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University archive inspires play about ‘America’s most notorious liar’

Robert Cohen as Harvey Matusow. The Sussex-based actor came across the story of the notorious Cold War supergrass in the University of Sussex Special Collections. Photo by Simon Taylor.

A play based on the confessions of a notorious Cold War supergrass – whose personal papers are now housed in an archive at the University of Sussex – is heading for a run in London in 2013.

Sussex-based actor Robert Cohen’s play The Trials of Harvey Matusow is a one-man show that revisits the age of the anti-communist witch hunts in 1950s America, and the part played in them by Harvey Matusow, “America’s most notorious liar”.

New Yorker Matusow was a one-time communist who turned paid informer and provided testimony for all the major bodies hunting ‘reds’ at the time, including the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, the US Justice Department, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, and, most famously, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Government Operations Committee.

He spent four years testifying against former Party colleagues and others accused of subversion – including actors, journalists, union officials and university professors – before finally revealing that he had fabricated almost all of his “evidence”. He was eventually to spend three and a half years in prison, before embarking on seven years of self-imposed exile in the UK.

Cohen’s play revisits Matusow during his English exile, as he reflects on his past while seeking redemption in the worlds of underground art, journalism, film-making and music.

It was during this period of exile, in June 1968, that Matusow presented the first consignment of his papers to the University; they were acquired on the advice of Marcus Cunliffe, Sussex’s then Professor of American Studies.

Matusow was adamant that his papers should be housed in an institution outside the United States. As he explained in an interview with The Times in 1968: "I didn’t believe my papers would be treated objectively in America. They can’t see McCarthy in perspective. It’s all ‘Good Guy, Bad Guy’.”

Robert Cohen came across the story of Matusow while researching ideas for plays in the University of Sussex Special Collections division, where the Archive is now held. The material spans the 1940s to the early 1970s and is housed in over a hundred boxes.

“Without the University of Sussex and its Special Collections Department,” says Cohen, “my show simply wouldn't have been possible; indeed, but for Special Collections, I probably would never have heard of Matusow – and even if I had, I never could have got so close to my subject simply by reading the books that exist about him.”

Cohen, who wrote and stars in the show, will give three performances at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre as part of its First season of solo performances.

Brighton audiences saw the play last year in the Fringe Festival, where it won the FringeReview Outstanding Theatre Award.

The University of Sussex, its Special Collections and its academics have been the literary inspiration for celebrated books, TV dramas and plays.

The Mass Observation Archive’s collection of letters by northern housewife Nella Last, who wrote during World War II, was the inspiration behind Housewife, 49, the BAFTA award-winning ITV drama by Victoria Wood.

Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan’s latest novel Sweet Tooth was set in part at the University of Sussex, where McEwan studied in the 1970s. The novelist revealed earlier this year that he had had to change the name of one of his characters when he discovered that there actually was an academic of the same name at Sussex.

And Constellations, recently named the Evening Standard Theatre Awards Best Play, is in part inspired by the contributions of two Sussex astrophysicists.

The play, by Nick Payne, is about love, the universe and beekeeping. It transferred to the West End late last year following a critically acclaimed run at the Royal Court Theatre.

The female character in the poignant two-hander is an astrophysicist from Sussex, a decision following consultations that writer had with Sussex Professor of Astrophysics Andrew Liddle and Dr Kathy Romer, a Senior Lecturer in Astrophysics.

Notes for Editors

The Trials of Harvey Matusow will be performed at the Tristan Bates Theatre, Tower Street, Covent Garden, London, on Sunday 13 January 2013 (4pm); Monday 14 January 2013 (8.30pm) and Tuesday 15 January 2013 at 8.30pm.  Tickets £10 (conc £8) on 020 7240 6283 or at

For further information call 01273 733636 or 07771 990691 or email

University of Sussex Special Collections

The University of Sussex holds a number of internationally acclaimed archival, manuscript and rare book collections, mostly relating to 20th-century literary, political and social history. Our special collections include the papers of Rudyard Kipling, the New Statesman Archive, a series of collections relating to the Bloomsbury Group, including the Monks House Papers (Virginia Woolf), and over 60 other manuscript collections.

The Mass-Observation Archive contains the papers of the social research organisation of the 1930s and 40s and continues to collect new material in the present day. We also hold the University’s own archival and administrative records.

In 2013, Special Collections will move to The Keep, a new purpose-built home for the Archives and collections from the University of Sussex, East Sussex County Council and Brighton & Hove City Council.

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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Last updated: Thursday, 3 January 2013