The release of Steven Spielberg’s new film The Post late last year immediately took me back to 1991. Early that year, I called a constitutional lawyer I knew slightly for information on something I was working on. He gave me what I needed and then said what every producer dreads, “Oh, by the way, I have written a play.” I silently groaned and said, “Oh, great, send it on—love to read it.”
The play landed on my desk the next day with the improbable title, Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers by Geoffrey Cowan and LeRoy Aarons. I glanced at it from time to time, and then the first Gulf War happened, bringing with it memories of Vietnam and the ongoing issue of national security vs. the peoples’ right to know. When I finally picked up the script, I was riveted by the story of the moment in June 1971 when the Washington Post decided to publish the Pentagon Papers after The New York Times had been enjoined.
Top Secret was not a perfect play, but it was a very good draft, and I knew it was a monumental story about the importance of two great American institutions—the free press and the independent judiciary—that needed to be told. It was a perfect project for our company, L.A. Theatre Works, which records plays in front of live audiences for public broadcasting. It was a play in the tradition of great theatrical dramas with a powerful courtroom battle.
Our local broadcaster in Santa Monica, KCRW, did not need convincing. Neither did NPR, which wanted to carry it live to their national audience. Within a month, after a flurry of rewriting by the authors, working alongside dramaturg Doris Baizley and director Tom Moore, NPR took it to the nation with a thrilling 90-minute broadcast starring Ed Asner as Ben Bradlee, Marsha Mason as Katherine Graham, Hector Elizondo as Fritz Beebe, and Robert Foxworth as Ben Bagdikian. Others in the cast included Ed Begley Jr., Stacy Keach, Harry Shearer, and James Whitmore. The recording included a post-play discussion with Bradlee himself, along with other journalists. Reviewing the play for Vogue, Graydon Carter called it “quite magnificent,” and the broadcast won the Corporation for Public Broadcasting 1992 Gold and Silver awards in the Best Live Entertainment Category.
At the top of the play, an older Katherine Graham, serving as narrator in retrospect, explains how The New York Times, after bravely deciding to publish an earth-shattering study that had been improperly classified as top secret, was barred from publishing by a federal district court, and that her own editors at the Post were determined to find a copy of the documents and to print them.
Act One runs through roughly the same story the Spielberg film does, taking place in Bradlee’s living room during the 12 hours between the time an editor, Ben Bagdikian, arrives with a copy of the now contraband papers and reporters dig through the still secret documents to produce a story for the next day’s paper, to the moment when Graham, calling from a garden party she’s hosting at her home, makes the fateful decision, against the advice her company’s chairman, Fritz Beebe, and her lawyers. Act One ends with the sound of the presses rolling and Walter Cronkite’s voice beginning to say, “Today, the Washington Post…”
The play’s second act, however, is a courtroom drama underlining the importance of an independent judiciary. Based on interviews with all of the participants, and on court records, including some obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Cowan and Arons’ second act traced the nail-biting trial, which concludes in a super-secret session in which crack reporter George Wilson, whose unmatched knowledge of the Defense Department and photographic memory furnishes proof that every so-called secret item listed by the Justice Department’s lawyers had in fact been published before.
When the film The Post opened in Los Angeles on Dec. 22, Geoff Cowan and I rounded up the actors from all the many productions and went to see it. Afterward we had lunch and reminisced about the many adventures we had with the play on the road in America, where it had toured in 2007 and 2008, culminating in a 2010 run at New York Theatre Workshop, and in China, where it toured in 2011 and 2013 to much acclaim.
We Top Secret veterans all agreed that we had thoroughly enjoyed Spielberg’s film. But as much as we liked its celebration of a free press, we missed the other element of our drama: the courtroom scenes where the lawyers and reporters managed to convince a skeptical judge that it would be wrong and unconstitutional for a court to block publication.
Constitutional significance aside, it’s unfortunate that the dramatic denouement of the trial wasn’t shown on screen. In the play, it comes in a private session in which the Post‘s expert witness, George Wilson, provides evidence that the top secret document wasn’t that at all. From Cowan and Aarons’ play:
The Post Lawyer: Your honor, this may be a sensitive document. Maybe it should even be a secret document. But it’s not a secret, despite the Academy Award-winning performances we have witnessed here this afternoon. The government gave this precise document to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Congress published it in a hearing report. This so called “secret” document has been available to the public—and, need I add, to our enemies—for more than three years!
Judge: Sure looks the same to me. (To the government lawyer) What do you have to say?
Government Lawyer: Your honor, in light of this new material, the government requests a short recess.
And, in the tradition of all great courtroom dramas, at this moment every night our audiences broke into cheers and applause.
George Wilson brings it home in a sort of toast at a celebration that night:
Wilson: One thing came clear to me through the whole thing. It’s easy for the Washington Post and The New York Times to take on the U.S. government. We had the resources. But we didn’t wage this battle just for the giants of journalism. We waged it for the little guys covering some zoning committee for some paper you never heard of. There’re city councils all over the country that would love to have a precedent that would give them the power to cover something up or freeze out the local reporters. So, if for no other reason, we had to do it for them. You know, you can’t really gain freedom, you can only lose it. And that’s what this case was all about. You had to take them on at the top and win. You had to win.
In China, this message continues to resonate. As a result of our performances there, our L.A. Theatre Works radio show—which broadcasts our recordings of great American and European plays new and old—is heard daily on the Beijing Radio Network. Listeners there skew well under 40. And despite the limits on press freedom in China—as Andrew Jacobs wrote in a piece for The New York Times about its original staging there, it was remarkable that “this spare, fast-paced docudrama, performed in English and financed partly by the American Embassy, was even staged in a country whose skittish cultural czars regularly block movies, books and plays they find objectionable”—our broadcasts were just renewed for another five years.
It doesn’t take anything away from the success of The Post to note that there’s more to the story. And looking back over the past three decades, I am glad I did not let Geoff and Roy’s play go unread.
Susan Loewenberg is the producing director of L.A. Theatre Works.