Traitors is a full-length script for four actors (Hiss, Chambers, Nixon, and Hoover) on a unit set with a table and chair DR, the steering wheel and front seat of a 1929 Ford roadster UR, an old love seat on a dark oriental rug RC with the empty frame of a Queen Anne mirror further upstage, a desk with a 1920s Woodstock typewriter and chair UC, a dumb waiter large enough for a man to crawl inside UL, a child’s rocking chair sturdy enough for a fat man to sit on CL, and a bench with pumpkins scattered around DL. No set changes and no breaks except for intermission. The play opens with the sound of birds singing as the reddish light of a sunset comes up on Hiss in the chair DR and Chambers sitting on the bench DL; Nixon at the desk UC is in darkness. “They are all witnesses,” Nigro writes,”testifying to us.” Hiss quotes from the Bible about gaining the world and losing one’s soul, and Chambers says that there are ghosts in his pumpkin patch and that sinister forces are at work everywhere, confusing his memory of events. “Like someone turning on a switch,” the lights (a Committee light effect) come up on Nixon as he tells us how proud he is of his work on the Hiss case. Chambers says that he wants to see the President about members of the Communist Party holding influential positions in the government. Nixon remarks that while some people pity Hiss, he has only contempt for him, and Chambers tells us that once we have heard his story we’ll never trust anybody again. As Nixon stands to speak to Hiss, the lights on Hiss change to the “harsh Committee light,” and Hiss speaks a brief summation of his career, denying that he has ever been a member of the Communist Party. When Nixon turns to Chambers, the light on the pumpkin patch changes to the Committee light and Chambers says that Hiss knew him in the Party by his code name, Carl. He says that Hiss and he were close friends, that their wives were friendly, and that he and Hiss went birdwatching together. Nixon then questions Hiss about birdwatching and asks if he recognizes a photograph of Chambers. Hiss stands, turning toward Chambers, and asks to see his teeth, remarking that the man he knew had black and yellow, broken, rotting teeth. He says that Chambers bears a strong resemblance to a man he knew in the mid-thirties, a George Crosley. When Chambers denies being Crosley and asserts that he and Hiss were Communists together, Hiss invites him to make that assertion in public. He calls Chambers a liar. Chambers says that Hiss donated his car to him, to the Communist Party. Nixon asks why Hiss did that, and the light changes to evening and we hear birds singing.
In a scene from the past, Hiss and Chambers talk about the 1929 Ford and Chambers asks if Hiss wants to get rid of it because it will draw rats that can swarm out of the darkness and devour him. Chambers stays seated in the car as Nixon questions Hiss about giving his car to George Crosley. Hiss says he may have included the car with the rent for the apartment Crosley was subletting and that instead of money Crosley gave him a large red rug. Chambers says the rug was a gift from the Communist Party and that he doesn’t remember subletting anything, although he spent a great deal of time in the Hiss home because Hiss and he were Communists. Hiss tells Nixon that he befriended Crosley/Chambers out of basic human decency but he now sees him as a very disturbed individual who once stole hundreds of library books by stuffing them in his pants. After telling Nixon that he may once have driven Chambers somewhere, Hiss gets into the car next to Chambers while Nixon stands behind the upstage mirror frame watching them. As they pretend to drive, Hiss and Chambers talk about prostitutes as capitalists and Hiss points out a farm that he once thought of buying. Chambers says he has always wanted a pumpkin patch because pumpkins, and dumbwaiters, are good places to hide valuables. He says one should always be prepared because people cannot be trusted. Chambers thinks a car is following them and Hiss says that his father committed suicide by cutting his throat. Chambers says that he ran away from home when he was eighteen and bummed around the country changing his name. He thinks Hiss understands him and speaks of his brother killing himself by breathing in gas from the oven. Hiss says that his brother died young, too.
The Committee light comes on again and Nixon continues his questioning of Hiss, accusing him of being a spy for the Russians. Hiss denies the charge as does Chambers, saying that he and Hiss were members of the Communist Party, not spies. Hiss again wants Chambers to make his accusations public so he can sue him. As Chambers moves into the shadows of the pumpkin patch, Nixon paces angrily back and forth, furious at Chambers’ refusal to admit to espionage and frantic that Truman may abolish the Committee. J. Edgar Hoover enters from upstage to the desk and asks Nixon how the Hiss business is going. When Nixon says that Chambers won’t admit to spying, Hoover tells “Dick” that this is their chance to squash Hiss like a cabbage worm and expose the “festering, maggoty underbelly of all this sissy New Deal doodleysquat,” and that Dick is the man for the job. He urges Nixon to drive to Chambers’ farm in Maryland and persuade him to cooperate. Nixon promises not to let Hoover down and crosses to Chambers in the pumpkin patch as Hoover watches from the upstage shadows.
Chambers tells Nixon that Hiss is suing him and that he could lose everything. Nixon says that although they cannot prosecute Hiss for spying, they can get him for perjury if the espionage can be proven. He wants a confession from Chambers that he and Hiss were spies. After a pause, Chambers says that he and Hiss were spies, that Hiss stole documents that Chambers photographed and gave to his Soviet contacts. Nixon demands hard evidence and Chambers says he may have some, then crawls into the dumb waiter.
Committee light again as Nixon center stage questions Chambers, who sticks his head out of the dumb waiter to shout his answers. Hiss denies being a traitor and asks for proof. Chambers falls out on the floor holding “a small sheaf of about seventy pages,” claiming they are documents that Hiss stole from the State Department and retyped before giving them to Chambers. Hiss says he never learned to type, and Chambers says the papers were typed by his wife, who did everything for Hiss. He adds that he has film of secret documents concealed in a pumpkin in his pumpkin patch, and, taking the lid off a pumpkin, he pulls out five spools of film. Seeing the typewriter on the desk, Hiss says that they can compare Chambers’ documents to something typed on his old typewriter. When asked by Nixon if he still has the typewriter, Hiss says he thinks they gave it away but they can find it and prove Chambers is lying. Hiss goes out as Chambers shouts after him that the truth will make him free, and the lights go to black.
The second act opens with the sound of a loud swish and thwack in the darkness and the lights come up on Hoover swatting flies on his desk. Nixon is worried about the problem of the typewriter, but Hoover tells him not to worry, that a typewriter has been found that experts will testify is the typewriter the stolen documents were typed on. Nixon understands that the typewriter evidence is bogus but agrees that the important thing, the American way, is to win, no matter how. He then suggests that perhaps Hiss and Chambers are queers, and Hoover, after giving him a look “that would make birds fall dead from the sky,” tells him that there’s nothing he hates more than queers. He tells Nixon to stay still and smacks him on the forehead with the fly swatter, saying he got the fly. He then tells NIxon that he has a file on him as thick as Kate Smith and that Nixon is going to get the grand jury to indict Hiss for the survival of the nation as well as his own. After Nixon exits, Hoover, on the intercom, asks Clyde to pick up his ball gown at the cleaners because he is in the mood for a tango tonight. The scene ends with the lights fading on Hoover as he exits “humming a tango and trying a couple of steps with the fly swatter in his teeth like a rose.”
In the next scene, Nixon and Chambers move a table stage center as Nixon preps Chambers for the grand jury, piling huge stacks of paper on the table. Nixon tells Chambers to get out of his light as a bright light shines down, flashbulbs go off, and Nixon examines a bit of film with a magnifying glass. He turns to the invisible throng of reporters downstage and speaks “gravely and earnestly” of the evidence of top-secret documents stolen by the traitor Alger Hiss and retrieved by the repentant Whittaker Chambers. He makes the Nixon raised arms V-fingers sign and smiles mechanically as more flashbulbs go off. Hiss emerges from the shadows and confronts Nixon about the “evidence” as Hoover watches from the upstage frame. Nixon says he has testimony from FBI experts that it is “absolutely, unequivocally impossible” to fabricate the “conclusive” typewriter evidence. Hiss realizes that Chambers has made a deal and says, “This is not my country,” as he sits in despair on the love seat.
We hear the sounds of a bleating lamb and birds singing as Nixon and Chambers talk in the pumpkin patch about the relationship between Chambers and Hiss, and Nixon urges Chambers to hang in there for the future of America. As Nixon hurries off, Hiss rises from the love seat and tells Chambers about his relationship with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a man Hiss says he worshipped. Hiss wonders if Chamber is going to pay back the money he owes, and Chambers, tears in his eyes, says that he knows when he’s not wanted but that Hiss should beware of reprisals. Very upset, Chambers goes to his pumpkin patch at night and rocks in the child’s rocker, speaking confusedly about never wanting to hurt Hiss. He scatters the stacks of papers, tearing some, throwing others, speaking of the voices in his head. He takes a bottle marked XXX out of a pumpkin, drinks the rat poison, and then runs over to a pumpkin, falling on his hands and knees, vomiting loudly as Nixon runs on with a newspaper, gleefully announcing the guilty verdict against Hiss.
We hear a “decadently upbeat” version of “Saint James Infirmary” and the sounds of a wild party offstage as deep red light suffuses the pumpkin patch and Hiss, “like the sophisticated villain in an old thirties movie,” smokes a cigarette and asks Chambers what he is doing. Chambers says that he is a martyr, destroying himself for the good of the country. He insists that he is a patriot, that his pumpkin patch will become a National Monument. Hiss says that Nixon and the others are using them to discredit the New Deal, the United Nations, everything they hate and fear. He says that people are decent and rational, but Chambers responds that people are “insane, feeble-minded, cowardly, homicidal monkeys” who will believe anything. He tells Hiss that his reward for behaving decently is a five-year prison sentence and he, Chambers, has won. Suddenly, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” blares loudly and we hear cheers from unseen crowds as Nixon appears, giving victory signs and shaking hands with Chambers. Hoover comes on in a ball gown and tiara, kisses Chambers on both cheeks, and hands Nixon a rubber chicken. After dancing a polka with Hoover, Nixon holds the chicken up and speaks a Jabberwocky-like mish-mash of images from American history. The music gets more grotesque and distorted as the light on Nixon fades to darkness.
We hear bird song and see Hiss seated as he was at the start of the play with shadows of bars across him; Chambers is in the pumpkin patch and Nixon is at the desk in the darkness. Hoover, just out of the light, is standing stiffly in the frame. Hiss tells us that he made some lasting friendships in prison and that what kept him alive was the thought of his wife. The lights come up on Nixon telling us that he regarded the Hiss case as a defining moment in his career and that, as a traitor, Hiss deserved everything he got. Hiss says he lost his wife because she wanted him to change their names and find a quiet life, but he had to prove his innocence. Eventually, Hiss says, he got a job selling office supplies. Chambers says his autobiography made him a quarter of a million dollars, and Nixon says that what he learned from the Hiss case was to use the newspapers to destroy your enemies. As the lights begin to fade on them all, Hiss says he is at peace, that he knows who he is, but he sometimes feels that the other self who was created to live in “this incredible cathedral of lies,” may be more real. Nixon says that faith has sustained him because he knows in his heart that God is on “our” side. Hiss repeats the Bible quote about a man gaining the whole world and losing his soul, and Nixon ends the show with the comment: “And if it should happen to turn out, in the end, that in fact God is actually not on our side, well then–fuck him.”