"Three-named people are like three-legged dogs — stubborn and scrappy!" an Englishman declares upon meeting Ruth Alice Bennett.
His assessment is correct. After the young photographer's proper Yankee family and fiance disapprove of her nude self-portraits — this is 1930, by the way — her quest for a freer environment takes her to the international artists' colony centered in Berlin. There she earns acclaim for her films, and falls in love.
Three years later, under growing pressure from Nazi censors, she and her fellow collaborators — German actress Margot Faber, British actor Gilbert Bailey, and French film editor Hedwige Sourire — accept an offer to work in the United States, only to discover Hollywood to be as stifling and unforgiving as the oppressors they left behind.
Sounds like the plot of a movie, doesn't it? Perhaps a movie helmed by real-life filmmaker Dorothy Arzner, one of the few women directors whose career remained unobstructed by the studio bosses and the press from 1922 to her retirement in 1943, despite the coded lesbian themes evident in her screenplays and rumors of liaisons with such well-known "sewing circle" celebrities as Alla Nazimova, Marlene Dietrich, and Tallulah Bankhead. It isn't some long-forgotten noiresque adaptation of a novel by Vicky Baum, though, but the Babes With Blades Theater Company's world-premiere play 180 Degree Rule, co-authored by Barbara Lhota and the late M.E.H. Lewis. The piece is described in its publicity as a "love story wrapped in a mystery," featuring period-replica cinema footage almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
The story opens in 1967, 31 years after Ruth Alice Bennett perished in a fire of unknown origin while editing newsreels and looking forward to her next project. Katie Dunham, a film teacher at a small college, questions the known circumstances of Bennett's death, and proceeds to launch a personal investigation into the facts of that fatal night. Her queries will lead her to interview surviving acquaintances of the deceased celebrity—some eager to share their memories, some reluctant to relive troubled times, and others no longer able to recall their role in the events. Gradually, truths come to light, even as others remain buried forever.
Tom Stoppard's Arcadia may have inaugurated the time-travel saga as stage drama, in which modern scholars attempt to examine history and end up drawing all the wrong conclusions, but when Lewis and Lhota first began to conceive their play in 2012, their goal was quite different.
"When Margaret and I first began brainstorming," Lhota recollected, "our plan was to write sort of a collection of women's roles during wartime, at different times in different parts of the world, with some kind of object, or invention, or art work that gets lost and then resurfaces again and again, so the idea was always there of an archeological puzzle leading to a journey through the past to learn the truth.
“Margaret also talked extensively about my screwball comedy, The Double. She was very keen on us writing something set in 1930s-1940s Hollywood."
It's inevitable that a play about the film industry during a specified time should emerge looking like a product of that era. For example, a narrative structured around the search initiated by a character's death brings to mind Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. Lhota cites Arzner's movies—in particular, such protofeminist milestones as “Dance, Lady, Dance” — along with Fritz Lang and the German Expressionists of the 1920s and early 1930s, as models for Ruth's own aesthetic, while the scenes of off-camera banter utilize comedy similar to that found in “The Thin Man,” or “My Man Godfrey,” or even “Duck Soup” ("and we steal shamelessly from `Cinema Paradiso’" Lhota adds mischievously ).
In popular fiction, the Hollywood of the early and mid-20th century relied solely on queers and commies for their talent, while every Berlin resident between the wars was openly and flamboyantly gay. With so much hindsight vision — however much grounded in literary stereotype — can audiences in 2016 be expected to understand the choices made by Ruth and Margot in their relationship?
"Margaret and I talked at great length about that." affirms Lhota, "When Ruth and Margot are in Berlin, I don't think either one of them fully realizes that they are lesbians. Ruth might have had previous same-sex affairs, but many women don't really come out until their mid-30s. Then, when they are in Hollywood, the decision whether to remain closeted is a major source of conflict.
"It all goes back to Dorothy Arzner, who pushed the boundaries of what was socially acceptable. Ruth refuses to compromise her own beliefs, no matter how much damage it threatens to stir up. Margot is more practical — she knows that taking a stand could ruin her career.
There's a line in the play where they speak of Cary Grant and Randolph Scott appearing "very cozy" together in Photoplay magazine without any public outcry. That really happened, but if you were a big star like Cary Grant, you could get away with a lot."
The source of the play's title is a cinematographic term, isn't it? "The position of the actors in a scene provides the focal point for a hemisphere extending 90 degrees in each direction to make 180 degrees total — and the camera operators are told to shoot only that area, so that for the viewers, left and right remain constant. At first, the events of the play are shown from a single perspective, but as the characters look back on what they remember and hear each others' accounts, they — and we, the audience — begin to see it over a wider range, where things may be the complete reverse of what we thought previously."
"Ultimately, it's a story of thwarted lovers born in the wrong time and place, but it's also about how much there is that we don't see in others—especially our loved ones — and that we really need to see. That's as true today as it ever was."