Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Norman Mailer’s Birthday

People’s CIA

Norman Mailer is probably the only man in America who could give himself a birthday party, charge $50 a couple admission to the posh inner sanctum of the Four Seasons, secure a packed and hungry house, and leave at least a portion of those in attendance feeling, as one chic young woman in a black velvet pantsuit put it, eyebrow arching/burgundy fingernail plucking her guitar-string-thin mouth, “Well, there goes one more culture hero down the drain,” not 10 minutes after she had declared breathlessly, “I would have come 1000 miles for this — wouldn’t have missed it for the world — maahhvelous!”

He gives rise to that kind of social schizophrenia, Norman Mailer does, whether by diabolical intent or by some weird Pavlovian psycho-stimulus/response over which he has no control. No matter, really. It was in the air Monday night at the Four Seasons, thick among the hanging copper rods over the bar, thicker still among the seated watched and the cruising watchers, positively zero visibility around the bubbling pool in the middle of the room in which Mailer delivered his “announcement of national importance (major)” as was advertised in purple print on more than 3000 invitations to the affair. Proceeds from the birthday part were said to be destined for “the Fifth Estate,” an organization, or foundation, or publication, or something, anyway, about which no one seemed to know much.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727274″ /]

And so there was a bit of mystery attached to the event, a Mailer touch of course, leaving those people wondering where the hell their $50 was going, all the same sucking them in as surely as if the price itself were a magnet or great vortex, a foggy low pressure area of some unknowable sort. At its center was sure to be Norman Mailer, in the flesh, feet wide planted, drink in hand, finger jabbing chests or tits or air, sterling silver Brillo pad hair bobbing up and down to the rhythm of the crowd he had drawn, pink face a-pulsing, vibrating jigsaw puzzle impossible to assemble without first killing the man, making him quiet and still. It was too much to pass up, the possibilities were too enormous, we could watch a man celebrate his birthday as a knave and a fool both, and of course a year from now see him come back strong, admire him for making clear to us once again with the printed word our own weaknesses and strengths whereas we could only poke pins in him, in the voodoo doll he always seems to make of himself in public. And so some 600 of us gathered to go through all the bullshit we knew could be expected to herald Norman Mailer’s 50th birthday.

***

Christ, here I am blithering about killing Norman Mailer in order to figure him out, running on about schizophrenia and mystery and fog and … next thing I know I’ll be using words like “dark,” and “evil,” Mailer will be faced off against Nixon in a dewy glen, pistols at the ready, the spirit of America flying with the bullet which is aimed straightest and truest at the heart of the other man. It is a measure of the man that in writing about him I find myself writing like him. The impulse is there, hanging over the page like a great vulture … Pay homage to me, it says, beak droopy in a crooked grin; pay homage with your sweat and your name come hell or 6 a.m. Fuck up and pay the price I have paid before you. Stumble and suffer. Okay, vulture.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713938″ /]

***

The time has come. Someone is banging on the microphone, readying the crowd for The Announcement. The Introduction:

“Hey, what is this?” coughs Jimmy Breslin, disheveled, gruff, impatient with the noisy crowd. “The place sounds like a reform Democratic club over a Chinese restaurant on Broadway.” Breslin introduces Mailer as “the one person whose ideas will last.”

The Applause: Heavy Whistles. Everyone has come in from the other room, and they seem prepared.

“Can everyone hear?” asks Mailer, looking fit, grinning in that squinty way of his. It seems everyone can. “Then I know if I hear people talking, they are simply not interested in what I have to say. All right. Must size up the opposition. I want to say I’ve discovered tonight why Richard Nixon is President. I’ve been pondering it for many years, you know, and having written a book on the subject, I’ve given it some deep thought. But I realized tonight that I found myself being photographed more times than I can count, and I couldn’t see. You see green after a while, you see red, you see your own mortality. I know why he is President. Richard Nixon has gristle behind the retina.”

The Laughter: Medium. Restlessness. They know he has not called this convocation to joke about Nixon’s eyeballs.

The Dirty Joke: “A man goes in a restaurant, an elegant place not unlike the one you’re in now, and he sees his ex-wife across the room. They eye each other for a while, and finally he decides he must cross the room and speak with her. ‘Darling, you’re being wonderful,’ he says. ‘And you’re being splendid,’ says the wife, who was recently remarried to a much younger man. ‘Darling, I have a question to ask: How does your young husband like sticking it up your worn out old pussy?’ ‘He likes it fine,’ she replies, ‘once he gets past the worn out part.’

The Laughter: Hisses, boos, some scattered giggles, snickers, guffaws. “This is terrible,” says an irate woman. “He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that. A woman would never get away with shit like that.” The point, of course, is that Mailer didn’t either.

[related_posts post_id_1=”674171″ /]

Mailer recovers nicely from the joke and tells the crowd that he had asked Frank Crowther, who had organized the affair, to give him some examples of the worst things people were saying about it. “Mailer is throwing this party in order to pay for his vasectomy,” was the worst retort.

The Notion: The Fifth Estate, reports Mailer, was widely predicted to be an organization to defend the press. It will be nothing of the sort. “I wanna start a foundation,” says Mailer, left arm pumping defiantly at his side, “with a few people who would be willing to explore this notion: I want a people’s FBI and a people’s CIA to investigate those two. The notion I have in mind is let’s get a steering committee together to find out if there’s any interest in this: is there, one, a plot going on behind the scenes in American lives, two are there many plots, or three, is there no plot? It will obviously have to begin as a completely sober organization. Let’s look into the idea that we’re all living a scenario that we’re writing only a part of … the entire government of the United States is conceivably being managed secretly. Now. I’d like some questions, a critical question.”

The Response: “Norman, what about paranoia?” Laughter. People are talking with each other all around the room. He is losing control of the crowd, and he knows it. “He’s doing a vasectomy on his own mind,” says a woman near me. “Honey, why don’t you wear something groovy like this?” asks her husband, fingering the necklace of the woman next to him. Finally he announces he’ll give the crowd 30 minutes to consider his “notion” and then take “serious” questions again.

“I think it’s rather sad,” says a British investment banker standing next to me. “I’m interested in what he had to say, but no one gave him the chance.”

Mailer leaves the podium and begins pumping hands in the middle of a pack at least 10 deep. He smiles, not broadly, not contentedly. Bravely. He has taken his “notion” to this crowd, and though they didn’t reject it, they didn’t give it a proper hearing. With only New York professional boredom as a foe, Mailer had nothing substantive, nothing solid to push up against. Inevitably, the confrontation Mailer had hoped for became mushy, with no real energy or form on either side.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724430″ /]

***

Later on, I approached Mailer with the idea that his “notion” would have been more interestingly delivered, and most probably better received at a Lion’s Club luncheon in Effingham, Illinois, than thrown in the gaping maw of The Big Yawn.

“I did it the only way I knew how,” he replied. “The history of the world is a history of people doing things the only way the know how, and I’m no different.”

A crush of people pressed between us, and I began edging away. Suddenly his hand snaked through them and gripped me firmly by the arm. “Come back here,” he growled. “I’m not finished talking to you. You’re not supposed to walk away from your commanding officer like that. I’ll bet you never tried that at West Point.” I had to admit I hadn’t. Then I noticed his smile. It wasn’t the playful grin so often worn when he was harangued crowds and created scenes in the past.

***

There is and always has been a solid totalitarian streak running through the heart of Norman Mailer. He is a leader, and because he cannot lead with commands or orders, he must lead with ideas. Many of them have taken the form of the written word; many have damned and condemned the forces of totalitarianism as only one who truly understands it could. Still, there is something lacking in the force of the written word which can only be found in placing oneself in physical command of a situation. This Mailer has often found it necessary to do, and the conflict both within himself and between him and those he has attempted to command with his ideas has formed the center of some of his best work.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718463″ /]

And this is the dilemma of the essentially totalitarian psyche which is not completely yielded to. There is a visceral, almost sexual excitement about command and control. Yielded to once, the desire to lead is never lost. It can only rarely be replaced with the impulse or willingness to follow. And yet there is the inner knowledge that such an admission violates all manner of logic, has its distasteful moral aspects, borders virtually on the edge of a peculiar form of madness: the willingness, or drive, to take responsibility not only for oneself, but for others. The great generals of the past killed themselves inside while in command of divisions, corps, armies. And perhaps their eventual deaths were more suicidal than one once thought.

With the failure of the government to fully prosecute the My Lai and LaVelle affairs, not to mention the Watergate case, the old requirement that he who accepts responsibility for other men or for a unit is “responsible for all that unit does or fails to do” has finally fallen completely by the wayside. And perhaps in Mailer’s desire to establish a “people’s FBI and People’s CIA,” there is the subliminal urge not only to plumb the new origins of control in American life, but to help rediscover and re-establish the old. Though he may occasionally pretend to the contrary, Mailer is hardly one to throw order away in favor of chaos. He is, after all, the man who marches armies of words across fields of paper.

My grandmother is an admirer of Norman Mailer, and watching him on the Dick Cavett show one night several years ago, she remarked out of the blue, “That man reminds me so much of George Patton.” I asked her what she meant by that, and she replied it was in his writing, but was far more evident in his personal manner. “They are almost the same person, in some ways,” she said, she who knew Patton through my grandfather and through lord only knows what intuitions come upon in situations and places now unknown.

Stick that in your craw and chew on it, vulture. ❖

1973_Village Voice article by Lucian K Truscott IV about Norman Mailer 50th Birthday

1973_Village Voice article by Lucian K Truscott IV about Norman Mailer 50th Birthday

1973_Village Voice article by Lucian K Truscott IV about Norman Mailer 50th Birthday

1973_Village Voice article by Lucian K Truscott IV about Norman Mailer 50th Birthday

Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Mailer’s 5th Estate: Who’s Paranoid Now?

“Paranoia is the most useful or the most destructive faculty of the human spirit. One never knows when it’s devoted to you or your destruction.” — Norman Mailer

While most of us are still stumbling about in the euphoric dreck of the Senate Watergate hearings, I think it’s time we admit that Norman Mailer was right. As usual.

Some of you may remember the rather elegant bash at the Four Seasons restaurant last February 5 in celebration of Norman’s 50th birthday (which was January 31, but never mind). Many were drawn to the event by the enticement that Mailer would make “an announcement of national importance (major).” While Norman was up in Massachusetts writing his biography of Marilyn Monroe, Jean Campbell and I made the arrangements. Tickets were $50 per couple, and, outrageously, we made the press pay.

The stage set, the booze swilling, the crowd swelling, midnight approaching … Mailer blew it. In the grand and glorious manner. Or as he put it in the New York Times Book Review, the speech “was a disgrace. It had neither wit nor life — it was perhaps the worst speech on a real occasion that the orator had ever made.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”727274″ /]

Nevertheless, the idea had been planted, however badly. Mailer said he wanted to establish something he called “the Fifth Estate,” essentially an organization to investigate whether the United States was slipping into totalitarianism through a series of carefully manipulated conspiracies. He said it was the best political idea he ever had.

The press, many of them stunned at having paid hard cash to attend the party, went for the jugular. After all, wasn’t Mailer one of the best targets around? And hadn’t he asked for it? Hadn’t he literally set himself up for a wipe-out?

Pete Hamill reported, somewhat sadly, that “the best writer in America was reduced to the role of a nightclub comic trying to squelch drunks.” In Saturday Review, Patricia Bosworth observed: “When he tried to elaborate on the proposition that our nation is veering toward totalitarianism, nobody was listening.” Shirley MacLaine was quoted in Women’s Wear Daily: “Nobody here could make a pimple on Norman’s ass, but nobody listened to him, and the thing is, he’s right.”

John Leonard, editor of the New York Times Book Review, disagreed: “As Mailer’s ideas go, this is not a good one. It is, as proposed, just another vigilante group.”

Tim Ferris of Rolling Stone picked up a bitter remark: “The guy’s a hell of a writer, but he’s just getting so grotesque, so silly. What a clumsy, awkward, cumbersome man he has become.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”718463″ /]

Then, of course, there were those panic-stricken by the announcement, like Jack Lemmon, famous liberal movie star. “I didn’t know anything about it,” he stammered. “I don’t even know him!” And we heard shrill notes from a viper or two. Sally Quinn wrote her standard florid feature for the Washington Post (“The Rise and Fall of the Fifth Estate,” February 7), causing Mailer to dub her “Poison Quinn.” In his forthcoming book on Marilyn Monroe, Mailer characterizes this kind of writing as having “fewer facts than factoids (to join the hungry ranks of those who coin the word), that is, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper …” And Daphne Davis of Women’s Wear Daily, quoted in Newsweek by Linda Francke, denounced the whole affair as “a bummer — what can you say about a man whose time has gone?” (For Ms. Davis’s edification, it might be pointed out that Mr. Mailer this year, 25 years after “The Naked and the Dead” will publish his 22nd and 23rd books, not to mention the several volumes already published evaluating his life’s work. The first printing of “Marilyn,” by the way, is 300,000 copies. Not bad for a writer whose time has gone.)

Finally, we come to The Village Voice, in the prose of Ron Rosenbaum, Andrew Sarris, and Lucian K. Truscott IV, honorable gentlemen all.

Rosenbaum covered Mailer’s press conference, held the next afternoon (February 6) at the Hotel Algonquin. He played it fair and straight, noting Mailer’s combativeness (“I have the misfortune of being a talented writer who is in the position of being written about by less talented people”), and concluded that “the skeptics among the reporters remained unconvinced.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”249234″ /]

Sarris, who said he wouldn’t have missed the party for the world, claimed that “Aquarius” was upstaged that evening by Bernardo Bertolucci (not true, save in the eyes of a film critic), then launched into a medium silly diversion about “Last Tango in Paris” and “Deep Throat,” in the process dropping a few asides about Mailer’s “ballsy literary swagger” and his “piddling penis joke.”

But it was Truscott who, in my view, went into a purple prose funk over the party. Mailer himself said of the article that “on balance, it was fair.” Fairness is not what threw me, the prose did. Listen to this: “At its center (a foggy low pressure area of some unknowable sort) was sure to be Norman Mailer, in the flesh, feet wide planted, drink in hand, finger jabbing chests or tits or air, sterling silver Brillo pad hair bobbing up and down tot he rhythm of the crowd he had drawn, pink face a-pulsing, vibrating jigsaw puzzle impossible to assemble without first killing him, making him quiet and still.”

Truscott later admitted this stuff was “blithering,” but excused himself thusly: “It is a measure of the man that in writing about him I find myself writing like him.” That’s damn near a perfect example of what we might call the simultaneous reversible pat-on-the-back and kick-in-the-ass. A very neat trick, indeed. But one must note, like any good checker for the New Yorker, that the soap in Brillo pads is red; S.O.S. has the blue, and would have been the more appropriate metaphor, if that’s the sort of thing you’re after.

And, sure enough, the Truscott “West Point trauma” surfaced as he wrote of the “dilemma of the essentially totalitarian psyche” and “the almost sexual excitement, about command and control.” The part I liked best, though, was how his grandmother had likened Mailer to General Patton. That was an interesting thought — a left conservative General Patton. You could go somewhere with that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”728229″ /]

Before I report some afterthoughts of Watergate hindsight, and tell you how Norman sees all of this, it might be well to explain what he was trying to say that night, and in fact did say the next day at his press conference, and subsequently in the New York Times.

The time has come, Mailer wrote, “for some of us to think of founding a high, serious, and privately funded Committee of Inquiry, stocked with the best efforts of literary scholars, investigators, and journalists. It would be an inquiry into a fundamental question of government: is our history developing into a string of connected conspiracies, or is there less ground finally for our national paranoia than any have supposed?” This country, he said, “may be sliding toward a kind of totalitarianism of the most advanced, subtle, and civilized sort … are we in a society which encourages us to be paranoid, or is our paranoia merely our impotent reaction to a set of 20th century processes which are entirely beyond us?”

After the February 6 press conference (the day after the Senate passed a resolution creating the Watergate Committee, and the day John Dean says a strategy meeting was held by the Watergate Cover-up Crew), several of us, forming something of an ad hoc steering committee, retired to a suite in the Algonquin and talked about the Fifth Estate — what it should and should not be, how it might be formed and funded, what project or projects it might investigate. Nothing much was accomplished, but we decided to meet again on February 21.

The next meeting was more formal and businesslike (booze at the first, coffee at the second). After about two hours, we decided that, because we lacked time, staff, and money, the one project we should undertake immediately was, you guessed it, Watergate. We all felt Watergate had the smell of a filthy scandal that well might reach the highest levels of government.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715000″ /]

Without going into what we ac­complished, which was little more than clearing our throats and calling friends in Washington to assist the investigation, we all know what happened next, less than a month later.

Not only was Mailer right, he was prophetic. But, he was not alone. As Jimmy Breslin said the other day, “He was right and ev­erybody laughed, and the asshole dilettantes who laughed didn’t know what they were talking about, as usual. The only two guys who should have been at the party were Woodward and Bernstein, but they couldn’t come because they were too busy.”

During John Dean Week, I called several reporters and some of the partygoers to get their feelings, in retrospect, about Mailer’s announcement. Following is a sampling:

John Leonard (New York Times Book Review Editor): “I’m still against any kind of Democratic Secret Police … but I do wish journalists had more time for extensive investigative journalism … I just wish (Mail­er) would write a novel.”

Linda Francke (Newsweek): “I quite agree, he was ahead of his time, again … even as I wrote about it, I was a little nervous to dismiss it, and as soon as it broke I thought, shit, Mailer was right after all … then I was worried that Mailer might some­how be implicated … it followed so suddenly that I thought he might have been making notes on a new book and got caught with the surgical gloves on.”

Henry Grunwald (Managing Editor, Time): “I think it’s bad to start a conspiracy on the left, just as we had on the right with Mc­Carthy and the others … but I felt we may have been remiss and wanted to go back to review the press conference and see what Mr. Mailer had to say.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”728064″ /]

George Plimpton: “Well, you don’t fight an espionage agency with another espionage agency … I was afraid they’d have the first meeting at my house, with drawings by Larry Rivers and Abbie Hoffman hopping around, that sort of thing … Watergates makes me think that Secretariat is the only uncorrupted thing left.”

Warren Hoge (City Editor, the New York Post): “That night, you felt, yawn, another left embar­rassment, but now I feel like Mel Laird, if there’s any more, I don’t want to know it … what can you be paranoid about anymore?”

Jack Newfield: “They’re a total bunch of paranoids, and incom­petent — they had Joe Namath with the Giants.”

Tim Ferris (Rolling Stone): “I’ve been obsessed by the hearings … Hunter Thompson called from Colorado yesterday, said he’s been watching day and night, he has no other life … the only fault I found (with Mailer’s idea) was that it didn’t have muscle or money, and an idea like that depends entirely on sub­stance … but all the oranges did come up on Mailer’s side, didn’t they?”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724994″ /]

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: “The whole thing was about 10 years too late … give Norman my condolences for failing to make the ‘political enemies’ list.”

Patricia Bosworth (Saturday Review): “When Watergate broke, I thought, Jesus Christ, it’s prophetic time!”

Pete Hamill: “I still think (the Fifth Estate) would become just another bureaucracy. Re­member, it was two police report­ers, supported by a courageous publisher (Kay Graham) and edi­tor (Ben Bradlee), who broke this case. You always have to go back to the ball-busting, lonely report­er on the beat, digging and probing … I hope they take those bastards (the Watergaters) and lock every one of them up, and they can dust off Alger Hiss’s old cell for Chuck Colson, then we’ll have the Berrigan brothers say a farewell mass for the whole rotten bunch.”

Dotson Rader: “The point I knew Mailer was on to something was when he said a nation can tol­erate any crime except the theft of its history, and that’s what was going on, that was the great crime … suddenly, I felt he saw things differently … but after the party there was a general feeling around New York that Norman Mailer was nuts, and getting nut­tier, poor old Norman, he shouldn’t drink so much … the journalists I talked to put Mailer down, some of them I viciously, and most of them said Watergate was nothing, it would blow away.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”726821″ /]

***

For most of his professional life, Mailer has had an adversary relationship with the press, and I guess that’s as it should be. It doesn’t bother him, it more stimu­lates and amuses him. About a year and a half ago, I did an inter­view with Norman which was bought by Penthouse but, for reasons unknown, never pub­lished. One question and answer we eventually cut out, because it didn’t fit into the final theme of the interview  has always fascinated me, and I think it may apply here.

Interviewer: “Stephen Rojack (‘An American Dream’) says: ‘God’s engaged in a war with the Devil, and God may lose.’ Throughout your work is the theme of the struggle between God and the Devil, and you once said, ‘I have some obsession with how God exists. Is He an essential god or an existential god; is he all-powerful or is He, too, an embattled existential creature who may succeed or fail in His visions?’ This remains a per­vasive theme in our work.”

Mailer: “It may even go all the way back to ‘The Naked and the Dead,’ sometimes I think it does, at that point pretty much unbeknownst to the young author. Crit­ics for years felt I was a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who could eat a sandwich (rye bread) in a delicatessen with no more pain than any of them, with as much gusto, and I might even give the same look of annoyance to the waiter if he frailed to bring the second helping of pickles. I’ve sat around and had love fests with these critics over pastrami — Rahv, Podhoretz, all of them. It’s a most real part of myself. It’s not everybody that can say they come from Brooklyn. There are areas of the world that are blessed a little, and areas that are cursed a little. The Brooklyn I knew in my childhood was blessed, just a bit, it wasn’t a bad place. Most of the people I grew up with in that middle-class environment have gone on to various kinds of professional and commercial and technological jobs that allow not that much romance and certainly not that much religious feeling in their life. And they know that I’m one of them. They’re comfortable with me, and I’m comfortable with them — not altogether comfortable, because I think they’re people who insisted on being a little emptier, sillier, and smaller than they had to be. They really think it’s some kind of outrageous put-on I’m engaging in when I talk about God and the Devil. You know, ‘What’s old Normie talking about God and the Devil for? Fun’s fun, but pass the pickles!'”

[related_posts post_id_1=”727406″ /]

As with his friends and the cri­tics, so with the press. The adver­sary relationship he continues to nourish. As others will not forgive him his concern “with the romantic and mysterious all” (as Norman puts it), so the press at­tacks him for his conspiratorial view of American history.

But Norman maintains his perspective. I talked with him on June 30 as he was passing through New York after having spent the week in Washington at the Water­gate hearings.

“I wasn’t too upset,” he said about the press coverage last February. “Listen, I was so down on myself that night that they could have said anything. I knew the height of the hurdle, and I missed. I gave them a free ride.”

I reminded him that he had been much more coherent at the press conference, but nobody seemed to be listening.

“I was annoyed, not surprised,” he said. “Whether you’re good or bad, that’s the place to shine. But you can talk at your best for an hour, and they’ll wait for the one line that will damage you. I went on at some length, and thought I was even eloquent at one point, but look at what happened.”

What about the future of the Fifth Estate?

“From the beginning, I knew the Fifth Estate would never succeed if it was going to be a big balloon I had to inflate with a bi­cycle pump. It just wouldn’t work. But I still think there’s a function for it, when Watergate is over, when we’ve digested it. Look at what Woodward and Bernstein accomplished. A continuing inves­tigation can break a powerful gov­ernmental institution, with ex­traordinary results. There’s a function for the Fifth Estate, but we’ll have to wait, now.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”713938″ /]

Mailer hasn’t decided what he may or may not write about Wa­tergate. “Sitting through it was an ordeal. In person, the hearings were dull, boring. I haven’t made up my mind what I want to do about them. I’m still thinking about it. I don’t know how I feel yet.”

When I first thought about writing this piece, I kept searching through Mailer’s writing for something that would most appro­priately apply to Watergate. Then I found it, that nerve-shattering epigraph in “The Deer Park,” taken from Mouffle D’Anger­ville’s “Vie Privee de Louis XV”:

“… the Deer Park, that gorge of innocence and virtue in which were engulfed so many victims who when they returned to society brought with them depravity, de­bauchery, and all the vices they naturally acquired from the in­famous officials of such a place. Apart from the evil which this dreadful place did to the morals of the people, it is horrible to calculate the immense sums of money it cost the state… To this must be added the gratuities presented to those who were not successful in arousing the jaded passions of the sultan but had nonetheless to be paid for their submissions, for their discretion, and still more for their being eventually despised.”

Caesar may be alive and well, biding his time. We have been warned. ❖

1973 Village Voice article by Norman Mailer about the press during the Watergate era

1973 Village Voice article by Norman Mailer about the press during the Watergate era

1973 Village Voice article by Norman Mailer about the press during the Watergate era

1973 Village Voice article by Norman Mailer about the press during the Watergate era

1973 Village Voice article by Norman Mailer about the press during the Watergate era

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES

The Beats: Mailer Vs. Kerouac

Books: The Beats

The idea that Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer are mutually excludable from each other’s Beat Generation is, of course, one that is engendered by and subject to many doubts. Now, however, Seymour Krim dispels the idea entirely. At least, he finds both Kerouac and Mailer mutually includable in his Beat Generation, which he defines in broad proportions in his new anthology, “The Beats.” But actually Kerouac and Mailer have long been literary brothers, even if under each other’s skin. Which one founded the Beat Generation and which one merely found it is just a matter of semantics. Kerouac named it Beat and Mailer calls it Hip, but both have been equally perceptive and outspoken in their presagement, reporting, and defense of it, if not equally maligned.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727274″ /]

Mountains of Abuse

One has only to read the reviews of Kerouac’s works to see the mountain of abuse heaped on him. But one also has only to read his works to see the capability his soul has for suffering such abuse. “Kerouac is beautiful! Don’t you see that?” asks Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac’s close friend. “… I mean he has a real quality of soulful magician and artful kindness, a willingness to be talked to and communicate, even drunk, knowing the lie of fate — he comes through anyway — ” And it’s true. Despite a sensitivity of criticism which is painfully manifest, Kerouac continues to stand, unhidden, as he really is, in his writing and in his person, the butt of derision which comes from deep and rigid misunderstanding. Even in the face of the most hopeless and intransigent laughter, he presents his own true face, inviting more.

Mailer, although his own suffering is no less apparent, has the lingering reputation of a more traditional success to buffer him. Not that he is any less outspoken.

A Trend

In any event, Kerouac went on the road to discover that the Beatness he had encountered in New York has what the less ethereally inclined would call a trend. He found it everywhere that his thumb and various other vehicles would take him, and the distances he traveled are well documented. Kerouac’s discovery of the Beat Generation was at a grass-roots level, a term that seems strangely compatible with trend.

As for Mailer, although his research probably was no less empirical, it seems to have been at other levels. Perhaps it might be concluded that, in one way, Mailer found in his own mind what Kerouac found throughout America.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722190″ /]

First Wind

This does not detract from the value of either Kerouac’s “On the Road” or Mailer’s “The White Negro,” both of which were the first wind of a second revolution in this century, moving not forward toward action and more rational equitable distribution, but backward toward being and the secrets of human energy,” to borrow a phrase from Mailer. With due consideration given to John Clellon Holmes’ novel, “Go,” and his subsequent article, “This is the Beat Generation,” printed in the New York Times as long ago as 1952, it was these two works, “On the Road” and “The White Negro,” which were the first cogent explanations of the strange new Hip mysticism of the Beat Generation of any length and of any significant audience, (Ginsberg’s “Howl,” more of a manifesto, was something else again.) So close, in fact, were Kerouac and Mailer in their thinking that Kerouac, until he learned “The White Negro” was published prior to “On the Road,” considered Mailer’s work a precis of his own. But then Kerouac has had good reason for his anxiety over the proprietorship of his ideas. One of his most bitter complaints is that not only has his meaning of Beat been corrupted but his authorship of the term has even been challenged.

Kerouac and Mailer, of course, have been between the same sheets before. They appeared together in another anthology, “The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men,” edited by Gene Fledman and Max Gartenberg, which included “The White Negro” and selections from “On the Road.” Unhappily, but probably necessarily, “The Beats” doesn’t include “The White Negro.” Instead it includes a piece from “The Deer Park,” which is somewhat less than Beat in its message and much less in its style, but which is from a body of writing upon which Mailer is willing to stake his reputation with prosperity. (This seems to be a good point to note that “On the Road,” if it hasn’t already been recognized as a literary landmark, soon will. It is the turning point of the 1960’s.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”718463″ /]

The chief complaint against the Feldman and Gartenberg anthology was from the Beats themselves, who insisted that the selections were not entirely representative of them and, in some cases, misrepresentative. The same criticism might apply to Krim’s anthology. But then, one of the selections under attack is “The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Man” was that of Mailer.

The difficulty is that there are many who claim that they are Beat and many who claim they are not with equal emptiness. And then there are those like Chandler Brossard and Anatole Broyard who are neither Beat nor claim to be and who were included first in Feldman’s and Gartenberg’s book and who now are included in Krim’s. Brossard may have, as Krim says he has, “a cool eye.” Broyard may be, as Krim says, “a white-collar Beat.” They may both even be Hip. Certainly their writing make them see so. But the same might be said for J.D. Salinger and he’s printed in the New Yorker. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”721631″ /]

Best and Worst

Otherwise Krim presents some of the Beat writing such as selections from Kerouac’s “Visions of Cody,” and some of the worst, such as Dan Propper’s “The Fable of the Final Hour.” It is “Visions of Cody” alone that might make the book worth its 35 cents, although “Cody” will soon be out in its entirety, as all of Kerouac eventually will. “Visions of Cody” is his greatest book, according to his own opinion, and its music is testimony to the verbal inventiveness and virtuosity of Kerouac, which all too few among Kerouac’s all too many readers seem willing to acknowledge. In the circles of reviewmanship, Kerouac is continually compared to hashed Wolfe or reheated Faulkner, and yet the range and variation of style within his remarkably growing bookshelf is just as remarkable. (It would seem that the differences among, say, “On the Road,” and “The Subterraneans,” “Dr. Sax,” and now “Visions of Cody” are even more obvious than the similarities.) Not only that, but there is a grace, a majesty, and a tenderness to his language, even in Hip talk, that is abjectly lacking among many of the younger Beat emulators, such as Propper. Kerouac is not along in his command of words; Ginsberg and Corso are similarly commanding. Even Burroughs, with his unredeemed style, is, too. It makes no difference that both the inspiration and the content of this literature is of an intuitive, emotional, and mystical nature. For these who love language, it is still literature.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721386″ /]

There are other portions of “The Beats” which in themselves are well worth the book’s 35 cents. (My God! For 35 cents, how could you go wrong!) Ginsberg, Corso, Holmes, Lamantia, Bremser, Snyder would be more than worth the price even without covers. And Diane Di Prima’s contribution is especially overwhelming. (The selections from Burroughs and Ferlinghetti, however, seem somewhat random.) And Krim provides a new eye. There has been some comment about his own comments, offered at the beginning of each selection. But those are short notes written by a man who says that Beatness has liberated him from himself, or at least from his psychoanalysts, and he proves this freedom with his language. Why should he be denied his own vision? ■

1960 Village Voice article about the Beat writers

1960 Village Voice article about the Beat writers

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES VOICE OF THE AGES

Quickly: A Column for Slow Readers

Many years ago I remember reading a piece in the newspapers by Ernest Hemingway and thinking: “What windy writing.” That is the penalty for having a reputation as a writer. Any signed paragraph which appears in print is examined by the usual sadistic literary standards, rather than with the easy tolerance of a newspaper reader pleased to get an added fillip for his nickel.

But this is a fact of life which any professional writer soon learns to put up with, and I know that I will have to put up with it since I doubt very much of this column is going to be particularly well written. That would take too much time, and it would be time spent in what is certainly a lost cause. Greenwich Village is one of the bitter provinces — it abounds in snobs and critics. That many of you are frustrated in your ambitions, and undernourished in your pleasures, only makes me more venomous. Quite rightly. If I ever found myself in your position, I would not be charitable either. Nevertheless, given your general animus to those more talented than yourselves, the only way I see myself becoming one of the cherished traditions of the Village is to be actively disliked each week.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718463″ /]

At this point it can fairly asked: “Is this your only reason for writing a column?” And the next best answer I suppose is: “Egotism. My search to discover in public how much of me is sheer egotism.” I find a desire to inflict my casual opinions on a half-captive audience. If I did not, there would always be the danger of putting these casual opinions into a new novel, and we all know that a terrible thing that is to do.

I also feel tempted to say that novelists are the only group of people who should write a column. Their interests are large, if shallow, their habits are sufficiently unreliable for them to find something new to say quite often, and in most other respects they are more columnistic than the columnists. Most of us novelists who are any good are invariably half-educated; inaccurate, albeit brilliant upon occasion; insufferably vain of course; and — the indispensable requirement for a good newspaperman — as eager to tell a lie as the truth. (Saying the truth makes us burn with the desire to convince our audience, whereas telling a lie affords ample leisure to study the result.)

We good novelists also have the most unnewspaperly virtue of never praising fatherland and flag unless we are sick, tired, generally defeated, and want to turn a quick dishonest buck. Nobody but novelists would be asked to write columns if it were not for the sad fact that newspaper editors are professionally and obligatorially patriotic, and so never care to meet us. Indeed, even The Village Voice, which is remarkably conservative for so young a paper, and deeply patriotic about all community affairs, etc., etc, would not want me writing either if they were not so financially eager for free writing, and a successful name to go along with it, that they are ready to put up with almost anything, and I, as a minority stockholder in the Voice corporation, must agree that this paper does need something added to its general languor and whimsy.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725147″ /]

At any rate, dear reader, we begin a collaboration, which may go on for three weeks, three months, or, Lord forbid, for three-and-thirty years. I have only one prayer — that I weary of you before you tire of me. And therefore, so soon as I learn to write columnese in a quarter of an hour instead of the unprofitable fifty-two minutes this has taken, we will all know better if our trifling business is going to continue. If it does, there is one chance in a hundred — make it a hundred thousand — that I will become a habitual assassin-and-lover columnist who will have something superficial or vicious or inaccurate to say about many of the things under the sun, and who knows but what some of the night. ❖

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Norman Mailer’s Greatest Hits

The Time of His Prime Time

Any biography whose subject is still alive is suspect. Nine bombs out of 10, we get to choose between two brands of meretriciousness: sensationalism or sycophancy. Certainly our Norman, who has a talent for sending the most sensible heads into wild yawing, offers rich pretexts for either. Hilary Mills has avoided both. How? The gods of biography (they’re the ones that look like shoe clerks, halfway down the big hill) clap each other on their backs at the joke. By all appearances, it never occurred to Mills that having an opinion about Mailer might be to the point, or just handy. Now, indifference still ranks as one of the odder incentives for undertaking a biography. We have to look elsewhere for Mills’s purpose, as a (the hit car skids wildly around the corner) minor-league purveyor of bookchat, in making Mailer the first flag she nails to her mast. I fear — I revel in it, actually, but the forms have to be observed — that the book is an act of pure career-making: Mailer’s name is First National in the literary marketplace, and any young litterateur looks for targets of opportunity, hang caring. (The car now gets a quick paint job, in a safe garage.)

For Mailer to be used this way has its rough justice. Saul Bellow, turning even his idiosyncrasies impersonal, can make himself a classic while still breathing — when you light upon him saying “After all, I am not Goethe, and this is not Weimar” in the Times Book Review, you know it’s not because the interviewer asked him if he was Goethe and this was Weimar. Mailer, by contrast, only thrives in the up-for-grabs media-age thick of things. You may think this is a polite way of saying he has a knack for making an ass of himself on talk shows, but there’s more to it than that. What distinguishes pop art from high art is its sense that the real aesthetic moment exists in the collision between work and audi­ence. Mailer conceives of his own work, in tandem with his public persona, as only half of a continuing relation­ship that his audience completes. And he knows that by claiming a relationship with you, he forces you to have a relationship with him. For Mailer, the neurotic appeal of writing as a vehicle for imposing one’s consciousness isn’t art’s necessary evil but its whole value. His work is so subjective that it’s justified solely by his audience’s equally subjective response — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

[related_posts post_id_1=”581668″ /]

This is why Mill’s reportorial synopsis falls short — the way Norman has set the terms, not to have a poetic view of him is to have no view at all. But she’s a victim of the People mentality: facts (exhaustive) plus quotes (copious) equals truth. Needless to say, she misses her target completely. Certainly, she’s labored hard and conscientiously at putting the facts and quotes together, and much of it is interesting — fascinating, if you happen to be on an airplane. But she’s so tone-deaf to Mailer’s sensibility that when it comes to the heavy stuff, she’s reduced to rote-mouthed para­phrases of Mailer’s writing that diagram its sense while canceling its personality — in other words, its substance. Here’s Mailer, in Advertisements for Myself, talking about a sad time in his career: “My mood of those poor days was usually tied to the feeling that I had nothing left to write about, that maybe I was not really a writer — I thought often of becoming a psychoanalyst. I even considered going into business to get material for a novel, or working with my hands for a year or two.” And here’s Mills: “He was beginn­ing to feel he had nothing left to write about. At one point in that depressing win­ter Mailer thought of becoming a psychoanalyst or even going into business to garner new experience for a novel.”

Indeed, Mills’s comprehension can slip so low that when Mailer describes an un­finished novel of his as “rather mechanical,” she quotes “mechanical” as if it were the term for a new genre. But I’m not bringing this up just to attack her mundane writing style. Style, as critic Samuel Hynes ob­served, is nothing less than the writer’s sense of reality; few writers have gone so far as Mailer in seeing style as the pure expression of personality, and personality as the only valid vehicle of insight. The claim he stakes that his unsupported sensibility can not only explain reality but take it one-on-one in a wrestling match. Mills seems unable to grasp this fundamental idea. Her transcription of the data leaves unexplained a life’s progress that only makes sense as bravura media psychodramatics; her reduction of Mailer’s ideas into neat, accessible little formulas, about cancer, totalitarianism, etc., also misses the point. Mailer doesn’t use his obsessive personal craziness to feed his intellect, but puts his intellect, like everything else, in the service of obsessive personal craziness.

But Mills isn’t just writing an extended magazine profile; her book also reflects the attitudes of the literary establishment at its most highbrow. On both levels, Mills’s book is an attempt to rationalize Mailer — which for the masses means laying out his career with Connect-the-Dots simplicity, and for the literary mavens means categorizing, exp­laining, and filing away his literary output by the usual received literary methods. But such explications, good or bad, don’t really work with Mailer, because you have to read his books for him. One quality he shares with a number of great writers is that he is forever outside of literature. This is why the people who run writing in this country like him only when they have to: the books that work as crucibles of embattled sensibility violate their notion of the way books ought to behave, while Mailer’s career traduces their idea of how to understand writers’ lives — as a polite and regulated trajectory that Mailer himself once described as “They are born with a great talent, they exercise it, and they die.” Of course, this mindset exemplifies the timidity that has kept the American literary establishment secluded from the swarm of American life Mailer so insistently plunges into. To understand Mailer you need a pop sensibility that responds to the rules he plays by — and accepts the game itself as valid.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725147″ /]

Well, to work.

It’s a dirty job, but some people really love it, you know?

Obviously, a poetic view of Mailer doesn’t have to mean a rapturous one; many people find him valuable precisely for being such a perfect symbolic embodiment of everything they can’t stand. For those of us in the far trench, though, “rapturous” is ex­actly the right word. At 13, watching my parents visit some friends of theirs, I came on Advertisements for Myself amid the alien shelves. Reading that startling opening soliloquy, near-Marlovian in its cumulative rhythm — “Like many another vain, empty, and bullying body of our time, I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am less close now than when I be­gan” — I knew this was the first book I was ever going to steal from anybody. I had never run into writing that threw its character into my face so directly; right then, books stop­ped being a scoundrel’s last refuge and be­came, instead, a means of hacking one’s way through the world. The impact had next to nothing to do with content — it was like get­ting off on the beat first, and sitting down with the lyric sheet later.

Of course, by the time people my age started reading, Mailer had already arrived. In 1963, The Presidential Papers defined the existential hero as “a consecutive set of brave and witty self-creations”; six years later, he was tossing off self-creations faster than alimony payments. The late ’60s saw Mailer at his most dramatically fulfilled — ­his prismatic sensibility gave new curves to every light that entered. In fact, I was sur­prised to find out later on that he hadn’t always been thought of as such a bellwether; conversely, his intermittent ups and more frequent downs since the ’60s have always taken that status for granted.

It may help to take the definition of the hero above, and replace the word “existen­tial” with “media-age” — or “pop.” This may be the key, in fact, to understanding Mailer’s version of existentialism. To Mailer, any event whose end is unforeseen is “existential.” By his own admission, that description could apply to a trip to the dentist. But add the modern media fishbowl to that “existen­tial” sense of events, modify that definition of the “existential” hero with the media notion of the hero as pure public image — in short, remember that trips to the dentist don’t get shown on prime-time TV — and boom. In other words, the Mailer hero, whether it’s himself, Jack Kennedy, or Stephen Rojack, makes sense only as a cele­brity, and his philosophy makes sense only within the media arena. Mailer has said that what “thrust” existentialism on him was his coming to grips with his own fame, Q.E.D.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725165″ /]

One virtue of Mills’s work is that she supplies enough graph-points of narrative to chart Mailer’s path whole, instead of being dazzled/appalled by whichever episode is currently in style. What we see — although she doesn’t seem to — is that Mailer’s rela­tion to his own pop celebrity provides the continuity in his life. The most intriguing parts of Mills’s book reveal unlike Nor­man Mailer Mailer was at the start, and how many “uncharacteristic” veins of timidity, conventionality, and plain wrong guesses marble each successive slice of attempted rebellion before they cohere, almost despite themselves, into transformations. There’s plenty here for any debunker, but only a thoroughly smug and scared age sees all attempts to be larger than one is as quackery. To grab center stage first, and count on luck, talent, and wit to measure up later, is as basic to a media-age protagonist’s self-creation as losing the sled was to Citizen Kane’s.

In ’48 Mailer bounced in with The Naked and the Dead only to find that, as John Updike remarked, the party was already breaking up. Thank God. If his youth hadn’t kept him from vested interest in a version of literary success outmoded by World War II, he’d be Herman Wouk by now. For my money, Naked is his worst book — because it’s the only one that somebody else could have written. But what bad timing. The previous generation’s literary rebellion had been co-opted into respectability by the time young Norman developed a yen to emulate it at Harvard, the “New Criticism” was handily covering up the passing of the critical baton to the academics, and for the first time in the century writers were ex­pected to be society’s boosters and not its natural enemies. On top of that Mailer’s private psychological disorientation — fa­mous at 25; call the sanatorium — was oper­ating as a heating coil on his public ideology. Cut off from the safe norms of Brooklyn, Harvard, and earnest-young-writer, he lunged toward whatever could locate him, and became, as Mills paraphrases Norman Podhoretz, the only American liberal whose response to the cold war was to embrace revolutionary socialism. Hence Barbary Shore, in which political commitment and neurotic psychological dislocation engage in a frantic chase to turn the other into a mirror — probably the strangest, loneliest, and most tortured novel published in Amer­ica since Pierre.

What follows over the next several years are the flailings of a mind determined to have an impact on its time, and finding no new fissures in the time’s huge blandness. Mailer had always wanted to be larger than life (see The Naked and the Dead’s trans­parent Great War Novel ambitions), but had a hard time accepting that society offered no polite way of doing so (ambitious or not, a man doesn’t get disillusioned easily with a system that lets a Brooklyn boy discover literature at Harvard). Mailer, to a degree surprising in a figure who appears so self-sufficient, seems to have yearned, then and maybe later, for the cosseting safety of being part of a group. His attraction to socialism may well have rested in part on its being the institutionalized way to rebel. How else to explain the attempts, which Mills recounts, to gather a Village salon around himself after Barbary Shore? Or his plummy satis­faction in finding the ’60s a time so Maileresque that he could comfortably criticize its excesses? Or for that matter the sycophantic retinues he’s surrounded him­self with for 20 years? The worst crisis he faced in the early ’50s was the realization that he was going to have to go it alone — his eventual strategy was to convert necessity into opportunity.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719095″ /]

For a biographer, 1951–55 is the crucial period of Mailer’s career. He goes in at one end as (to enlarge the context of his own description in Advertisements) “a cornered rat,” and comes out the other as a recog­nizable Norman Mailer, first working model of “existential” world-view firmly gripped in fist, ego tilted combatively over one eye. This is also where Mills not only skips peb­bles across the surface of her subject as usual, but (through no real fault of her own) skimps on the biographer’s basic job. We know, in outline, that Mailer’s alchemy had something to do with sexual experimentation, “galloping” self-analysis, and drugs, but the specifics of who, when, and what happened necessary to a full understanding of the process and the results are private, which they ought to be, and so Mills’s revel­atory moment doesn’t, can’t, exist — she can only repeat Mailer’s own cautious gener­alities about it.

The record we do have is metaphorical­ — in the running battles of the developing Mailer prose style. After writing one book in “no style, best-seller style” (his words), and another whose overheated, near-hallu­cinatory raw material had incinerated its own genteel literary aspirations, he was fi­nally beginning to learn from Hemingway’s genius (where before, like thousands of others, he had only tried to ape Heming­way’s mannerisms). For Mailer at this time the most important lesson of the master was that the style, like it or not, really is the man, and if one’s manhood — neither of them would de-genderize that word into self-­hood — is seen as a search and not a possession, then every risky adjective becomes the equivalent of coming on to a policeman’s wife. Mailer’s style, even now, listens to itself; it’s constantly alert to its own poten­tial nuances.

Of course, both men’s sense of the quest as an exclusively masculine domain can make much of it sound distasteful now. I’d argue that at least part of the problem is terminology — if the words for risk-taking self-fulfillment have been largely male-ori­ented up to now, do you ditch the value, or change the words? — and that, in the Eisenhower ’50s, when most men were, symbolically, as much repressed housewives as their partners, the value of the stance outweighed its dubious aspects. But even so, enough of it was more than terminology, and remained part of Mailer’s thinking, to get him into trouble later on.

[related_posts post_id_1=”116062″ /]

At any rate Mailer had to plough through a thicket of bad writing — by turns clunkily earnest and facelessly hacklike, full of re­ceived political jargon, before he began to find his own voice (and subject, and world­view, and everything else that grew out of the voice). He may defend the famous revision of The Deer Park, all elegance dumped in favor of a one-three offbeat, in terms of not wanting to imprison Sergius O’Shaugnessy’s character. But the real jailbreak was his. The first version of the novel was about a tough, cocky young parvenu who told his own story — in a gen­teel voice that reflected Mailer’s lingering aspirations to literary respectability. Preserving that style would have made everything he was trying to grow into im­permissible etiquette. So O’Shaugnessy’s voice lost its manners, becoming colloquial, rough, and fliply tough-minded enough to make Papa himself proud. The new voice isn’t always convincing for Sergius either, but as Mailer discovering his own style by bashing in his bridges under him, it’s com­pletely believable. Literarily, the book is his crossroads; playing by the rules of the conven­tional novel, it reveals a growing sense of fiction, and maybe of all writing, as a set of useful masks and devices for the expression of pure public persona. Which may help explain why it’s also The Great Lost Mailer Book. Mailer’s detractors point to its dual nature as proof of his failure as a novelist; his admirers, who don’t care about such things, put it down in order to boost An American Dream, which brings the earlier book’s tentative authorial persona brazenly front and center.

The Deer Park, with its quasihipster hero, also obliquely marked Mailer’s entry into the Beat movement. The subculture had already been around — old Beats would insist that the life of On the Road was dead a decade before the book came out. But Mailer’s relation to such phenomena is that of a surfer to the wave — he catches it just as it begins to curl into mass consciousness. Even Mailer’s wildest ideas are idiosyncratic refractions of some presence becoming man­ifest in the great collective con. This is not necessarily calculated: in his relation to the culture, Mailer is a born counterpuncher, and the first quiver of an oncoming trend out there triggers his pop instinct. The same instinct instantaneously redefines the trend in terms of his own sensibility. But he has next to no use for fringes, at least when they stay that way. For Mailer, there are no he­roes in basements; for better and worse it’s one of the most American things about him.

Hip worked for Mailer two ways: as an intellectual framework it abetted his self­-excavation more than socialism or Studs Lonigan; as a public posture it allowed him to make raids on the national awareness with the illusion of armies behind him. And crucially, since the Beats used pop artifacts as ideological referents and pop mass communication as their playground, Mailer was also learning new, nonliterary and nonintel­lectual ways of marshaling his ideas and putting them across. When, in Advertise­ments, he does his existential-semiotics delineation of the philosophical merits of T­-formation over single wing, you feel his al­most palpable exhilaration at realizing that something as unliterary and universal as football can fit into his sensibility. But as usual — starting with his immediate substitution of “Hip” for “Beat” — Mailer’s involvement with the Beats rested much more on its temporal value to him than on ideological solidarity. “The White Negro” is a brilliant analysis, but it’s so much Mailer’s version of what Mailer wishes the Beat movement were like (him) that its con­siderable merits hardly have anything to do with the movement’s actuality. He must have realized the alliance’s drawbacks when Capote capped their talk-show argument about Kerouac with that’s-not-writing-only-­typing: to be punctured like that when you’re not even talking about you, but about another writer you don’t even like, out of revolutionary camaraderie — well, you start thinking that the only movements worth belonging to are the ones you start yourself.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722190″ /]

So even though Advertisements’ hun­dred-and-one topics are formally justified as a preview brochure for oncoming Hip, that’s just window-dressing for a personality on the verge of not needing any wrapping larger than its own skin. What does connect all those subjects, and give them meaning, is Mailer’s continuing story of his experience as a postwar American writer/culture hero/Jeremiah in the wilderness, and the fact that he perceives such ego display as intrinsic to his attack on ’50s America. The style has also come into its own. A man who goes out to the limits of experience may come back with a richer sense of the limits than of the experience — what the orgy ultimately gave Mailer, it seems, was a sense of irony. Now a new balance came into play, which in­tensified the game’s stakes instead of vitiat­ing them — unlike those academic contem­poraries for whom irony was a means to shrink life until it could comfortably fit their desk tops, Mailer, like Stendhal, used its zigzags to get further and say more than a straight man could.

Of course this formula makes neat a tran­sition whose reality was chaotic. Mailer’s sense of the edge still remained too in­fatuated to be unerringly accurate; “The Time of Her Time” is a comic masterpiece of sexual knowingness (and capping a book like Advertisements with a story in which every intellectual assumption of the ’50s is quite literally buggered is an act of wonderful pop mindfuck). But another piece in Advertise­ments, the “Prologue” to the same novel that “Time of Her Time” was to be part of, smothers insights in rhetorical adolescent posturing. And parting with his hipster-­phase hope for a sexual and social revolution that would start tomorrow morning (Mailer was the only one who thought a sexual revolution ought to include a Reign of Terror) wasn’t easy. Along with new confidence, there was plenty of dreck, fear, personal confusion, and an overwhelming sense of lost possibilities, all of which seem to have come to a head in the ugly episode of his near-fatal stabbing of his wife in 1960. To analyze something like this in purely literary terms might seem unseemly but if the man himself can have both the intellectual honesty and the outrageous insensitivity to say, “After that, I felt better,” surely a mere writer of wrappings for dead fish can point out that the aftermath of the stabbing coincides with Mailer’s shift, as a writer, from radical confrontation to gadfly opposition.

For which the Kennedys supplied the perfect occasion. Mirroring his cold war embrace of socialism, but this time on purpose, Mailer reacted to the institutionalization of liberalism by nurturing the conservative ele­ments in his thought. That his radicalism now flourished at precisely those points where the Administration stayed conserva­tive also suggests that he was charting his course in dialectical response to American culture, expanding his own persona into a pop symbol more pointedly and confidently than ever before. But his playing the vision­ary clown in Camelot depended on an animal awareness in both camps that their turfs overlapped — if Jack and Jackie hadn’t been so sexually interesting, on the ’50s rebound, Mailer might never have jumped ship from Hip to history. Kennedy believed that the president’s role as a nation’s mirror had more effect than his actual policy; Mailer believed that the artist’s role as the antenna of the race had more artistic value than just writing books. They were made for each other.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725117″ /]

The ’60s, the era that literature (or any­way “literature”) fumbled, will stand in­stead as Mailer’s decade. After struggling for a dozen years to flesh out the notion that existence is not only a war but a just war, that every event is a crossroads of choice between cheating life and intensifying it, and that the self is best defined as a kinetic relation to experience rather than a static bastion, Mailer found American culture coming into a parallel alignment with the same principle. The ’60s, after all, were one of the rare periods when the buried symbol­ism of American life upset the platitudes and practicalities that usually act to stifle it. Mailer did not in the least stop being a gadfly and outrageous eccentric — what he did was go from being an amateur to being a professional, because the times had changed a step behind his changes and now the ’60s were ready to install such a man as a seer. Suddenly, nothing in the culture seemed alien to Mailer’s sensibility. His lonely grap­pling with the paradox of being a literary outlaw — in society for his celebrity, exiled from it for his stance — had also, unwittingly, given him the key to the pop consciousness that was now (in the one decade in which pop culture became culture pure and simple, and almost politics pure and simple) uniquely apt. Laid end to end, The Presi­dential Papers, An American Dream, Can­nibals and Christians, Armies of the Night, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago add up to a single sustained chain reaction without any real parallel in our culture, unless it’s Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde, and John Wesley Har­ding. (To shift the analogy, but not by much: Why Are We in Vietnam? is Ringo.)

If Nabokov’s faith was that one individ­ual’s spirit could supersede and dismiss the whole machine of history — to him wit and playfulness were a desperately serious transcendence of evil — Mailer, altogether Amer­ican, sought to perform the same alchemy not by transcending the machine but by going to the mat with it, on its terms but also as its equal. If the battle royal for the Ameri­can Soul was being fought out on the top 40 and the evening news, then Mailer was going to be the news and top 40 all to himself. The best line in Mills’s book comes during her description of the march on the Pentagon that inspired The Armies of the Night: “By moving from the drunken, obscene-talking revolutionary provocateur of Thursday night to the man of action stepping boldly across the police line on Saturday to the humble lover of Christ on Sunday, Mailer had managed to encompass the spectrum of American sensibility within himself.” That isn’t literally true, as Mills no doubt knows, but it is exactly what reading Armies, or its fellows, makes you feel.

In the long run, this was a quixotic gamble, and even at the time many of its manifestations were simply foolish. But then nothing appeals to Mailer unless it holds out the chance of chivalry — and one thing we always risk forgetting about the ’60s is that for a good many people the decade offered a baby-boom lifetime’s only chance to feel romantic, or heroic. Few ob­servers had as many suspicions of the Chi­cago demonstrators’ style, assumptions, and ability to relate intent to result as Mailer; he thought much of their stance was posturing, and their antics counterproductive. But in­stead of dismissing them for that, he em­braced them — in that wonderful, absurd moment in Miami and the Siege of Chicago when he sees himself, at long last, as general of a countercultural army. How could he not? The whole guerrilla theater of the ’60s might be said to have begun on the night in 1960 that Mailer waved at a Provincetown police car, and called out: “Taxi!” The Yip­pies’ intuition that the real event of Chicago wasn’t what actually happened there but the media version of what happened, and their theatrical restaging of reality to make subversive use of that fact, was like a vastly expanded and streamlined version of what Mailer had begun reaching for, as the only viable personal style, years before. And since they were doing all this while engaging in a week-long running battle with the Chi­cago police, Mailer saw even their worst miscalculations as brave — which, for him, outweighed everything else.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724430″ /]

Of course, many reasonable people would, and did, dislike that standard. As a yardstick it’s risky, and it also mucks up the issues. But Mailer has never had much use for issues in that sense. In his view, America is the least ideological country in the world — the founding fathers were being good post-Enlightenment types in borrowing from Locke, but they showed their real Americanness by finding Locke romantic. The country’s real (which is to say submerged) politics are cultural, symbolic, and primally intuitive, and what propelled them to the forefront in the ’60s was the McLuhanized conception of media-filtered public image as the real nexus of events. (We know, for instance, that most New Left radi­cals had little use for hippies, and that the New Left itself was a spectrum of factions — but to most of America at the time, it was all one big happy counterculture, and had more impact for being misapprehended that way.) In America, poetic truths have real-life con­sequences, and Mailer is one of the few American intellectuals to perceive this fact as both fundamental and fundamentally good. Certainly he’s the only one who has set out to turn himself into one of those poetic truths.

But it’s pretty much inevitable that if you play the one-man zeitgeist of the ’60s, you’re going to flounder in the ’70s. Mailer started the new decade with The Prisoner of Sex, promptly blowing the counterculture cachet he’d spent the last one accumulating. Of course, if you remember where the coun­terculture ended up, getting out in 1970 starts looking like a good idea. But in fact, a large part of Mailer’s inner motive seems to be suppressed panic at the realization that he, Norman, the writer who knows more about alienation than anyone in America, has somehow managed to omit the single largest alienated segment of the country’s population. As it works out, Prisoner‘s ac­tual argument isn’t Mailer versus the feminists so much as romanticism versus totalitarianism. If you read the book care­fully (I can hear the rustle of all of you rushing off to your libraries), it’s obvious that Mailer doesn’t think he is opposing women’s liberation per se — what he argues against, typically, is its style, its refusal to envision liberation in the individualist, ro­manticized terms that, well, he imagines he would have cast it in, had he been born a woman. The truth is that he thought The Prisoner was an admission of defeat; what’s funny is that the form his surrender took was, unavoidably, gentlemanly — with a drunk’s courtly bonhomie he was figur­atively holding the door open for women all over again, and they, having seen that be­fore, strung up the doorman.

But the more serious problem with The Prisoner of Sex (and most of the rest of Mailer’s ’70s work) lay in Mailer’s own post­-’60s status. The Heisenberg principle of re­bellion is that it’s automatically vitiated if the authorities permit it; “always the challenger, never the champion,” as Brock Brower put it. Mailer’s sensibility was al­tered by altered circumstances. (The come­back to this, of course, is that turnabout is fair play; instead of his using the circum­stances, they used him.) The self-absorption of his work had always been justifiable as the strategy of an outsider with no other re­sources but himself to fight with — now, fa­mous, fifty, and flush, he could hardly be seen as a challenger to anything by anybody. And the creative use he had made of his celebrity, using it to express his own dis­sidence and alienation, no longer stood out against an establishment that had as­similated such guerrilla tactics (as indeed they had co-opted much of the countercul­ture) and reduced them to wacky, bad-boy fun. When the Bernsteins have the Black Panthers over to dinner, how much ruckus can a middle-aged Jewish novelist be expected to make? For a combative tempera­ment, the ’70s were a pillow fight with wet pillows. America had become a nation of hip hobbyists, and if being a zeitgeist was your particular bit, well, that was nice.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713938″ /]

Having more or less achieved his desire to be a pop lightning-rod to the country, only to discover after he had erected himself and plugged in that there was no more lightning, Mailer began writing, a little wistfully, about other American icons, to get that pop magic secondhand. But Marilyn Monroe, once archetypal, had by then dwindled to the coffee-table status that Marilyn only con­firmed; when Mailer finally got around to a book on Muhammad Ali, Ali had lost his grip on the national subconscious and become as empty as any other conventional politician. Well might Norman, seeing how the ’70s cult of celebrity had sapped celebrity of its totemic power, have sighed with Picasso that you do it first, and then somebody else does it pretty.

It took Gary Gilmore to make celebrity dangerous again. Betcha as a novelist he’d have been better than Genet — no one has ever articulated the con’s inversion of soci­ety’s moral scheme more forcefully, or used his Warholian 15 minutes to such disrup­tively threatening effect. No need here to write another blurb for The Executioner’s Song — you see, reader, we are now heaving within landfall of a media-age attention span — but I ought to point out that Mailer could write about Gilmore without (for the first time in 20 years) invoking Mailer be­cause Gilmore was so much the activist ver­sion of Mailer’s sensibility. (Which is not the same thing as saying that writing about the meaning of violence is the coward’s way of indulging in it. The two men’s world views had some remarkable affinities; certainly they both had a dramatic intuition of the uses of fame in enhancing and expressing those world views; but that’s as far as it goes.) And Gilmore’s world — haunted and matter-of-fact, dull and yet teeming with karmic mysteries — was the everyday man­ifestation of a country that Mailer had previously only inferred as a subconscious vision. It may have been Utah, but to Nor­man it must have seemed like Brigadoon. The Executioner’s Song is Mailer’s last book written in collaboration with America, and it connects on an even more mutual and accessible level than before, because instead of telling the country what it might secretly be, he’s simply telling it what it is.

One of those coincidences that could make anyone believe in synchronicity is that Gilmore’s moment of fame came within weeks of the Sex Pistols’ first single. I can remember, in college, reading Gilmore’s death-row Playboy interview while the Ramones’s first album played on the stereo; the murderer’s confession, spliced into the usual T&A, and the joyous blast coming from the speakers, felt like the negative and the positive of the same risky, disturbing new wind. To someone who thinks the punk movement was the single most worthwhile cultural event of the late ’70s, it’s no great leap to call The Executioner’s Song Mailer’s punk book, and see it as his finger’s return to the cultural pulse. But if part of punk’s ethos was energizing and conflating cultural negatives into positives, and part of its method, as Greil Marcus suggested, was to leap from the smallest personal experience to the widest social conclusions, then the parallel extends to Mailer’s career; and his sense of pop culture as an arena, the place where rebellion and acceptance, celebrity and subversion, come together in such a way that one man’s work can make an enormous difference, is directly analogous to rock and roll. I bring this up not just for the personal pleasure of introducing my tastes to each other (even though any taste worth its salt almost demands such continuity), but to make the point that Mailer’s inhabiting Elvis Presley’s frame of reference rather than John Barth’s does make him a better writer, precisely because it makes being a writer more valuable: it’s a recontextualiza­tion of literature that makes literature feel crucial again, while most other American writing since Faulkner has made it more ephemeral.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725008″ /]

The more you look at what used to be called Mailer’s self-advertisements and gen­eral imposition of himself on American life (when, people implied, he ought to be home hard at work), the more it seems not only intrinsic to a revolutionary notion of a writer’s role in his culture (I mean, this is the real postmodernism), but in some ways his greatest accomplishment. Mailer turned on end the debilitating self-awareness brought into modem life by everything from psy­choanalysis to television by subsuming it in a flamboyant new romantic self-conscious­ness. He used his own media-age modernity to open up the subconscious currents of American culture as showily as Orson Welles opened up movie tricks in Citizen Kane, and to much the same effect. Enormous amounts of expressive material were recast in newly knowing terms, then treated as jumping-off points for new explorations, instead of op­pressive dead ends crossbreeding entropy in the data banks. Mailer treated the cultural and historical givens of the age, which tend to reduce all its events to triviality, as mate­rial to be encompassed and dominated by his own sensibility. The result may succeed or fail; the gesture is a transvaluation that speaks volumes.

In that sense, Mailer’s job is probably done. I’m sure I’m not the only one who, whenever the forthcoming Ancient Eve­nings (announced for this spring) is men­tioned, thinks apprehensively of Faulkner’s A Fable. But even so, it’s the last, the perfect Mailer joke that after nearly 30 years of being our great media showman, our only literary pop star, he really is bringing out the “big book” he promised, just like Joyce and Proust, the book no one thought he would actually get around to writing. Inevitably, though, that pretty picture is defaced by the handful of shit lobbed into its center. The Abbott case served painfully to remind that when Mailer talks about taking chances, he’s not being rhetorical; it also served to remind that, in many ways, his gorgeous roman­ticism can be excruciatingly naive, wrong-headed, and simply foolish, and can have ugly consequences. It was an episode bound to bring out all our contradictory feelings about what Mailer represents — quixotic nobility in the midst of hideous error, the battle for culture fought out in the midst of a media circus, admiration and rage going hand-in-hand down the primrose path to hell.

Which is how the story has run all along. By that gauge, Ancient Evenings rightfully ought to confound everyone and be the best book Mailer’s ever written — good enough, even, for the critics to attack it, instead of bringing out the nostrums and encomiums they’ve already prepared. But that prospect makes life too difficult. It’s infinitely easier to wrap things up like this: look, that old man is turning 60 this month, and he’s publishing a 1000-page novel about ancient Egypt; and say happy birthday, pop, in spite of everything; because the fact of the matter is that I never really did get over reading Advertisements for Myself when I was 13. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Obies THE FRONT ARCHIVES Theater

Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism

Thoughts on: Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism 

It is easily imagined of Jean Genet that he is one those artists who so adore reality that they are obsessed with the ever-present possibility that it too will betray them.

Sitting through the too long evening of “The Blacks” or wending a careful and respect­ful way through the printed texts of “Deathwatch” or “The Maids,” we are overwhelmed by our sense of his distrust of us; his refusal to honor our longings for communion. Presently we understand that he does not seem to believe that is what we do long for and so, now and again, he drops even the remnants of his regard, and flails at us. He encloses the reckless and undefined dozen or so jokes; dismisses what he may consider to be the boundaries of even his own mind. He becomes the threatening soldier who may or may not put bullets in the gun, such being the depth of his contempt for the enemy. Of course, when whimsy does allow him to load and fire, we are shattered.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725165″ /]

Proper Meter 

Norman Mailer’s discussion of “The Blacks” (Voice, May 11, May 18) was, therefore, in proper meter. Between the play and Mai­ler’s discernible reaction to it, a duet was indeed sung. The rise and fall of his coherence and incoherence alike strikes a stunning and, I think, significant kinship with the French writer. This is especially so in his lusty acceptance of the romantic racism which need­ed evocation to allow for the conceptualization of “The Blacks” in the first place.

For, at this moment, on both sides of the Atlantic, certain of the best of men have sent up a lament which is much concerned with the disorders of a civilization which they do not really believe in their hearts are to be set aright by in­vocation of either fresh “frontiers” or antique “grandeur.” Sensing the source of the disorders to be deeper than any of that, they have will­fully turned to the traditional route of history’s more serious nay-sayers. They have elected the spirit and fraternity of what the balance of society is always pleased to hope are “the damned”: pros­titutes, pimps, thieves, and general down-and-outers of whatever persuasion. They are certain, as their antecedents in all ages have been, that if the self-appointed “top” of society is as utterly rotten as it is, then the better side of madness must be the company and deistic celebration of “the bottom.” As far as they are concerned, history has merely inadvertently provided them with a massive set of fra­ternals in “the Blacks.”

Among the Negro artists and in­tellectuals whom I know it is a melancholy point of reference. Our life-eating sense of fatigue began with, of course, the appearance of Mailer’s “The White Negro” a few years ago, and has been fitfully nourished by those echoes of dif­fering aspects of its theme in the “little magazines,” The Village Voice, living rooms and coffee houses: “The Negro is hell-bent for suburbia and the loss of his soul, dear God, dear God!” Nelson Algren agrees in print with Jonas Mekas that “A Raisin in the Sun” is, of all things, a play about “in­surance money” and/or “real estate.” (This particular absurdity, it is true, is rendered a little less frightening only by the knowledge that there are people who sincerely believe that “Othello” is a play about a handkerchief.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”720560″ /]

Romantic Shadows

But to discuss this paternalism at all, one must underscore the innocence from which certain attitudes invariably spring. We have been locked away from one another and, sadly, it is not really curious that we seem to throw such strange and romantic shadows upon the windows. How else might Algren, believing, apparently, that materially deprived Negroes are, somehow, the only “true Negroes,” equate the desire to escape the grim horrors of the ghetto with the fancied longing of a people to cease being “themselves” and “get to the psychoanalysts as fast as white folks do”? And, for his part, Mailer pens a theatrical com­mentary which, in some passages, is primed with an ingenuous acceptance of the racial mystique.

After he had written what was cogent about “The Blacks”: “… the truest and most ex­plosive play that anyone has yet written at all about the turn of the tide and the guilt and horror in the white man’s heart … ” and after he was done with gratuitous suppositions concerning the sexuality of the actors, Mailer indulged him­self mainly as a leading captain of the new paternalism, hardly pausing even to draw for us some of the richer implications of his own assessment of the Genet work.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715227″ /]

About Themselves

For “The Blacks” is, as Mailer partially observed, more than any­thing else a conversation between white men about themselves. This seemed to me the final trick, not upon reality which tends to hold its own, but upon illusion. For it is only an illusion that Genet has written anything else. He is a man and can only begin where any of us can: within our own subjectivity. As an entity, he must fancy “Les Negres” only as he thinks they should be along about now in the history of the world: if they have been treated thus and so forth, then this is the way they should behave and feel. He has rendered an equation and calculat­ed, one must say reasonably, for a sum. The result is an abstraction possessed of great flashes of power and all the inventive poetry of what is certainly an exquisite theatrical mind. But it is an abstraction which tends to remind one, through the absence of humanness, style or no style, that men have always found a dimension of nobility in their grandest guilts (have we not all seen the face of Eichmann in the dock?). Moreover, it seemed to me that we were spared the ultimate anguish of man’s oppression of man be­cause the abstraction is utilized to affirm, indeed entrench, the quite different nature of pain, lust, cruelty, ambition in “The Blacks.” The dramatist does not impress upon us that it is the sameness of kind which oppressor’s most des­pise in the oppressed; that they do not lynch or castrate dogs or apes as a way of life because they do not find their own images in those creatures. It is the reflection of oneself that most enrages when we are engaged in our crimes against a fellow human creature. In “The Blacks” the oppressed remain unique; it is, interestingly, their shadows that have been abstracted into “the style.” In it, the blacks remain the exotic “The Blacks.”

This may be because they are seen, still, by their creator as entirely relative to the fact of the presence of The Whites in the world. It does not occur to the European or the white American, as yet, that they might exist in any other context. The characters in the play dream not only of their revenge but of “turning Beauty black” because even the most pro­found of white men find it incomprehensible that a black man may behold the moon and stars without agonies of concern for how those images may have seem­ed to — The Whites. The play most certainly has validity in its purgation of the whites (in the audience) but what I found to be its spectacular quality of detachment for the blacks (in the audience) must surely be a limitation which derives from the fact that, for all of its sophistication, it is itself an expression of some of the more quaint notions of white men.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720527″ /]

Their Anticipations

It does not invalidate what we take to be Genet’s intentions because the whole play is, again, about the anticipations of white men; by the end of it we sense that they shall be disappointed if the blacks really do give more at­tention to building steel mills and hydroelectric plants throughout Africa than to slitting a few hundred thousand criminal throats.

With regard to Mailer and the new paternalism, it will be said, and swiftly, that Negroes cannot be satisfied; that, in this instance, the Negro intellectual is himself so “hung-up” that he does not understand at what Mailer is getting; that he has transcended what we still suppose to be the mark-off points of an old discussion and has found some more profound level where the white intellectual assumes all of that to be old hat and has moved on to where we can all really talk as the most in­side of insiders, which is to say, as some obscure undefined universal outsider who may be known as “the hipster.”

It has had a numbing effect, the creation of “the hip” into an ex­panded formalized idea. Negroes seem to have met it mainly with a crowning silence because who knew where to begin in the face of such monumental and crass assump­tions? A number of years had to dissolve before Jimmie Baldwin would remark in print, ever so gently: “… matters were not helped at all by the fact that Negro jazz musicians, among whom we sometimes found ourselves, who really liked Norman, did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely ‘hip’ and Norman did not know this and I could not tell him … They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” (April Esquire: “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.”)

[related_posts post_id_1=”419403″ /]

Naturally, whether or not some Negro jazz musicians think Norman Mailer or any other individual is or is not “hip” would be one of the great unimportant questions of our time — except for Mailer. He did not call his essay “The Hipster” or “The Outsider” or “We Who Might Swing” or any of that; he called it: “The White Negro.” He manufactured an absurdity and locked himself in it. He fabricated his own mythology concerning cer­tain “universals” about 20 million “outsiders” and rejoiced because his philosophy fitted his premise. He is like Seymour Krim in that respect in symbolizing all who fashion their particular fantasies and take the A Train to Harlem to find them and meet some frac­tion of one per cent of 700,000 people who bulge the community and go back downtown and write essays not on the prostitutes they met but on — “Harlem.” It is beginning to seem an inexhaustible tradition. What is a little new is the scope of the new arrogance. The new paternalists really think, it seems, that their utterances of the oldest racial cliches are, somehow, a demonstration of their liberation from the hanky-panky of liberalism and God knows what else. Consequently, from the depths of his particular seven-league assumptions, Mailer blithely writes: “They cannot know because they have not seen themselves from the outside (as we have seen them) that there is genius in their race — it is possible that Africa is closer to the root of whatever life is left than any other land on earth … ”

The most that can be said for romance as desperate as that is to repeat that the shadows on the window are erotic. How can the man who wrote it know that Negroes are, by and large, not in any wise sufficiently improv­erished of spirit to need or want that? How can Mailer or Genet or Algren really be expected to know, really know, that the commonplace reverse assumptions among Ne­groes about everybody else (“The Others”) are just as touching, in­nocent, and vicious? I know very few Negroes who are not firmly convinced that “the roots of life” are in Puerto Ricans, Italians, and everyone else of “Latin tempera­ment.” “Honey, those people really know how to live —” it runs. Sey­mour Krim does not know that when he left the most lowly of the bar-flies of Harlem, they re-engag­ed in chit-chat concerning the most traditional of very exotic notions of the Jewish people which are as grim and unworthy of them as they are any place else in America. Must we celebrate this madness in any direction? Is it not “known” among Negroes that white people, as an entity, are “dirty” (especially white women who never seem to do their own cleaning); inherently cruel (the cold fierce roots of Europe: who else would put all those people into ovens scientifically?); “smart” (“you really have to hand it to the m.f.’s”) and the rest of it? And never having been exposed to the glorious fury of a Moldavian peasant dance or the tonal magnificence of some mighty Russian folk song — we also “know,” like Mailer, that we “sing and dance better than white people.” Similarly do we “know” that we are “lazier” and “more humane.” Etc.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718477″ /]

Dies Hard

Moreover there is reason to now suppose that we (Negro writers) may have carried the skin-lightener hair-straightener references too far for a climate where context is not yet digested. Pride of race is not alien to Negroes. The Lord only knows that what must be half our institutions seem to function on the basis of nothing else! It may indeed be a long time after integration that it disappears out of the Ameri­can black man’s consciousness. Black racialism in the United States may ultimately show itself to be more tenacious than even its mighty opposite. Nationalism dies hard, as is witnessed by the St. Patrick’s Day parade down our streets each spring.

Of course oppression makes people better than their oppressors, but that is not a condition sealed in the loins by genetic mysteries. The new paternalists have mistaken that oppression for the Negro. They are as certain as Genet that the source of the wily speech is tied to color; that the brooding hatred which intelligent whites are apparently able to see is, somehow, wedded to the blackness.

No wonder the single-mindedness of the middle-class Negro’s search for comfort offends: it is an ugly fall from “naturalness.” Don’t any of these people know that working­-class social rules are not less in volume than those of more monied classes? There are just as many things which are forbidden — they are just different. A man who be­lieves in the taboos of his order is not freer than another man who believes in his at a different level of society. In society we, all of us, merely flee from rigor to rigor.

That is why, blues or no blues, life roots or no life roots, Negroes of all classes have made it clear that they want the hell out of the ghetto just as fast as the ascenden­cy of Africa, the courts, insurance money, job-upgrading, the threat of “our image overseas,” or any­thing else can thrust them. Worse, they have a distinct tendency to be astonished and/or furious that everyone doesn’t know it. Misery may be theatrical to the onlooker but it hurts him who is miserable. That is what the blues are about.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716127″ /]

Prison of the Premise

Out of his distaste for the middle-class Negro, Mailer is led to assume, for some reason or another, that the actors in “The Blacks” who seem to him to act with inhibition and self-conscious­ness must be middle-class Negroes. Well, knowing most of them to be part-time hack-drivers, janitors, chorus girls, domestics, it is im­possible to know what prompts the assumption other than the prison of the premise again. For my part, I am twice confused, because I genuinely thought the acting, al­most without exception, brilliant. Especially Messrs. Browne and Jones.

It points up the incredible eager­ness for the new villain: The true middle-class Negro simply amuses the life out of everyone because he stands on line at the opera; be­cause of his attaché case; because he is as passionately opinionated on West Germany as Congo; he amuses because he plays tennis; because his fatuousness has the audacity to sound as deep-seated as the chap he is talking to. Above all he amuses and outrages because he now persists in home-hunting with the wife in his foreign car in Scarsdale, searching for his little niche in the Great Sterility. And he certainly offends if, of an evening, he expresses boredom of the eternal race question and/or disapproval of the fact that Lorraine Hansberry goes around in dirty sneakers.

Well, there is certainly nothing fresh in the spectacle of white people insisting on telling all sorts of colored peoples how they should behave to satisfy them. It is, to say the least, the most characteristic aspect of the nation’s foreign policy.

Out of the perversion of what they think they understand about The Rise of the Negro Middle Class, the very same paternalists who will study every nuance of Genet or Antonioni have no time for the nuances of the homely, working-class “Raisin.” They pre­ferred a display of public dishon­esty or stupidity by refusing to see that it was, more than anything else, a long and, perhaps, laborious assault on money values. One speaks of dishonesty because, in a subsequent discussion with the Mekas entourage, it turned out that what they found most objectionable was the fact that the hero did not make the payoff at the end: “He should have played the game,” his co-reviewer, Miss Juillard, told me, “that would have been the swing­ing thing to do.”

I plead guilty to the four corners of my aspirations for the human race.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721605″ /]

Less Sophisticated

As a matter of fact, contrary to the original thoughts of this discussion, it is better to dismiss Mekas almost entirely. To think of it is to be reminded, with pain, that his particular variety of paternalism is of the older and less sophisticated type which simply turns motion-picture criticism over to a mysteriously qualified 19-year-old Negro girl because, presumably, that is what is done when it comes to those “colored movies” anyway. This is the young woman who also explained to me that she thought the movie told Negroes that they should want to “be white” because of all those passages wherein the college-daughter persisted in her preoccupation with things African. Intellectuality, it was explained, is “white.” (To such jibberish nothing can be added. A dedicated Voice reader like myself can only hope that the paper will institute a motion-picture-criticism column of some stature.)

Finally, isn’t it a little late in this particular century for Mailer’s remark that “a bad Negro actor” reminds him of nothing quite so much as “a bad white actor”? There is something insane about that sentence unless one truly be­lieves that there is, within the nature of being a Negro, some qualifying property which modifies all other adjectives in a sentence. Or that there should be. He re­iterated, the following week, that this problem is, however, relieved when the actors, sure enough, dance and sing or are otherwise active as entertainers, which re­mains, in his considered judgment, the true forte, as we were saying, of “The Blacks.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724152″ /]

LOOKING BACK over the thoughts penned here, I am disappointed and saddened. The patches of anger and frequent flippancies do not, some­how, thrust my deepest and most sincere hopes through the window; crash the lock which gives birth to such misunderstanding in the first place. These gentle if impassioned artists whom I have mainly sailed into are not the “enemies” of Negroes. We all know that; that accounts for the afore-mentioned melancholy which colors all effort to try and really “talk to one another.” Heaven only knows that men fixed in a posture of consum­ing outrage because of the spec­tacle of this world have been, as I said at the beginning “the best of men” in all ages. Genet, Mailer, and Algren are right to be in contempt of the ghastly hypocrisy of their cultures; artists who are not are, indeed, lesser artists and lesser men. In any other context these three would deserve mainly saluta­tion.

It is on this account that the tender evaluation of those jazz musicians of Mailer is genuinely touching. It is my own, even though I have never met him. One hopes only that, recognizing his public turbulence as merely an echo of all thoughtful people these days, he will not let those forces with which he battles force him into such a rage that he cannot loom larger than their expectations and definitions of him. One powerfully hopes that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”367551″ /]

Above All

And, that above all else, he will not allow his apprehension of this world make him flail so; let him grow contemptuous, like Genet, of that which is his only hope for tel­ling blows: his words. Not let flee discipline of thought; not let cadence itself become a shadow of his former powers. No, it is not the death of arrogance which is wished for Mailer; I do not know what humility has accomplished in the history of man, when all is said and done. The wish is only that the arrogance become not shapeless; that it does not lose confi­dence in those of us who await the words which carry it with such hunger and need, on this barren landscape, knowing all the while the source and its truly monumental possibilities.

Norman, write not of the great­ness of our peoples, yours and mine, in the past tense because: “Vail kumen vet noch undzer oysge benkte sho!” — and “My Lord, what a mornin’!

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Theater Uncategorized

Norman Mailer on Jean Genet’s “The Blacks”

Theatre: “The Blacks” Part 1
May 11, 1961

No one who believes in the greatness of certain plays would go to any one of our houses to enjoy them. They exist as thundering productions in the mind only. We know they might be done (“King Lear,” for example, should be played by Ernest Hemingway), but one also knows that way lies nightmare, madness, and no hurricane’s spout. Our theatre is cancer gulch. Any­one who has worked in it felt the livid hate-twisted nerves of the actresses, the fag-ridden spirit of the actors, the gulping mannerless yaws of our directors, hysterical at resistance, ponderous at exposition, and always psychoanalytical, must admit that yes, at its best, our theatre is a rich ass and/or hole, at its worst, the heavens recoil.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725147″ /]

Fever for All

By way of preface to some re­marks on “The Blacks.” If one is tempted to say it is a great play (with insidious, even evil veins of cowardice in its cruel bravery), one has to add immediately that such greatness exists as still another of those exquisite lonely productions off imagination’s alley. The show, the literal show on the boards (and the set for this one is worth an essay of quiet criticism in itself), that tangible corporal embodiment of “The Blacks” ended as good theatre, shocking as a rash, bug­-house with anxiety to some, nerv­ous fever-hot for all. (A lot of people left.) It is a good produc­tion, one of the doubtless best productions in New York this year, and yet it fails to find two-thirds of the play. It is a hot hothouse tense livid off-fag deep-purple voodoo mon Doo production, thick, jungle bush, not unjazzy, never cool, but at its worst, and Gene Frankel’s touch is not always di­rected to the fine, the gloomy ac­colade one must offer is that “The Blacks” is three times as good a production as that finking of the pieces and parts one saw last year in “The Balcony.” Frankel does an honest job, he clarifies the play ­— at a cost, but he does make it easier to see the play than to read it — he enriches the production upon occasions. The rich farty arts, that only grace our theatre can claim, are used with good force. The savory in Genet (that outer-Wil­liams, the ta-ta Tennessee, cry not that the French write it better than thee) is laid on rich and that is probably right. What but a funky style could handle a murder by fornication of a white woman who is really a black vicar in a wig, dig, who turns around and comes out not to be killed at all, because Genet likes vastly to put Pirandello in a pretzel. This metamorphosis of forms, this fall into death by re­verses brings an arbitrary climax to the play (since it comes just before the producer’a questionable if artistic decision to have an inter­mission) and it is, if one is to talk like a theatre bore, one of the best 10 minutes spent in the pit since … So forth. It’s very good. Frankel surprised me for 10 min­utes. The actors too. As recom­mendations go, this play is Highly Recommended. Take your family, take the kids, take the hoodlums on the corner. Take your gun.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721949″ /]

Fact of the matter, I am gracious to Mr. Frankel because I think he did a not unbrave thing in direct­ing this piece. “The Blacks” is a Mother F. Kerr. It is a challenge, as some of the adenoidals may still be saying. Consider this speech as a clue to the heat of the evening. Delivered with considerable ele­gance and cold fire by Mr. Roscoe Lee Browne:

“ARCHIBALD (gravely): I order you to be black to your very veins. Pump black blood through them. Let Africa circulate in them. Let Negroes negrify themselves. Let them persist to the point of madness in what they’re condemned to be, in their ebony, in their odor, in their yellow eyes, in their cannibal tastes. Let them not be content with eating Whites, but let them cook each other as well. Let them invent recipes for shin-bones, knee-caps, calves, thick lips, everything. Let them invent unknown sauces. Let them invent hiccoughs, belches and farts that’ll give out a deleterious jazz. Let them invent a criminal painting and dancing. Negroes, if they change toward us, let it not be out of indulgence, but terror.”

Now contemplate the problem of a director. He is to deal with 13 actors, all Negro, in the truest and most explosive play anyone has yet written at all about the turn in the tide, and the guilt and horror in the white man’s heart as he turns to face his judge. For after all where do nightmares go when they are gone? Who is to say the gates of heaven are not manned by cannibals mumbling: Lumumba!

Rehearsals inevitably must com­mence in a state. For the actors are not Africans. They are Amer­ican Negroes, they belong some of them to the Black Bourgeoisie which any proud Negro is quick to tell you is a parody of the white bourgeoisie — the party’s-getting-­out-of-line kind of cramp on the jazz. They belong to the Center, to the Left Minority Center, the New York Post, Max Lerner, Rose Franzblau, Jackie Robinson (bruis­es the heart to list his name), Mus­cular Dystrophy, Communities-of­-Cancer, synagogue-on-Sunday, put up those housing projects, welfare the works, flatten the tits, mash the best, beef the worst, and marry the slack and mediocre Negro to the slack and mediocre Jew. Whew!

[related_posts post_id_1=”715227″ /]

The Real Horror

But organized religion is the death of the essay. Let us leave the mediocre at this: the real horror worked on the Jews and the Ne­groes since the Second War is the mass-communication of nothing­ness into their personality. They were two of the greatest peoples in America, and half of their popula­tions sold themselves to the sub­urb, the center, the secure; that diarrhea of the spirit which is embodied in the fleshless query: ”Is this good for the Jews?” So went the Jew. So went the Negro. The mediocre among them rushed for the disease.

Well, the Negro at least has his boast. They are part, this black bourgeoisie, of a militant people moving toward inevitable and much-deserved victory. They can­not know because they have not seen themselves from outside (as we have seen them), that there is a genius in their race — it is possible that Africa is closer to the root of whatever life is left than any other land of earth. The genius of that land is a cruel one, it may be even an unrelenting genius, void of for­giveness, but it is impossible that the survival, emergence, and even­tual triumph of the Negro during his three centuries in America will not be considered by history as an epic equal to the twenty centuries the Jew has wandered outside. It will be judged as superior if the Negro keeps his salt.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715227″ /]

The Bends

But for now, they are going through the bends. They suffer from that same slavery of ascent the geist imposes on all of us. It is Liberal Totalitarianism. Curiosity of the age! The concentration camps exist in the jargon of our souls, one’s first whiff of the gas chamber is the nausea of cancer’s hour, the storm troopers wear tor­toise-shell glasses, and carry at­tache cases to the cubicles in which they work on the Avenue of the Mad. The liberal tenets of the Center are central; all people are alike if we suppress the ugliness in each of us, all sadism is evil, all masochism is sick, all spontaneity is suspect, all individuality is in­fantile, and the salvation of the world must come from social manipulation of human material. That is why all people must tend to be­come the same — a bulldozer does not work at its best in rocks or forest. Small accident that many of the Negro leaders are as color­less as our white leaders, and all too many of the Negroes one knows have a dull militancy com­pared to the curve and art of per­sonality their counterparts had even 10 years ago. The misapprehension on which they march is that time is on the side of the Negro. If his hatred is contained, and his individuality reduced, the logic of the age must advance him first to equality and then to power (goes the argument), because the Center makes its dull shifts through guilt and through need. Since the Negro has finally succeed­ed in penetrating the conscience of the best Whites, and since the worst Whites are muzzled by our need to grant the Negro his equa­lity or sink a little faster into the icy bogs of the Cold War, the Negro knows he need merely ape the hypocrisies of the white bour­geoisie, and he will win. It is a partial misapprehension. In the act of concealing himself, the Negro does not hasten his victory so much as he deadens the taste of it.

A fine sermon. Its application to the theatre is not arcane. The Negro tends to be superior to the White as an entertainer, and in­ferior as an actor. No need to dis­cuss the social background; it is obvious the Negro has had virtual­ly no opportunity to develop as an actor until the last few years, and the comparison is to that large ex­tent most unfair, but it is made nonetheless because the Negro does not generally lack professional competence as an actor, he lacks relaxation. The bad Negro actor reminds one of nothing so much as a very bad White actor: he orates, declaims, stomps, screams, prates, bellows, and binds, his emotions remain private to him­self, his taste is uncertain or directly offensive to the meaning of the play, he is in short a bully.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721605″ /]

Sense of Self

Now this is curious. Because the greatest entertainers in America have been Negro, and the best of the Whites, Sinatra, etc., etc. — I refuse to make a list here — exhibit their obvious and enormous debt every time they make a sound. The Negro entertainer brought mood and tempo, a sense of self, an ear for audience. The cadence in the shift of the moment became as sensuous as the turning of flesh in oneself or within another. Extraordinary was the richness of intimate meaning they could bring to a pop tune. It was their fruit, the fruit of Aesopian language. Used to employing the words ex­pected of them by the White, the Negro communicated more by voice than by his word. A simple sen­tence promised the richest opportunities to his sense of nuance that is it did if the simple sen­tence did not speak too clearly in its language. To the extent that meaning was imprecise, the voice could prosper. For meaning was ferocious in its dangers. Back of the throat, in the clear salts of language, was the sentence graven on the palate: White man, I want to kill you. Ofay, you die.

So the style of the American Negro took on its abstract manner. Where the sentence said little, the man said much; where the words were clear, the person was blank. The entertainer thrived, the actor was stunted. The Negro, steeped in the danger of his past, would obviously be in dread of en­tering the cage of formal meaning; he could hardly do it with the deep relaxation of a great actor. It is one thing for Olivier to be magni­ficent but for a Negro it is simply too dangerous. The emotions bank­ed to suffocation in his heart are never far from erupting. So he speaks stiff, he declaims, he denies his person. Now, you or me can point to Sidney Poitier, to Canada Lee, to the good cast of “Raisin in the Sun,” to moments in “The Cool World,” to this, to that — I know. One speaks precisely of a tendency. Nothing other. (Who has not felt a tendency constrict his chest or cramp his feet?) Only the minds of the Center will say tomorrow that I said all Negro actors are bad. But this I do in­sist — they tend not to be good. And in “The Blacks” this tendency is exacerbated.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716127″ /]

Consider the emotions of the cast when they must utter lines like the following to a white audience:

“Tonight, our sole concern will be to entertain you. So we have killed this white woman. There she lies.”

”You forget that I’m already knocked out from the crime I had to finish off before you arrived, since you need a fresh corpse for every performance.”

“And you, pale and odorless race, race without animal odors, without the pestilence of out swamps.”

“Invent, not love, but hatred, and thereby make poetry, since that’s the only domain in which we’re allowed to operate.”

“If I were sure that Village bumped the woman off in order to heighten the fact that he’s a scarred, smelly, thick-lipped, snub-nosed Negro, and eater and guzzler of Whites and all other colors … ” ♦

Continued below…

Theatre: “The Blacks” Part 2
May 18, 1961

Last week I left you — those of you who navigated the perils of my pompous prose — with a situation as be-jazzed as the end of one of those 12-installment serials we used to sit through on Saturday afternoons in neighborhood houses. Thirteen Negro actors at the edge of a cliff, obliged to utter such sweetmeats as:

“Tonight, our sole concern will be to entertain you. So we have killed this white woman. There she lies.”

Or:

“If I were sure that Village bumped the woman off in order to heighten the fact that he’s a scarred, smelly, thick-lipped, snub-nosed Negro, and eater and guzzler of Whites … “

[related_posts post_id_1=”724970″ /]

It’s a great deal to ask of a young Negro actor that he have the sociological sophistication to understand one can get away with this in New York, that our puri­tanical, bully-ridden, smog-headed, dull, humorless, deadly, violence­-steeped and all but totally corrupt city, famous for its housing pro­jects which are renowned as the ugliest architecture in the history of man, famous for its Mayor, Walkie-Talkie Bob, famous for its Commissioner of Parks, Newbold “Stringless” Morris, famous for its Fuehrer, R. Moses, the King of Concrete, famous for its Police and its Mafia (the happiest mar­riage of uglies in a century), fa­mous for its fix, famous tor the heroic efforts of the authority to stamp out The Menace, that ring of coffee-house dens where the Beats learn to plot, and triply famous for its newspapers, totali­tarian to the lashings — they will print any speech which is void of good prose — yes this famous city is so snob-ridden and so petrified of making a martyr that one can get away with near-murder. No­body will close “The Blacks,” or there’ll be demonstrations in Paris. No one will rise up from the audi­ence to strike the actors for sacri­lege. No hoodlums will paint swas­tikas on the marquee. The St. Marks’ Playhouse is a 200 seater or less, but if necessary 500 police would patrol the avenue to keep “The Blacks” going. Our democ­racy is a soporific hulk, a deadened old beast’s carcass with two or three nerves alive, no more. Like a dying patient, democracy holds on to the pain of its nerves, de­fends them. So the actors who play the parts are not taking their lives in their hands each night they go on, and the anxiety which lay heavy the night I saw the play, an anxiety which took the long jump from phenomenon to false conclusion (That cat in the front row has eyes for me. If I talk of killing one more White, I’ll be dead myself) will begin to dissolve before the reality: “The Blacks” is secure. The play is close to greatness, it will survive. It gives life to the city. There is so little real life in the dead haunt­ed canyons of this cancer-ridden city that a writer as surgical in his cruelties as Saint Genet gives Being back to the citizens. For in 20 years the doctors may discover that it is not only the removal of the tumor which saves the pa­tient but the entry of the knife. Cancer thrives on indecision and is arrested by any spirit of lightning present in an act. Cancer is also arrested by answers, which is why perhaps the cancerous al­ways seek for faith and cannot bear questions. The authoritarian wave of the twentieth century may be seen a century from now, if we still exist, as the reflection of man’s anxiety before the oncoming rush of this disease, a disease which is not a disease, but a loss of self, for unlike death by other causes, cancer is a rebellion of the cells. They refuse to accept the will, the dignity, the desire, in short the project of the person who contains them. They betray the body because they have lost faith in it. So in desperation the man who contains such illness ceases to be existential, ceases to care about a personal choice, about making a personal history and prefers instead to deliver his will to an institution or faith outside him in the hope that it will absorb the rebellious hatreds of his Being. Man turns to society to save him only when he is sick within. So long as he is alive, he looks for love. But those dying of inanition, boredom, frustration, monotony, or debilitating defeat turn to the Church, to the FBI, to the Law, to the New York Times, to authoritarian leaders, to movies  about the Marine Corps, or to the race for Space. For centuries it has been society’s boast that if it could not save a man’s soul, it could at least insure him from los­ing it. Ever since the orgy failed in Rome and the last decadence of the Empire welcomed the barbarian, the Western World has been relatively simple, a community of souls ruled by society. First the Church, then the Reformation, then Capitalism, Communism, Facism, and at last Medicine-Sci­ence-and-Management. But as it evolved, so Society used up its faith in itself. Today the Managers do not understand what they manage nor what is their proper goal, the Scientists are gored by Heisen­berg’s principle of Uncertainty, which in rough would state that ultimates by their nature are not measurable, and Medicine is beginning to flounder at the inability to comprehend its striking impotence before cancer. The modern faiths appeal to mediocrities whose minds are too dull to perceive that they are offered not answers but the suppression of questions; the more sensitive turn to the older faiths and shrink as they swallow emotional inconsistency: “I can’t bear Cardinal Spell but I adore Dorothy Day.” The cancerous who are inclined to the Fascist look to the police, the secret police, the krieg against crime, corruption, and Communists.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724374″ /]

Like Razors

“The Blacks” gives life because it is a work of perceptions which slice like razors; it cuts at one through the cancerous smog of partial visions and dim faith. It is a scourge to liberal ideology, vomitorium for the complacent. Eleanor Roosevelt would be ill, James Wechsler might sweat, Gov­ernor Lehman would leave. The play entertains the forbidden nightmare of the liberal: what, dear Lord, if the reactionary is correct, and people are horrible. Yet, with the same breath, it is revolutionary. Genet’s unconcealed glee at the turn of power from the White to the Negro would so charge the paranoia of the reac­tionary that he might suffer a heart attack.

Yet, as one insists, it is se­cure. It will thrive in the inter­stices of our totalitarian liberty, prosper out of the very contradic­tions which strangle our freedom. It will be a nerve which manages to supply the intellectual life of the city and ao keep it alive. One may hope the actors begin to settle into their parts, and start to offer the enrichments they can bring to almost every line by sensing their cues rather than picking them up, by savoring their lines instead of racing over them, and by com­mencing that work which is the real enterprise of the actor, that private effort of the imagination to create a real life for the char­acter they are playing, a life which begins before the play, will endure after it, and is drenched in the changeable mood of the present as they act the piece. The night I saw “The Blacks” the actors were fine every time they became en­tertainers. When they chanted in unison, when they danced, when they leaped from platform to platform, moved in choreographic starts and streamings, smoked cigarettes over the catafalque of the corpse to remove the stench of her murdered flesh, they were first-rate, the play came to life, the production was rich, colors were added to the script. But in their dialogue, particularly in the long quiet stretches of the first half-hour, they were tense and without individuality. No personal charm, no sly destruction of one another by the turn of a voice or slow laugh, no psychic wit to slice the presumption of another’s speech, no bodily contempt, no air was sufficient to be breathed. The Negro like the Zen master is, of necessity, the artist of the put-down. But it was this art, craft, this virtue — to dare to be sadistic in order to keep one’s authenticity — which was most missing. The play, as was suggested last week, rode lividly, gracelessly, nervously, over the best of Genet’s dialogue, his stops and starts, flowers and whips.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720824″ /]

Rich in Possibilities

But that may be recovered. The play is rich in poasibilities for an actor, so rich it can only improve provided the actors are serious about their work. On the months ahead, if they find themselves, the production could become a major piece.

As a drama critic, one is here obliged to take a bow. Over the past two weeks, 4000 words have been written. One has climbed his way over small essays on the Negro as actor and entertainer, the loss of spirit in minority groups, the vices of our city, the logic of cancer; one has even sermonized over the future of “The Blacks.” But not a word to summarize the story of the play. Not a specific line of criticism about Genet’s masteries and lacks.

It would take a larger bag of words than this to give account of the twists and turns, the frames within circles in the line of story of “The Blacks.” Even then one could not be certain. Since the attempt must still be made to con­tend with the vices of Jean Genet, I will quote here, however, from a description in The New York Her­ald Tribune:

“a group of colored players enacts before a jury of white-masked Negroes — representing in caricature a missionary bishop, an island Governor General, a haughty queen and her dwarf lackey — the ritualistic murder of a white of which they have been accused. When they have played out their weird and gruesome crime they turn on their judges and condemn them to death. Then — with polite adieux to the spectators — they dance with 18th-century elegance a Mozart minuet, with which the play began … “

[related_posts post_id_1=”722090″ /]

It is a fair job for a short para­graph. And it points the way to the worst contradiction in Genet. He is on the one hand a brave and great writer with an unrelenting sense of where the bodies are bur­ied. He is also an unconscionable faggot, drenched in chi-chi, ador­ing any perfume which conceals the smell of the dead, equally as much as he admires the murder. His first love is not art but magic. He provokes and then mystifies, points to the flower and smuggles the root. A boxer who wins every round on points and never sets himself long enough to throw three good punches in combination, Genet’s best perceptions are fol­lowed by his worst. A line which is a universal blow is followed by a speech too private for his latest lover to comprehend. Like Allen Ginsberg, he is maddening. In the middle of real power, a fart; in the depth of a mood comes a sneeze. The tortures and twists of his nervous system are offered as proudly as his creations; he looks not only for art but for therapy. With the best will in the world and the finest actors, no one in an audience could ever understand every single line in any one of his works, not even if one returned a dozen of times. He is willful, perverse. He has the mind of a master, and the manners of a vi­cious and over-petted child. So the clear sure statements of his work can never be found, and one senses with the whole of one’s critical faculty that they are not there to be found. Each delicate truth is carefully paralyzed by a lie he winds about it, each assertion of force is dropped to its knees on a surrealist wrench of the mean­ing.

Archibald: By stretching language we’ll distort it sufficiently to wrap ourselves in it and hide, whereas the masters contract it.

As Genet gives, he takes away; as he offers, his style chokes with spite. He cannot finally make the offer, the one who receives would not deserve it. So he builds the mansion of his art and buries it, encourages the stampede of a herd of elephants, rouses our nerves for an apocalyptic moment, and leaves us with an entrechat. To be satisfying, a fag’s art must be determinedly minor, one stone properly polished, deliciously set. Genet throws open a Spanish chest; as we prepare to gorge, we discover the coins are heated, the settings to the jewels have poison on their points.

[related_posts post_id_1=”419403″ /]

One does not spend one’s youth as a petty thief, one’s manhood as a convict in one prison after another without absorbing the vi­ciousness of a dying world. Genet’s biography is his character, never was it more so. Small surprise that Sartre could write a book of 600 pages in tribute. Genet is our first existential saint. But his de­testation of the world strangles the full organ of possibilities. He could become the greatest writer alive if only he dared, if only he contracted language to the point instead of stretching it.

In “The Blacks,” all the actors are Negro. Five are supposed to be White, but are White only as pretexts, as masks. In the murderous dialogues between Black and White which flicker like runs of summer lightning through the play, one never has the experience as it could be had: that moment of terror when Black and White confront one another with the clear acids of their unconscious. Witness the dialogue between the White Queen and the Negro wo­man Felicity:

“THE QUEEN (inspired): All the same, my proud beauty, I was more beautiful than you! Anyone who knows me can tell you that. No one has been more lauded than I. Or more courted, or more toasted. Or adorned. Clouds of heroes, young and old, have died for me. My retinues were famous. At the Emperor’s Ball, an African slave bore my train. And the Southern Cross was one of my baubles. You were still in darkness …

FELICITY: Beyond that shattered darkness, which was splintered into millions of Blacks who dropped to the jungle, we were Darkness in person. Not the darkness which is absence of light, but the kindly and terrible Mother who contains light and deeds.”

and a little later, The Queen:

“Show these barbarians that we are great because of our respect for discipline, and show the Whites who are watching that we are worthy of their tears.”

It could have the grandeur of Greek tragedy. In the context of the play it does not. One watches in one of those states of transition between wakefulness and sleep. Two principles do not oppose one another; instead a dance of three, a play of shimmers. White contends against Black but is really Black-in-White-mask against Black, and so becomes Black against Black. Much complexity is gained; much force is lost. These masks are not the enrichments and exaggerations of Greek tragedy, they are reversals of form. The emotion aroused in the audience never comes to focus, but swirls into traps.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724430″ /]

So with the action. One has a group of Negroes who are revolutionaries. They commit a ritual murder each night. But they are also players who entertain a world of White hierarchies, mounted literally above them on the stage. They are in subservience to them, yet they are not. For the audience never can quite forget that the Whites are really Blacks-in-White-masks. One is asked to consider a theme which may be the central moment of the twentieth century: the passage of power from the White to those he oppressed. But this theme is presented in a web of formal contradictions and formal turns sufficiently complex to be a play in itself.

Pirandello never made this mistake. His dance of mirrors was always built on pretexts which were flimsy, purposively minor. If one’s obsession is with the contra­dictory nature of reality, the audience must be allowed to dispense with the superficial reality in order to explore its depths. The foreground in “The Blacks” is too oppressive. One cannot ignore it. White and Black in mortal confrontation are far more interesting than the play of shadows Genet brings to it. If he insists with avant-garde pride that he will not be bullied by the major topicalities of his theme, and instead will search out the murmurs, the shivers, the nuances, one does not necessarily have to applaud. Certain themes, simple on their face, complex in their depths, insist on returning to the surface and remaining simple. The murder of Lumumba is thus simple. It is simple and it is overbearing. It is inescapable. One cannot treat it as a pantomime for ballet without making an aesthetic misjudgment of the first rank. It would be a strategic disaster of conception. So with Genet’s choice to add the minuet to Africa. One is left not with admiration for his daring, but with a dull sense of evasion. How much real emotion and complexity we could have been given if literal White had looked across the stage at literal Black. His rhodomontades and escapades leave us finally with the suspicion that Genet has not escaped the deepest vice of the French mind, its determination, no matter how, to say something new, even if it is absurd. And it is this vice which characterizes the schism in Genet as an artist, for he is on the one hand, major, moving with a bold long reach in to those unexplored territories at the edge of our awareness, and with the other, he is minor, a Surrealist, destroying the possibility of awareness even as he creates it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724030″ /]

Destruction of Communication 

Surrealist art, stripped its merits, ignoring the exquisite talents of its painters and poets, depends in its abstract essence on a destruction of communication. To look at a painting and murmur “I see God in the yellow,” is surrealist; to say “I see God in the­ yellow because the color reminds me of the sun,” is not. The thought is no longer a montage of two unrelated semantic objects — it has become a progression. The logic leads to a cosmogony whose center is the life-giving sun. Of course the first sentence, the montage, is more arresting, a poetic tension is left if one says no more than “I see God in the yellow.” For some, the tension is attractive, for others it is not. Art obviously depends upon incomplete communication. A work which is altogether explicit is not art, the audience cannot respond with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.

In Surrealism, the leap in communication is enormous. Purple apples, we write at random, salic­ious horses and cockroaches who crow like transistors. The charge comes more from sound than from meaning. Opposites and irrecon­cilables are connected to one an­other like pepper sprinkled on ice cream. Only a palate close to death could extract pleasure from the taste; it is absurd in our mouth, pepper and ice cream, but at least it is new.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713938″ /]

Mute Rage

As cultures die, they are strick­en with the mute implacable rage of that humanity strangled within them. So long as it grows, a civilization depends upon the elaboration of meaning, its health is maintained by an awareness of its state; as it dies, a civilization opens itself to the fury of those betrayed by its meaning, precisely because that meaning was finally not sufficiently true to offer a life adequately large. The aesthetic act shifts from the creation of mean­ing to the destruction of it.

The West may not be dying, but no one would deny it is profoundly ill. We inhabit a giant whose body is powerful and whose mind is divided. Like a schizophrenic, re­ality is no longer continuous, but broken into pieces which do not communicate with one another. Cockroaches who crow like trans­istors. Said aloud by an actor in a theatre, 80 people would sit in silence, 20 might laugh, each in different ways. The meaning is like an icepick used in a trans-­orbital lobotomy. The surgeon does not know what he is doing. He inserts his instrument, slashes the brain, severs the psychic structure, and makes arbitrary new connec­tions. The patient leaves, reduced in violence, and severed from his soul. Meaning has been destroyed for him, but by meaning a little less, he is able to live a little more calmly — at a level reduced from his best.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720824″ /]

So, one could argue, functions the therapy of the surrealist artist, of Dada, of Beat. Jaded, deadened, severed from our roots, dulled in leaden rage, inhabiting the center of the illness of the age, it becomes more excruciating each year for us to perform the civilized act of contributing to a collective mean­ing. The impulse to destroy moves like new air into a vacuum, and the art of the best hovers, stilled, all but paralyzed between the ten­sion to create and that urge which is its opposite. How well Genet personifies the dilemma. Out of the tension of his flesh, he makes the pirouette of his art, offering meaning in order to adulterate it, until at the end we are in danger of being left with not much more than the Narcissism of his style. How great a writer, how hideous a cage. As a civilization dies, it loses its biology. The homosexual, alienated from the biological chain, becomes its center. The core of the city is inhabited by a ghost who senses in the unwinding of his nerves that the only road back to biology is to destroy Being in others. What a cruel fate for Genet that he still burns with a creative heat equal to his detesta­tion of the world. The appropriate Hell he inhabits is to be a major artist and not a minor one, the body in which he sits has the chest of a giant, and the toes, unhappily, of a dancing master. ♦

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES Lives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Theater

‘Let’s Get a Rip Torn Type’

‘Let’s Get a Rip Torn Type’
March 27, 1969

If you want to laugh at an actor named Rip Torn, that’s your problem. Born Elmore Torn 37 years ago in Temple, Texas, he was nicknamed Rip around the house as a kid. Grown up, he sees no reason to change it just because it reminds some people of Tab Hunter or Rock Hudson. He knows how good he is.

Rip is also the most paranoid man I’ve ever met, so paranoid that after receiving his second “Obie” in a row for directing Michael McClure’s The Beard — the first was for the role of Marion Faye in Norman Mailer’s Deer Park — he suspected it was all because the CIA was setting him up for some sinister purpose.

“ ‘Have you seen Hud?’ Paul Newman asked me after it was released. ‘I hope you like it,’ Newman said, ‘because Hud is you.’

“I didn’t think that was too funny. I was broke as usual at the time and I thought Paul might at least have laid a percentage on me. Also, if I ever wanted to make a western, everybody would say I was doing a Newman number. But when I saw it, it wasn’t me at all. I told Paul, ‘I’m a very complicated guy — I can only get about 10 per cent of me, how come you think you can get it all?’ ”

We are in a room which, if it were together, would be his study. Books, records, beer cans, overflowing ash trays, sporting equipment, and excess furniture clutter everywhere. It is dark and needs a painting. Looking out through battered and crooked black rimmed glasses, Rip reminds me of a shy, vulnerable little boy with insensitive parents, looking for empathy.

The sign over the bell says “TORN PAGE.” He and Geraldine occupy three floors of a brownstone which they just purchased (with her money the rumor goes) in the West 20s. They have three children: Angelica, five, and four-year-old twins, Jonathan and Anthony. The house is a swept, lived-in mess geared for kids. There are crayon scrawls all over the walls, toys in every corner and underfoot.

As a young boy, Rip loved to go fishing. One day he had no bits and, when his line tangled on a rock, he pretended it was a fish — gritting his teeth, bracing himself, fighting it acting it out. A group of people across the stream started shouting encouragement: “You can get him, boy… hold on now… you can bring him in…”

“Not catching any fish isn’t so bad if you enjoy fishing,” Rip says.

At 16, he and a bunch of Texas buddies went through a season of playing the “coon game” across the tracks, hitting black cats on the head with socks full of bars of soap.

The expression “red-ass” started in Texas A and M, military college. “It gives me the red-ass,” they say in the army. Rip remembers his backside looking “like oozing plasma” from being hazed with shaved down baseball bats. Texas A and M teaches a man how to make pain. Manhood through brutality. Can you take it, boy? “End as a Man.” Rip learned fast. After two years he dropped out.

Believing firmly in Louella Parson’s vision of Hollywood, he hitched there. He had grown up with weapons and thought nothing of the unlicensed pistol in his pocket. Arriving in L..A., and mistaking it for civilization, he went to the police station to turn it in, asking them to certify that it was his so he could ship it back to Texas for safekeeping.

[related_posts post_id_1=”178427″ /]

Instead he was booked and charged with eight unsolved robberies committed with the same type weapon. He in no way resembled the suspects, but it took two days in jail to clear the matter up, and then they confiscated his pistol. That was Rip Torn’s welcome to Hollywood. It’s enough to make a guy paranoid.

The first Hollywood party goes like this. Scott Brady was starring in Light Up the Sky at the Laguna Beach Playhouse. A little man was trying to change a tire on a big car in front. Rip helped him. The guy was the set designer at the theatre and invited him backstage. There he met Scott Brady and went to his party. He got completely bombed like everybody else and passed out with an unconscious girl on top of him. It might have become a real orgy if everybody hadn’t started retching, groaning, and puking all over the place. The hors d’oeuvres, it turned out, were tainted.

He sold magazines on the road. “I was good at it. I’d knock on the door and say, ‘Hi.’ Then I’d just stand there — no pitch or anything — and there would be this silence. The woman might say something like, ‘Oh, I know, you’re Louie’s boy aren’t you?’ I’d say, ‘No ma’am, I’m one of the boys from the district high school.’ I’d tell her that I had only 20 minutes to win this watch. I talked faster and faster and of course she bought something. Then I’d ask if she had a friend who could help and… It was terrible.

“I got fed up. I was selling this family in Salt Lake City. They were interested in me on a truly human level — nice people. I finally said, ‘Look, you don’t want these magazines. What do you need $35 worth of magazines for?’ I walked out of their house and tried to get involved again. The next customer was a little old lady who reminded me of my grandmother. I always like to talk to old people anyway — see what’s on their minds. She made me a lemonade and I sat on her rocking chair and we talked. I decided to quit right then.

“I hitched some more; down to Mexico, I was a chauffeur in L.A. for a while, a counterman. I was a plumber and really had my hands in shit… By the time I got back home, I was in such bad shape my own mother didn’t recognize me. I hadn’t eaten in three days. ‘Lady, do you have any yard work?’ I said as a joke. She didn’t even know who I was.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”200778″ /]

***

“Hey Ripper! Good to see ya, boy. How the hell are ya?” Coming out of McGinnis’s Broadway restaurant, Rip is greeted by Pat Hingle’s Texas twang. They embrace.

Hingle was Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and is a frequent guest star on television about whom people say, “He’s a good actor… what’s his name again?” Rip and Pat Hingle have a lot in common.

They are both from Texas, and studied at the University of Texas drama school, where people in the department thought Rip had no technique. “I wasn’t phony enough. But sometimes I’d have a moment on stage that was so real it made them forget the fact that I was terrible.”

A few years later, Hingle was rehearsing in Cat and called Rip, still in Texas, to tell him they were casting the understudy to Ben Gazzara. He came right up. New on Broadway, he got a lot of funny takes: “Your name is what? Rip Torn??!! Do you know Buck Naked… Brick Wall… Chan Delier…?”

“No I don’t,” he said pleasantly. “But maybe you’ve heard of my cousin.”

“Who is that?”

“Fuck You.”

After a lot of static and perseverance, he finally read. Years later, Molly Kazan told him that his reading that day was one of the most electric moments she had ever seen on stage. That was before Rip broke his personal management contract with her husband, Elia Kazan, by saying; “I can no longer live suspended by the web of your whim.” He hasn’t had a manager since.

Hingle is on his way to read a voice-over for a television commercial. “Damn, I wish I could get me some of those,” Rip says. “You’re good at it — you do what they tell you. My trouble is I always want to read my own wav.”

“Sorry about your play,” Hingle says.

The Cuban Thing had closed the night before. Rip had the lead, although his name was listed alphabetically on the marquee. (He doesn’t believe in solo bows; “they destroy the unity of the company.”)

Two years ago, he promised Jack Gelber, who wrote and directed the play, that he would do it. He kept the promise, even though it meant turning down two film offers — which is one reason he isn’t a celebrity.

The reviews were universally rotten; “I had a premonition, but everybody is always saying I’m paranoid, so this time I asked a friend — a psychiatrist — to come opening night and protect my sanity. Afterward he told me how much he liked the play and the performances. Then I said, ‘Okay… what do you think of… these?’ I shoved the reviews at him.

“He was stunned: ‘This isn’t what I saw,’ he said. ‘These reviews have nothing to do with the play. I don’t understand.’ I said, ‘Now you know what I’ve been talking about.’ ”

“My friend was really at a loss. He said, ‘If your talent was more conventional, or if you were more conventional as a person, maybe they could take it. But the combination of the two is too much for most people.’ ”

***

The health officer at the Mexican border suddenly pulled his gun and badge on Rip. “Secret Service,” he said.

Rip flipped, he shouted, “Okay… go ahead, bust it down. Let’s go the whole route here — hub caps, engine, whatever you want. Let’s get it over with… I don’t give a shit. You ‘re not going to find anything.”

“Then why are you screaming. I’m trying to be nice and you yell at me.”

“Nice? If you’re trying to be nice, why did you pull your gun? And what the hell is this all about anyway. Every time I come across the same thing happens.” It was the third time.

“I really don’t know,” the agent said. “Maybe it’s those roles you play… all those perverts, subversives, and criminal types. You’re very convincing, you know. Anyway, somebody put you on our list.”

Paranoid? Maybe. It is a little hard to believe that all the persecution Rip feels has occurred. But there are certain men who attract bullies, whose stance puts people up-tight. He’s like a gunfighter; people feel obligated, somehow, to challenge him to a draw. Then there are the roles.

He was Tom Junior, a sadistic Southern bigot, in Sweet Bird of Youth, eventually replacing Paul Newman in the lead as Chance Wayne, an aging, desperate gigolo on the make. His Marion Faye was a true freaky, pot-smoking pimp with faggot tendencies and rumors that he was really all those things flew around the Village during the run. In series guest spots, he is typed as a hood, outlaw, and general bad guy. His Roberto, in The Cuban Thing, was considered pro-Castro.

***

[related_posts post_id_1=”715227″ /]

Pat Hingle inspects Rip’s right ear on Broadway. “It doesn’t look too bad,” he says.

“No, there’s not even a scar… Look.”

Rip’s role-playing got him into the hospital last summer. The New York Times reported it as follows: “Norman Mailer and Rip Torn, the actor and longtime friend of the author’s engaged in a perhaps overly realistic struggle before the cameras… Mr. Torn was acting out one of the several cinematic assassination attempts against Mr. Mailer, who played Norman T. Kingsley, a famous movie director contemplating a race for President.

“According to eyewitnesses, he crept up behind. Mr. Mailer and shouted, ‘Norman T. Kingsley, I have something for you.’ Then he hit him three times on the head with a child’s toy hammer. Mr. Mailer turned and grappled with his assailant as the cameras continued to grind. In the struggle, Mr. Mailer bit Mr. Torn on the ear.”

“I told Norman we shouldn’t’ contribute to the bullshit number that’s going down in the press,” Rip said. “It’s just a dumb misunderstanding. It wasn’t the bite itself that bugged me, it was the fact that anytime the human tooth gets into you, you are going to have an infection. It’s the most virulent bite of all… I told Norman that.

“ ‘Are you trying to say my bite is the most poisonous bite?’ Norman said. You know how he is; he’s always got to be number one.

“ ‘I just said the human bite is the most poisonous — but I won’t take away from you the honor of being the most virulent of all.’ Anyway, he’s still mad at me. I think he wanted it to be unexpected, but not all that unexpected, you dig?

Nobody’s role was clear. I just assumed I was to be the one to finally make an attempt on his life. I was functioning completely as an actor and I assumed he would just topple and act it out. He didn’t do that at all — he went right into reality… How about a blast?”

“No thanks, Ripper, I’m late.” Hingle flags a cab. “Give my love to Gerry.”

***

“I said to Gerry the other night…” Rip is just back from California where Gerry is making a film, passing through on his way to direct The Beard in London “…I said ‘I’ve done everything possible to root out my love for you, and it’s beaten me, I can’t kill it.’ ”

Rip loves to lay some out-of-sight statement on you and then stare (I always lose) until you feel paranoid yourself questioning it. “Why do you want to root it out? Is love a weakness or something?”

“Yeah… I think it is. Look baby…” I can understand why a director I called yesterday refused to say anything about him except “he’s a hostile, paranoid bastard,” and hung up. Rip looks like he wants to hit me. “…Love in this society has only been some kind of creep sentimental punkdom. You know that. We’ve all been brainwashed.”

“Don’t get involved with that dreadful man!” Gerry’s friends said when she started seeing Rip. They were in Sweet Bird at the time and, in another of those role extensions, people took him for Chance Wayne using an aging actress — Gerry is now 44 — as a ticket to stardom. They have been together nine years.

She is intensely loyal, much more disturbed about the ear incident than Rip. The first chance she had, she said to Mailer, “Hello Norman, how’s your appetite?” He didn’t answer. She continued, “Well like the movie says, you are what you eat.”

***

[related_posts post_id_1=”715221″ /]

Another rumor — Rip “ran off” with Mike McClure after The Cuban Thing closed. Rip may or may not be a hostile, belligerent, paranoid bastard, and he may or may not be one of the best actors in America, but one thing he isn’t is a faggot. I tell him about it.

“You know what that is?” I pour some wine. “Wishful thinking.” He stares me down again. “Here’s where it’s at — Eitel, the director in Deer Park, has a tough line after Marion makes a pass at him. He considers it for a while and he’s tempted but he finally says no, because that’s what the machinery wants us to be — faggots. If you’re a faggot then they’ve got you nailed. They can put you away, dismiss you. You’re a faggot. I’d like to meet the guy who told you that. Mike’s my brother, and I guess the idea of two strong cats making it together turned him on. Here’s another story that came back to me. Some big English director — I won’t mention his name — was asked, ‘Do you know Rip Torn?’ He said, ‘My dear, I’ve had him.’ And I’ve never even met the cat.”

Rip looks disgusted. His bag holding important personal papers fell off the rack of his big bike on the way over. He discovered it in front of my place. Instead of retracing his route right away, he’s lounging comfortably in my easy chair drinking wine and rapping. Julie, a small girl who has been sitting silent, listening somewhat in awe, offers to go out and look for it. He says fine, draws her a map of the route, and, although she has no driver’s license and has only driven a bike once — a small Honda at that — offers her his key. Fortunately, she has enough sense to refuse it.

The loss of the bag has put him extremely up-tight. He drinks and talks fast.

On politics: “Nixon is a motherfucker triumphant. Yeah. But you know, when he makes that victory salute — he’s got his arms up and his shoulders are around his ears — there must be some part of him that’s embarrassed about the spectacle he’s making. It’s not really a full take like ‘come on, give it to me and I’ll die for you.’ It looks more like they coached him but he really can’t make it. He’s a bad actor.”

“Then there’s Humpty Dumpty. I said to Mailer that George Wallace would chew Humpty Dumpty and Icky Dicky right up if they ever got together. He said, ‘No, they would work out a deal with him and then slowly poison him…” Rip starts to choke from laughing.

On acting: “A guy talked to me about doing a TV series when I was in L.A. last month. I told him I had already served my years soldiering for my country. Why should I sign up for five more years of bondage? Of course for that bondage you’re made a millionaire so it’s not bad bondage. There’s nothing wrong with it except that I don’t dig it. For a lot of people, though, it’s the prize.

“Some people say about me, ‘Why isn’t Rip bothered by not being a star?’ I know I can be a star, I just don’t choose to be. But I could dig it in a way; there’s a motherfucker triumphant residing in all of us. I could go for the total number.

“Once I was driving down Sunset Strip to Malibu. There are packs of cars, you know, with the lights. I decided to lead the pack. There were all these hand-tooled jobs and me — I was driving this Mickey Mouse car… That’s why Paul Newman said I’d never be a star in Hollywood. I came rolling up to his house driving a Rambler. He was appalled. He said, ‘Man, a Rambler!? Don’t you know you can’t drive that kind of car and be a star?’ I hate to say anything bad about Paul… He was so beautiful with McCarthy…”

“Writers are usually interested in me. They hope, because they dig me as an actor, that they will be the one to make me a star — give me the vehicle to ride — Like James Earl Jones and The Great White Hope. Jimmy and I are close. We’re about the same age and… he’s beautiful. I can talk about this now, because he’s mentioned it already. Years ago, I tried to have about eight or ten actors admitted into the Actors Studio. At the time there was only Sidney Poitier and Diana Sands and I said that the Studio was just a microcosm, a reflection, of the whole corrupt Broadway scene.

“They only let in one or two — its the same old shit. I wanted to break the whole color thing in the theatre. Jimmy was finally brought in as an observer. I remember talking, arguing with the powers at the Studio about him. I said, ‘This guy is a boss actor.’ They said, ‘He’ll never be a star.’ ”

Rip is by now flat-out — his intelligence, intensity, pride, paranoia, his deep bitterness. “The formation of the Actors Studio Theatre was made possible by the inclusion of Gerry and myself on the Board of Directors. Kazan went to Lincoln Center, and I knew that wasn’t the place to go. Tennessee Williams said, ‘Baby, what do you want to go to that model prison for?’ And Jimmy Baldwin said, ‘I’m not going to go there and be the nigger in the window.’ They didn’t have to tell me that, I was already on my own course of action…

“Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie came out of the Actors Studio Theatre. I played Lyle, a Southern white cracker, and I didn’t pull back on it, didn’t come on and wink at the audience and say, ‘This isn’t really me, you know.’ There were nights when I thought some cats were going to come up on stage and lay me out.

“People freak out at the truth. That’s why they kill. They’d rather kill than admit they’ve been caught up in a stale game and instead of being toughs, they are punks. They want to kill the person who brought that pain to their consciousness.

“LeRoi Jones was talking to me about my Lyle. He started laughing. He realized he was talking about me to me, but I wasn’t there you see. And all of a sudden he saw that I was there and it kind of embarrassed him. ‘You punky cracker,’ he said to me. LeRoi is hip enough to know that I wouldn’t have been able to do that if that was where I’m really at. I’m not saying it didn’t cause me tremendous pain — it did…”

[related_posts post_id_1=”419403″ /]

About Norman Mailer: (They have made up.) “He’s beautiful; he’s such a beautiful cat… I really love him. One time we got blasted at Casey’s bar after a performance of Deer Park, and he asked me — he caught me completely off guard. ‘You have an older brother?’ I said, ‘You, you are!’ ”

About himself: “In the American sexual/political ethic, they nail cats that speak the truth as fags, or some other sexual aberration. Then they can dismiss the truth on that level. I’m willing to lay the book of my life out to any of those bullshit artists… Let’s face it; the words I say can sign my death warrant. But I’ve done it so many times, why shouldn’t I do it now? The Confederacy has won. The United States is the South. The South has risen again and they control the military, the Congress… they control the country. And their aim is to control the world. Their axis is our South, South Africa, Rhodesia, Spain, Germany — and an awful lot of people in between… are you going to print all of this? I mean these are tough things to say…

“At least people will know I’m still alive. Terry Southern told me a funny story. He worked on the screenplay for a movie called The Cincinnati Kid. The producers were sitting around trying to cast one of the roles, a bad-ass type. Somebody said, ‘What we need is a Rip Torn type.’ Terry said, ‘Well, don’t think I’m trying to be weird or anything, but why don’t we get Rip Torn?’ They looked at him like he was some kind of nut. I guess they figured I was in jail or dead or something.”

***

Julie comes back without the bag. “This sort of thing happens to me every time I’m about to leave the country,” Rip says, draining the last of the half gallon of wine which was full when we started.

I realize I’ve crossed from role to reality myself; by now I consider Rip a friend rather than a subject. He is as large as life and my life is larger since meeting him.

Maybe it’s the wine, but I feel close enough to tell him this: “Look, man, if you’re a loser it’s your own fault. Your bag with all your identification and papers falls off your bike and instead of going back to look for it, you sit here drinking wine complaining for an hour. Then you send Julie out for it; you should have gone yourself. You even offer to let her use your bike. That chick can’t drive a bike. She doesn’t even have a driver’s license. She’d have cracked it up and then you would have been more paranoid than ever.”

Rip stretched out on the couch, listening to my little lecture. He starts to raise the left corner of his mouth in a sardonic smile and then laughs out loud. “I don’t give a fuck,” he says.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Obies Theater Uncategorized

A Brief History of Off-Broadway, 1955–1985

“The Golden Days of American Theater”

May 21, 1985

On May 20, the Obies celebrate their 30th birthday. This special supplement, with selections from 30 years of the Voice and reminiscences by many of the major figures of the American theater, is dedicated to the artists of Off-and Off-Off-Broadway.

1955

WAITING FOR GODOT
“I have not seen Waiting for Go­dot nor read the text, but of course I have come across a good many reviews of it, and heard more than a little in its favor and disfavor. What amuses me is the deference with which everyone is approaching Beckett, and the fault of course, the part which is sad, is that none of the celebrators of Beck­ett have learned anything from Joyce… But at the very least, the critics could have done a little rudimentary investigation into the meaning of the title, and the best they have been able to come up with so far is that Go­dot has something to do with God. My congratulations. But Godot also means Hot Dog, or the dog who is hot; and it means God-O, God as the female princi­ple, just as Daddy-O in Hip means the father who has failed, the man who has become an O, a vagina. Two obvious dialectical transpositions on Waiting for Godot are To Dog the Coming and God Hot for Waiting, but anyone who has the Joycean habit of thought could add a hundred subsidiary themes.” — Norman Mailer 

THE THREEPENNY OPERA
“There are two shows, really, at the Theatre de Lys. One has a cast of 20 ebullient and engag­ing actors and actresses.… The other show has a cast of one, and her name is Lotte Lenya. Miss Lenya is, as you know, not merely the widow of Kurt Weill but the original Jenny of the original Berlin production of Dreigroschenoper. For rea­sons of plot, she is hardly seen, much less heard from, until somewhere near the middle of Act II, when the scene shifts to the reception room of a whorehouse. What happens next is I hope enough to raise the hair on your neck, as it did mine. Critics are always being advised to stay away from the word electric; I can only say that there is no other word available to me, at this late hour, with which to categorize that instant when Miss Lenya shambles front and center to exhale the first weary, husky, terrible notes of her hus­band’s famous song about the Black Freighter.… Her voice lifts and hardens into the reprise (‘ …and the blaaaaaack frayta…’), and suddenly all the essential blandness and healthiness of all that has gone before is swept away, and we are stark up face to face against a kind of world and a kind of half-century that no one born this side of the water can ever quite fully make, or want to make, his own.” — Jerry Tallmer 

[related_posts post_id_1=”715139″ /]

1956

TITUS ANDRONICUS
“Tamora is played by Colleen Dewhurst a good deal more than passably if a good deal less than perfectly. It is in any event a great recovery for Miss Dew­hurst from her recent misfor­tunes in Camille, and I am consi­derably the happier for it. I only wish this young lady could somehow learn to temper her God-given native forthrightness with a little wilting feminine de­viousness; then we should have an actress who could really ex­cite us.” — Jerry Tallmer

1957

ROMEO AND JULIET
“Mr. Papp, for what he has done with his Workshop and with these summer festivals, is ap­proaching the category of hero: I really mean it.” — Jerry Tallmer

MACBETH
“All over New York you can feel the excitement and it is good to be in my business this month and see such merit at last so rewarded. A dozen people have said to me over the weekend that they finally dare dream once again of a dynamic, successful repertory theatre here in this country, and everywhere there are intimations that the Shake­speare Workshop, just coming of age with its solid Central Park Macbeth, will go on with in­creased civic, public, and pri­vate support to an unlimited and golden maturity. Let us all do what we can to make it so.” — Jerry Tallmer

1958

GEORGE C. SCOTT
“He looks like a Marine, he walks like a Marine, he talks like a Marine, biting off his words sardonically, glancing at you coolly down his long nose; and once indeed he was a Marine, for four years — ‘burying people in Arlington Cemetery’ — but now he’s an actor and a damn fine one.” — Jerry Tallmer

CREATION OR DESTRUCTION?
“On Thursday of last week Jo­seph Papp, producer and creator of the New York Shakespeare Festival, refused to answer questions about his political be­liefs before the House Committee on Un-American activities. He was immediately fired from his job at CBS — unit manager of the TV show I’ve Got a Secret— on which he had sustained himself while bringing into existence the Shakespeare productions which some 100,000 New Yorkers have seen, for free, in Central Park and the East River Amphitheatre.

“The Village Voice invited Mr. Papp to comment on the issue. Here are his remarks:

“For myself, I am more than ever determined to devote my energies in bringing the classi­cal theatre to all people regardless of their ability to pay. I will not be diverted from considering my work in the theatre a social as well as an artistic responsi­bility. My philosophy is no se­cret. It is most clearly expressed in the founding and development of the New York Shakespeare Festival. And although I have no reluctance to discuss my opin­ions and beliefs with anybody, I will not be coerced into revealing names of innocent people. I will not be intimidated into repudiat­ing the meaning of my life. I will not cooperate with an irrespon­sible publicity-seeking commit­tee bent on destroying reputa­tions and spreading the insidious blacklist…”

AN EDITORIAL
“On the front page of the Sunday Times Drama Section of April 13 there was a long, interesting ar­ticle by Arthur Gelb on the ever ­increasing difficulties of doing good work, or any work, off Broadway in the face of rising costs and union demands.… On Friday, April 11, two days before that issue of the Times, a company of Equity ac­tors… opened at the Theatre Club in what they called An Evening of Katherine Mans­field.… The Times had a re­viewer there (not Mr. Gelb) on opening weekend. He was heard to grumble at the stairs, the lift, the whole mise en scene, and he left abruptly at intermission. No review ever appeared in the New York Times, evidently on the grounds that the event wasn’t worth mentioning. Yet far inferi­or products — in ‘regular’ theatres, without flights of stairs — are mentioned, praised, cruci­fied every day. Whether praise or crucifixion makes no matter: the production is perfectly legitimate and there should have been a report on it. If we are truly to save the off-Broadway theatre we must look for creative expression even two flights up in no man’s land.”

SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER
“Mr. Tennessee Williams, without much doubt America’s first true poet-playwright, has delib­erately chosen to go off Broad­way with his two latest works for fear that one of them at least is too strong a dose for Broad­way’s tender duodenum. He is right.” — Jerry Tallmer

PAUL GOODMAN ON PORNOGRAPHY
“Paul Goodman, playwright, poet, and novelist, spoke on ‘Pornography on the Stage’ last Saturday at the Living Theatre, where a series of lectures on ‘Creative Theatre’ is now taking place weekly through May 23. Mr. Goodman, whose Young Dis­ciple was presented by the Liv­ing Theatre three seasons ago and whose Father is to open there soon in repertory with Many Loves, stated that of all the most censored because it visually acts out the audience’s fantasies, thus mak­ing it more stimulating than the written word. Theatre, he said, has a public audience, not a pri­vate reader. The spectator is part of a community sharing guilt enthusiasm, and risk, and responding as a mass.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”588605″ /]

1959

THE CONNECTION
“To my mind, the Living Theatre has once again excitingly justi­fied the adjective of its title. I pray that Mr. Beck and Miss Ma­lina can keep the show alive un­til word-of-mouth overcomes the worst efforts of the (second­-string summertime) daily re­viewers. If The Connection can’t make it in Greenwich Village, or wherever people care deeply about imaginative theatre, then nothing can. But I think it can ­— if its producers, for their part, can hang on… What The Con­nection as a whole did for me as a layman was to flesh out, mar­velously, my own layman’s image of the world of heroin, its tired knowing endless deep­freeze of detumescence and ut­ter hopelessness — and all such evocation of images I should consider well within the province of living theatre, if not necessar­ily of enduring drama. Yes, the Living Theatre’s alive…” — Jerry Tallmer

THE NERVOUS SET
“Larry Hagman has been given practically nothing to say or do in his performance as the Jack Kerouac figure. He comes out of it, once again, as a most attrac­tive, manly, and promising young actor, and that’s all I can think of to say about Nervous Set. The rest is too embarrassing.” — Jerry Tallmer

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS
“Carol Burnett’s clowning as the princess is excellent up to the point where it too begins to pall.” — Jerry Tallmer

1960

HENRY V
“Joseph Papp has come of age as a director in his own right with the clean, stirring, engross­ing production of Henry V that opens the 1960 season of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Previously Mr. Papp had been content to play Proteus and Ga­lahad to his Festival while leav­ing the direction to others (ex­cept in the not too satisfactory instance of last year’s Othello). Now he at last steps forward, seizes the reins, clutches the tiller, grasps the throttle, and gives it full speed ahead into the most dynamic show his group has offered since Stuart Vaugh­an’s Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1957.” — Jerry Tallmer

THE FANTASTICKS
“I am sadly out of practice at writing raves. As any critic knows, it is far easier to pick out a production’s faults than its virtues, and I am hard-pressed to explain The Fantasticks. With this in mind, I did something for the first time last week. Having seen the show free on Tuesday, its opening night, I bought tick­ets and went back on Thurs­day…

“The play’s thesis is that ‘without a hurt the heart is hol­low,’ a dangerously romantic no­tion these days, and the most elaborate and sophisticated art is employed to catch the au­dience in its simplicity. The Fantasticks is not the dregs of an uptown backer’s audition, nor an under-produced Broadway musical. What are usually limi­tations off Broadway become advantages. I just might go see it yet again.” — Michael Smith

THE BALCONY
“At the opening of The Balcony I encountered an old friend, a man in his mid-50s who happens to be an exceptionally solid citizen. His abilities and achievements, which are known around the world, have nothing to do with theatre. We took a cup of coffee together after the show. He had been much affected by it. In the second act, he said, the key to the whole play had suddenly flown into his head; from there on, his understanding had raced along almost ahead of the lines. The key to the whole play was orgasm — orgasm as that blind­ing instant of seeming self-real­ization in the overgrown imagery of our fondest, most atavistic self-illusions. ‘There’s a lead for you,’ he grinned, meaning a lead sentence for this review. ‘Jean Genet has made the drama com­mit orgasm.’ ” — Jerry Tallmer

THE PRODIGAL
“First there was Jack Gelber, the 27-year-old author of The Conn­ection. Now there is Jack Ri­chardson, an unknown who at 24, parenthesis exclamation mark parenthesis, has come up in his first try with one of the most competent, sophisticated, and satisfying new plays of the past half-decade off Broadway or on. Perhaps this generally miserable season of 1959–60 will walk away with the laurels after all.” — Jerry Tallmer

KRAPP’S LAST TAPE and THE ZOO STORY
“Two short, disparate works have been jammed together to make a fascinating single even­ing of theatre at the Province­town Playhouse. I happen to think the pieces are presented in the wrong order; I would prefer the lyrical affirmations of Samuel Beckett to come after, not before, the hostilities and negations of young Edward Al­bee, but this is a matter of philosophy and personal taste which may be ignored. I shall, however, have to review Krapp’s Last Tape and The Zoo Story as distinct and opposing entities, even though they share in com­mon the form and voltage of the brief tour de force.

Krapp’s Last Tape is almost certainly the most amazing piece of ‘incidental’ writing of the de­cade… The Zoo Story is the contribution to the Provincetown double-bill of a young Villager, and comer, named Edward Albee. He knows how to handle situation and dialogue and bring you up deftly to the edge of your seat. Whether he has anything less sick than this to say re­mains to be seen.” — Jerry Tallmer

[related_posts post_id_1=”715227″ /]

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
“At last a really interesting new script by a young and in America unknown author. The Birth­day Party, by Harold Pinter, received five performances recently on London’s West End. It was promptly slaughtered by all critics, and has now been brought out in print by the vengeful editors of Encore, a modern-minded little British theatre magazine well worth subscribing to in its own right. Mr. Pinter is the first English­-language playwright who has apparently joined artistic forces with Eugene Ionesco. In his own way, of course, else he wouldn’t be worth talking about…” — Jerry Tallmer

LITTLE MARY SUNSHINE
“A thoroughly delightful and thoroughly polished musical comedy arrived last Wednesday at Off-Broadway’s Orpheum Theatre. Little Mary Sunshine is a spoof on American operetta of the Victor Herbert vintage.… The casting is first rate, with Eileen Brennan heading the bill as Little Mary Sunshine. She has a fine pure voice and is a subtle finished comedienne. Altogether her performance is superb — one may almost say flawless.” — J.H. Livingston

DEAD END
“The strongest feeling I get from most workshop or showcase productions is one of competi­tion. Every actor on the stage wants to shine, wants his bits to catch the agent’s eye, with the result that the material of the play is distorted or even ignored. The actors want to convey their singularity, and forget that act­ing is a cooperative art… None of these distracting aims are ap­parent in the present revival of Dead End, and it becomes, para­doxically, an excellent show­case. It contains the best en­semble acting by an American cast that I have seen in a long, long time… The Kids — played by Ken Kercheval, Robert Levy, Paul B. Price, Levy Ragni, Dusty Hoffman, and Murray Levy — are constantly fascinating.” — Michael Smith

1961

KING RICHARD II
“It had to happen. Some place in the midst of all its glory, the New York Shakespeare Festival had to come up with a dud. Its King Richard II, which closes the current season in Central Park, is a gauche and grisly bore.” — Jerry Tallmer

THE AMERICAN DREAM
“The American Dream, says Edward Albee, is death. Mommy death, daddy death, kiddie death, lover death, sex death, apartment death, values death, youth death, everything death. It is a sad and one-track theme (inherent also in The Zoo Story, his earlier smash off-Broadway success), and perhaps it is right. But I cannot go for it. At the same time I can once again admire Mr. Albee’s unquestionable talent for making a hilarious joke of his grimmest forboding — in­deed a hilarious dirty joke waft­ed through and through with es­sence of inversion and eau de necrophilia…” — Jerry Tallmer

A HAPPENING BY CLAES OLDENBURG
“Such was the magic of these charades that our friends, wives, and acquaintances who acted in them became afterward simply the Explorer, the Tough Girl, the Angel on a Stepladder. I knew nobody in the cast, but I felt that. There were times when the audience didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, whether to applaud or keep quiet. We were not sure when the play be­gan, or when it was over. How to describe these ‘happenings’? In Madame Bovary Flaubert set about, not to write a plot, but to convey a color, the color of a wood house. These ‘happenings’ convey a sound. It is the sound of a light-cavalry march, while in a cafeteria a starved man is pouring out catsup. The cafete­ria is painted red, white, and blue, with sad blotches of yel­low. The sound changes to a striptease medley; a tape of lambs bleating (in a slaughter­house), a Victor Herbert operetta. But it’s always the same sound, and the next day you’ll hear it as you cross the street. Because that’s the way it is, here in the New York of Claes Oldenburg.” — Robert Nichols

THE BLACKS
“No one who believes in the greatness of certain plays would go to any one of our houses to enjoy them. They exist as thun­dering productions in the mind only. We know how they might be done (King Lear, for example, should be played by Ernest Hem­ingway), but one also knows that way lies nightmare, mad­ness, and no hurricane’s spout. Our theatre is a cancer gulch. Anyone who has worked in it, felt the hate-twisted nerves of the actresses, the fag-ridden spirit of the actors, the gulping mannerlessness of our directors, hysterical at resistance, ponder­ous at exposition, and always psychoanalytical, must admit that yes, at its best, our theatre is a rich ass and/or hole, at its worst, the heavens recoil.

“By way of preface to some remarks on The Blacks. If one is tempted to say it is a great play with insidious, even evil veins of cowardice in its cruel bravery, one has to add immediately that such greatness exists as still another of those exquisite lonely productions of imagination’s al­ley. The show, the literal show on the boards (and the set for this one is worth an essay of quiet criticism in itself), that tangible corporal embodiment of The Blacks, ended as good theatre, shocking as a rash, bug-house with anxiety to some, nervous fever-hot for all. (A lot of people left.) It is a good production, one of the doubtless best productions in New York this year, and yet it fails to find two-thirds of the play.” — Norman Mailer

OH DAD, POOR DAD
“Twee. In Britain they’ve lately invented this word, twee, to de­scribe and classify all such shows as Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Ma­ma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. You gather that it’s onomatopoetic; it means what it sounds like. Usually it is coupled to the modifier ‘little’ — ‘a twee little revue,’ ‘that twee little play.’ So here from the boy wonder of Harvard College we have the self-defining case of twee, the ding an sich.” — Jerry Tallmer

[related_posts post_id_1=”385564″ /]

1962

GENERAL STRIKE
“I WAS NOT originally going to write an article in this newspaper this week, the week of the Worldwide General Strike for Peace conceived by Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre; it had for some time been my plan to leave my space here blank, except for my by­line. When it came down to the wire I found myself stretched on the inevitable prongs of contra­dictory responsibilities: on the one hand to the personnel of the production at the Mermaid, the readers of theatre reviews, and, if you like, to that timeless thing we call the drama; on the other, to the whole human race. In the final analysis the second preten­sion seemed, under the circum­stances, even more fallacious and self-aggrandizing than the first and I have chosen to aban­don it — I hope without prejudice to my conviction that the Worldwide General Strike is the fore­most creative idea toward our salvation that has been made public since the day the bomb went off on Hiroshima.” — Jerry Tallmer

THE PREMISE
“To the tinkle of drinks being served at comfortable chairs in Washington’s Shoreham Hotel overlooking Rock Creek Park­way, Theodore Flicker and his talented colleagues, Thomas Aldredge, Joan Darling, and James Frawley, have been delighting Washington’s theatre-goers since opening on January 15. Politics, government, and people take a wonderful spoofing, not without some poignant and ap­propriate barbs. Anybody pre­sent when this reviewer and his wife attended could see that this would be a rave notice. ‘It’s all so good I don’t know where to begin,’ was our comment. To which our wife replied: ‘Make that your lead!’ ” — John V. Lindsay

WITCHES’ SABBATH
“Yclept ymote ymedieval yrane yvenge yterminable ymishmash­-metaphor message ygods.” — Jerry Tallmer

VOX BRITTANICUS
“THE FUNNIEST DEADPAN I’ve seen belongs to Vic Grecco. He and Fred Willard do a show which I saw at the Phase 2, and which is funnier than all but two in England. They told me they hadn’t got an agent. Somebody uptown should take his feet off the desk.” — Tom Stoppard

OBIES 1961–1962
“The virus had Lotte Lenya se­verely indisposed in Art D’Lu­goff’s private office at the Vil­lage Gate. More than 700 people were packed into the cavernous rathskeller on Saturday after­noon waiting to see her present the 1961–62 Village Voice Obie Awards. Brecht on Brecht press agent Howard Atlee rushed over to master-of-ceremonies Jerry Tallmer. ‘She’s got to go home,’ he said. Tallmer went into the office and told Miss Lenya: ‘You’ve got to go home.’ ‘I won’t,’ she said, white as a ghost. Then you’ve got to lie down.’ She lay down: Ten min­utes later… Miss Lenya was on stage graciously accepting the warm welcome of the audience.”

THE HOSTAGE
“The great off-Broadway boom of our era has been a rampa­geous conglomeration of glory and garbage; if you want to taste of the glory a little, go and know the living experience of Brendan Behan at One Sheridan Square. This is not the hot­house-forced, panic-shouted Be­han of The Quare Fellow (off Broadway) or the constrained, over-manipulated Behan of The Hostage (on Broadway). This is The Hostage come to Off Broad­way and Off Broadway come to perfect pitch in one of its few legitimate functions: the revival of important works, old or new, in less ornate and more honest productions than elsewhere.” — Jerry Tallmer

OBIES, 1961–1962
“James Earl Jones, 31, born Tate County, Mississippi, raised by his grandparents on a wilderness farm near Jackson, Michi­gan, the second of his family and first of his high school graduating class ever to go to college — premed at the University of Michigan — is the Best Actor of the off-Broadway season of 1961–62. He is the son of an actor and long-time Villager, Ro­bert Earl Jones.”

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
“We watch, we are pleased, en­tertained, excited, frightened­ — George C. Scott’s Shylock both excited and frightened me, the first Shylock that ever has — but we are not at the root of it deep­ly moved. We are not moved at all; we are neutralized. There are too many disparities, and too many equals. Yet within the dis­parity-neutrality there is a breathtaking powerhouse performance by Mr. Scott, making Shylock not merely a hurricane, figure, a titan, a crushed giant; but also a human truly torn by personal losses, personal trage­dy, and the great tragic tempta­tions of empty vengeance. And also a man of wit, terrible, trag­ic, vengeful wit. Very impressive. Not Jewish. More like an Orozco Christ, the lion bursting from his lair. With a head and visage not infrequently as from a rough-cut Michelangelo Pietá. Mr. Scott adds much to his stature as an actor with his contributions these summer evenings in Cen­tral Park.” — Jerry Tallmer

THE CONNECTION
“The New York State Board of Regents’ attempt to censor the film of Jack Gelber’s play The Connection on the grounds of obscenity was unanimously overruled on Monday by the Ap­pellate Division of the State Su­preme Court. The Regents had objected to the word ‘shit’, which is used 11 times in the film as a colloquialism for heroin.”

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
“Do not be fooled by the appearances. Edward Albee has written a play about truth and illusion, and the evening’s number one illusion is that this is a conven­tional play — extraordinary in its emotional persistence, its vital language and coruscating wit, and its all-round technical supe­riority, but conventional and or­dinary in its form and devices. This is, I repeat, an illusion. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, subtly but critically, a new kind of play.” — Michael Smith

[related_posts post_id_1=”413134″ /]

1963

IS OFF B’WAY STILL FREE?
“A symposium at 11 p.m. tonight (Thursday) at the Writers’ Stage Theatre, 83 East 4th Street, will consider the question ‘Is Off Broadway Still Free?’ Among those attending the symposium, which is open to the public, will be Stuart Vaughan, George Ta­bori, Madeleine Sherwood, Her­mione Baddeley, Alfred Ryder, and Edwin Harvey Blum, author of The Saving Grace, which is currently running at the theatre. The following night at the same time and place, Blum will con­duct an open meeting; its aim will be to form ‘a permanent organization to study ways and means to effectuate a continued fight for the freedom of Off-Broadway.’ Blum’s campaign was sparked by the ‘irresponsibility’ of major newspaper reviews of his play. ‘Off-Broadway,’ he says, ‘is one of our few forums for free expression. I am not doing this in regard to The Saving Grace, but in regard to a deep need by other writers.'”

THE BRIG
“It is true that The Brig isn’t a play. Neither are all the events in the Judson dance concert series dances, nor are Jim Dine’s pictures paintings, nor in conventional terms are even John Cage’s compositions always music. But it is meaningless to criticize any of these works in terms they don’t use. The Brig uses a stage and (in a sense) actors and (in a sense) dialogue — but is does not use story, plot, character, conflict (in its technical meaning), or any of the other traditional devices of dramaturgy.” — Michael Smith

WHAT HAPPENED
“Lawrence Kornfeld’s production of Gertrude Stein’s first play is pure lyric theatre, a direct lyrical experience which has no counterpart in logical words or concepts or ideas, and so there is not much I can say about it except that I expect to go a couple more times during its run at Judson Church, and I hope to see you there. I will briefly tell you that Kornfeld has taken Miss Stein’s open-minded words and made them into a visual anthem, if that makes any sense. He uses five girl dancers who move, act, and speak. The correspondences between the words and the actions are on some other level than sense or reason can determine, but un­questionably they exist. Every­thing that happens has the ca­sual inevitability of great art. In addition to the girls, Kornfeld has used four men as singers. One of them is Al Carmines, who has composed a delightful score that contains more tunes than My Fair Lady, and he plays it on the piano and sings and moves around all at the same time.” — Michael Smith

JAIL POETS
“The second in a series of read­ings by ‘jail poets’ — poets who have spent time in jail — will be given at 8:30 p.m. on Monday, September 9, at the Living Theatre, 14th Street and Sixth Avenue. Participant poets will be Taylor Mead, Jackson MacLow, Deane Mowrer, John Weiners, James Forest, Michael Graine, Philip Havey, Carl Einhorn, Ray Bremser (in absentia), and H. Lee Heagy. Tickets range from$1 to $5.”

UPTOWN
“Every once in a while I am overcome by a morbid compul­sion to go see what they’re mak­ing into hits on Broadway. Don’t get me wrong: the urge seems neither morbid nor compulsive when it strikes me. In fact, I go with a sense of anticipation. It probably won’t be great art (I tell myself), but it’s sure to be fun. It won’t be deep or intellectually demanding (I condescendingly imagine), but it will certainly be pleasant and diverting. Well, welcome Barefoot in the Park (at the Biltmore) to the ranks of dull hits.” — Michael Smith

LIVING THEATRE JAILED
“Nobody ever expected the Liv­ing Theatre to die quietly. And after four frantic days — with events ranging from a melan­choly press conference through a bootleg performance of The Brig to 25 arrests — New York’s leading avant-garde playhouse; although stripped of physical premises and possessions, is still a living idea. On Sunday, while codirectors Julian Beck and Judith Malina were in feder­al prisons on charges of imped­ing federal officials in the perfor­mance of their duties, the physical assets of the Living Theatre were removed from the building at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue pending an auction toward payment of $23,000 ow­ing in back federal taxes. The Becks have always been news­worthy, but the daily newspa­pers have given them more cov­erage for their political activities — in protest against civil defense drills and as leaders of the General Strike for Peace — than for their artistic achievements. The latter have won them numerous prizes and the Voice recently described the Living Theatre as America’s ‘most original, profoundly ad­venturous, and persistently im­portant theatre institution.’ In this incarnation it persists no more.” — Michael Smith

[related_posts post_id_1=”170108″ /]

1964

HOME FREE
“Lanford Wilson’s fantasy-melo­drama is unusually effective cafe drama, and it is a pleasure to report that Wilson, who was earlier represented at the Cino by So Long at the Fair, has de­veloped his gift for vivid char­acter dialogue and somewhat re­strained his reliance on gimmicks. Home Free has its share of gimmicks, to be sure, but they are disciplined to the service of the plot. Although the play is neither subtle nor par­ticularly serious, it is inventive, exciting, and emotionally solid.” — Michael Smith

BECKS INDICTED
“Julian Beck and Judith Malina, directors of the Living Theatre, were indicted last week by a Federal grand jury on 11 felony counts, each carrying a maxi­mum sentence of three years and $5000 fine. The Becks are alleged to have impeded federal agents in the pursuit of their du­ties when the Living Theatre was closed by the Internal Rev­enue Service last October for nonpayment of nearly $30,000 in federal taxes. On receiving the indictment, Julian Beck said: ‘We are surprised and shocked that the grand jury is not able to differentiate between the devo­tion of artists to their art and criminal acts.’ ”

HOME MOVIES
“I find it very odd that I can remember almost nothing of Ro­salyn Drexler’s Home Movies ex­cept the fact that I loved it.” — Michael Smith

BECKS GUILTY
“ ‘The human heart and the hu­man mind have to examine the rigidity of the law,’ Judith Ma­lina Beck told the jury last Fri­day. She was summing up her defense against charges that she, along with her husband, Julian Beck, impeded federal of­ficers in their seizure of the tax­-delinquent Living Theatre last October. On Monday, after five hours of deliberation, the jury of 11 men and one woman found the Becks guilty of impeding fed­eral officers and of ‘rescuing’ seized property. Beck was con­victed on five counts under the first charge and two under the second. Miss Malina was con­victed on two counts under the first charge and one under the second.” — Stephanie Harrington 

BECKS GET JAIL TERMS
“Judith Malina and Julian Beck received individual prison sen­tences of 30 days and 60 days and the Living Theatre corpora­tion was fined $2500 by Judge Edmund L. Palmieri on Friday in Federal Court. The prison terms resulted from contempt charges leveled at the Becks on May 25, the day they were convicted of impeding federal officers during the closing of their theatre last October. At the final day of the trial Judith Malina repeatedly cried, ‘innocent!’ and accused Judge Palmieri of having caused the conviction; Julian Beck said then that the trial ‘demeaned and degraded’ the majesty of the nation.” — Michael Smith

CAFE LA MAMA
“If service stripes could be given out to coffee-house owners for heroic behavior under fire from the city licensing department, then Ellen Stewart, the proprie­tress of La Mama Experimental Theatre, would have a box of ribbons and a chest full of Pur­ple Hearts. La Mama has sus­tained so many casualties in the coffee-house licensing war that it operates now as a private club and hides itself behind curtained store-front windows in a loft at 82 Second Avenue. In fact, La Mama is so well attended by re­presentatives of the police and fire departments that it could al­most be called a bootleg theatre; during performances Miss Stewart sits sentry-duty outside the door to make sure that stray policemen don’t interrupt the ac­tors.” — Sally Kempton

COWBOYS and THE ROCK GARDEN
“I know it sounds pretentious and unprepossessing — Theatre Genesis at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bouwerie, dedicated to the new playwright — but they have actually found a new playwright, which is more than you can of­ten say for Broadway or Off-­Broadway. The playwright’s name is Sam Shepard, and I know nothing about him except that he has written a pair of provocative and genuinely origi­nal plays.… The plays are diffi­cult to categorize, and I’m not sure it would be valuable to try. Shepard is still feeling his way, working with an intuitive approach to language and dramat­ic structure and moving into an area between ritual and natural­ism, where character transcends psychology, fantasy breaks down literalism, and the patterns of ordinariness have their own lives. His is a gestalt theatre which evokes the existence be­hind behavior. Shepard clearly is aware of previous work in this mode, mostly by Europeans, but his voice is distinctly American and his own.” — Michael Smith

THE SLAVE and THE TOILET
“Although LeRoi Jones’s two new plays are highly personal, almost private works, they are interpreted as political state­ments, public pronouncements, position papers on advanced in­tellectual, left-wing Negro think­ing. Dutchman, which last year brought Jones his first attention in the theatre, in one scarifying speech established Jones as an important Negro spokesman. His new plays — and the other plays he has written — have little to do with race problems except on the surface.” — Michael Smith

[related_posts post_id_1=”364371″ /]

1965

JOE CINO’S WORLD

“The Caffe Cino was destroyed by fire on Ash Wednesday morn­ing. The cafe at 31 Cornelia Street opened in December, 1958, and quickly became im­portant as New York’s most tenacious and active cafe theatre. For several years the Cino had been producing plays, changing the program every week, and an emphasis on original scripts had led to the discovery of several talented new playwrights.” — Michael Smith

ANTI-OBIE
“In addition to distributing hon­ors for distinguished achieve­ment, the judges of this year’s Obies made a citation for ‘dis­service to the modern theatre.’ The first such negative award — informally dubbed an ‘anti­-Obie’ — last season named the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center. Walter Kerr, drama critic of the New York Herald Tribune, was singled out for this year’s citation. The text, read by judge Gordon Rogoff during Obie cere­monies at the Village Gate on Saturday, follows: ‘In recogni­tion of outstanding disservice to the modern theatre: For his de­termined resistance to the works of Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, O’Casey, Brecht, Sartre, Ionesco, Genet, and Beckett; and for turning his skills instead to the promotion and maintenance of a commod­ity theatre without relevance to dramatic art — Walter Kerr.’ ”

CAFFE CINO RISES — AGAIN
“The Caffe Cino, 31 Cornelia Street, reopened on Tuesday evening. The cafe theatre had been ravaged by a fire in March, and several benefit perfor­mances were given by various theatres to raise money for its reconstruction. The cafe was re­built on the same premises and will continue its traditional poli­cies. H. M. Koutoukas’s play With Creatures Make My Way will play at the Cino this week and next. Elizabeth Davison plays the single role, and the play has been directed by Ro­berta Sklar. Performances are at approximately 9 and 11 nightly, with additional 1 a.m. perfor­mances on Friday and Saturday.”

THE OPEN THEATRE
“The Open Theatre has burst onto the scene with intelligent, spirited, and idiosyncratic work. After preparing in close for a year and half, the group — 30 ac­tors, four directors, and four af­filiated playwrights, under a three-man directorate — has been doing a series of alternate Monday Evening performances at the Sheridan Square Play­house. I have seen the three most recent productions and can only rejoice that the group has come out in the open. It is the most engaging theatre to be seen in New York. Praise to the directorate (Joseph Chaikin, Peter Feldman, Sydney Schubert Walter) as the inspiration and driving force; praise to the members for solid and frequently brilliant manifestation of the in­spiration; praise to them all for achieving, in such short order, an ensemble with a definite style.” — Robert Pasolli

ICARUS’S MOTHER
“For those of you who are busy people, facts first, implications later. (And by facts I mean, of course, nothing closer to the truth than my opinions.) Sam Shepard is one of the youngest and most gifted of the new playwrights working Off-Broad­way these days. The signature of his work is its unencumbered spontaneity — the impression Shepard gives of inventing drama as a form each time he writes a play. His new theatre piece, Icarus’s Mother, is pres­ently on view at the Caffe Cino. Sad to say, it gives the impression of being a mess.” — Edward Albee

BbAaNnGg!
“Cafe La Mama received a sum­mons last week requiring exten­sive electrical repairs, and BbAaNnGg! was the result. Twenty-six brief plays, all by different authors, were given to help Ellen Stewart raise the needed cash. Each play was limited to three minutes; there were no other specifications. The responses to this challenge indicated some of the ways the newest generation of New York playwrights are thinking.” — Michael Smith

[related_posts post_id_1=”234420″ /]

1966

JOURNEY OF THE FIFTH HORSE
“Dustin Hoffman is superb as Zoditch, the reader. He is furiously caught up in a comedy of madness, becoming hateful, loathsome, Hitlerian, grotesque, but always both funny and unexpectedly human.” — Michael Smith

HERKO MEMORIAL
“Readings, dances, and music will be given tonight (Thursday) at Judson Memorial Church in memory of Fred Herko, the dancer and choreographer who last week jumped to his death from a sixth-floor window on Cornelia Street. Herko was a prominent member of the Judson Dance Theatre. LeRoi Jones, Frank O’Hara, Diane di Prima, and Allan Marlow will read; Phoebe Neville, Deborah Lee, and Arlene Rothlein will dance; and music by John Herbert McDowell and Al Carmines will be performed beginning at 6 p.m. at the church, 55 Washington Square South.”

IRENE FORNES
“Maria Irene Fornes could use four-letter words at a tea party (and might if it seemed natural at the moment) without ever being accused of not being a lady. She is unassuming, little — ­cute, even, though she probably wouldn’t react well to the word. Or maybe she’d like it. She’s not predictable. She has what is called a nice face — open, fair-­skinned against a frame of short, dark hair, slightly freck­led, with big, brown eyes that might be described as frank, ex­cept that they don’t tell you a thing about what’s going on be­hind them. It’s the kind of face that makes you feel comfortable in a room full of strangers.” — Stephanie Harrington

THEATRE OF THE RIDICULOUS
“This is more like it. For months now I’ve been wondering where the action is. The Judson had it for a while and maybe they’ll get it again, and there have been flashes of the real thing at La Mama, Caffe Cino, and at a few other places. But take my word for it, there’s nothing in town as lively and inventive and mad and just plain entertaining as the show the Theatre of the Ridicu­lous is putting on at its theatre ­loft on West 17th Street.” — Joseph LeSeuer 

VIET ROCK
Viet Rock, which the Open Theatre presented two weeks ago at Cafe La Mama, was ex­traordinary on at least two counts. It is the first realized theatrical statement about the Vietnam war that I have seen and a rare instance of theatre confronting issues broader than individual psychology. And it is the first time the special ensem­ble techniques of the Open Theatre, developed during sever­al years of workshop sessions, have been fully applied and used for a purpose.” — Michael Smith

1967

AMERICA HURRAH
“As three views of the U.S.A., these plays are of little inter­est… The members of the Open Theatre have devoted themselves so wholeheartedly to exploring the nonverbal aspects of theatre that they’ve over­looked the words themselves… We’ll have to suspend judg­ment, as they apparently did, until they find a play worthy of their talents.” — Ross Wetzsteon

OBIE AWARDS
“…to America Hurrah…”

[related_posts post_id_1=”190612″ /]

1968

THE INDIAN WANTS THE BRONX
“Al Pacino gives a fascinating performance, all cool, fluid, swaggering mannerisms, as graceful and gratuitous as smoke. But what I liked best was the subtlety of his broadness, the naturalness of his fakery­ — years ago, actors adopted the mannerisms of hoods, and now the mannerisms have returned to the hoods by way of the mov­ies.” — Ross Wetzsteon

CHRISTMAS TURKEY
(The first nudity Off-Broadway):
“When I briefly fantasized that Pauline had clothes on, I realized that my basic, undistracted reaction to the play itself was an atavistic urge to scratch dirt over it with my paws. But of course Pauline was naked, ex­cept for a few adroitly misplaced turkey feathers, and the play was just a vehicle (or rather, since it was virtually immobile, a dais) for her buoyant figure. By way of acting, Pauline shifted her weight from time to time, but didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands. I understand there was some talk of arrests on opening night, but I don’t think Pauline had to worry — I mean she didn’t do anything dirty like playing the cello… Ed Wode deserves credit for bringing a wholly new audience to the Off-Off-Broadway theatre. De pudendum non est disputandum.” — Ross Wetzsteon

DIONYSUS IN ’69
“It suddenly occurred to me, when I realized that a radical black would probably find the work of the Performance Group irrelevant, to what extent the Dionysiac appeal (and menace) is essentially a middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, anti-Puritanical phenomenon. Group therapy cum Esalen? Utopia as sexual rather than a political ideal? The children of Brown rather than Marcuse? A rather peripheral revolution to anyone but a certain kind of American. Still, a revolution, and a staggering piece of theatre. The difference between the Living Theatre and the Performance Group is the difference between religion and therapy. An interesting thing about the Performance Group is that one feels that acting in Dionysus for several months had been good for them. It’d be good for pretty much all of us, for that matter. Still, I can’t help thinking that there’s an odd disjuncture between the method of the per­formance (releasing and the orgiastic) and the themes of the play (self-acknowledgment and the tragedy of excess) that throws its conclusions slightly off balance, as if the bulk of their commitment is to half a dialectic.” — Ross Wetzsteon

THE ’70s

A CHORUS LINE
“Leaving aside the economic and social causes, Broadway died (and it has died — what we have left is a mumble) because its practitioners started believing their own myths. The joy of appearing on The Great White Way, the splendor of having your name up in lights, the excitement, the struggle, the sense of belonging among the insiders, all started out as frank hokum — and, like the artists, the public knew that the myth was half to be taken seriously, like all good hokum… Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line is a show about the kids and the myth. It never questions the assumptions of the myth, which is a major drawback, but its creators have taken pains to be accurate to the lives of the people who worship at the shrine of Broadway, with the result that the show is built around a very hard kernel of truth and genuine feeling. It’s perfect, too, that A Chorus Line should be created at the Public Theatre, on public money, as living proof that the entrepreneurial side of Broadway can no more be depended on these days than the artistic side. A Chorus Line is, in effect, the last Broadway musical.” — Michael Feingold

[related_posts post_id_1=”134282″ /]

1976

DAVID MAMET: REMEMBER THAT NAME
“Theres a new generation of unheralded playwrights about to burst forth with major works, but only David Mamet has done work worthy of major critical recognition at this point, and recognition not so much for his plays as for the potential they represent, especially in his careful, gorgeous, loving sense of language. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that at the age of 28 Mamet is the most promising American playwright to have emerged in the ’70s and that he has the most acute ear for dia­logue of any American writer since J. D. Salinger.” — Ross Wetzsteon 

MERYL STREEP
“Meryl Streep came to Manhat­tan last September, fresh from her MFA Yale Rep, a summer at the O’Neill, and not much else. Nearly upon arrival, she was playing the ingenue lead in the Lincoln Center production of Trelawny of the Wells, landing a major part in 27 Wagonloads of Cotton at the Phoenix, following this with a jewel of a Southern Belle in the Phoenix’s revival of Secret Service… In nine months, Meryl Streep has be­come a leading lady; it will not take much longer before she is a certified star.” — Terry Curtis Fox 

THE CLUB
“It’s pure delight to have a laugh without checking my spirit at the door and to enjoy a musical diversion in which first-rate singing and dancing aren’t wasted on some dumb vehicle. As usual the jokes are sexist, but this time the real joke’s on them. Eve Merriam’s piece is lighthearted, not featherbrained, charming but not corrupt. It’s about men without being meaner to them than they deserve. It’s aware of class and race. And it manages simultaneously to use and satirize current tastes.… What I liked about the play’s feminism is that it’s taken for granted as the rational point of view, and male sexism as ab­surd. Women surely will find The Club funny. So should their male friends, lovers, and colleagues. As for those other men, I hope it makes them horribly uncomfort­able to be among the few not laughing.” — Erika Munk

1978

FEFU AND HER FRIENDS
“Not to mince words, Maria Irene Fornes’s rich, astonishing play, Fefu and Her Friends, seems to me the only essential thing the New York theatre has added to our cultural life in the past year. I first saw the play last spring, when the New York Theatre Strategy produced it in a SoHo loft; seeing it again, in the visually enhanced and partly recast production at the Ameri­can Place Theatre, I realized that it’s been in my mind since that first performance, as inevi­table a part of my cultural furni­ture as Bach’s ‘Air for the G String’ or Seurat’s La Grande Jatte — one of those works that, on first hearing or viewing, you recognize immediately as being part of you.” — Michael Feingold 

THE SHAGGY DOG ANIMATION
“One ad for The Shaggy Dog Animation is a photo of Lee Breuer kissing his husky, tongue to tongue, his hands holding her paw. Another ad is more myste­rious: just the dog’s head, her eyes showing almost nothing but white; perhaps she’s dead, per­haps staring off at an odd angle of vision. These are precise images of the play, for Shaggy Dog is about romantic love, and all Mabou Mines’s animations breathe into dead forms, inert ideas, and inanimate objects. They are also plays on words, grand extensions of punning. Shaggy Dog is rather shaggy­-doggish in form — long, superfi­cially rambling, with a nice sense of the absurd. All the ani­mations are about animals, and all use the quick cuts and violent juxtapositions of cartoons. Red Horse concerns journeys, bur­dens, speed style, and nerves; B. Beaver portrays the construct­ing mammal — a damming up, and damned species. Shaggy Dog is about ‘a species of devo­tion’ — itchy, groveling, and hopeless.” — Erika Munk 

FUGUE IN A NURSERY
“Harvey Fierstein’s Fugue in a Nursery continues the adven­tures of a character I always see as Arnold the Gay — not an Arth­urian knight but the hero of Fier­stein’s earlier one-act The Inter­national Stud. Not your typical Everygay, either, Arnold is a fic­tional reflection of his author: professional transvestite, Brook­lyn-Jewish street wit, and, at heart, a sentimental naif. Looked at another way, Arnold is a gay analogue of Krazy Kat, the straight world his Offissa Pup, and his Ignatz Maus — the love object who retaliates with bricks — is that most confused of men, the Closet Case. Like its worthy predecessor, Fierstein’s work is trifling and cartooned, but it is also honest, precise, and funny — major virtues in a time when even homosexuality is mass-marketed as a product… Fierstein’s voice still re­minds me of a Brooklyn high­ schooler in a machine shop, learning the many uses of the rasp; but being Arnold, only he can do the character justice.” — Michael Feingold 

 

Categories
From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Norman Mailer Runs for Mayor

Norman Mailer for Mayor?
April 3, 1969

The tenth entrant in the Democratic mayoral scramble may be Norman Mailer.

If Mailer opts in, his running mate for City Council President will be Jimmy Breslin, the combative chronicler of Irish internecine warfare. Gloria Steinem of New York magazine reluctantly agreed to be designated as the candidate for Comptroller until a committee on vacancies can find another candidate.

Preliminary campaign plans were discussed Monday night at Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights waterfront eyrie. Among the New York literary and political figures who hashed out the pros and cons of the Mailer candidacy were Pete Hamill, Peter Maas, Jose Torres, Jeremy Larner, Joe Flaherty, Jeff Cowan, John Scanlon, Flo Kennedy, Jack Newfield, State Supreme Court Judge James Leff, Mary Bancroft, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kirshan, and Joe Pilati.

Mailer said at one point that it was necessary to forge a “hip coalition of the right and the left,” but the only prominent rightist present was ex-National Review writer Noel E. Parmentel, Jr.

Mailer termed New York City “a cancer and leprosy ward that has infected the rest of the country.” Breslin metaphorically surveyed the political opposition and growled his disdain at their mental prowess: “Those clowns haven’t said anything bright in 45 years. They’re a bunch of bums!”

A series of strategy meetings will be held this week to discuss securing of signatures for petitions, opening of campaign headquarters, and maximizing media exposure during the primary campaign.

The Mailer-Breslin Ticket: Vote the Rascals In

By Joe Flaherty

April 24, 1969 

I approached the making of the Mailer, 1969, with dubious thoughts. Like many others I was invited to Mailer’s home about three weeks ago to discuss his candidacy. My first reservation was that I believed that John Lindsay was a good mayor in a beleaguered time and he deserved my support. Second, the idea of being close to the Mailer campaign was too tempting to me as a writer. The second doubt was magnified when I arrived at Mailer’s house and found a number of other writers, including myself, taking notes, all having purple wet dreams about next year’s National Book Award for Arts and Letters.

And the evening itself — besides the guest list — wasn’t very impressive. Like all such evenings attended by polemicists, it resembled the building of the Tower of Babel. Right winger Noel Parmenter wanted Mailer to run alone on the ticket; others wanted him to run with Jimmy Breslin in an attempt to appeal to the working class. Another group was pushing for a Black Panther for comptroller, and still another wanted a woman on the ticket to run on the platform of female rights. Along about now I was wishing that Carmine DeSapio would enter the room and restore some decent totalitarian clubhouse order.

Besides all this, the evening was taking on a carnival atmosphere. Ice cubes were tinkling in glasses like the Bells of St. Mary’s and the ideas being put forth were getting more bizarre with every chime. Mailer finally took the floor, presenting a surrealistic platform with his baroque pointing and jabbing, Jimmy Cagney style. His running mate, Jimmy Breslin, sat in a chair, growling his ideas on the issues: “When we get on tv with them, we’ll just tell them they’re full of shit” and “fuck them and their Mickey Mouse issues — the city is lost” and “I wouldn’t even let Norman debate those fuckin’ bandits; he’d get arrested for consorting.” By now my notes resembled passages from Finnegans Wake.

When the meeting began to break up, Mailer realized it hadn’t gone well. He gathered a handful of us at the door and said he wanted to meet again in a week when he returned from Provincetown to discuss the race seriously. He said he was well aware of the tragic problems of the city and said any idea of a “campy or college boy prank” of a campaign was personally disgusting to him. We would meet again in a small group and discuss the campaign in depth. For the first time that evening I was moved. I left with Breslin, Pete Hamill, and John Scanlon. Breslin, walking toward the St. George Hotel to hail a cab to Queens, turned to us and shouted into the Brooklyn night: “You know something? That bum is serious!”

About 10 days later we were called to a meeting at Gloria Steinem’s house at 11 a.m. on a Sunday. Finding 11 a.m. a difficult time to get any part of me up, never mind my whole body, I arrived a half hour late. Mailer, sitting in a chair looking rested and slimmer, looked at me and said: “You’re a half hour late. In the future, let’s see if we all can make meetings on time.” Breslin’s parting remark echoed in my mind.

We began to relegate duties. Jack Newfield and Paul Gorman were to search out interest among the kids who worked for Kennedy and McCarthy. Alice Krakauer was to handle press, a duty she performed for McCarthy. Gloria Steinem would entice talent into the campaign. Joe Ferris, a bright young urbanist, became our one-man “think-tank.” Peter Maas would present political papers and, since I had some organizational experience during the Lindsay campaign, I was designated campaign manager. After years of handling such losers as the Civilian Review Board and local reform insurgents who usually garnered 11 votes, I was impressed. Never before did I have a chance to manage such a property, but I wasn’t convinced yet.

[related_posts post_id_1=”581668″ /]

Then came Robert F. Wagner and I sensed a great gamble in the air of New York. Staid liberals started to develop an aura of fuck-youism. But the convincer was Mailer himself. He began to study the problems of the city in earnest. We held sessions on housing, unemployment, air pollution, and finance with experts in these fields. As impressive as they were with their figures, their solutions were nowhere as imaginative as those of the candidate himself.

The common ground we all agreed upon was community control. I always thought the city’s best neighborhoods were the ones that controlled their own lives through block associations, strong local school boards, and planning boards. We now began to take the idea further. Mailer stressed the idea that if we believed in such controls it would have to apply to all neighborhoods — both left and right. Harlem and Staten Island, under Mailer’s mayoralty, would have the right to their own life styles. We could now have communities that honored Malcolm X and John Birch on their birthdays.

Mailer and Breslin formulated an initial three-point platform. New York City was to become a city-state (“because the federal government and the farmers in Albany have no right dictating our life styles.”) Harlem and Bed-Stuy would be given the right to vote on referenda declaring themselves separate townships, and complete community control would be instituted throughout the boroughs. As radical as the program sounded, it made complete sense to me, and I also realized there wasn’t a politician in New York who would dare run on such ideas. Mailer was now my man.

After two years of working for a city agency (HRA) I firmly believed super-agencies were a flop. Besides the fact that a great deal of poverty money went to exorbitant salaries, the programs they fostered were disasters. The people themselves never had a chance at curing their own plight. The liberal establishment became caterers to the poor. They knew what was best. As Mailer said: “If I were black I would find it my duty to steal from the federal government.” But he added: “A man is more apt to steal from an abstraction than from neighbors.” Breslin, with his usual economy, said: “All we managed to do was make a mess out of their lives. Let them handle it themselves.”

Besides this, I felt the old style New Deal programs gave the blacks and Puerto Ricans a built-in excuse not to excel. It’s too easy to blame the federal government, City Hall, the establishment, for lack of progress. With control of their own lives they would either bring a renaissance in American life, or end up like the rest of us — mediocrities with a great deal of shit in our blood. The choice would be theirs and the liberals for once could stop going through life breast-beating mea culpas.

But the thing that intrigued me about Mailer was that he carried the idea of community control to its smallest unit — man itself. When someone suggested the idea of replacing the water in toilets with chemicals to remove the waste, Mailer refused, noting that man is losing contact with himself and “should be able to smell his own shit.” Programs for the poor were repugnant to him because they place man in slots negating his chance: “to forge the destiny of his soul.” In short, he is still naive enough to think our soul possesses the grace to manage our own lives.

And any candidate who believes that the act of love still can produce a noble result should be given high preference over those who collectively view us as: the middle class, the poor, the disenfranchised, and the establishment. So individually every New Yorker has a chance at a magnificent gamble.

Let’s throw out the dull caterers and vote the rascals in.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713710″ /]