Posted by Hannah Miller
Welcome to the first Word of the Week. My plan is to pick a playwright, actor or other well known theatre professional every week, someone whose birthday was celebrated during the preceding seven days. I’ll write a short bio of his or her life and accomplishments, select an interesting word from his or her work, define it, and put it out there for whatever it’s worth.
This week’s theatre artist is BEN HECHT (pictured above) and this week’s word is BUNCOMBE.
Ben Hecht was a great American playwright, an Oscar-winning screenwriter (mostly uncredited), and an internationally recognized Jewish activist before, during and after World War II. A character based on Ben Hecht was portrayed by Scott Wichmann in Barksdale’s recent comedy Moonlight and Magnolias. Moonlight is a somewhat fictionalized depiction of the emergency re-writing of the screenplay for Gone With the Wind.
Ben Hecht was born on February 28, 1894 in New York City. He moved at an early age to Racine, Wisconsin. He was a child prodigy violist and circus acrobat. He started his career as a writer in Chicago while still a teenager, working for the Journal and the Daily News. In 1923, he founded his own paper, the Chicago Literary Times, and lost all his money. During his Chicago years, he met and befriended Charles MacArthur who was working for the City News Bureau. In 1926, both men moved to NYC to pursue careers as writers of plays and novels.
In New York, Hecht received a telegram from another friend, Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had recently moved to Los Angeles. "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around." He meant millions of dollars. Lured by this promise of prosperity, Hecht moved to L A and began a lucrative career as a screenwriter.
Dividing his career between Hollywood and New York, Hecht co-authored three Broadway plays with MacArthur: The Front Page (1928), Twentieth Century (1932) and Ladies and Gentlemen (1939). The first two are American classics. Barksdale produced The Front Page at Hanover Tavern in 1974, and both Swift Creek Mill and the Henrico Theatre Company have produced the musical comedy On the Twentieth Century, based on the Hecht/MacArthur play.
In his autobiography, A Child of the Century, Hecht wrote, “The American of 1953 is a cliché-strangled citizen whose like was never before in the Republic. Compared to the pre-movieized American of 1910-1920, he is an enfeebled intellect. For forty years the movies have drummed away on the American character. They have fed it naïveté and BUNCOMBE in doses never before administered to any people. They have slapped into the American mind more human misinformation in one evening than the Dark Ages could muster in a decade."
BUNCOMBE – (bŭng'kəm) noun – empty or insincere talk, claptrap, hogwash, nonsense
The word originated during the debate in the U S Congress regarding the Missouri Compromise, circa 1820. Felix Walker, an old and fading moutaineer representing Buncombe County, N C, rose to speak after the question had been called. With numerous congressmen begging him to sit down and be quiet, he persisted in delivering a lengthy lecture that had nothing to do with whether Missouri should be admitted to the United States as a slave state or a free state. In his ramblings, he said he felt compelled to “make a speech for Buncombe,” despite having nothing to add to the debate. Today, BUNCOMBE is frequently shortened to BUNKUM or BUNK.
Despite earning his fortune from the movies, Hecht had little respect for American filmmaking. He thought most movies were as meaningless as Felix Walker’s Congressional ramblings, nothing but a load of BUNCOMBE.
Hecht died of a heart attack at the age of 70 on April 19, 1964, while working on the script for the first movie version of Casino Royale, a “pointless” satire (according to critics of the day) in which the character of James Bond was played by multiple actors including David Niven and Peter Sellers. It sounds like exactly the kind of movie that inspired Hecht's grumblings.
Nonetheless, Hecht will go down in theatre history as co-author of two classic American comedies, The Front Page and Twentieth Century.