Playwrights can emerge from unexpected corners. George Bernard Shaw was a drama and music critic. Margaret Edson, author of Wit, was a kindergarten teacher and hospital worker. Miguel Piñero, author of Short Eyes, was a gang member and prison inmate.
Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, the new docudrama about the landmark decision by the Washington Post to publish details about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, now at Off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop, was written over a 20-year period by Geoffrey Cowan, a lawyer and law professor. (His co-author Leroy Aarons died some years ago.) It is his first play; he does not plan to write another.
As the title suggests, the play concerns one of the most famous and pivotal cases in defense of the freedom of the press in the history of the United States. Cowan, 67, lived through that time when the Nixon White House, the leadership of the New York Times and Washington Post, and the courts all struggled over whether the press had a right to print — and the public had a right to know — the contents of classified documents known as The Pentagon Papers. The papers, leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg, covered the country's political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 and baldly revealed that four administrations, from Truman to Johnson, had lied to the people about their intentions in the Far East. During the early 1970s, Cowan was a public interest lawyer in Washington, DC, and writing "Seat of Government," the Washington column for The Village Voice.
Later on, Cowan taught a course in mass media at UCLA. (He is now professor of journalism and law and dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC.) "I always started off the course with the Pentagon Papers case because I thought it was a great way of framing the class," he said. "As I taught it, I told the story of the time. The students always found it riveting. At a certain point, I thought wouldn't it be interesting to dramatize this, in the manner of plays like In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer or Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?" He found a collaborator in his friend, Aarons, who was an editor and a national correspondent for the Washington Post, serving as the New York bureau chief and later establishing the paper's first Los Angeles bureau.
For material, they went straight to the source. They petitioned court documents through the Freedom of Information Act, and personally interviewed key participants in the historical events. There was, as is usual in history plays, some poetic license. Characters are sometimes put in locations where they were not at the time. The judge and lawyer characters in the play are composites of several people. "It's true," Cowan, said of the story, "but every detail is not true."
Top Secret was first heard, not seen. It emerged as a radio drama, produced by L.A. Theatre Works — which co-produces the New York production with New York Theatre Workshop and Affinity Collaborative Theatre — in 1991, at end of the Gulf War. Ed Asner, Ed Begley Jr, and Marsha Mason starred as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, Post reporter George Wilson and Post publisher Katharine Graham, respectively. The show was aired on NPR, followed by a conversation with some of the real people portrayed in the drama.
That might have been the end of it. But in 2007 and 2008, the script was revived and adapted for the stage. It toured 25 cities, playing many college campuses, including Stanford, UC Davis and University of Arkansas, where Cowan found the story still resonated with students. "What I think students find is a combination of learning about history and also getting an impression of the world they're living in — issues of war and peace and the role of the press and the government lying to us and who do you trust."
Affinity's John Dias saw the play in Philadelphia and encouraged Cowan to bring it to New York. The New York Theatre Workshop production, directed by John Rubinstein, features a top flight case including Larry Pine as Nixon, Peter Strauss as Bradlee, Kathryn Meisle as Graham and Larry Bryggman as attorney general John Mitchell.
When Cowan adapted it for the stage, he made publisher Graham the narrator. "In a certain way, it's her story," he explained. "This was the pivotal moment in her life. The paper was run by her father, and then went in the hands of her husband Philip Graham, who committed suicide in 1963. But after that she relied on other people, even though she was the publisher. She had other people run the paper. The Pentagon Papers becomes a pivotal moment in her professional career, in the career of the Washington Post. It made all the Watergate coverage possible. She decided to publish, even though her entire family enterprise is at risk, and she could be charged for espionage, and could lose her television license. Everything was at stake, but she published them anyway."
Though the Death of the Newspaper has been the talk of the media world for years now, Cowan does not see this heroic episode from the early 1970s as a dusty-covered history lesson. "Part of what people feel when they see the play is they long for something," he said. "They think 'Oh my God, this is what the press can be.' Even though we live in an era in which so much has changed, there are still newspapers and they continue to have a vital function and people seem to still relate to it."