Berkeley Repertory Theatre is debuting a play about a fiery Italian writer who broke the rules of modern journalism. Oriana Fallaci was neither objective nor balanced. She was passionate, and partisan.
During the 1960s and 1970s Fallaci became world-famous for her probing interviews with powerful men such as Henry Kissinger, Fidel Castro and the Ayatollah Khomeini. After September 11th she also wrote a series of attacks on Islam.
Now Fallaci, with all her contradictions, is the subject of a play by journalist Lawrence Wright. He's the bestselling author of a new book about Scientology. Wright’s play, "Fallaci," is about the practice of journalism and the conflict between Islam and the West. KQED's Cy Musiker has the story.
MUSIKER: Lawrence Wright says he got interested in journalism as a teenager, at least partly because of Oriana Fallaci.
WRIGHT: She made journalism sexy and exciting, and she was a small woman, she prefigured the women’s movement so to have that tiny Italian woman rise up and bring world figures to their knees, it was incredibly exciting.
MUSIKER: As a young girl in Italy, Fallaci fought the Nazis alongside her father. Her concern for human rights always informed her reporting. She grilled her subjects, getting them to say the darnedest things, like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger calling himself the cowboy who rides ahead of the wagon into town.
WRIGHT: Fallaci has the idea that drama creates truth. And sometimes she would say really brutal things, that would knock people off their feet, and they would have a little bit of a hard time recovering, but in the process she would find out something and she would pounce, and get deeper and deeper in.
MUSIKER: There was the famous interview with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. He led the Islamic revolution that ended the rule of the Shah and U.S. influence in Iran. Khomeini agreed to an interview only if Fallaci wore a chador, a hooded cloak worn by many Muslim women. Wright describes what happened when Fallaci ripped off what she called this stupid medieval rag during the interview.
WRIGHT: And he jumped up and ran out of the room, and she said that her strategy had been, because she thought he hated women, so she would to speak to him in the voice of the one woman that he feared and admired, and that was the voice of his mother. And so she said, where do you go, to make pee-pee. And then she refused to leave, until he agreed to talk to her again.
MUSIKER: Wright tries to capture Fallaci, by showing her toward the end of her life. At a rehearsal a few weeks ago, Concetta Tomei played Fallaci and Marjan Neshat was Maryam. As the play opens, Fallaci is at home in New York, very ill with cancer. Maryam, a reporter from the New York Times, barges in asking for an interview for a Fallaci obituary she’s writing:
I just wanted to know what it took
to be the person you were. You’re
the opposite of everything I ever
learned in journalism school.
Reporters are supposed to be
neutral. Impartial. Fair minded.
But you’re the extreme opposite of
that. And I admired that. But when
someone doesn’t bow down to you,
you attack, assassinate their
You wreak vengeance, you do! You
take liberties with the truth -
MUSIKER: In an interview just after watching the rehearsal, Wright says the play is partly about the ethics of good journalism.
WRIGHT: I’m not saying her kind of journalism is wrong, But this play in a sense is my cross-examination of her techniques.
Yes, I confront power! I am not
ashamed of this.
Defying the oppressor - this is my
- so you can make yourself bigger
than they are -
Oh, this is the charge? That I do
it for myself?
- for your own glory.
When you stick the knife in, plunge
it to the hilt!
What do you want from these people?
Power for yourself, to stand in the
light of their fame so everyone can
see you, Fallaci, how brave you
are, what a good show you put on at
the expense of your poor victims?
Yes. Just like Fallaci!
Thank you. Now answer the question.
MUSIKER: There are more exchanges like that, revealing and sometimes funny. But the play is also about the damage Wright thinks Fallaci did after 9/11, when she wrote a series of books attacking Islam. It’s a subject Wright knows well. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2007 book "The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."
WRIGHT: The conflict between the West and Islam is really central to our time right now. And Oriana Fallaci was one of the main figures in formulating that argument.
MUSIKER: Right, she wrote some really nasty things. She wrote that the “sons of Allah breed like rats."
WRIGHT: Her rhetoric was so inflammatory. And actually she schooled a lot of the anti-Islam bigotry employed in Europe. So this is a contest between her perspective and that of a young Muslim woman who lives in the West and is a moderate.
MUSIKER: Maryam, Fallaci's obituary writer, is an Iranian American, and a Muslim.
WRIGHT: And understands the limitations of that religion and the turmoil going on inside it. But she also appreciates the tradition that she comes from.
MUSIKER: Berkeley Rep is giving Fallaci a world premiere with Oskar Eustis as director. He's also artistic director for the famed Public Theatre in New York, so it's possible this show will head there next. But Eustis says for the moment he’s focused only on making the play a success here in Berkeley.
"Fallaci" runs through April 21st.