Read an Excerpt
Mary McCarthy's Theatre Chronicles 1937â?"1962
By Mary McCarthy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Mary McCarthy
All rights reserved.
TWO BAD CASES OF SOCIAL CONSCIENCE
Mr. Ben Hecht at the opening of To Quito and Back at the Guild Theatre the other night must have felt like a man in a new suit of clothes which nobody notices. I am not sure whether Mr. Hecht was wearing a transformation or had actually undergone one, but indubitably the play at the Guild was intended to reveal its author in a New Phase. The creator of Erik Dorn and The Front Page, the Hollywood scenario writer and Paramount film producer, has gone Left. That the full effect of this dramatic quick-change was lost on audiences and critics is in part attributable to Mr. Hecht's own confusion but in the main to the blundering production of the Theatre Guild. I happened to see in manuscript the play Mr. Hecht wrote. It was infinitely more interesting, more playable, and even commercially more valuable than the play the Guild produced. Indeed, the staging of this play is proof conclusive that the Theatre Guild, whatever its history and pretensions, is indistinguishable from the Shuberts in the bright glare of the footlights.
In its handling of To Quito and Back the Guild went in for the kind of tinkering that has made the more groundling managers the laughing-stock of serious theatre people; and, as is usually the case with the Shuberts when they attempt a non-musical attraction, the Guild directors, between them, carved the play into a turkey. Mr. Hecht gave the Guild a play that was in essence autobiographical, a play about an articulate, clever man who talked himself to a standstill. But the producers, apparently still under the spell of the old superstition that a play cannot be "talky," proceeded to excise almost all of the hero's connected conversation and to substitute scenes of action and love interest. What talk of a semi-intellectual nature was left the hero they camouflaged as best they could. All the antique conventions of drawing-room comedy were invoked: the characters in the midst of whatever they were saying were bounding about the stage, jumping up and sitting down, climbing over furniture and pacing the floor, going through all the dreary, monkey tricks of what is known as "stage business." When everything else failed, the actors were made to deliver their "difficult" lines in as hasty and apologetic a manner as possible, while every wisecrack was handled as slowly and reverently as a soliloquy by Shakespeare. The ironic boomerang came, of course, with the morning papers, where the critics dismissed the play as talky. Paradoxically, the remnants of talk in the produced play were just sufficient to make it appear over-talkative, and the patent embarrassment of director and actors only underlined the fact.
In another notable way the producers obstructed the author's communication with his audience. The hero of the play is an American novelist, whose mixed sincerity and attitudinizing, vulgarity and pathos, are peculiarly indigenous to the America of the twenties whose mood Mr. Hecht helped to set. The awkward, asymmetrical contours of this American type were quite flattened out by Mr. Leslie Banks, an actor of rigid and shiny technique, who has been for too many years in harness to the role of the English Gentleman to deviate from his eternal and international character.
The mistaken commercialism of the Guild has not deprived the theatre of a good play. To Quito and Back was never that. What has been lost, or at least obscured, is a kind of curious case-history written by the patient himself. Mr. Hecht is a veteran exhibitionist, and this is perhaps his fullest confession. Here he states his symptoms often and earnestly. The weakness of the play is that it cries for diagnosis. The plot has to do with Alexander Sterns, who arrives in Ecuador on a rather dismal elopement, and gets embroiled in a revolution for which he eventually dies. Thematically, it is a study in irresolution. The hero, who describes himself as "a second-hand Hamlet with a hollow heart and a woodpecker mind," for two acts engages in vacillation, amorous and political. He can love neither a woman nor a cause truly, no matter how desperately he desires to do so. In all branches of experience he is irrevocably a tourist, and his most poignant cry is "If I could only care!" His heroic death, which (to Mr. Hecht's mind) is his final salvation, is admittedly the product of a mood, whose impermanence he recognizes even while yielding to it.
The melodramatic absurdity of the play lies in the Hamlet comparison and its implications. The playwright assumes that his hero's irresolution is of a tragic order, while, as a matter of fact, it is comico-pathetic. It is not, as Mr. Hecht believes, the irresolution of a man who is able to see all sides of a question; it is the impotence of a man who is afraid of making a fool of himself. The play, indeed, is a small, undignified monument of social and intellectual terror. The seesawings of the hero are a mere objectification of the nervousness of the author. Mr. Hecht, it would appear, has been converted, or frightened by intellectual fashion into giving lip-service to radicalism. Yet this radicalism he does not dare face squarely in the drawing-rooms of New York or the studios of Hollywood. He must transport it and himself (in a somewhat flattering disguise) to a comic-opera Ecuador, where revolutionary generals are just-too-pricelessly-funny, Emperor Jones Negroes are commissars, and the working class is represented by a sentimental servant girl who sympathizes with the communists but knows her place just the same. Only in a baroque and slightly goofy setting is communism accessible to Mr. Hecht. Even there humor must be regularly applied as an antiseptic to idealism. Throughout the play, Mr. Hecht's Sense of Humor keeps popping up like a grisly jack-in-the-box whenever he feels that eloquence may have betrayed him into gaucherie. Even his relentless self-revelation shows itself to be a form of insurance, a peace offering to the perspicacious; and his agonized sincerity must be rated as the final, most vulgar sham.
The temperament of Mr. Maxwell Anderson is antipodal to Mr. Hecht's. If Mr. Hecht has converted face-saving into a minor literary art, Mr. Anderson has built a career on incaution. The Star-Wagon at the Empire while not one of Mr. Anderson's major efforts, is nevertheless very characteristic of him. Once again he has been inspired by a lofty theme, and once again the mediocrity of his talent has reduced it to inconsequentiality. Here the theme is quite as ambitious as ever, but the play is more homespun, more trivial. There were forebodings of The Star-Wagon in Winterset, in the philosophical musings of the rabbi: "They say there is no time but we grow old...." Now Mr. Anderson takes the theory of the simultaneity, the presentness of time, and fashions a period comedy-drama out of it. Two old inventors, who have made millions of dollars for capitalists at a combined salary of $27.50 a week, build a machine which will take them back to any given moment in history. After a short scientific explanation of the machine and the theory behind it, and a good deal of exposition about the characters, the inventors throw the switch and the play is off. They elect to return to their youth in an American village at the turn of the century. For some reason, not explained by the dramatist, they have the power of intervention in the action of the past. They therefore attempt to rectify their errors, and they wind up rich but very unhappy. The moral is that everything is for the best, and if one wouldn't make the same mistakes a second time, one ought to. Charmingly produced by Guthrie McClintic, the play is richer in period comedy than in metaphysics. It is entertaining and quite harmless. To the critic it is interesting only because it seems to demonstrate certain facts about the nature of Mr. Anderson's work.
Though Mr. Anderson has lately been hailed as America's first dramatist, it has long been obvious that he was essentially a popular playwright, distinguished from his fellows only by his ambition. Yet ambition alone would hardly account for his enormous commercial success, for many of Mr. Anderson's subjects, no matter how sugar-coated, must have been at least partially indigestible to the public. Neither Winterset nor High Tor were "easy" plays; the turgidity of Mr. Anderson's verse made it arduous going. The answer, I think, lies in Mr. Anderson's attitude toward his material. Mr. Anderson is a genuine naif, a rustic, a Mr. Deeds. He has no discrimination, no system of intellectual values; he is moved solely by his own fancy. In the present play, a joke about bloomers and a metaphysical speculation are on a par; the playwright is not aware of a difference between them. Unconscious of categories, he makes himself at home in the Infinite, because he has no sense of not-belonging. It is his sublime unself-consciousness which endears him to his public. The spectacle of Mr. Anderson relaxing in the Forbidden Places of the intellect induces a corresponding feeling of comfort in the spectator: whether or not he understands exactly what Mr. Anderson is doing, he is put at ease by the utter homeyness of Mr. Anderson's manner. The familiar jokes about Irish policemen, horseless cars, and gangsters heighten the illusion of security.
To this gift, Mr. Anderson, a native Middle Westerner, adds a real sense of old-fashioned American symbols. In The Star-Wagon there is the inventor; in High Tor, the American Indian; in Winterset, the senile, learned judge; in Valley Forge, George Washington; and everywhere there is the passion for social justice, which is visualized in terms of the square deal. In a more subtle way, the blank verse is itself a symbol of an obsolescent American taste. Mr. Anderson's mind is like a musty, Middle Western law office of thirty years ago, full of heterogeneous books on the law, on American history, on philosophy, and the morocco-bound complete works of William Shakespeare.CHAPTER 2
As Shakespeare has been said to have populated all corners of history and legend with "deathless Englishmen," so Clifford Odets seems to have resettled America and even China (The General Died at Dawn) with citizens of the Bronx. The salient feature of Golden Boy (Belasco Theatre), which is supposed to be a play about an Italian boy named Bonaparte who wanted to be a violinist but became a prizefighter instead, is that it is not at all about an Italian boy but about that same talkative, histrionic Jewish family to which Mr. Odets has introduced us before. Golden Boy again demonstrates the lesson of the Odets' Paradise Lost: that this author appears to be psychically glued to the material of his first play. He cannot advance beyond Awake and Sing: he can only revive it with different costumes, scenery, and (sometimes) accents. That the refurbishing of the material implies its adulteration seems not to concern Mr. Odets, who perhaps imagines that he is exploring genuinely new horizons; but to those who have admired Awake and Sing, each new play seems a more shocking caricature of the first.
It is well known that actors who have been playing for a long time in the same play will, unless disciplined by a vigilant stage manager, "hoke" their performances more and more. A giggle becomes a laugh; a catch in the throat, a sob; a tremor, a spasm. This is a form of auto-intoxication which is psychologically necessary for the type of player who must "feel" his performance. He must behave more and more violently in order to be aware that he is acting. This law of diminishing returns from a given stimulus is, of course, observable in every field of sensibility, and its workings are particularly striking in the case of Mr. Odets. The narrowness of his invention, the monotony of his subject matter have anaesthetized him to a point where he must wade in blood and tears in order to feel that he is writing a play; he must turn the Belasco Theatre into a Grand Guignol to believe it a playhouse.
Thus the simple Bronx apartment dwellers of Awake and Sing appear in Golden Boy dressed up as gangsters, prizefighters, and tarts. Mr. Odets has taken a collection of types out of any underworld film, and on them he has grafted the half-ludicrous, half-touching cultural aspirations, the malapropisms, the pride in material possessions, the inarticulate longing for a sunny life, that make up the Odets formula of frustration. The Chekhovian baggage of middle-class futility with which Mr. Odets equips these low-life stereotypes is, of course, fearfully inappropriate to the milieu of lust, murder, crime and perversion in which they must travel. The voices are the dreamy, ineffectual voices of the little people of the world; the deeds are the deeds of the headliners. This contradiction between form and substance gives the play the aspect of a fancy-dress ball; there is the same grotesquerie, the same stridency, the same laughable yet indecent incongruity.
Golden Boy is a much more popular play than Awake and Sing. The melodramatic nature of the characters and events would alone guarantee its success at the box office. But Mr. Odets has taken out double insurance against the failure of his work by stuffing it with familiar Jewish low-comedy jokes and ancient wheezes out of vaudeville. Yet, though the stale luridity of characters and plot and the stale gag-comedy of the lines have been sufficient to keep audiences in the alternate shivers and stitches to which the underworld films have habituated them, it is not these qualities which have commanded the deferential attention of both critics and playgoers. Serious people have sat unflinchingly through this play, because they knew or thought they knew that Mr. Odets had Something To Say, that somewhere in this theatrical grab bag there lay a treasure.
Mr. Odets has a theme which in the last century would have been stated as Money Does Not Bring Happiness. But Mr. Odets conceives of it in more modern terms. He would summarize it, I suppose, by saying that the struggle for financial success which the capitalist system tends to impose on the individual is detrimental to personal happiness and to culture. Stated thus abstractly, the theme does Mr. Odets credit. Concretely visualized as a choice between playing the violin and fighting in the prize ring, it already becomes a little ridiculous. But, granting Mr. Odets the virtue of this rather simpleminded antithesis, one finds that here it has been distorted out of all truth and vulgarized out of all nobility. In the selection of a superman for a hero lies the essential hollowness of the play, for the choice between culture and money cannot be valid for a character who possesses two such remarkable gifts. If Mr. Odets' hero were a potentially great violinist, he could have become rich or at least prosperous via the concert stage, and he need never have considered prizefighting as an alternative career. If he were not, then his abandonment of the violin was surely no tragedy. But Mr. Odets' juggling of his theme does not stop with this original false alternative; it eats deeper into the plot. What is the cause of Bonaparte's downfall and death? His greed for money, his selection of prizefighting as a life work? Not at all. A purely accidental, non-social circumstance: the fact that the girl he loved felt pity, loyalty, and tenderness for another man. One assumes that, were it not for the girl, Mr. Odets' hero would have been as successful and as long-lived as Jack Dempsey, Mickey Walker, Gene Tunney, or any other well-known fighter. He might have even become a restaurant-owner and had some very satisfying musical conversations with Yehudi Menuhin. Mr. Odets' social theme, like his formula for the manufacture of characters, is a carry-over from his first and most sincere play. It is clearly inoperative in the world of macabre melodrama into which he has imported it. That he was forced to use a fortuitous, melodramatic device to dissolve the elements of his play and bring it to its falsely tragic curtain is itself an exposé of the play's "serious" pretensions.
Excerpted from Mary McCarthy's Theatre Chronicles 1937â?"1962 by Mary McCarthy. Copyright © 2000 Mary McCarthy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.