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A Great Debate on the Great Issues of Past and Present

Radio: Before the election, Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr will engage one another in an open forum, courtesy of dramatist Norman Corwin's 'No Love Lost.'

August 14, 1996|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just before the presidential election, National Public Radio will air a freewheeling open forum with three national political leaders, debating the role of the federal government, civil liberties, taxes, race, gender, even matters of personal scandal.

No, not President Clinton, Republican candidate Bob Dole and a representative of Ross Perot's Reform Party.

Instead it's Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in an hourlong radio drama, "No Love Lost," with Jack Lemmon as the scrappy Burr, Lloyd Bridges as the elitist Hamilton and William Shatner as down-to-earth Jefferson.

Martin Landau plays moderator John Lenox of the Open View Society, which is holding the fictional forum on a rainy fall evening in 1799 in Philadelphia. KUSC-FM (91.5) host Bonnie Grice of "Wake Up, L.A.!" acts as narrator; KUSC will broadcast the play on Nov. 2 at 3 p.m.

Written and directed by Norman Corwin, longtime radio, television, stage and movie writer, "No Love Lost" will be the first in a series of six new radio dramas--"More by Corwin"--to be broadcast over the next year under a $175,000 grant from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting.

Radio, Corwin says, is "a medium in which the audience becomes a participant, in which their imagination becomes exercised. The audience has to give something to it. . . . In radio there is no such term as 'couch potato' [or] 'boob tube.' The listener becomes the wardrobe designer, the set designer, and fills in and collaborates. My pieces, for good or ill, have required [that] collaboration, and that is one of the challenges and delights."

Upcoming dramas in the series include "Cervantes" in January, commemorating the 450th anniversary of the birth of Miguel de Cervantes, author of "Don Quixote"; "The Curse of 589," about a she-fairy and a scientist; and "The Secretariat," which, Corwin says, "has to do with prayer--in a very oblique fashion."

Mary Beth Kirchner, a former director of national programming for WETA radio in Washington, is series producer.

A pillar of the Golden Age of radio during World War II, Corwin, 86, wrote the classic "We Hold These Truths" for the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, which was broadcast a week after Pearl Harbor; "Truths" was rebroadcast in 1991 for the 200th anniversary. Likewise, "On a Note of Triumph," celebrating V-E Day in May 1945, was rebroadcast last year.

In feature films, Corwin's script for "Lust for Life" (1956), starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh, drew Corwin an Oscar nomination.

With such credentials and connections going back decades, it's no wonder that he was able to draw such a stellar cast on rather short notice to the recent taping of "No Love Lost" at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills. About two months ago, he contacted Lemmon, with whom he had served on the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; the rest fell into place.

"It wasn't [the role of] Jefferson that drew me," Shatner explains. "It was Corwin."

Such is radio that Shatner, the youngest in the group, is able to play the oldest character: Jefferson was 56, while Hamilton and Burr were in their 40s.

Corwin's point in "No Love Lost" is that political issues are not nearly so different 200 years later than they were when the Founding Fathers were running the country. As he told his audience before taping: "Much of what you'll hear them say today, they actually did say. And it hasn't appreciably dated. Indeed, in this election year, you may find some of it curiously modern."

Hear Jefferson, who took office as the nation's third president in 1801, argue against war with France, saying that "if the money were spent making roads, opening rivers, building ports, improving the arts and finding employment for jobless poor, then all nations would be much stronger, richer and happier."

Or Hamilton, the nation's first secretary of the treasury, say that "the majority sometimes gets drunk with its own power, and when that happens, everything becomes chaotic."

About 60% of his piece, Corwin notes, are the exact words of Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr. At the outset, listeners hear that "the events and conditions they deal with, their feelings about each other, their positions, their arguments are all matters of record" and that the "only license taken" is the forum itself.

"For a long time," Corwin says, "I have had a feeling that we deal with period pieces as though we're resurrecting mummies. These men had flesh and blood, they were marvelously colorful, [they] had personal lives, they lived in scandal, they lived in boisterous times and there are some parallels which will be evident in this play."

The dramatic centerpiece is Hamilton's involvement with a married woman, which he had written about himself--an event, however, that went back more than 20 years. The other two also suffer from gossip--Jefferson's alleged involvement with a slave woman and Burr's with a native woman, who was said to have accompanied him to battle during the Revolution.

Hamilton's response seems to be the point of the piece: "Just how this relates to the past or future of the United States, how it interacts with history . . . escapes me."

Of course, parallels have their limits. When the moderator asked Hamilton to tell the audience about the time "he was stoned," the audience laughed out loud. The question referred not to drugs but to actual stones being thrown. They also laughed when the moderator bade the audience: "Good night--and drive your carriages safely."

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