Thursday, June 11, 2009

Philip Yordan: A Modern-Day Shakespeare? by Daryl Pinksen

The authorship of Shakespeare’s plays has been questioned for well over a century. The cause of this skepticism depends on whom you ask: Stanley Wells attributes doubt to either snobbery or mental illness, while Jonathan Bate explains the phenomenon as a form of heresy against the worship of Shakespeare. Perhaps, but there are troubling facets of Shakespeare’s biography on which most scholars agree: while there is ample evidence of his business life, there is sparse evidence of any literary life. Filmmaker Mike Wood suggests Shakespeare’s remarkably low profile as a writer may have been the result of a "secret Catholicism" which forced him, out of fear, to keep his literary self hidden. Others speculate that the lack of evidence of a literary life tells us Shakespeare was not the writer of his plays, but instead acted as a "front" for some other writer.

In Marlowe’s Ghost, I argue that Shakespeare, as a shareholder in the theatre company that performed the plays attributed to him, used his position to act as a front for Christopher Marlowe, a writer I speculate had fled from prosecution and was in hiding. I also compare the political climate in the 1590s to Hollywood in the 1950s. Change the location and time, substitute "Atheist" for "Communist," and a close parallel becomes apparent. In the 1950s, with the Cold War ramping up, domestic Communists were branded as enemies of the state. In Marlowe’s day, with England under threat from continental Catholic Europe, those branded with Atheism – never an entirely safe position in any age – provoked the same kind of visceral hatred.

In the 1950s, dozens of writers fled Hollywood for Mexico, New York, London, Paris and Madrid, fearing imprisonment if they were subpoenaed. In 1593 London, a new law passed in Parliament – authorizing search, seizure, and torture – spurred Christopher Marlowe to warn his friend and fellow playwright Thomas Kyd to flee to Scotland. Marlowe was adamant that he would be leaving soon to go "unto the King of Scots," and he was busy making the rounds of his literary friends pressuring them to leave England as well. Of course, Hollywood Communists’ greatest fear was imprisonment; that was the least of Marlowe’s worries. He, and those of like mind, could be tortured and executed, and many were.

We now know that both Kyd and Marlowe were arrested before they had a chance to escape the repression. I argue in Marlowe’s Ghost that the May 1593 Deptford meeting between Marlowe and three associates in the English intelligence network, where it is reported that Marlowe was killed by one of these men, was actually a cover for Marlowe to escape to Scotland with the assistance of master spy Robert Poley, another of the men at the Deptford meeting. In exile, Marlowe would have continued to write – just as blacklisted Hollywood writers did in Mexico in the 1950s – but he would have needed a way to get his work into production.

Shakespeare, essentially a 16th-century producer, was perfectly positioned to bring playscripts to the company, claim them as his own, and share in the wealth from their production. The recognized anomalies of Shakespeare’s biography - plenty of evidence of a business life in the theatre, but no evidence of a literary life, save for his name on a collection of fine plays which echo the mind and work of Christopher Marlowe - could be explained with this scenario.

An interesting theory, but could Shakespeare actually have gotten away with this? I argue yes, and offer as a historical parallel the career of Oscar-winning1 screenwriter-producer Philip Yordan, active during the era of the Hollywood blacklist.

Much of our information about Yordan’s career as a screenwriter-producer comes from Bernard Gordon, a blacklisted writer employed and fronted by Yordan in the period following the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings. Despite working alongside Yordan for years, Gordon was never able to say for sure whether Yordan was a brilliant and prolific writer or a complete fraud. Studio executives had been suspicious of the origins of Yordan’s scripts during the blacklist years, and if the blacklist had not been broken, those suspicions would probably be familiar only to a small number of Hollywood insiders. In Gordon’s blacklist memoir Hollywood Exile he introduces Philip Yordan:
For many years, Philip Yordan was the talk of Hollywood. Regarded by some as a fraud, by others – including important stars and directors – as a genius, he amassed an improbable number of screen credits and seemed incredibly prolific.2
Yordan, whose name appears in the credits of a large and impressive body of films, was rumored to have employed uncredited writers. According to Bernard Gordon in Hollywood Exile (1999):
From 1944 until 1960 Yordan had a unique whirlwind career in Hollywood, principally as a writer, but also as a producer. He is credited officially with fifty to sixty screenplays and productions, an output that seems inordinate. For that reason, as well as others, he is widely said to have run a script factory. Of course, the same was said about the literary output of Zola and Dumas. Personally, I know of instances when Yordan put his own name on scripts that were written by blacklisted screenwriters (including my own), but there was real justification for that.3
Gordon was aware of the rumors, and while working for Yordan as a writer was able to observe him up close for many years, helping to develop script ideas, discussing production problems like funding, locations, and casting, but he was never able to come to a decision about Yordan. Was Yordan the great writer that his screen credits lead us to believe? Did he write some of the scripts he is credited with? Did he write anything?

In an interview with Patrick McGilligan for Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (1997), McGilligan puts it to Gordon outright:
Do you think he was once a great writer who decided to channel his energies into business and promotion? Or is he one of Hollywood’s greatest hoaxes as a writer, someone who never actually wrote?4
Clearly uncomfortable answering the question (Yordan had employed Gordon while Gordon was blacklisted and had paid him well while other blacklistees’ careers were in ruins), Gordon answers:
Look, I can’t answer that question, and I don’t want to answer that question. I don’t want to make a judgment. I consider him a friend. It’s not possible for me to say what he did during his better days. When he was writing scripts for important directors and producers, I can’t believe he was incapable of writing a good scene or a good script. He must have been. But I didn’t see it.5
During years of working together on films, while Yordan sold many scripts to Hollywood studios with his name on them as writer, Bernard Gordon never saw Yordan write anything. Gordon did, though, see Yordan put his name on scripts which he did not write, including his own.

Suppose now for a moment that the Hollywood blacklist had never been broken, and the label “Communist” still induced a revulsion similar to that felt toward “Atheists” in the Elizabethan period. If Bernard Gordon had never been un-blacklisted, he would never have gotten Hollywood Exile published, and would never have been interviewed by Patrick McGilligan about his experience as a blacklisted writer. As the years passed, and the studio heads’ skepticism of Yordan faded with them from memory, all that would remain of Philip Yordan would be his name on dozens of films as writer and producer.6 Those credits would be cited as unassailable proof of Yordan’s contribution to 20th-century screenwriting.

Was Philip Yordan a fraud? Bernard Gordon does not want to believe it, but this may have more to do with Yordan’s impressive capacity for secrecy – and Gordon’s gratitude – than the truth.

If Philip Yordan could get away with a deception of this magnitude in the 1950s, William Shakespeare could have gotten away with a similar deception in the 1590s.

Daryl Pinksen

© Daryl Pinksen, June 2009

Daryl Pinksen, a regular MSC contributor, is the author of Marlowe's Ghost, Grand Prize Winner of the 17th Annual Writer's Digest International Self-Published Book Awards.

1Yordan was nominated for an Oscar three times, and won the award in 1954 for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story for the film Broken Lance.
2Gordon, Bernard. Hollywood Exile: Or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1999. p. xiii.
3Gordon, 1999. p.106.
4McGilligan, Patrick and Paul Buhle. Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. p.277.
5McGilligan and Buhle, 1997. p.277.
6See Philip Yordan’s IMDB profile at Out of sixty-five writing credits, four are listed as “front for Ben Maddow," and two are listed as “front for Bernard Gordon." The rest are still attributed to Yordan, with no indication of any doubt.

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RobertKWeiner said...

A wonderful article. I can imagine how many Yordans there were! Keep up the great work.

Objectivist said...

Mr. Pinksen,

The concept of frontman is not as unusual as Stratfordians would like us to believe. After all, many celebrity autobios, even by famous political figures, were penned by someone else.

Milanese55 said...

Never cared about who wrote Shakespeare but I find I'm starting to now. Although I'm not completely sold on Marlowe, the case being made for him on this blog is quite good.

Christine said...

Yes, I agree with you, Daryl. If this could have been pulled off in the 20th century, no doubt it could have been done during Elizabethan times.

And because Marlowe was in fact a spy all the more possible!!!!

Anonymous said...

You ever wonder why the Stratford folks get SO angry, SO dismissive when you question the VERY limited facts that exist concerning their boy Will? Classic Freudian denial.

Anonymous said...

for all who doubt that Shakespeare could have been a front...
thanks, Mr. Pinksen; nicely done!

Unknown said...

A new way of looking at the whole blacklisting issue in the 50's.
I've sent this article to a number of friends open to the authorship issue.

Anonymous said...

thanks again for another very informative article. i wonder if we will really ever know the true authorship..

Unknown said...

makes COMPLETE sense that Shakes. could have suceeded as a front. My heavens, am I to believe that every celebrity is actually penning his/her own books?

MarkCiccone said...

a highly logical parallel.

Unknown said...

very interesting