Corruption, the new play by J.T. Rogers, at LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse space, concerns the exposure and immediate aftermath of a monumental phone-hacking scandal implicating the Murdoch media empire in the United Kingdom. Its events take place more than a decade ago. So I began my recent conversation with Rogers not in a Murdoch-ian manner – that would have been “Why doesn’t your play deliver more sex and drugs?” – but more old-school, more Larry King: “Why a play? Why now?”
Rogers, whose previous plays at LCT include Blood and Gifts and the much-garlanded Oslo, which, like Corruption, were directed by Bartlett Sher, replied, “I’ve been circling this subject for a long time. I read the book on which Corruption is based before I even embarked upon Oslo.” That book is Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain, by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman. Its authors are among the many people Rogers interviewed during the play’s gestation and are among the central characters in his stage drama.
Rogers originally conceived Corruption as a movie, set it aside when Oslo got underway, and resumed it last year during a writer’s strike which interrupted the HBOMax series on which he is the showrunner: "Toyko Vice", whose second season streams February 8. “I never stopped thinking about the Corruption story,’” Rogers explained, illuminating that comment with a favorite quotation, from William Gass’s treatise On Being Blue: “Art, like light, needs distance.”
That distance has added urgency to the story. Rogers said: “The play is about the moment when people realized there isn’t an agreed-upon truth anymore.”
In Oslo, our guides through the maze of Palestinian-Israeli politics were the Norwegian diplomats Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen. With Corruption, Rogers said, his Virgil is Tom Watson, a British MP who co-authored the book mentioned above. The minutiae of British politics and the almost incestuously interlocking elites of London would seem to be a bit far afield for a contemporary American audience. But Rogers in the play is quick to establish not only Watson’s ethical impetus for fighting the Murdoch empire’s corrupt phone-hacking practices but also his more human stake. “Watson’s motivation,” Rogers said, “is personal at first: you attacked me and my family in order to ruin me politically.”
Watson is the main portrait in Corruption’s vivid gallery of engaging characters. The two others who perhaps reach out of the picture frame to grab us most vigorously are Rebekah Brooks, a top executive in Murdoch’s media empire, and Max Mosley, the wealthy and memorably louche businessman who bankrolls Watson’s crusade.
Brooks, Rogers told me, “presided over a culture of unaccountable moral wretchedness.” Yet her passion for newspapers, financially a backwater in Murdoch’s SkyTV-world, is infectious. And there’s something intoxicating about a powerful woman maneuvering in a very male business environment. Rogers commented: “When you read the memoirs of people in her tabloid world, even only a decade ago now, your jaw is on the floor from all the toxic masculinity.”
Mosley, the offspring of two extraordinarily vivid parents (Oswald Mosley, the mid-20th-century leader of Britain’s fascist party, and Diana, Lady Mosley, one of the Mitford sisters) represents another of the play’s resonant themes: shame. “As I was thinking about this project,” Rogers said, “I read a lot of books about that subject. They helped me realize more fully that what the Murdoch tabloid culture did was to weaponize shame. Those media reveal or make up things about people’s sex lives or their children in order to grab eyeballs and rack up greater profits.”
Mosley fought back against this culture. In 2008, he won a court case against the popular News of the World, maintaining that this Murdoch newspaper had breached his privacy by reporting on his involvement in what the tabloid had said was a Nazi-themed sex act involving five women. “When I interviewed Mosley,” Rogers related, “I asked, ‘How were you not crushed by the newspaper’s stories about your so-called notorious sex life?’ He replied, ‘I just refused to be shamed.’ He was incredibly eloquent on this subject. Of course, it also helped that he had money.”
This wry fillip about finances revealed Rogers’ well-honed sense of irony, a principal reason why he has been able through the years successfully to sustain an audience’s interest in complex subjects. Although Corruption does not yet welcome the public until February 15th, I suspect this success will continue with his latest drama.
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.