How “The Story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg” Came to Be
The “The Story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg” is a play I co-authored in 1976. My journey to creating the script began years before. In 1953, when I was an 18 year old theatre student in New York City, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, NY, after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage during the infamous McCarthy anti communist era in one of the most controversial trials in U.S. history. (See http://www.rfc.org/caseoverview). The international movement for justice for the Rosenbergs swept many countries of the world with massive worldwide protests. But Cold War hysteria and the myth of atom bomb “secrets” of which there were none still abounded in the USA. When the Soviet Union exploded their first atom bomb in 1949, it provided the anti-Communist Crusade with more opportunity to escalate its attacks on dissenters at home. Fear of atomic war, like the fear of terrorism today since 9/11, was successfully used to frighten and manipulate the population. Bomb shelters were built into schools, duck and cover drills in anticipation of atomic bomb attack went on across the country.
But not everyone was silenced. In the New York City Broadway arts community, a few leading figures spoke out against the kangaroo court. My drama teacher, actor, director, writer Howard da Silva was one, along with other blacklisted professional New York actors like Morris Carnovsky and Phoebe Brand, founders of the historic Group Theater in New York. They staged readings of the Rosenbergs’ letters and went on tour in an effort to save them. As the baby sitter for the da Silva’s children, I heard many rehearsals in their living room. I remember the tremendous sadness I felt around the Rosenberg’s tragic deaths in the electric chair after an unjust trial, although the mainstream US press still reviled them.
Years later, as an adult and mother of two, during my frequent visits to revolutionary Cuban, I was surprised to find a monument to the Rosenbergs on a major Havana thoroughfare. Over the intervening years the Rosenberg’s sons were adopted as children by the song writer Abel Meeropol, author of the iconic song “Strange Fruit” made popular by Billie Holiday. They took the Meeropol name and became professors. They continued to protest their parent’s unjust murder and founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children to help other children of political dissenters suffering persecution here in the United States. The Rosenberg’s famous international cause touched Cuban hearts and today there is a Rosenberg monument that appears in tourist literature.
In 1975, my friend, film maker Estela Bravo invited me to join her in a new project, The Rosenberg Brigade. I had worked with Estela earlier in those pre-computer days assisting on a project to archive American folk and protest music at Casa de las Americas, the leading cultural institution in Cuba. The Rosenberg Brigade was a Cuban theatrical group that toured rural boarding schools and other outposts in the countryside to present live readings of the letters of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in Spanish with slides of the Rosenbergs and press clippings. The letters of Ethel were read by the famous exiled Chilean TV star Mirella LaTorre. The performances were always well received, the audiences deeply moved by this family drama with the love letters between the couple and their tragic deaths, leaving behind two small children.
Upon my return to California in 1976, Paul Richards contacted me with a proposal to write a multi-media piece about the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Paul had gone to graduate school with the Rosenberg’s son, Michael Meeropol, in Madison Wisconsin and was an Assistant Professor of History at the time we met. I brought in my experienced artistic team, my brother Philip Serrano for music, Judith Binder for writing and direction, and Beryl Landau for Graphics. Paul delved right into the one thousand page trial transcript and other sources and came up with some juicy quotes on file cards. We wrote a full blown drama. In the meantime, Paul and I fell in love and 12 years later, married.
The play “The Story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg” premiered at La Pena Cultural Center, Berkeley in 1976 and then toured Bay Area Colleges and finally was performed on KPFA-radio and KQED-TV. Philip Serrano wrote a theme song for the play. In our original production, I played Ethel and Paul played her villainous brother David Greenglass. Judith Binder directed and played the Narrator.
Then, just days ago, Paul and I were delighted and surprised to authorize a new 21st century production of “The Story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg” following the request from Jacob Justice of Bryon, Texas. Jacob did a great job of revising the script by eliminating the narrator to create more action, and adding live newsboys shouting out headlines. He will stage it with Bryan High School Students November 11, 12, and 14, 2016.
So now, Paul and I, together these last 40 years, are looking forward to being in the audience opening night in November when we hope that the old cold war clamor will have quieted down enough for the truth to be heard by new generations.
In our searching around for old manuscripts and other materials for Jacob Justice’s new production, we rediscovered some 1976 cast photos and Philip Serrano’s original music composed for the play which we put together in a short video for you to enjoy.
The new production of the play will take place in the context of the Rosenberg Fund for Children’s campaign to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg based on new materials exposing her brother David Greenglass’s false testimony used against her at the trial. For more info about the Rosenberg Fund campaign click here.