The case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg has inspired artists for decades. The Rosenbergs, husband and wife, were indicted in 1950 for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, tried and found guilty a year later, sentenced to death and ultimately executed in Sing Sing Prison in 1953.
The case was extraordinarily controversial and developed into a worldwide political affair by the time the couple was put to death. Not surprisingly, it has inspired novels, including E.L. Doctorow’s superb The Book of Daniel, published in 1971; plays—Ethel Rosenberg figures prominently in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” produced in 1993; and films.
“Ethel Sings: The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg” is the latest entry in the Rosenbergs oeuvre. (The show just ended its five-week run in Manhattan on July 13.) Written by Joan Beber and directed by Will Pomerantz, the play focuses on the excruciating conflict that literally determined whether Ethel would live or die: Should she remain loyal to her husband Julius, whom she loved passionately? Or should she cooperate with the government in its investigation of Communist spies and subversives, which would enable her to escape the electric chair and continue to be a mother to her two sons?
The drama of Ethel’s dilemma is heightened by the fact that the key witnesses against her were her younger brother, David Greenglass, and his wife Ruth. (In her analysis of the case, Rebecca West famously wrote that “few modern events have been as ugly as this involvement of brother and sister in an unnatural relationship which is the hostile twin of incest.”)
Although Ethel’s story has the elements of a great tragedy, “Ethel Sings” is not very compelling. The play suffers from a myopic historical understanding of the Rosenbergs case. As a result, the ensuing drama is too partisan and therefore not as interesting as it could have been. Nonetheless, “Ethel Sings” is effective in dramatizing Ethel’s conflict.
A More Balanced Account of the Rosenbergs Case
In the director’s notes set out in the program, Pomerantz writes:
The Rosenbergs were liberals, Jews, labor activists, and communist sympathizers in an era of virulent anti-Communism and anti-Semitism. Their trial became a show trial for the rise of McCarthyism, and although the actual evidence against them was inconclusive at best, they were found guilty after only two weeks of testimony.
This view of the Rosenbergs was popular among their supporters in the early 1950s and still has adherents today. It defines the Rosenbergs as innocent victims of political prejudice during the early, overheated years of the Cold War and informs the representation of Ethel in the play.
This view also is incomplete, at best, and results in an overly simplistic presentation of Ethel and her husband. Julius Rosenberg ran a spy ring for the Soviet Union for nearly a decade. His greatest accomplishment was persuading David Greenglass, who was stationed at Los Alamos during World War II and worked as a machinist on the development of the atomic bomb, to pass atomic secrets that were sent to the Soviet Union. Julius’s espionage efforts on behalf of the Soviet Union continued after World War II. Ethel, at least tacitly, supported her husband’s efforts.
When the federal government (including Roy Cohn, an ambitious and ethically dubious lawyer) prosecuted the Rosenbergs, it presented the testimony of the Greenglasses and a number of other witnesses to prove that the couple (and a third defendant, Morton Sobell) engaged in a conspiracy to commit espionage. The jury credited the testimony and convicted all of the defendants.
The trial was problematic, to be sure, especially with respect to the case against Ethel. But it was no mere “show trial” in which the defendants were prosecuted and convicted merely for their political beliefs. Furthermore, the historical record developed since the trial confirms that Julius Rosenberg was a spy for the Soviet Union and passed atomic secrets to that country in violation of federal law.
My criticism of “Ethel Sings” for obscuring Julius’s extensive espionage efforts on behalf of the Soviet Union has aesthetic implications. The drama of Ethel’s dilemma would be heightened if we understood that she stood by her husband even though he was guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted.
Furthermore, with extensive references to the fact that Ethel played the lead in her high school’s production of “Saint Joan”—George Bernard Shaw’s play about the life and trial of Joan of Arc—the play presents uncritically Ethel’s view of herself as a martyr. Fair enough. But isn’t Ethel’s martyrdom more interesting if we have to reckon with the fact that she chose to die despite (or, more likely, because of) the fact that it would benefit the Soviet Union in the ongoing Cold War with the United States?
The Problematic Case Against Ethel Rosenberg
Although “Ethel Sings” may be willfully blind about Julius’s espionage, it draws on the historical record to highlight the ways in which she was a victim of misconduct by the United States government.
To briefly summarize: Ethel was indicted after Julius in order to pressure him to cooperate with the government’s ongoing spy ring investigations; she was convicted on the basis of the trial testimony given by her younger brother and his wife that Ethel participated in the conspiracy by typing David Greenglass’s notes—testimony that David Greenglass later said was fabricated; and Ethel was sentenced to death and executed even though, at most, she did nothing more than aid and abet her husband’s espionage efforts.
“Ethel Sings” highlights these points effectively. David Greenglass is depicted as an oaf, eagerly following the lead of Cohn. His wife, Ruth, is portrayed as a vixen, using her cunning charm to persuade the court to convict the couple. This representation of the Greenglasses accords with the popular view of the couple at the time and, appropriately, makes the audience uncomfortable. The pathos of the Greenglasses’ cooperation would be funny if the underlying stakes were not so high.
While the Rosenbergs were on death row, the government installed a telephone line in Sing Sing prison. If Ethel did not want to die, all she had to do was agree to cooperate with the government and provide information about others who supported the Soviet Union. The phone line remained open through the executions in the event that she changed her mind—a decision that would have kept her alive for her young sons.
“Ethel Sings” makes great dramatic use of the telephone, making it a central character in the dilemma of her final act. With the phone nearby, life is so close. However, Ethel refuses to cooperate with the government, steps into the electric chair, and the lights go dark. In making her choice, Ethel embraced martyrdom—just like Joan of Arc, whom we now know as “Saint Joan.”