Mickey Mouse is Dead
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 11, 2006
Mickey Mouse is Dead has an attention-grabbing title and a provocative premise: that Walt Disney spied on and intimidated his own employees to keep them from unionizing, and that he fired and blacklisted suspected Communists during the McCarthy Era "witch hunts." Unfortunately, all that playwright Justin Sherin accomplishes is the same kind of character assassination that McCarthy and his acolytes too frequently indulged in.
The time is the early 1950s, and the place is Walt Disney's movie studio in California. Two cartoon story writers, Jimmy Harris and Floyd Finch, are concerned about their jobs. An earlier attempt to unionize the studio's workers resulted in swift reprisals from management; Jimmy is leading the charge to re-organize, but he's worried that certain facts about his background (presumably associations with the Communist Party, though this is never actually enumerated in the script) make him even more vulnerable; he's afraid of losing his job.
Floyd, who has just returned from "drying out" at a rehab clinic in Big Sur, wants to avoid trouble. But Jimmy eventually convinces him to enlist his girlfriend, a blue-blooded Eastern girl named Grace who also works in the studio, to try to find out if Disney is on to their plan. Grace is supposed to talk her way into the boss's office feigning serious concern about a "Red Menace" on the lot, and then see whether Disney concurs or seems unaware of such a presence.
Grace returns with a harrowing story—which takes her a very long time to tell—which culminates in the revelation that Disney, apparently living in a quasi-dream world with an office-full of electric trains, broke down tearfully in front of her and then attempted to suck on one of her nipples.
A final scene informs us that Jimmy has been fired and suggests that both Grace and Floyd need to watch their backs if they are to survive in an increasingly dangerous business.
Sherin's plotting didn't make a lot of sense to me. Sherin's program note, which reads in part:
After a crippling strike at his studio in 1941, Walt Disney spied for the FBI on union activity in Hollywood and illegally intimidated union activists. In 1947 he was a witness for the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he blacklisted (sic) several ex-employees. He was also prone to depression. Beyond this, I know almost nothing.
suggests a possible source of the problem. Perhaps Sherin should have done more research, so that he could have constructed a play that might succeed in driving home some of the points he wished to make.
But worse than that, nailing Disney as a looney and a perverse letch—whether true or not—doesn't make him a tool of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which is what I think Sherin wants us to believe. Indeed, labeling Walt a degenerate is the kind of thing that McCarthy would have done himself, shifting focus from facts to innuendo.