John Howard Lawson

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
John Howard Lawson
Born (1894-09-25)September 25, 1894
New York, New York
Died August 11, 1977(1977-08-11) (aged 82)
San Francisco, California
Pen name Edward Lewis
Occupation Playwright, Screenwriter
Nationality United States
Period Modernism
Spouse Katharine Drain (1918-1923)
Susan Edmond (1925-)
Children Alan Drain
Jeffery Edmond
Susan Amanda

John Howard Lawson (September 25, 1894 – August 11, 1977) was an American writer.[1] He was for several years head of the Hollywood division of the Communist Party USA. He was also the organization's cultural manager and answered directly to V.J. Jerome, the Party's New York-based cultural chief. He was the first president of the Writers Guild of America, West after the Screen Writers Guild divided into two regional organizations.

Lawson's enduring claim to fame comes not from his writing but from the fact that he was one of the members of the Hollywood Ten, the first group of American film industry professionals to be blacklisted during the Second Red Scare.

Life and career

Early life

Lawson was born in New York City, New York on September 25, 1894 to Simeon Levy and Belle Hart Lawson. His father would change their name from Levy to Lawson before Johnathon was born, his reason for which was so that his son could "obtain reservations at expensive resort hotels" [2] When he was five, his mother died. She had named her children after people she admired: John Howard Lawson was named after John Howard, his sister Adelaide Jaffery Lawson was named after a friend of hers who was socially active, and Wendell Holmes Lawson was named after Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.


After Simeon's wife died, he would take control of the children's education: first to Halstead School in Yonkers, New York and then Cutler School (New York) in New Rochelle, New York. In 1906, Simeon sent the three children on a tour of Europe, and seeing theatre was on the list. John Howard would take notes on the set designs, actors, and plays. In 1909, they were sent on a tour of America and Canada.[3]

At age seven, he attended Elizabeth and Alexis Ferms' "Children's Playhouse" school, an experimental school for children.[4]

After studying at Williams College (1910–1914) and graduating with a B.A., he became a successful writer with plays such as Standards (1916) and Servant-Master-Lover (1916). While there, his brother was in Germany studying music and art. Works of Karl Kautsky struck him because of his sense of alienation. He was not only a contributor to The Williams College Monthly, but also an editor of the senior-class book and a member of the varsity debating team. He was known to other students as a good-natured iconoclast and a frequent speaker at undergraduate meetings. After graduating, he would become an editor at Reuters from 1914-1915.

Early career

His first piece, A Hindoo Love Drama was written while at Williams. Mary Kirkpatrick, who was the head of the Williams College Drama Club, was impressed by this effort. That confidence inspired him to write three plays in 1915-1916: Standards, The Spice of Life, and Servant-Master-Lover.

Standards was bought by George M. Cohan and Sam Harris and was given a tryout in Albany and Syracuse in 1915. It never made it to Broadway. Oliver Morosco produced Servant-Master-Lover in a run in Los Angeles, but to bad reviews.

World War I

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he was opposed to joining. His father helped get a position in the Norton-Harjes Volunteer Ambulance Corps. In June 1917, he left for the war and aboard the ship he met John Dos Passos. In November, when Norton-Hayes folded into the American Red Cross's Ambulance Service, Dos Passos and Lawson decided to become drivers and they left for Italy. At this time, Dos Passos was working on One Man's Initiation: 1917 and Lawson on Roger Bloomer. While serving, they were outfitted to Paris where Lawson went to the Comédie-Française and Sergey Diaghilev's ballet troupe. In January 1918, Dos Passos wrote a letter that was critical of the ambulance company, made its way to the Red Cross officials, and he was forced to resign. Lawson was under suspicion, but he managed to stay in Italy and do public-relations work for the Red Cross.[5]

In the spring of 1919, Lawson left Italy for Paris, where he married his first wife, Katharine (Kate) Drain, who was a volunteer nurses aide, and later would be an actress. They would have one child, but divorce by 1923.

Post War

After the war he edited a newspaper in Rome. He then lived in Paris in 1920-1921, which is where he would complete Roger Bloomer. This was Lawson's first show to reach Broadway, which opened on March 1, 1923. It was put on by the Equity Players and ran for fifty performances.

His next show, Processional,opened on Broadway on January 12, 1925 and was put on by the Theatre Guild. It ran for 96 performances. The production, however, failed financially, and the Theatre Guild told Lawson that they would not stage any more expressionistic plays.It was later revived in 1937 for the Federal Theatre Project to critical and popular acclaim.

His love of theatre was heightened when in 1926 the New York International Theatrical Exposition showcased experimental European cubist, futurist, and constructivist plays. After seeing this, Lawson, Dos Passos, and Michael Gold (founder/editor of The New Masses) formed the Workers Drama League to produce revolutionary plays. Only one production and a few weeks later, the three men disbanded. They then joined Em Jo Basshe and Francis Edward Faragoh and formed the New Playwrights Theatre. This lasted until 1929, mostly due to the funding from millionaire Otto Hermann Kahn.

March 3, 1926 was the premiere of Nirvana at the Greenwich Village Theatre, but only ran for six performances. The play calls for a new religion that can help people survive the swirling cyclone of jazz, new machinery, great buildings, science fiction, tabloids, and radio. The play was only put on for that long because of Lawson's reputation after Processional and the incredible set design by Mordecai Gorelik.

In late 1926, along with Dos Passos, Gold, were on the National Executive Committee who attempted to found the Proletarian Artists and Writers League, with backing from a similar Soviet organization. In August 1927, Dos Passos, Gold, and Lawson went to Boston to protest the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. In his diary afterword, Lawson would write that he could "neither ignore the flaws in American politics and economics nor bring himself to become more deeply involved in the struggle".

The first play produced by the New Playwrights Theatre, Loud Speaker opened on March 7, 1927 at the 52nd Street Theatre and ran for forty-two performances. The idea of the play stemmed from the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone at the new Theatre Guild playhouse in 1924, in which Governor Alfred E. Smith and Otto Kahn were both in attendance. Lawson wondered if Kahn would be a more interesting governor than Smith.[6]


While he was in Hollywood, New Playwrights Theatre decided to produce one of his plays, The International, with the set design by John Dos Passos. It opened on January 12, 1928 and ran for twenty-seven performances.

In 1928, Lawson moved to Hollywood where he wrote scripts for films such as The Ship for Shanghai, Bachelor Apartment, and Goodbye Love. In the winter of 1930-1931, it was at this time during the Great Depression that Lawson wrote Success Story. The Theatre Guild rejected the script, but Harold Clurman, a reader for them, had recently just formed the Group Theatre and needed new scripts. Clurman and Lawson reworked the play during the summer of 1932, and Success Story opened on September 26, 1932 for 121 performances. Lawson would also pen the screenplay based on the play, Success at Any Price in 1934.

In 1933, Lester Cole, Samuel Ornitz, and Lawson helped to organize and become first presidents of the Screen Writers Guild. After he was fired from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he moved to Washington, D.C to have the group established by National Labor Board for purposes of bargaining for screenwriters. While in D.C., The Pure in Heart and Gentlewoman were being produced in New York.[7]

Lawson wrote The Pure in Heart while he was working on Success Story. The Theatre Guild agreed to produce the play, but closed it when the out-of-town tryout in Baltimore failed. After the Group Theatre also rejected the play, it was produced by Richard Aldrich and Alfred De Liagre. The Pure in Heart opened on March 20 and had a run of only seven performances.

Gentlewoman, in association with D. A. Doran Jr, was put up by the Group Theatre and opened on March 22, 1934. It ran for twelve performances.

During the 1930s, leftists accused Lawson of having a lack of ideological and political commitment. New Playwrights Theatre associate Mike Gold attacked him in The New Masses on April 10, 1934, calling him a "A Bourgeois Hamlet of Our Time" who wrote adolescent works that lacked moral fiber or clear ideas. Lawson responded a week later in The New Masses in the article "'Inner Conflict' and Proletarian Art" he cited his middle-class childhood as the reason why he could not fully understand the working people. He also recognized that his prosperity and Hollywood connections were suspect in the fight for workers' rights. Due to the criticism, he joined the Communist Party and began a program of educating himself about the proletarian cause. He would soon travel throughout the poverty-stricken South to study bloody labor conflicts in Alabama and Georgia.

While in the South, he would submit articles to the Daily Worker, which got him arrested numerous times. These experiences would inspire his next play, Marching Song. It was put on by the radical Theatre Union and it opened on February 17, 1937 and ran for sixty-one performances.

Lawson, who joined the American Communist Party in 1934, made several films that were political, including Blockade (1938), which starred Henry Fonda. It was a film on the Spanish Civil War for which he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Story. Lawson also wrote Counter-Attack (1945), a tribute to the Soviet-USA alliance during the Second World War. He also wrote more innocuous films, such as the critically acclaimed Algiers (1938) and the Humphrey Bogart vehicles Sahara and Action in the North Atlantic in 1943.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)

After World War II, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. In September 1947, the HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named several individuals whom they accused of holding left-wing views.

Lawson appeared before the HUAC on October 29, 1947, but like Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz and Ring Lardner Jr, he refused to answer any questions. Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The HUAC and U.S. appeals courts, however, disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of Congress and Lawson was sentenced to twelve months in Ashland Prison and fined $1,000. In his 1951 HUAC testimony, Edward Dmytryk testified that Lawson, amongst others, had pressured him to put communist propaganda in his films.

Lawson had organized and led the attack on Albert Maltz when Maltz published an article, "What Shall We Ask of Writers", in The New Masses, challenging the didacticism of the American Communist Party's censorship of writers. Surprised by the ferocity of attack from his fellow writers, including Lawson, Howard Fast, Alvah Bessie, Ring Lardner, Jr., Samuel Sillen, and others, Maltz publicly recanted.

Post blacklist

Blacklisted by the Hollywood studios, Lawson moved to Mexico where he began writing Marxist interpretations of drama and film-making such as The Hidden Heritage (1950), Film in the Battle of Ideas (1953) and Film: The Creative Process (1964). He also wrote one of the first anti-apartheid movies, Cry, the Beloved Country (1951) under a pseudonym.[8]

After he was blacklisted, he taught at several universities including: Stanford University, Loyola Marymount University, and Los Angeles University of Judaism.[9]

In his book Film in the Battle of Ideas, Lawson asserted that "the rulers of the United States take the film very seriously as an instrument of propaganda" and that the influence of Hollywood movies is utilized to "poison the minds of U.S. working-class people" and that inaccurately describes the reality of U.S. working-class life. Lawson asserted that Hollywood "falsifies the life of American workers" and its "unwritten law decrees that only the middle and upper classes provide themes suitable for film presentation, and that workers appear on the screen only in subordinate or comic roles." According to Lawson, "workers and their families see films which urge them to despise the values by which they live, and to emulate the corrupt values of their enemies" and "the consistent presentation on the nation's screens of the views that working-class life is to be despised and that workers who seek to protect their class interests are stupid, malicious, or even treasonable" is what Hollywood engages in.

Lawson also argued that Hollywood promoted degrading images of women in the first half of the 20th century. According to Lawson, "Hollywood treats 'glamour' and sex appeal as the sum-total of woman's personality" and "portraits of women in Hollywood films fall into three general categories: the woman as a criminal or the instigator of crime; the woman as man's enemy, fighting and losing - for she must always lose - in the battle of the sexes; the woman as a `primitive' child, fulfilling the male dream of a totally submissive vehicle of physical pleasure." Lawson also argued that in most U.S. movies "when a woman succeeds in the world of competition, Hollywood holds that her success is achieved by trickery, deceit, and the amoral use of sexual appeal."

His unpublished autobiography is at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in Carbondale, Illinois.


He was born into a wealthy Jewish family, and this is said to have caused some dilemmas while he was younger. He once went over to a Christian schoolmate's house to play, and he let slip that his father's real name was Levy. He was thereafter not invited to the house again.

His father also insisted for the sake of appearances that they should join a Christian church. They joined the First Church at 96th Street and Central Park West, but John Howard still maintained strict observation of Jewish dietary laws.

While at Williams College during his sophomore year, he was denied election to the editorial board of The Williams College Monthly because some students raised questions about his Jewish background. He would later say that it was a good experience because it forced him "to begin his struggle to come to terms with his Jewish identity".[10]





  • Theory and Technique of Playwrighting, Putnam, 1936, enlarged edition published as Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting, Putnam, 1949.
  • The Hidden Heritage: A Rediscovery of the Ideas and Forces That Link the Thought of Our Time with the Culture of the Past, Citadel, 1950, 1st revised edition, 1968.
  • Film in the Battle of Ideas, Masses & Mainstream, 1953.
  • Film, The Creative Process: The Search for an Audio-Visual Language and Structure, Hill and Wang, 1964, 2nd revised edition, 1967.


See also


  1. Obituary Variety, August 17, 1977, page 63.
  2. O'Hara 2000, 1-375.
  3. O'Hara 2000, 1-375
  4. Avrich, Paul. The Modern School Movement, Princeton University Press, 1980, 265.
  5. O'Hara 2000, 1-375
  6. O'Hara 2000, 1-375
  7. O'Hara 2000, 1-375
  8. "John Howard Lawson - Biography, IMDb". Retrieved 2008-06-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. O'Hara 2000, 1-375
  10. O'Hara 2000, 1-375


  • O'Hara, Michael M. (2000), Twentieth-Century American Dramatists: Second Series, Detroit, Michigan: Gale, ISBN 978-0-7876-3137-6<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.

Further reading

  • Horne, Gerald (2006), The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Lawson, John Howard (1949), The Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting, New York: G.P. Putnam’s.

External links