on the occasion of Lawson’s sixty-first birthday.

After Lawson was blacklisted, he taught at several universities, including Stanford. Although attempts by Mordecai Gorelik to attract Lawson to join the faculty of SIUC were not successful, Gorelik was probably instrumental in acquiring Lawson's extensive manuscript collection. The John Howard Lawson papers, 1905-1977, offers over one hundred boxes of correspondence and manuscripts, scrapbooks, photographs, tapes, audio recordings, and forty-six books, including early diaries and his unpublished autobiography. Materials relate to his career in theater and film, personal relationships, and time in jail. In addition to letters from such luminaries as Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Charles Chaplin, there are materials related to the Screenwriter's Guild and the blacklist, a folder on his originally uncredited work on the screenplay for Cry, the Beloved Country, audio recordings of his lectures, Katherine Hepburn's address on behalf of the Hollywood Ten, and Lawson's appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.

Letter from Charles Chaplin to John Howard Lawson


Works by and about John Howard Lawson

Books and films about the Hollywood Ten

Barranger, Milly S. 2008. Unfriendly witnesses: gender, theater, and film in the McCarthy era. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Chamber, Jonathan L. 2006. Messiah of the New technique: John Howard Lawson, Communism, and American Theatre, 1923-1937. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Hyman, Colette A. Staging Strikes: Workers’ Theatre and the American Labor Movement. 1997. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Papa, Lee. 2009. Staged action: six plays from the American workers' theatre. Ithaca: ILR Press/Cornell University Press.

Saal, Ilka. 2007. New Deal Theatre: The Vernacular Tradition in American Political Theatre. New York: Palgrave McMillan.

John Howard Lawson and the Hollywood Ten