Thursday, June 21, 2012

"The History of Invulnerability": a play about Jerry Siegel

If ten years ago you’d have told me that there would one day be a stage play about Jerry Siegel, I wouldn’t have believed you. But then again, if you’d told me there’d be a picture book biography of him (and Joe Shuster), I wouldn’t have believed that either.

On 6/13/12, my generous synagogue, Washington Hebrew Congregation, invited me to attend the play The History of Invulnerability in Washington DC. Apparently I'm the only Jerry Siegel historian in the congregation.

The story focused on Jerry’s “relationship” with his creation, Superman, as well as his struggles on four levels: dealing with the loss of his father who died during a robbery, dealing with selling all rights to Superman for $130, dealing with abandoning his firstborn child Michael after divorcing his first wife, and grappling (as everyone of the period did) with the unthinkable atrocities of the Holocaust.

Any one of those issues would be provocative and complex, but the playwright, David Bar Katz, wove all four into the story. At times this led to jarring transitions but at other times it generated great pathos. I was impressed with the level of real-life detail Katz included. He clearly did extensive research.

Almost immediately, I bought into the actor (David Deblinger) playing Jerry. I began researching Siegel and Shuster in 1994, while Jerry was still alive, but I was not able to reach him. Seeing this accomplished actor portray him made me mourn a friend I never had even more. He convinced me that I was seeing Jerry as he really was.

I was surprised and tickled that my friend and Jerry Siegel champion Phil Yeh was a character in the play. I told Phil and he was surprised, too.

The set was spare but effective. The comic book influence was evident in the paneled backdrop and the stage was plastered with images of comic book covers, though this was noticeable only when close up. An elevated portion of the stage was shaped like Superman’s S emblem, though this, too, could be missed.

A few minor goofs jumped out at me. In the name of accuracy:

  • stating that Jerry’s father died in 1925 (it was 1932)
  • stating that Superman: The Movie opened in 1977 (it was 1978)
  • stating that Marlon Brando would make $1 million for one day of shooting (it was $3.7 million for 12 days)

A couple were (thematically) more significant:

  • stating that Jerry’s father died by gunshot when four reports (police, coroner’s, death certificate, newspaper article) said it was heart failure
  • stating that Michael was not mentioned in Jerry’s obit in the New York Times (he was)
Any, of course, could have been creative license.

One moment contradicted what I knew. In the play, Jerry and Joe (at first) don’t produce stories with Superman stopping Hitler because the publisher asked them not to. But I remembered reading that Jerry and Joe did not want to do such a story during the war because they felt it would have been disrespectful to the real heroes who were fighting. I would think that the comic book publisher would want Superman clocking Hitler—that would boost sales!

After the play, I had the honor of taking part in an on-stage discussion with one of the well-spoken rabbis of Washington Hebrew, Joui Hessel. It was part interview, part impromptu review, part audience Q&A, and all fun. (Others I have long wanted to meet—author Tom De Haven, collectible comics guru Mark S. Zaid, the playwright himself—did or will do other post-play talks.)

A memorable, meaningful night all around. Thank you again to all who made it possible.

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