According to Robert Jay Lifton, the 20th century is fostering a new breed of human beings whose dispositions are so indeterminate that such old-fashioned terms as “character” or “personality,” with their implications of stability and continuity, can no longer be invoked to describe them. Appropriately, the article in which he heralds the arrival of “Protean Man” appeared in Partisan Review (Winter 1968)—that onetime monolith of liberal-left orthodoxy which is now somewhat protean itself.

Lifton attributes this momentous and almost universal (i.e., not purely Western) mutation to two main causes—the dislocation of history (or psycho-history), which has cut men off from the past, including their own youth; and the new media of communication, which inundate everyone in a seemingly limitless flood of novel and fragmented images from a thousand cultural traditions, past and present. Contrary to received opinion, the new man does not find his successive shifts of role a strain. As Lifton points out, the mythical Proteus was able to change form only too easily: What was hard was getting him to commit himself to a single form long enough to utter a prophecy. The article goes on to discuss the protean heroes of novels by Sartre, Bellow, and Günter Grass, and coins a marvelous phrase to describe their common style—polymorphous versatility. Such men characteristically (if I dare use so archaic a term) perceive the world in terms of absurdity. Their favorite mode is mockery.

I must apologize for leading off with so blatant a piece of intellectual appropriation, but I came across the article just as I was contemplating some rather protean features of television, and the parallel between Lifton's man and his quintessential medium seemed too apt to ignore. Although, as a popular art, television is in some respects extremely conservative—Westerns, quiz-shows, and situation comedies we shall surely have always with us—in other respects it is amazingly oversensitive to minor shifts in the intellectual and social climate.

Since I began, less than three years ago, to keep an eye on what the major American networks were up to, I have seen nearly all the hawkish TV newsmen turn into at least off-white doves; the Saturday-morning children's cartoons, which used to be oases of wit and sophistication in a desert of mediocrity, have given way to crudely drawn and morally repellent pseudo-scientific space fantasies (many of them produced north of the Canadian border, thus undermining the attitude of supercilious superiority with which Canadians tend to regard the American media); teen-age rock shows, camp, and Batman have risen and fallen from favor; and drama has returned to the schedules after years of near-exile from prime time. Most improbably and coincidentally of all, protean television has suddenly begun to produce programs which assume the absurdity of existence and dedicate themselves to mocking it.


During the past quarter, I devoted most of my viewing time and energy to the minor renaissance of TV drama. Although it may seem ungrateful after years of lamenting the vanished (alleged) glories of Studio One and Producers' Showcase, I regret to report that the rebirth has been largely abortive in spite of relatively large budgets, enlightened sponsorship, and freedom from the double tyranny of the fifty-four-minute hour and the regular weekly schedule. Not one of the ten dramatic specials that I managed to catch (out of a possible baker's dozen) was an unqualified success.

To begin with, television's parasitic relationship to other media is revealed in the fact that only two of the programs were based upon original scripts. Of the rest, two were adaptations from prose fiction, two from plays, two from novels that were subsequently made into movies, one from an autobiography, and one perennial retread that had seen service as novel, play, and movie (Of Mice and Men). Presumably, television's small cadre of regular playwrights are too fully engaged upon scripts for profitable series to waste time on one-shot specials, while most serious writers feel little temptation to get involved with so difficult and evanescent a medium, in spite of the money. The way things are, one can hardly blame them.

Of the two originals, the most successful was Truman Capote's Among the Paths to Eden (ABC, December 17; directed by Frank and Eleanor Perry). Filmed on location in a New York cemetery (the soundtrack somewhat noisy and blurred by wind and passing traffic), this low-keyed study of loneliness focused upon an encounter between a widower and an unmarried woman pathetically seeking a husband among the recently bereaved. Excellent photography and first-rate performances by Maureen Stapleton and Martin Balsam kept production from lapsing into sentimentality.

Flesh and Blood by William Hanley (NBC, January 26; directed by Arthur Penn) featured a strong cast and a script which fairly bristled with symbolism including a clock which struck sixteen, a desiccated Christmas tree, a squeaky swing door, and (you guessed it) a totally impassive wheelchair-ridden paralytic amputee. Hanley obviously intended this study of manhood and remorse in a family of New York steel construction workers to be judged by the highest standards. However, the undigested influences of O'Neill, Miller, and Williams were not enough to make the heightened action credible when viewed on a small livingroom screen. Not that NBC gave poor Hanley much help. At the climax of the play, when Delia (Kim Stanley) realizes that John (E. G. Marshall) has revealed a guilty secret to their daughter, the camera zooms in on her agonized face as she cries, “you TOLD her!” Immediate commercial break: “THE HEARTBREAK OF PSORIASIS.” Even Sophocles might have had difficulty in keeping his audience tolerably possessed by pity and terror if the revelation of Oedipus's parentage had been attended by reminders of such other forms of human frailty.

Capote (who seems to be the only American writer of stature willing to devote much time to television) had a hand in two other productions—the worst and the best of the bunch. He wrote the teleplay for Laura (ABC, January 27; produced by David Susskind, directed by John Moxey) and allegedly persuaded Susskind to allow Lee Radziwill to make her television debut (and, as it now seems likely, farewell) in the title role. I mention this spectacular turkey, too easy a target to waste critical ammunition on, only for the sake of documenting the current season.

A Christmas Memory (a 1966 production rebroadcast by ABC last December 19) was the product of another collaboration between Capote and the Perrys, and featured the author as narrative voice. If anything, the television version was even more poignant than the excellent short story upon which it was based. This was due not merely to beautiful camera work and superb performances by Donnie Melvin as the young Truman and Geraldine Page as his eccentric, unmarried cousin, but also to an almost perfect adjustment of theme to medium. Pastoral nostalgia, childhood, Christmas, dogs, lovable simpletons, moonshiners with hearts of gold, and tyrannical elders—these are symbols which touch the great subversive heart of the popular audience, and quite rightly too. When they are exploited with restraint and discipline as in this production, the result can be intensely moving, even to those who would prefer to resist Capote's only too effable charm.


The unfortunate corollary of this generalization is that works which aim to disturb or challenge the conventional preconceptions of the great audience face almost insurmountable resistance, particularly when they are dropped without warning into a schedule largely determined by interaction between the profit motive and the public's lust for relaxing and reassuring entertainment. This essentially sociological factor may partly explain why two quite admirable and adventurous productions cannot be considered unqualified successes.

Diary of a Madman (CBS, December 20; produced and directed by Eric Till), based on Gogol's classic, featured a virtuoso solo performance by the French actor Robert Coggio, who learned his part phonetically, since he speaks no English. There were no commercial interruptions, the direction was expert—yet I, who of all people ought to have been excited and involved, remained detached and unmoved. In the theater, the same production would no doubt have been strongly empathic, but the casual, unbuttoned ambiance of the living-room TV set was too much even for the combined talents of Gogol, Till, and Coggio to counteract.

Somewhat similar circumstances inhibited enjoyment of another experiment in relatively highbrow programming, a British production of John Osborne's Luther (ABC, January 29, produced by Michael Style and Trevor Wallace). Robert Shaw as Luther, Robert Morley as Leo X, and a strong supporting cast all did their best, but the play came over as nothing more than 16th-century Look Back in Anger with a monkish hero whose rage was just as inchoate as Jimmy Porter's but, unlike Porter's, almost totally incomprehensible to 20th-century viewers. Not that the ignorance of the audience ought to be blamed for this: even someone who recognized the echoes from Young Man Luther and Life Against Death, and appreciated the modishness of lines like “Are you dead, God?” might have had difficulty deciding what the play is all about.

Honesty compels me to write dampeningly of these rare evidences of high-mindedness on the part of program planners, but perhaps it will not seem too quixotic to plead that similar experiments should continue to be made. However, their scheduling should be determined by more complex motives than a desire to fill up time during the post-Christmas commercial lull. It is wrong to preempt, more or less without warning, a popular lightweight program in favor of some difficult, gloomy drama which presupposes a good deal of knowledge or intellectual sophistication on the part of the audience. But there is no reason why specific stretches of prime time could not be used more or less regularly for this sort of thing, so that people will know what they are in for if they tune in. (There are reasons why this doesn't happen—commercial ones.)

The four productions which remain to be discussed approximate more closely the middlebrow norm of “prestige” drama on television. Two were failures. Elizabeth the Queen (NBC, January 24; produced and directed by George Shaefer) had the moribund air of a double period piece—romanticized history mediated through the dated tepidity of Maxwell Anderson's verse. However, this effort was positively Shakespearean compared with the total nullity of A Case of Libel (ABC, February 12; directed by Charles Jarrott). I shall omit the names to protect the eminent but innocent actors who took part in this fictional version of Louis Nizer's role in the Quentin Reynolds Westbrook Pegler libel case. It is enough to say that the drama was politically, psychologically, and sociologically absurd—and I use the term in its pre-existentialist sense.

Of Mice and Men (ABC January 31; directed by Ted Kotcheff) was a thoroughly competent and sensitive translation into television terms of Steinbeck's almost mythically economical theme. It featured excellent performances by George Segal as George, and Nicol Williamson as Lennie. In fact, all that prevented this from becoming one of the most memorable productions of the season was the over-familiarity of the vehicle itself. ABC scored again with its large-scale version of another hardy perennial, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (January 24; produced by Charles Jarrott), with Jack Palance in the title role(s). If anything, the relative restraint of the direction intensified the horror and raised the tone above the level of melodrama. Like most modern productions, this one was strongly psychological in its emphasis. One day I should like to see a version in which two different actors play Jekyll and Hyde. As Jorge Luis Borges pointed out in a recent lecture, Stevenson's pre-Freudian imagination conceived of “them” as different physical as well as psychological types: the mode of the tale is dream rather than psychoanalysis.

Until February, the efflorescence of drama appeared to be the most interesting feature Of the current season—news hardly exciting enough to justify invoking a witness so apocalyptic as Lifton. Then it suddenly became apparent that something new was stirring in the ultra-conservative field of variety entertainment—most of which hews to a basic formula worked out during the 30's on the radio shows of Rudy Vallee, Fred Allen, and Bing Crosby. The improbable pioneers of new-wave variety were an innocuous looking pair of pop singers, the Smothers Brothers, whose youth-oriented show (CBS) has consistently featured jokes and skits of a social, political, and sexual frankness never before seen on TV—in prime time, anyway. However, in spite of this difference in tone, the program has not yet departed too far from the classic pattern.

That cannot be said of the Rowan and Martin Laugh In (NBC) which made a startling debut in late January. This furiously paced and anarchic presentation features a new young, versatile, and energetic crew of comics supported by what must be a whole battalion of writers. Prodigal of material on a scale that seems reckless even for television, Laugh In manages to take the fullest possible advantage of the medium at the same time that it mines some of the oldest lodes of American comedy. On the one hand, it exploits quick cuts, zooms, trick photography, ticker-tape news flashes, and tachistoscopes; on the other it plunders burlesque, Hellzapoppin, knock-knock jokes, locker-rooms, graffiti, and pre-television radio for traditional humor.

It seems hardly possible that Laugh In can maintain its present frenetic pace. If the program lasts long enough, I hope to write about it at greater length in a later review. For the moment it is pleasant to welcome a show which dares to be irreverent about censorship (“Let's clean up honeymoons!”) and draft-dodgers (“Support our boys in Canada!”), and can feature a skit on doctored news in which a collision off the coast of Labrador between a U.S. destroyer and a Soviet trawler, with a loss of fifteen Russian lives, emerges as an encounter between a Russian submarine and an American vessel one mile off Boston harbor, with fifteen American casualties.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link