The American theater, Henry Popkin tells us, perhaps never outstandingly notable for the maturity of its values, has lately been engaged in wholesale and headlong flight from reality into the world of childish fantasy.
We are on the threshold of a new Broadway season, but there seems little reason to expect that it will depart in any fundamental way from the pattern of the past season: a pattern of wholesale flight from the reality of our lives. Several times during the past season it was possible to look at the full list of current plays and observe that not one of them pretended to give any kind of recognizable portrait of American life. To make this observation is not necessarily to enthrone the realistic or naturalistic plays that excel in reproducing the surfaces of contemporary life; but the absence of such plays, which have for decades been the staple of our dramatic fare, is unquestionably a curious phenomenon.
And even more curious is the rigid consistency of the themes of most of last season’s play. Almost without exception, they have shown the necessity of escaping from stultifying, imprisoning circumstances by some bold, if unlikely, act. Usually there is one central character who is capable of sincere feeling, or of emotional depths that no one around him can appreciate. He is chained to a psychic incompleteness, to childishness, by circumstances or by the apathy of those around him. And he cannot solve his problems; he can only go away or commit suicide or commit murder or retreat into dreams or memories of the past.
In most of the plays this childish dreamer is the character we are asked to admire: that is quite clear, for instance, in such “serious” plays as Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real and William Inge’s Picnic. Here the “big kids” are the play’s heroes. Only a “trivial” play like Frederick Knott’s Dial M for Murder can afford to put forth a traditional, common-sense attitude by making its overgrown childlike man a villain, a murderer. Only an unpretentious mystery-writer would be so cruel to childhood: in other circles there seems to be an intellectual obligation to burrow deep into the recollections of childhood and of the past, to live sentimentally, emotionally, and nostalgically.
Perhaps the most striking manifestation of this back-to-the-cradle movement is the fiction of Truman Capote; it is no accident that Capote has lately discovered in the New York theater a new audience for his nostalgia. After an unsuccessful run on Broadway, his dramatized novel, The Grass Harp, has been well received at the Circle in the Square in Greenwich Village. Malcolm Cowley has recently written that childhood nostalgia of the sort Capote retails is all the rage in the huge stacks of novels that editors are daily and hourly rejecting. And childishness is the rage, too, in the plays that Broadway producers accept.
To be sure, many of Broadway’s principal theatrical events belong to another category entirely, the musical production—”play” is getting to be an inexact word for them. The musicals do not pretend to be imitations of life; they improve on life by stylizing it. But perhaps one can build a bridge to the main theme of this essay by suggesting that this stylization bears some resemblance to the play-acting of children: in the child’s conception of an actable character, only the salient traits, the most easily parroted ones, are retained. The same is true of our musical-comedy stylization, which is as fixed and almost as amusing as the Jonsonian comedy of “humours.”
If our musical plays have not given us a whole gallery of “humourous” characters, at least they have perfected one archetype, a comic character who seems available for use in any kind of play. He is the tough-talking New Yorker who strains for a gentility of phrase that he can never quite attain. He seems to come equally from Arthur Kober’s would-be-genteel Bronx maidens and from Damon Runyon’s excessively polite roughnecks, who never speak in the past tense and never use contractions. His rise has been unmarked and unheralded, but this comic character has caught the popular imagination as has no other in our generation. He has even found his way into “serious” plays: Tennessee Williams, in A Streetcar Named Desire and The Rose Tattoo, has created roughnecks who aspire to a more elegant speech. More recently, we have found the Runyon-Kober archetype in Guys and Dolls (based on Runyon’s stories), Wish You Were Here (based on Kober’s earlier play), and John O’Hara’s Pal Joey.
What characterizes Runyon’s and O’Hara’s tough guys most of all is an improbable air of aspiration. Joey pretends to an education at “Dartmouth University,” and Runyon’s gamblers are in constant danger of being reformed by their women or by the Salvation Army. But the loftiest aspiration—the aspiration toward a colorful syntax—is reserved for the toughest characters of all. In Pal Joey the fanciest line of talk is put out by the blackmailer Ludlow Lowell, and in Guys and Dolls the glibbest “guys” are the Chicago killer Big Jule and his flunkey. The effect is one of incongruity: the ugliest characters use the prettiest words and get the most disarmingly comic effect. This intention succeeds here as elsewhere, for the incongruity of the New York roughneck’s glib words and his base intentions has captured the national fancy. But the extraordinary popularity of this characterization should remind us that it really is a type. It amuses, it delights, it deserves all the praise it gets, but it has no genuine relation to reality.
The stylization of Porgy and Bess is equally obvious and much more familiar. Everyone knows and no one (well, practically no one) believes DuBose Heyward’s myth of the shiftless, happy-go-lucky, pious, superstitious, razor-wielding Negroes of the Old South. To the audience that received Native Son, On Whitman Avenue, and Deep Are the Roots, Porgy and Bess is a harmless fiction and not a slander on the Negio, since to be a slander it would have to be taken for truth. Once more, stylization provides a holiday from real life and real people.
Stylized characterization is one refuge from reality; costume drama is another, especially if it is costume drama pretending to be something else. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is nominally about the Salem witch trials, but it is a matter of general agreement that this play is actually concerned with the trials and Congressional investigations of our own day. For most men of good will, the public issues of our time are sadly mixed. Neither the professional martyrs nor the professional Communist-hunters have consistently remained heroic figures. Occasionally, there is an innocent victim and sometimes a scrupulous accuser, but the real scene-stealers inspire no great warmth or sympathy. What Arthur Miller has done is to indulge a wish for clarity by simplification, creating a world in which the McCarthys are still McCarthys yet the Rosenbergs are no longer accused of espionage but rather of the unlikely crime of witchcraft. No longer need we entertain any embarrassing fears as to whether the accused actually dealt with some real Prince of Darkness. And if we need some symbolic parallel to their real 20th-century guilt, we can have that, too: Miller’s John Proctor has committed the irrelevant sin of adultery, and he is being accused by a jealous woman; this furnishes the shadow of a morally complicated situation without the substance. Thus The Crucible, widely hailed as the most “timely” play of the season, must also be classified as a dream-play. It is a great feeling, this luxuriating in simple black-and-white issues, but it is purchased only at the price of flight into the 17th century.
The Spewacks’ My Three Angels offers an equally fanciful solution. Here we observe a family that faces a perplexing difficulty—how to forestall merciless creditors who insist on having a look at the books. The answer is simple—have some good angels appear to assassinate the creditors. The angels are as unreal and as incongruous as Ludlow Lowell and Big Jule; they are pleasant, reasonable men who happen, quite inconceivably, to be convicts on Devil’s Island. Indeed, everything that happens here is only further evidence of the pure impossibility of the proceedings. The angelic identifications are supplied in full abundance, and they have the effect of suggesting that such a solution as this—or, in fact, any solution—to the real troubles of the world is as unlikely as an angelic visitation. In true angelic fashion, these three Devil’s Island angels make their first entrance from above, where they have been repairing the roof. (This was a great season for entrances through the ceiling.) Their ministrations on behalf of their troubled friends invariably inspire analogies with divine interventions: “Praise the Lord from whom all blessings flow,” we are told, and “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” when one of the villains is hastened to his grave.
Such plays as these merely reject reality or thumb a nose at it. Other plays of the season made bolder recommendations of flight into an unknown, quixotic fantasy. William Inge and Tennessee Williams, who share with Arthur Miller the distinction of being regarded as our most promising playwrights, both enlisted themselves on the side of sentiment—for Williams this is one of several re-enlistments—in a world of conventionality and cynicism.
Hal Carter of Mr. Inge’s Picnic comes out of nowhere to preach the gospel of love, of glory, of impractical individualism, footloose and footless, and he wins the prettiest girl in town away from the richest boy in town. All that seems substantial and real about Hal Carter is just what we can see—his physique, unveiled through most of the play; everything else is no more than a loud noise—his boasts of sexual adventures, of diving championships, of ventures in the oil business. But Hal’s greatest asset is precisely his matchless unreliability. The girl must choose Hal because he is unknown and, so far as he is known, unstable. Curiously, it was reported that the ending of the play was changed out of town, that originally Inge ended Picnic without permitting the girl to follow Hal to Tulsa; I take it that the dramatist found out the iron strength of our stage conventions. This is predestination with a vengeance; a stage heroine is doomed, inevitably, to marry the poor boy whom she has just met. This heroine’s mother did it in her time, and surely the daughter of the next generation will do it in time to come, if she happens to be a character in a Broadway play.
Exactly the same sort of decision was exhibited in another of the season’s plays, Vina Delmar’s Midsummer. Here the chief character is torn between being a high-school teacher or a vaudeville comedian. Miss Del-mar tries out both endings (as Inge did by altering his ending on the road) by having her heroine prepare first for one life and then for another, but no one who has seen Picnic will have any trouble predicting the outcome of Midsummer: the little white house and the placid domesticity of the teacher’s life must be rejected in favor of the romantic, uncertain, happy-go-lucky way of the actor.
In Camino Real, Tennessee Williams transmits his sentiments about sentiment more abstractly but no less doggedly. Here we follow one Kilroy who has arrived in a cruel, nameless country where the word “brother” is forbidden, where he must discard his mementoes of past pugilistic glory and become a “patsy,” a professional victim, fully aware of the nightmare of present reality. Kilroy loses his golden gloves and his championship belt, and he learns the folly of responding to that sweetest of all words, “champ.” But he ends up victorious by joining the futile pilgrimage of Don Quixote, and we are told that the violets in the mountains have broken through the rocks. Williams’ violets have a way of pulverizing their rocks—but why should they not? They are his violets and his rocks.
To be sure, the rocks are rugged enough in Camino Real: the meaningless cruelty of this (evidently) Latin American community, the unspeakable indignities visited upon our Everyman Kilroy, the arbitrary violence of the burst of gunfire, the sinister threat of the ubiquitous street-cleaners who wait to cart away the dead. Who can hope or dream in such a world? But it is precisely because it is so arbitrary, so violent, so brutal that this world has been created, and the brave, sentimental souls of Casanova, Camille, Byron, Don Quixote, and Kilroy have been created, or resurrected, to inhabit it. The authors of Picnic and Midsummer may measure out their unfriendly circumstances with coffee spoons, but Williams uses a ladle. And the moral is all the more strident: “Be Quixote; be quixotic.”
OTHER plays of the season call for a collective treatment. They provide variations on the same theme. All seem to examine a real problem—the plight of the emotionally maladjusted person, particularly the person whose sexual drives are too strong or too weak for him to be at ease in society. The plays are uniformly on the side of love, but they can offer no solution except suicide, murder, escape into dreams, or flight to another country. Hester Collyer of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea can find no male counterpart capable of her emotional depths; neither her affectionate but shallow husband nor her even shallower playboy-lover can give her the love she needs. In contrast with this pathetic picture, George Axelrod, in The Seven Year Itch, offers a comic portrait of a man whose emotional ambitions are limitless but whom society has kept in check for the duration of a seven-year marriage. Similarly, Leona Samish of Arthur Laurents’ The Time of the Cuckoo has, in her career as a super-efficient secretary, neglected her career as a woman. Her recourse is to seek romance in Italy, for a large measure of her difficulty rests in the fact that she has the misfortune to be an American. On the other hand, Geoffrey Hawke’s trouble, in Moss Hart’s The Climate of Eden, is that he is a European, the product of a tradition-ridden civilization. Another play presents the complete emotional cripple who is completely satisfied with his emotional atrophy and strives only to make it permanent: Tony Wendice, the would-be killer of Did M for Murder. Each of these people is restricted, inhibited, practically imprisoned; each play but the last records a desperate attempt to escape.
What these emotional deficients have in common is their childishness. They want to be children, and they show it, for one thing, by a somewhat nostalgic preoccupation with games and sports. We have remarked that Williams’ Kilroy lives in the aura of his boxing championship and Inge’s Hal Carter in the glory of his achievements as a football player. The murderous husband of Dial M for Murder is a retired tennis player whose triumphs are continually called to our attention by the silver cups that line his shelves. He, too, prefers to live in the past with his tennis victories. His addiction to stag parties seems intended as one of several symptoms of an aversion to facing his adult role as a husband. Similarly, the shallow lover of The Deep Blue Sea makes golf his full-time activity and dreams of his past glory as an RAF flier and a test pilot, two typical goals of childish aspiration. Childish in other matters as well, he continues to use RAF slang and to favor his male companions. On the other hand, the comic hero of The Seven Year Itch has childishness thrust upon him. We find him living in an enforced bachelorhood while his wife is away; he does not play tennis or golf, but, as the curtain rises, he makes his obeisance to the world of sports by listening to a baseball game on the radio. His wife has enjoined upon him a distinctive stigma of childhood by forbidding him to smoke or drink; he is reduced to sipping raspberry soda through a straw.
Occasionally the playwright employs adult children to set off the juvenility of his childish adults. The Climate of Eden provides one instance, but The Time of the Cuckoo is more emphatic: Leona Samish is forever being shocked by the sophistication of her ten-year-old guide, who swears, arranges romantic rendezvous in gondolas, and generally takes theft and adultery in his stride. Appropriately, the principal American characters, who are often referred to as “greedy children,” are younger than the Europeans; the European head-start of centuries seems in a sense symbolized by this specific seniority in years. And, in addition, although both Americans and Italians might be expected to have language difficulties, it is always the Americans’ linguistic troubles we are reminded of: like children, they are once more learning to speak, making mistakes, showing joy at the mastery of new words.
Such are the problems. As for solutions— : you can always kill yourself or your tormentors. In The Deep Blue Sea, Hester is trying to commit suicide as the play begins, and she is dissuaded from a second attempt only by a very hasty and unconvincing compromise with life. The tennis-playing husband of Dial M for Murder plots his wife’s death, ostensibly because he wants her money, but we may suspect that he is motivated also by an awareness of his inadequacy as a man. The Seven Year Itch toys with the possibility of murder. The subject is first broached by a psychiatrist, Dr. Bru-baker, who describes his own “strong unconscious desire to murder my wife,” adding that he has no actual wish “to do the good woman any bodily harm.” Later, the play’s principal character dreams that his wife shoots him upon learning of his infidelity. One way or another, a gun looks like a fairly satisfactory aid in escaping from a dilemma.
If there is nobody to kill, go away. This advice is especially suited to those who suffer from spiritual emptiness and long to be filled. Emotional hungers, loneliness, instability are taken to be merely features of the local scene; fulfillment lies beyond the sea. Leona Samish seeks it in Italy but she finds she is hopelessly childish before the warmhearted, warm-blooded natives; she cannot accommodate herself to this freer, coarser world. Like two other recent plays, The Grand Tour and In Any Language, The Time of the Cuckoo seems to be asking, “If Ingrid Bergman could do it, why can’t we?” And the same answer is heard in all three plays: “I don’t know why, but you can’t.”
The great example of “going away” is Moss Hart’s The Climate of Eden. In the Reverend Gerald Harmston’s little settlement in British Guiana, everyone goes about his private quest for the Kingdom of Heaven, destroying every European “taboo” in sight and yet doing it almost perfunctorily, with a disarming tranquillity. To Geoffrey Hawke, a harried refugee from European neuroses, this haven is at first as frightening as Italy to Leona Samish. Still, Hawke manages to adjust, to find an alternative to the real world in this free-wheeling Utopia. He is evidently plagued, however, by the original sin of belonging to the civilized world, for the parson tells his daughter: “This is not a way of life for him, my dear. Not forever. He thinks so now—but it isn’t. . . . Our way of living is not life, Olivia—it’s just a way of looking at life.” But everything possible has been done to make “civilized” life look pallid and restrictive in comparison to Reverend Harmsworth’s green paradise. These last qualifying words do not alter the picture. The climate of never-never land is much more pleasant than ours.
Even if you cannot take passage, no one can stop you from dreaming. The Seven Year Itch offers a series of wish-fulfillment dreams, taken from the troubled imagination of a man who lives in dread of what “People” will say. At work, he plans bosomy covers and sexy titles for pocket books; at home, he has been a model of fidelity for seven years. What is more natural than for his dreams to embody all the sexual cravings he had denied? He dreams out both his hopes and fears, and at last, after imagining a romance with the pretty girl upstairs, he actually has one—or does he? He tries to kiss her, takes her to dinner, and is finally bidden good night. And that would seem to conclude this abortive affair. Then the girl re-enters by a sort of trap-door, like the Spewacks’ three angels, and, as the conventional phrase has it, she gives herself to him. Now, the existence of the trap-door has been “planted” well in advance, and yet the very fact of its use makes the events that follow a little less than real. I am reminded of a conversation I overheard many years ago when I was seeing a movie version of A Christmas Carol. The couple behind me were speculating as to the reality of one of the Christmas Spirits, who had just left by the window. My neighbor remarked: “If the window closes, it’s only a dream; the ghost isn’t real.” Whereupon the window slammed shut. The same principle applies in The Seven Year Itch. If on this occasion the girl had come through the door, as she does in all her undeniably real appearances, it would have been possible to believe in the events that followed, but her coming through the ceiling lends an unmistakable touch of fantasy. What would you think if a pretty girl came through your ceiling? Precisely! Surely this is no more than one dream following another. The play’s hero first has some less spectacular, less convincing dreams of romance; then, so to speak, he turns over and dreams on the other side, this time producing a vision that is much more exciting and even more convincing. This is enough to solve his problem; he is able even to face the prospect of seeing his wife again.
All that remains is to wonder why this . motif of flight so dominates the recent theater and the rest of our popular arts. Why are we always in flight for the solace of sentiment, childhood, and the world of dreams? One likely answer could be found on the front page of any newspaper. I don’t mean to say, with Arthur Miller, that the trouble is the shadow of McCarthy over the land. No, the trouble is McCarthy and everything else. We live with the atomic bomb and under a permanent threat of war. Who wouldn’t rather be eight years old?
This answer may be far too easy. There are always advantages in being eight years old. The point is that the desire to be eight years old is no advantage to a dramatist if he wants to write adult drama.