Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar Americaby Stephen E. Kercher
We live in a time much like the postwar era. A time of arch political conservatism and vast social conformity. A time in which our nation’s leaders question and challenge the patriotism of those who oppose their policies. But before there was Jon Stewart, Al Franken, or Bill Maher, there were Mort Sahl, Stan Freberg, and Lenny Bruce—liberal satirists
We live in a time much like the postwar era. A time of arch political conservatism and vast social conformity. A time in which our nation’s leaders question and challenge the patriotism of those who oppose their policies. But before there was Jon Stewart, Al Franken, or Bill Maher, there were Mort Sahl, Stan Freberg, and Lenny Bruce—liberal satirists who, through their wry and scabrous comedic routines, waged war against the political ironies, contradictions, and hypocrisies of their times.
Revel with a Cause is their story. Stephen Kercher here provides the first comprehensive look at the satiric humor that flourished in the United States during the 1950s and early 1960s. Focusing on an impressive range of comedy—not just standup comedians of the day but also satirical publications like MAD magazine, improvisational theater groups such asSecond City, the motion picture Dr. Strangelove, and TV shows like That Was the Week That Was—Kercher reminds us that the postwar era saw varieties of comic expression that were more challenging and nonconformist than we commonly remember. His history of these comedic luminaries shows that for a sizeable audience of educated, middle-class Americans who shared such liberal views, the period’s satire was a crucial mode of cultural dissent. For such individuals, satire was a vehicle through which concerns over the suppression of civil liberties, Cold War foreign policies, blind social conformity, and our heated racial crisis could be productively addressed.
A vibrant and probing look at some of the most influential comedy of mid-twentieth-century America, Revel with a Cause belongs on the short list of essential books for anyone interested in the relationship between American politics and popular culture.
"The book is almost encyclopedic in its breadth, serving as a useful overview of the many ways in which postwar satire articulated cultural criticism. . . . Indispensable fo understanding the role of humor in contemporary American culture."
"Kercher's book offers an indispensable account of what it meant to be funny about unfunny things in postwar America."
"The prose never becomes overwhelmed by detail and the judgements are consistently informed, balanced and judicious. An added pleasure is the reproduction of some memorable cartoons among the various illustrations. Altogether it is an impressive achievement."
"Kercher's work is exceptionally well researched, very readable, and covers an impressive range of examples. . . . A book that is informative, engaging, thoughtful, and, for individuals who lived through those times, nostalgic."
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Revel with a CauseLiberal Satire in Postwar America
By Stephen E. Kercher
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Truth Grinning in a Solemn, Canting World"
Although improvisational satire became identified with the avant-garde cultural life of New York City and Greenwich Village during the early 1960s, it originated a decade earlier in Chicago. At first blush, Chicago during the early 1950s seemed an unlikely spawning ground for theatrical experimentation. As one local theater critic put it in 1953, Chicago during this period was "the theatrical equivalent of the place old elephants go to die." Despite its dismal theatrical scene, however, Chicago enjoyed a reputation as a spawning ground for cultural experimentation and improvisational performance in particular. Postwar American blues and jazz thrived in the Windy City, and it was through Chicago television station WNBQ that the live and often unrehearsed programs Studs [Terkel's] Place and Burr Tillstrom's Kukla, Fran and Ollie were broadcast to NBC affiliates around the United States during the early 1950s. Chicago was also home to the University of Chicago, which under the leadership of Robert Hutchins, had become one of the most progressive academic communities in the United States.
It was in the liberal intellectual milieu of the University of Chicago that two young theater enthusiasts named David Shepherd and Paul Sills initiated the Compass Players, the first important improvisational theater troupe to emerge in the postwar years. Shepherd, the son of a wealthy New York architect and a distant relative of the Vanderbilt family, was a graduate of Harvard (where, as a student, he had worked on the Harvard Lampoon) and a self-proclaimed socialist. By the early fifties, he recalls, he had become "infuriated" and "disgusted" with the East Coast theater establishment's "upper-class effetism [sic]." Having studied theater at Columbia University and the Sorbonne, he was anxious to transplant the traditions of Italian masked comedy (commedia dell'arte) and German cabaret onto American soil. His initial attempt at producing Molière comedies through a summer company failed. Finally, in 1952 he hitchhiked to the Midwest with his $10,000 inheritance and began making plans for a working-class, community theater in the stockyards of Gary, Indiana. After failing to ignite interest for such a theater among the proletariat of Gary, he moved to Hyde Park, the progressive neighborhood that was home to the University of Chicago's student and faculty intellectuals.
In Hyde Park, Shepherd came into contact with a small, informal community of young theater enthusiasts interested in staging their own productions. In 1953, together with former University of Chicago students Paul Sills and Eugene Troobnick, Shepherd formed the Playwrights Theatre Club in a former Chinese laundry on North LaSalle Street. Over the next year and a half, Shepherd and his colleagues produced a body of highbrow classical and avant-garde plays at Playwrights, including works by Brecht, Chekov, and Büchner. Although Playwrights acquired a reputation as an innovative, avant-garde, left-leaning theater, Shepherd was not satisfied with its accomplishments. On May 25, 1954, he confessed to his journal that over the past year and a half he had "helped build a miserable self-centered arts club which talks over the heads of its bourgeois members at the same time it licks their feet for support."
Based in part on what he had witnessed at Chicago's College of the Complexes-an informal, irreverent theatrical enterprise headed by a former Wobbly named Slim Brundage-Shepherd proposed the creation of a new, thirties-style, Brechtian "people's theater," which he named "the Compass." Such a theater, Shepherd hoped, would "remove the glass curtain that's formed between the actors and the audience" and engage the "reality" of American life. In a January 1955 Chicago magazine interview, he harkened back to the days of the Popular Front by claiming that the Compass would appeal to the "man on the street." With an "intensity the stage hasn't known since Ibsen," Shepherd boldly announced, the Compass would "take the audience on a trip thru [sic] society. Maybe we'll show them what's happening in Malaya or some place." He pledged that his Compass theater would encourage audience members to "comment, applaud, hiss" and, significantly, "one night a week ... tell the actors what story to play and how to play it." In the hands of the right actors, Shepherd hoped, the Compass might revive the type of breezy, irreverent, political cabaret that had thrived in the 1930s and was once again cropping up in Düsseldorf, Berlin, and other European cities.
The most important stage technique Shepherd adapted for the new Compass was that of improvisation. Although he had become familiar with the concept and uses of improvisation through his studies of the commedia dell'arte tradition, it was not until he became acquainted with Paul Sills, his collaborator at Playwrights, that Shepherd grasped its true potential. Sills had first honed his interest in theater while a student at Chicago's progressive Francis Parker School. He was also the son of Viola Spolin, a theatrical maverick who had begun to develop improvisational "games" during the 1930s while teaching drama (under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration) at Chicago's Hull House Recreational Training School. Sills took the playful improvisational techniques developed by his mother and gave them a Brechtian twist. Like Shepherd, Sills agreed with Brecht's emphasis on the nonsubjective theatrical experience and the creative interchange between audience and actors. Sills also shared Shepherd's progressive social concerns. In his hands, improvisation was not merely an acting device, it was a tool that could assist in the process of raising awareness and of community building. Through the use of improvisation, Sills argued in a 1964 interview, actors could help build "communities that have real life."
Sills's approach to improvisation appealed to Shepherd since it promised to generate "reality" and authentic, spontaneous contact between actors and audiences. Rather than commit entirely to improvisation, however, Shepherd preferred that the Compass work from written scenarios, as European commedia dell'arte troupes had done centuries earlier. In magazines as far afield as Britain's Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman and Nation, Shepherd began to solicit "Brechtian fables," "political satires," and "cabaret material" for his new theater. In a 1954 brochure for the Compass, Shepherd called for scripts "that would never be shown on Broadway, Hollywood or TV ... stories that move outside the family circle to show America's history and place in the world today." "At The Compass," Shepherd wrote, the playwright "won't be required to copy the surface of life-a poor kind of realism-if he prefers to dig through to find the real core of a person, or a story, or a society ... All we ask for is a form that can be recognized by the man-in-the-street, and that is strong enough to stand up in a cabaret."
Several months before the Compass officially opened, Shepherd staged a performance titled "Enterprise" at the University of Chicago's Reynolds Club. The performance was based on a scenario written by Roger Bowen, a young, liberal Ivy League graduate like Shepherd who was at the University of Chicago pursuing a graduate degree in English. Bowen's scenario related the plight of four working-class teenage boys who are conned by a used car dealer named "Crazy Jake." After wrecking the car that they had collectively purchased from Crazy Jake, the four innocents are forced to pay him off by selling junk jewelry to unsuspecting high school girls. Having learned the dubious ethics of American "enterprise" from Crazy Jake, the boys become successful and are eventually given a Junior Achievement Award. At the awards ceremony, the Junior Achievement president, Crazy Jake, pays homage to the automobile and America's "spirit of hustle." "America," Crazy Jake proclaims at the scenario's conclusion, "is a nation of hustlers."
As Compass historian Janet Coleman has argued, "Enterprise," with its condemnation of American business ethics, provided Shepherd and his colleagues with the "substantive prototype" for subsequent scenarios. Though critical of economic exploitation, however, neither the content nor the tone of this scenario took a truly "Marxist angle" as Coleman suggests. There was nothing particularly "Marxist" about Bowen's portrayal of the avaricious used car dealer, the "typical do-gooder" Junior Achievement committeewomen, or the other Americans it caricatures. Moreover, when Bowen described the working-class teenagers as laggards who "regard going to work as the greatest danger in life" and as gullible consumers "hypnotized by automobiles," he betrayed the snobbery and condescension that would later occasionally mar Compass scenarios. Despite its somewhat slipshod social analysis, "Enterprise" received a warm reception from the young, liberal University of Chicago students who had gathered to watch it. The laughter this thirty-five-minute production received, in fact, convinced Paul Sills that he ought to commit to Shepherd's venture.
On July 5, 1955, after several weeks of intense improvisational training led by Viola Spolin, the Compass made its debut under Paul Sills's direction. Joining Sills, Shepherd, and Bowen in the original Compass Players were an African American student, an industrial relations counselor, and a former Communist Party organizer. Also integral to the early Compass were a bright young woman named Barbara Harris and Andrew Duncan, a University of Chicago graduate student. Aside from Shepherd and Sills, perhaps the most important contributor to the early Compass was an intelligent and fiercely independent young woman named Elaine May. As the daughter of a Yiddish actor named Jack Berlin, May had grown up in the world of theater. Unlike her Compass colleagues, she had received little formal education. As a teenager she had married, had a child, and then divorced her husband. After briefly studying acting under Maria Ouspenkaya and then pursuing several occupations, she decided to lead the life of a bohemian rebel. She eventually hitchhiked to Hyde Park and then gravitated toward its amateur theater scene.
May and her young Compass Players colleagues first performed in a small nightclub connected to the Compass Tavern. The Compass Tavern was located in a vibrant, eclectic area within Hyde Park, just down the street from the well-known Bee Hive jazz club. Like nearby campus bars and hangouts, the Compass Tavern attracted what writer Isaac Rosenfeld in Commentary described as "an interracial clientele of mixed types." Included within this diverse group were a few sober-minded business and engineering students (the "yaks") but even larger numbers of young, jazz-crazed hipsters, alienated, middle-class bohemians, and what Rosenfeld sarcastically called "retired students." Many of these young rebels were drawn to the Compass Tavern because talk of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche was thick in its air, a set of Encyclopedia Britannica lined its bookshelves, Beethoven and Vivaldi played on its sound system, and, not least, because Michelob flowed from its tap.
Soon after the Compass Players began performing in the summer of 1955, they began drawing a capacity crowd of ninety, six nights a week. On a small, rudimentary stage backed by several colored, moveable panels, they developed and performed material at a frenetic pace. Under the direction of Shepherd and Sills, in fact, the Compass Players managed to produce a new show nearly every week. Typically, each performance began with a short piece and then proceeded with a "Living Newspaper," a segment clearly inspired by Federal Theater Project productions of the 1930s. With its "Living Newspaper" segment, Compass actors attempted to weave humorous dialogue and pantomime into newspaper articles they read onstage. David Shepherd recalls this popular portion of the Compass program: "It was about 'Hello. You're reading this shit [newspapers and magazines] every day. We're going to show you now what is behind this shit.'" Following this segment, the Compass Players usually performed a longer scenario play and then ended with a few scenes and blackouts based on audience suggestions.
Although the ephemeral nature of Compass's improvised scenarios poses significant challenges of interpretation, it seems clear that those performed during the summer of 1955 developed comic themes along the lines of Bowen's "Enterprise." "The Drifters" and "The Fuller Brush Salesman" conveyed the message that, as Roger Bowen remembers it, "in this society, you either screw or be screwed ..." Elaine May's "The Real You" also attempted to demonstrate how popular, middle-class formulas for success-in this case, the "Human Potential" movement-ironically end up claiming innocent victims. In this scenario, May related a tale about five losers who are enticed to enroll in Joe Charm's School of Success. Each character there learns the importance of exaggerated enthusiasm and self-promotion. As a result of their personality training, however, all five characters end up intimidating and alienating the people they hoped to impress. Drawing inspiration from David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd and William Whyte's The Organization Man (two sociological critiques with which early Compass Players were well familiar) as well Arthur Miller's dramatic play Death of a Salesman (1949), scenarios such as May's satirized fifties consensus culture and Americans' obsession with "fitting in."
Perhaps the most poignant scenario the Compass Players produced during the summer of 1955 was May's "Georgina's First Date." Unlike the great majority of scenarios and scenes that the Compass and its male-dominated successors performed in the 1950s and early 1960s, this piece focused solely on the experience of a female character. Its plot focused on an unattractive teenage girl named Georgina who is asked to the senior prom by Edward, one of her school's most popular boys. Edward cares nothing for Georgina and only invited her in order to please the members of the club he wishes to join. With the coaching of her sister and the prodding of her ambitious mother, Georgina desperately attempts to live up to her date's expectations. She becomes "so absorbed in her own effort to have 'personality,'" May's scenario suggested, "that she is unaware of what she is being used for." In the end, Georgina suffers through the prom and, in a tragic twist, is raped by Edward. Despite her trauma, she tells her mother when she returns home that she had a wonderful time.
To be sure, the sober, brutal realism behind "Georgina's First Date" often mitigated the comic effect of Compass scenarios. It is likewise difficult to discern anything funny in Shepherd's "Five Dreams for Five Actors" scenario-a Freudian nightmare involving a wedding between an elderly grandfather and his granddaughter, a young business executive who is fated to wear a paper bag over his head, and, finally, another middle-class business man who murders his "castrating" wife with a carving knife. Like other early Compass scenarios and scenes commenting on middle-class conformity and alienation, interpersonal and family conflict, marital discord, and emotional pain, "Georgina's First Date" and "Five Dreams for Five Actors" were in fact tinged with a sense of despair. In significant respects, Compass scenarios reflected the sense of anxiety, restlessness, and bleak pessimism that many middle-class Americans shared in the early and mid-1950s. At the exact moment when Americans were celebrating their remarkable affluence, the "end of ideology," and the triumph of the American Way, there remained strong undercurrents of dissent and dissatisfaction. Throughout the postwar period, this dissent was translated through a variety of subterranean cultural channels, from film noir and the "sick" satire of MAD to the work of Beat poets, absurdist playwrights, and the emerging school of "black humor" fiction writers. In keeping with this emerging counterculture of the 1950s, then, Compass Players spoke directly to the restlessness and nagging doubts of its young, educated middle-class patrons.
Excerpted from Revel with a Cause by Stephen E. Kercher Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Stephen Kercher is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh.
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