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Garson, Barbara

GARSON, Barbara

(b. 1942, in New York City), 1960s radical who gained notoriety as the playwright of the 1960s black comedy MacBird!

Garson seems to have emerged into the world in the 1960s as a fully formed radical and a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, since little information exists about her youth and personal life. Garson was an active campus radical, as was her husband, Marvin. (They had one daughter.) She was a member of the Young Socialist Alliance, Campus CORE (Council on Racial Equality), and United Front. She was also a key member of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at Berkeley, whose purpose was to protect free speech on the campus, and the editor of that organization's newsletter. Garson also contributed to other publications related to the groups' campus organizing activities and espousing their issues, including the CORE-lator and The Wooden Shoe. One article in the January 1965 CORE-lator, "Oakland: Crisis Next Door," demonstrates her journalistic interest in labor issues.

The semester after the FSM had overturned the university's ban prohibiting leafleting for off-campus political events to support free speech on the Berkeley campus, another problem arose. This time a nonstudent, passing through Berkeley, sat down on campus with a homemade sign on which there was a single vulgarity. University president Clark Kerr had the man arrested and made quips to the press about the start of the "Filthy" Speech Movement. Members of the FSM, including its leader, Mario Savio, were understandably confused and upset about taking on this latest assault on free speech. "If the FSM couldn't afford to lose, perhaps the larger movement couldn't afford the FSM," wrote Garson in reflection. "We must disband, we decided, and let younger people (most of us were over twenty) launch future battles unfettered. I agreed." There was a second, perhaps more compelling rationale for disbanding. "We were tired; we had lived totally public lives for ten months; the private was so alluring.… So for high-minded, low-minded, and just pure lazy reasons, we officially disbanded the Free Speech Movement."

It was also during this time that Garson wrote MacBird! The play, which drew from the Shakespearean drama Macbeth, suggests that Lyndon Baines Johnson killed President John F. Kennedy. Johnson was vice president at the time of Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, on 22 November 1963. Kennedy was a popular political figure who especially appealed to young Americans, who enthusiastically embraced his ideals of a better world through individual action. The genesis of the script came in August 1965, when Garson accidentally referred to Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady, as "Lady MacBird Johnson" while speaking at an antiwar rally. According to the foreword to one edition of the play, "Since it was just a few weeks after the Watts insurrection and the Berkeley troop-train demonstration, the opening lines of a play suggested themselves immediately: 'When shall we three meet again / In riot, strike, or stopping train?'"

Originally conceiving of the play as a skit, Garson opted instead to create a full-length work. The Independent Socialist Club of Berkeley printed the first copies of her early draft in spring 1966. Those 2,000 copies sold in six weeks. While the play was still being rehearsed in New York, the manuscript was circulating among the literary scene's noted figures. It received much adulation, but no publisher was willing to print it, and the Garsons created Grassy Knoll Press to publish the play themselves. The 105,000 copies of the first five printings (the first in 1966) sold out. Grove Press published subsequent editions in the United States, and Penguin published MacBird! in the United Kingdom. The script ultimately sold more than half a million copies. These later editions were double the length of the original.

Garson took the first draft of MacBird! with her to New York and showed the script to her longtime friend, stage designer Roy Levine, who championed the idea of staging the play. MacBird! was produced by Julia Curtis, then a secretary at the book publisher Random House, and Levine directed. Garson had continued to work on the play between December 1965 and the spring of 1966, adding dialogue and scenes under Levine's direction. The drama originally was staged off-Broadway, opening in January 1967 at New York's Village Gate. Numerous original cast members would go on to noted careers in film, television, and stage. Among them were Cleavon Little, Rue McClanahan, William Devane, and Stacy Keach. Keach won the 1966–1967 Obie award (off-Broadway theater awards sponsored by The Village Voice) for his portrayal of the title role, MacBird.

Several publications, including City Lights Journal, Ramparts, and New York Review of Books, featured excerpts from the script. It was later published in translation in France, Brazil, and Uruguay. Most people, especially reviewers, seemed incredulous at the play's conspiracy theory, especially because the assassination of Kennedy was still fresh in the collective American psyche. Assassinations of other progressive leaders, such as Senator Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., kept that event in sharp focus throughout the decade.

Although Garson used this alternate view of the Kennedy assassination in the service of her comic satire, she claims never to have agreed with conspiracy buffs. "It's quite true that I said Johnson killed Kennedy because of the plot. I have no proof and no reason to believe it.… but it was fun to play with it anyway." Garson later called the play "as much a product of the movement as it was of me." At the end of the 1960s Garson moved from Berkeley to Tacoma, Washington, where she worked at an antiwar coffeehouse for soldiers, strategically located near Fort Lewis, an army base. She says a compelling factor in her decision to move was to escape the continuing notoriety and attention that trapped her as the author of MacBird!

Since the 1960s Garson has continued her career as a playwright and journalist. As a freelance writer, she contributes to various newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Ms., Mother Jones, the Progressive, and In These Times. She has written three books: All The Live-longDay (1975), The Electronic Sweatshop (1988), and Money Makes the World Go Round: One Investor Tracks Her Cash Through the Global Economy, from Brooklyn to Bangkok and Back (2001).

Garson recounts her days in the Free Speech Movement in "Me and Mario Down by the Schoolyard: Recollections of the Berkeley Free-Speech Movement," Progressive 61, no. 1 (Jan. 1997): 24–25. Additional information about the Free Speech Movement is in Hal Draper, Berkeley: The New Student Revolt (1965); Bettina Aptheker, Robert Kaufman, and Michael Folsom, FSM: The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley (1965); W. J. Rorabaugh, Berkeley at War: The 1960s (1989); and David Lance Goines, The Free Speech Movement: Coming of Age in the 1960s (1993).

Linda Dailey Paulson

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