by Douglas Messerli
Lucas Hnath A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney / directed by Peter Richards as produced by Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners at the Odyssey Theatre / the production I saw with Deborah Meadows was on March 27, 2022
Who might imagine that the seemingly gentle, fatherly-like man who weekly introduced throughout my 1950s childhood the long-running The Magical World of Disney was also a chain-smoking, gin swigging movie mogul who rarely saw his wife, used his brother Roy as both a stooge and a force in order to get want he wanted, was hated by his daughter who refused to name her third son after him, and was threatened in turn that her father would remove her name from his will?
And indeed, if these were the worst of his faults, given all the joys Disney gave families throughout his life (he died of lung cancer in 1966) and far beyond, lending his name not only to the two most successful family amusement parks in the world, the hundreds of cartoons and motion pictures, and perhaps the most glorious architectural and musical center in Los Angeles, he might surely be forgiven for being a flawed individual.
Fortunately, the real issue of playwright Lucas Hnath’s 2013 play A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney does not concern simply Walt Disney’s personal faults, using them only as tools to open up the crevices of the stone tomb in which the real man is embedded, just as the play is really not a “reading” nor a true “screenplay,” nor even a work “about Disney’s death,” although death is very much on the mind of the imaginary Disney who supposedly penned this screenwork.
Hnath has a knack for asking his audiences to question and challenge who
and things really are. Because someone tells you this is the way things happen,
that this is really a reading or a screenplay, a dirge or a “biographical
revelation, mightn’t we still actually question the reality of what we’re told
by the individual, the work itself, or the media? As he explored in his early
masterwork A Doll’s House, Part 2, just because Nora stormed out of her
house in Ibsen’s play, was that really the end of the story? Or in his Hillary
and Clinton, were Hillary and Bill Clinton really as terrible or as good as
we might imagine them to be? Or as he asked in his play The Christians,
performed at the Mark Taper Forum in 2016 (a play I saw and reviewed), can
fundamentalist believers ever come to ask themselves whether their beliefs are
the only viable ones on earth, that perhaps even those of other beliefs and atheists
might also be saved by God’s love? What is a feminist, a president
and his wife, a true believer, or, in this case, a remarkable family
At the heart of Hnath’s works is the question of the frailty of human desire, both from the inside of that desire’s representation and from the outside of our judgment of that being’s ability to live up to our vision of what his or her desire represents.
First of all, obviously, we need to question the very words we have chosen to describe these notable beings. I was interested that Wikipedia chose to characterize Disney as an entrepreneur (a self-made tycoon or business magnate) which is probably closer to the truth than my definition of him as a fantasist. If it seems odd that Disney might wish to write a screenplay about himself, we need only recall that Walt knew screenplays well, and as an ex-cartoonist he knew how to create figures that attracted the human eye. We all want to be remembered for the best of what we were and are. I write. Others push their bodies to the limit on a football field, while some represent themselves best by portraying others, and still others work their entire lives just to brilliantly represent their employers. Disney knew movies.
And should we be surprised that the screenplay, employing every second of the camera in motion, cuts continually in on its hero—unless he wants to deflect attention away from himself as he does when the hardworking animators “brilliantly representing their employer” demanded higher wages during the 1941 Animators’ Strike that lasted five weeks?
Disney not only turned the matter over entirely to his brother Roy, leaving him to finally to make a settlement, but immediately accepted an offer to make a goodwill trip to South America as part of the Office of the coordinator of Inter-American Affairs effort to represent the most popular of American industries’ interest in their neighbors. Roy was forced to make the unpopular industry decisions to raise the animators’ salaries, some of his best animators, resenting Disney’s “cut,” leaving the company for good—one of the reasons that 1941’s Dumbo is a far less visually interesting film than 1937’s Snow White.
Cut to Disney’s desire to take his films beyond the realm of mere fantasy into the real world of nature itself. Convinced by a Scrooge McDuck comic book artist that the small Rodentia of lemmings regularly control their burgeoning population by throwing themselves off cliffs, Walt demanded his nature filmmakers, who he’d placed under the aegis of Roy’s son Roy Edward, that despite their Canadian lemmings’ refusals to readily leap off cliffs, they had to encourage them to do what “came naturally.”
In Hnath’s metaphor they somehow manipulate the tiny rodents with turntables, flipping them off like a gramophone needle dropped upon vinyl. In reality, Disney directors dropped lemmings over the cliff from garbage trunks for his 1958 film White Wilderness, despite the fact that there was never evidence of lemming suicides and that the suddenly overly populated lemming communities had been observed only in the Scandinavian species, never among the Canadian variety. The myth is still retained by some today, and again Roy and his son took the wrath of critics and animal protectionists, not Walt, the man behind the false science. This would be funny—and is in Hnath’s telling—if it weren’t for the fact that it meaninglessly led to the killing of so many small animals and that the Disney of the company myth remained, as always, blameless, while the movie furthered the falsehood for generations.
Gradually we begin to discern how a true believer in what he defines as good—in Walt’s case comprised mostly of iconic images of home and hearth, happiness for all, a good life for those who worked hard, pleasant surroundings, etc.—becomes increasingly upset when he discovers others do not totally agree with that vision. Like so many of his time, Disney turns from FDR supporter to conservative Republican. He testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee, branding his former animators and labor union organizers Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman, and William Pomerance as communist agitators. He tours filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl through his studio only a month after Kristallnacht. None of this appears, however, in Hnath’s play.
The playwright focuses instead on Disney’s increasing determination to build a new city where everyone would live in peace and pleasantness, living out lives of total joy far too similar, to my way of thinking, to the world envisioned in Andrew Niccol’s and Peter Weir’s terrifying town of perfect facades of The Truman Show. Disney, it appears, was far less interested in building a new amusement center in Orlando than he was in realizing his control over the lives of the people of a visionary city, EPCOT ("Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow"). Like most fascists- in-budding, Disney begins with a grand vision of humanity; but when people get in his way or—in his imagination should citizens of that community might later disagree with the life assigned to them by the god-like creator—he goes into rages. At one point, angry with a situation, Disney even through one of his Oscars at his brother’s head. Late in his life he manipulated his “idiot” son-on-law, Ron Miller to cause chaos in the board meetings and perhaps assure that his grand empire might not survive after his death.
When hurt by the criticism of others, Walt lists his admirers and lovers, including Mussolini, chastising Hitler as being foolish for not liking Mickey Mouse, as if somehow that was worse of the evil tyrant’s crimes. Roy tries to explain to him that he simply cannot make such public statements, to no avail.
But in recognizing those roots of fascism in Disney we must also look into the mirror, as the play’s set designer David Offner does, to see how our own fantasies, our visions of the “American Dream” are reflected through similar lenses. You cannot demand order and similarity of vision in a world filled with millions of differing voices from thousands of dissimilar cultures, religions, sexual desires, and plain stubborn obstructionism without destroying the country we know as the USA. Without even intending it become that, the utopian EPCOT was inevitably a fascist, racist, homophobe world organized by the US majority viewpoint, a world that would never have permitted the real USA to enter its gates.
Walt Disney was cremated upon his death at 65 and buried in 1966 Forest Lawn Memorial Park, not sped off to a secret cryogenic center in Irvine, California as the play might lead us to believe. Roy was left to squelch his brother’s plans for a utopian city, itself becoming simply another “ride” through the tour of his talented brother’s imaginary worlds.
Disney was not, fortunately, a god, and was never permitted to become the fascist he might have unwittingly wished to become. But in his so very appealing dreams most Americans should take a deep look at their own unstated desires and beware.
Cut. End of play. Game over.
Los Angeles, March 28, 2022
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2022).