Keeping tabs on John Lennon
by Seth Rogovoy
(SHEFFIELD, Mass., July 3, 2003) – A few years back, a director asked playwright Mark St. Germain to write the book for a projected musical based on the life of John Lennon, the founder of the legendary rock group the Beatles and one of the most popular and controversial figures in 20th-century pop culture.
The project never materialized, but St. Germain had spent a considerable amount of time delving into Lennon’s life, including reading the entire contents of the file that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had kept on Lennon, a file that grew especially thick in the early-1970s when the Bureau, egged on by the Nixon White House, feared Lennon’s potential as a political agitator.
The contents of that file – and the questions it raised about the people who amassed it -- stuck with St. Germain. So when he got the green light from Julianne Boyd, artistic director of Barrington Stage Company, St. Germain was ready to explore the mystery of what it might have been like to keep tabs on Lennon for the F.B.I. in the form of a play.
“At the beginning, I thought why in the world would they put this much effort into trying to deport a rock musician,” said St. Germain in a recent phone interview from the offices at Barrington Stage Company, where the ultimate fruits of his research in the form of the comic drama, “Ears on a Beatle,” are being given a world premiere on Stage II at the Consolati Performing Arts Center now through July 19.
The answer to why becomes clear in St. Germain’s play. The same irrational fear that led the Nixon team to instigate a third-rate burglary of Democratic offices at the Watergate complex – the fear of losing the 1972 presidential election – drove the F.B.I. to keep Lennon under tight surveillance because he was believed to wield enormous
influence among millions of newly enfranchised voters between the ages of 18 and 21.
“Ten million kids between eighteen and twenty will vote for the first time this November,” says the play’s senior F.B.I. agent, Howard Ballantine -- played by Dan Lauria of TV’s “Wonder Years” -- to his young partner, Daniel McClure -- best known for his role in the Off-Broadway production of “Gross Indeceny: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” -- explaining why they are keeping close tabs on the former Beatle. “And there’s another thirty million under thirty… Forty million people, total, who will vote for whoever he tells them to.”
Never mind the fact that this was total political fantasy – that Lennon, although he was solidly in the pro-peace camp, was pretty much apolitical and, along with his artist wife, Yoko Ono, much more interested in creating cultural and media sensations than in effecting political change.
But John Lennon is not the focus of “Ears on a Beatle.” He is merely the phantom or fantasy that brings the fictional characters together and allows them to explore and develop their relationship to their jobs as government agents and as partners and friends.
“In the past, I’ve always been attracted to plays that deal with historic characters,” said St. Germain, who sent Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Warren Harding on a camping trip together in his award-winning play “Camping with Henry and Tom,” which was produced at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1995. “But I was always interested in doing an historic event with fictitious characters.”
Although exploring the characters of the agents became the focus of the play, it was clear from the beginning that he wasn’t interested in getting cheap laughs at their
“I did not want to make them buffoons,” said St. Germain. “I wanted to make
them human beings. I don’t think these guys are bad guys. They are doing their jobs working for the government.”
Still, the play raises questions about to what lengths one goes in the pursuit of one’s job, and at one point the agents actually debate the meaning of right and wrong.
Although St. Germain didn’t initially conceive of the play in contemporary terms, its themes have turned out to be timely ones.
“In the times we live in now, when you have to balance the rights of the individual with national security and the issues we face today, I think it is very relevant,” he said. “I think in a democracy we always have to be really vigilant as far as the purpose behind our policies.”
To capture the flavor of the time and to open the play’s expanse beyond the two agents, the production uses voiceovers recorded by actors and historical figures who played a role in politics and culture in the Seventies. Among these are talk-show host Dick Cavett, Lennon attorney Leon Wildes, actor Robert Vaughn, former congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, and folksinger Arlo Guthrie.
Another character that looms over the proceedings is a wall of boxes stacked from floor to ceiling meant to represent the F.B.I. files. Through innovative stagecraft, these boxes open up or swing out to become something else, like a phone booth, lending an ominous, Big Brother-like quality to the setting.
One element that St. Germain regrets is not included in the play is any of John Lennon’s music.
“To get the rights to the music would have been cost-prohibitive at this point,” he said. “But I wish we could have used it.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 4, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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