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Actor, Director Tim Robbins Takes Up Historic Vietnam War Protest in Production of “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine”

StoryAugust 27, 2009
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Academy Award-winning actor, director and writer Tim Robbins is involved in a new production of Father Daniel Berrigan’s acclaimed play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. The play centers on the events of May 17th, 1968, when nine Catholic peace activists, including Father Daniel Berrigan and his brother, the late Father Philip Berrigan, entered a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, and removed draft files of young men who were about to be sent to Vietnam. They were arrested and then sentenced in a highly publicized trial that galvanized the antiwar movement. We speak to Robbins about the play, which is being staged by his Los Angeles troupe, the Actors’ Gang. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We end today’s show with the Academy Award-winning actor, director and writer Tim Robbins. Tim is involved in a new production of Father Daniel Berrigan’s acclaimed play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.

The play centers on the events of May 17th, 1968, when nine Catholic peace activists, including Father Daniel Berrigan and his brother, the late Father Philip Berrigan, entered a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, and removed draft files of young men who were about to be sent to Vietnam. They took those files outside and burned them with homemade napalm. They were arrested and, in a highly publicize trial that galvanized the antiwar movement, sentenced to prison.

At his trial, Father Daniel Berrigan said, quote, “Our apologies good friends for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children.”

AMY GOODMAN: An acclaimed production of Berrigan’s play produced by Actors’ Gang opens tonight in Los Angeles before going on a national and international tour.

We’re joined in a moment by Tim Robbins, the artistic director for the Actors’ Gang. But first we want to go to an excerpt from the trailer of the Actors’ Gang revival of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.

    JUDGE: Criminal Action No. 28111, The United States of America against Daniel Berrigan. How do you plead?


    JUDGE: Philip Berrigan?


    JUDGE: David Darst?

    DAVID DARST: Not guilty.

    JUDGE: John Hogan?

    JOHN HOGAN: Not guilty.

    JUDGE: Thomas Lewis?

    THOMAS LEWIS: Not guilty.

    JUDGE: Marjorie Melville?

    MARJORIE MELVILLE: Not guilty.

    JUDGE: Thomas Melville?

    THOMAS MELVILLE: Not guilty.

    JUDGE: George Mische?

    GEORGE MISCHE: Not guilty.

    JUDGE: Mary Moylan?

    MARY MOYLAN: Not guilty.

    FATHER PHILIP BERRIGAN: We took our own blood — Reverend Mengel, Dave Eberhart, Tom Lewis and myself. We attempted to anoint these files with the Christian symbol of life and purity, which is blood, in order to illustrate our horror over blood being shed in Vietnam — American and Vietnamese blood.

    MARJORIE MELVILLE: There comes a moment when you decide that some things should not be. And you have to act to try to stop those things.

    JUDGE: But you have to have a case that can be brought into court.

    GEORGE MISCHE: But you have to break a law first. It seems to me that in order to have your case heard in front of a judge, you have to break a law.

    JUDGE: I agree with you completely, as a person. We can never accomplish what we would like to accomplish, or give a better life to people, if we are going to keep on spending so much money for war. But it is very unfortunate that the issue of the war cannot be presented as sharply as you would like.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Actors’ Gang production of Daniel Berrigan’s The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, opening tonight in Los Angeles.

Tim Robbins is the artistic director of the Actors’ Gang and an Academy Award-winning actor, director, producer and writer. He won an Oscar for his role in Mystic River and is well known for his roles in numerous films over the past two decades, including The Shawshank Redemption, The Player, Bull Durham and Bob Roberts. His best-known directorial ventures include the award-winning Cradle Will Rock and Dead Man Walking.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Wednesday, Anjali Kamat and I spoke with Tim Robbins in the firehouse studio. We asked him about, well, the Catonsville Nine.

    TIM ROBBINS: The man that originally did it, Gordon Davidson in Los Angeles, has been a friend of the Actors’ Gang for a long time. And we were doing a benefit about three years ago, and we decided, well, let’s read that play. And we got a bunch of actors together and read it. And we were so moved by it, and the audience was so moved by it, we just understood how resonant it was for today and how the questions it was asking were so pertinent, so relevant to the questions we should be asking today.

    AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about it. I mean, we’ve actually had Daniel Berrigan on. We’ve had Phil Berrigan on. We’ve talked to a number of people who have engaged in Plowshares actions. But what actually took place?

    TIM ROBBINS: Nine Catholic activists — Father Daniel Berrigan, his brother Philip Berrigan and seven others — broke into the draft board, Catonsville, Maryland, and burned about 350 draft records, dragged them outside and burned them with homemade napalm in an act of protest against the Vietnam War.

    They had been, for years, working various causes, writing congressmen, meeting with congressmen, meeting with judges, meeting with government officials, trying to go the route of what — you know, when everyone tells you, you know, you shouldn’t do civil disobedience, they say, “Why? Why don’t you just write a letter?” Well, they had been, for years and years and years, and they had been doing as much as they could to bring attention to the war in Vietnam. But what they realized is that they had to break the law in order to bring out the larger moral issues in a public forum.

    And so, they basically understood that they would be arrested when they did it. They waited for the police to arrive, and they waited for the trial to happen. And when the trail happened, it became a very large issue and went nationwide, and these moral questions that these Catholics were asking did become part of the national conversation.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Tim Robbins, let’s go back forty-one years to the moment of the burning of the draft files. This archival footage is from a 2001 documentary about the event by Lynne Sachs called Investigation of a Flame.

      FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: We’re all part of this.

      GEORGE MISCHE: May this symbolic message bring home to the American people that while American — while people throughout the world, and especially Vietnam now, are suffering from napalm, that these files are also napalmed, to show that these lives can fall on the same fate as the Vietnamese.

      FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Amen. We think also of those negotiating in Paris, and we ask, through this action, that they take their work seriously, especially the Americans, and understand that Americans are able to undergo some risk in the name of justice, in the name of the dead.

      THOMAS MELVILLE: Not only are we killing people through violent physical war, but we are also killing them through the extension of our economic-political empire. Let us also pray for all those people that are dying from hunger and starvation throughout the world so that Americans can have a higher standard of living.

    AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from Investigation of a Flame, but that’s the actual archival footage, as the Berrigans and other Plowshares activists burned the draft cards with napalm. It’s forty-one years later. The Actors’ Gang, going back forty-one years to this. Talk about the climate today and the climate then.

    TIM ROBBINS: Well, there was much more at stake for more people back in 1968 because of the draft. Now we have a situation where only one percent of the population is actually represented in the military, so we have a tendency — and I think this was part of the design of the whole thing, was to — we have a tendency to not think about this. And we certainly don’t see it much in the media anymore, and we certainly don’t see coverage of veterans’ issues — people coming home and what they need and the jobs they need and the educational bill that should have already passed, some kind of GI Bill that should be guaranteeing education for all the returning veterans. All of these issues seem to be swept under the rug today.

    And they were swept under the rug back then, as well, but there was a new breed of activist at the time, and they were able to gain attention by not only creative theater, like Abbie Hoffman, but also just moral rectitude, like the Berrigans. This was all happening around the same time.

    The trial happened right after the Democratic Convention in the summer of ’68, so the trial happened in October, November of '68. So this was coming off of that wildness and violence and that anarchy in Chicago imposed upon the demonstrators by the police. But this was more of a difficult question for some of the people in the Midwest and more conservative people in the United States, because — it’s more of a difficult question because there was two priests, and it was a bunch of religious activists. And this was very confounding for a lot of people, and it opened a lot of peoples' eyes that might — whose eyes might not have been opened by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

    AMY GOODMAN: One of the biggest supporters, Hollywood supporters, of the Berrigans has always been Martin Sheen, a fellow Catholic who himself has been arrested. I think he’s not sure whether he’s been arrested more years than he’s been alive, but I once followed him at a protest at Los Alamos in New Mexico. This might have been the sixty-something-th time he had been arrested. And he was doing West Wing at the time. He was president of the United States in West Wing. And as he crossed the line, he said, “I work for NBC to make a living. I do this to stay alive.” And then he crossed the line, and he was arrested.

    So, on this issue of Hollywood’s relationship with American wars, I wanted to turn to an excerpt of a conversation I had with Martin Sheen. I spoke to him at Father Philip Berrigan’s funeral in Baltimore — this was in December of 2002 — and asked him about Hollywood’s opposition to war.

      MARTIN SHEEN: It’s rather polite, you know, and it’s very secular. It’s not united, by any means. You know, most of us are, you know, frankly afraid of being unpatriotic if we voice anything but the popular opinion about patriotism, about supporting the government, about supporting this administration. But I think it’s growing now. There are more and more people who are opposed to the war in Iraq, specifically, see it as not a good thing for America and certainly not a good thing for Iraq. But it’s not yet unified, and it isn’t specific, and it’s more secular than anything else.

    AMY GOODMAN: Actor Martin Sheen, speaking on the streets of Baltimore as the funeral procession for Phil Berrigan, who had been a Father, then married Liz McAlister and had three kids and lived at Jonah House. Martin Sheen, walking through the streets in this funeral procession, talking about Hollywood.

    Tim, you have long spoken out. Talk about Hollywood and politics.

    TIM ROBBINS: I live in New York. So I think there’s a reason for that. But the Actors’ Gang is actually out in Los Angeles near — in Culver City, near Hollywood. I can’t think of — you know, any time I talk about Hollywood, in general, it’s kind of — it’s hard to say. There’s so many different factions in Hollywood. There are so many different kinds of people. There’s people that are very political. There’s people that are — you know, could care less, that care more about shoes and hairstyles and gossip magazines.

    As far as the progressive side, it was intimidating, as Martin was saying. It was intimidating in 2002, 2003. It was difficult at the time to speak out. But everyone could do it. And I’ve always contended that the whole purpose of living in a free society is to actually exercise freedoms when they’re difficult to exercise, not when they’re easy. So, freedom of speech is something that is not worth anything if we only use it when it’s OK, when it’s convenient.

    And so, at the time, a few of us — Susan Sarandon, myself, Sean Penn — spoke out against that war and were lambasted as being traitors and Saddam supporters. And, in fact, all we were saying was, give it more time. Let’s find these weapons of mass destruction. And we were treated like crazy people in the media. And so, yeah, that does send a message to the rest of Hollywood. That does send a message to the rest of the country: you know, you better be careful and shut up, you know?

    But the point is, and I think what Martin is talking about, and certainly the way the Berrigans lived their lives, is that the truth is the most important thing. The truth is what matters. In the long run, if you know the truth and you don’t speak it, you compromise yourself so much more than anything that might be kept from you if you speak out in a time of crisis. That’s, for me, what defines a person, is what they’re willing to do and what they’re willing to risk to speak the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins. The Trial of the Catonsville Nine will begin tonight, Thursday, go through the weekend, performed by the Actors’ Gang at the Ivy Substation in Los Angeles. Then on September 7th to 9th, they’ll be performing at the University of Richmond in Virginia. And then, on to September 14th through the 17th, they’ll be performing at the University of Maryland at College Park. For more details as they move on to Australia and then to Pennsylvania, you can go to the website theactorsgang.org.

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