Commentary Magazine


Satires

An interesting phenomenon of the past few years has been the gradual adaptation of the Roman Church to practical moral attitudes which are sympathetic and recognizable to those outside Catholic dogma. Yet even more curious is the applause that each example of this new extra ecclesia concern receives. Let a lay moralist come out in public against war, persecution, or social inequity, and he is counted as just another heir of the Voltairean tradition. However, if the author of such sentiments is wearing chasuble and mitre, there is today astonishment and gratitude on the part of many otherwise intelligent men. It is as though some extraordinary sacrifice is assumed each time a church representative articulates a belief that has been among the ordinary baggage of civilized minds for centuries, and as though this sacrifice—perhaps of spiritual dignity—excuses a certain tardiness and anemia in the clergy’s commitment to the city of man.

I have not embarked on a diatribe against the papacy. It is not the fault of the Church that surrogates for divine justice must tolerate excessive praise for an everyday deprecation of genocide. My point is simply that we are all happy to find agreement in unexpected places, and our reaction to such fortune may include a less than exact measure of the intellectual quality of our new allies.

This was my conclusion after seeing Viet Rock and America Hurrah, two plays that roused warm emotion among contemporaries whom I know not to be sub-literate. Having left somewhat dejected at the barrenness of both these works, I can only assume that, like the Holy See, so little is expected of the American theater that it can astound with even less.

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Let us take Viet Rock, a satire with some dance and music, on the war in Vietnam. Actually, there is very little to say about it. Once the author’s position is known, and from the play’s title that position should be self-evident, everything that happens in the play can be quite readily imagined by the conjuring up of those television chronicles of death and debate we see every day. If anything, instead of accentuation, which is generally the means of satire, Miss Megan Terry has managed in her way to shrink martial reality so that it seems not nearly so vicious nor so grimly amusing as a Times dispatch, say, or a CBS Special Report.

For instance, in Viet Rock’s main narrative, which follows the fate of a squad of soldiers from thumbsucking infants on through the draft, out into battle, and finally to obliteration in a Saigon bar, we are treated to a group of not unsympathetic louts very similar to the fun-loving gangs that John Wayne has led ashore so many times. Of course, now we are supposed to see them as men unable to shed infantilism and who, after the manner of their sergeant/mother, burp forth the standard extenuations of their circumstance—defense of freedom, the stand against aggression, not-wanting-to-be-there-but-if-we-must-then-by-God, etc. Now Miss Terry is entitled to her opinion that our military is made up of infants in arms, and, in a simple way, she may be right. But there is so much more.

Consider a young man who can wipe out a village and then set to building playgrounds for its orphans, and you may have a baby, but one must change the tone of laughter at its pranks. Like Brecht in Mann ist Mann, Viet Rock’s author is flaying the simpleton for allowing himself to be remodeled by the state into a slogan-spouting machine, but Brecht after all was dealing with the absolutes of totalitarianism, whereas now we are witnessing democracy’s subtler persuasion to arms; and to depict this is a much more difficult challenge than Miss Terry can meet by scattering patriotic songs at ironic moments or by trotting forth government figures to speak a gibberish a good deal less amusing again than the best official gabble the public must decipher after each high-level speech and interview. Now I am not plumping for the model rather than the work it inspired, dragging out the old canard about how contemporary reality is too absurd to be improved upon by art. Groups like Beyond the Fringe and the Second City showed it could be done, at least in the area over which satire extends. What concerns me is the premise in Viet Rock, and in the attitudes that hailed it, that the categories of this cut of history are so clearly defined and morally ranked that art, like the comedians at their convention, need only call out numbers to get the proper response. If this succeeds, you have an audience as self-satisfied when it leaves the theater as it was when it entered, an effect antithetical to the ends of satire. It is hard to think of Swift writing so that those who read him could feel self-congratulatory.

The production, for all its song, dance, and fury, never did more than simulate theatrics, and often would not let the text lie peacefully, but pumped it up with sentiment and significance. I shall be a long time forgetting how, after an evening’s explication of the obvious, the cast took leave from the stage, slowly, pausing to gaze and touch members of the audience, as though we had all been through something of deep moment together which had awakened us to being human. “Where art fails, it insults,” was the dictum that came to mind to explain the rage I felt at the author’s taking of this unearned aesthetic liberty.

But that was precisely the problem of Viet Rock. It earned its right to no conclusions and certainly to no indictments. Even the best of its humor did not come from the substance of the play. It was the old, tired foxhole banter about sex and country that made the best comic points, and this brings us back once more into the John Wayne tradition, where I’m certain the author of Viet Rock does not wish to be.

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America Hurrah produced similar objections in me. I remember standing in the lobby during intermission and reading the reviews partisan to it that had been blown up and placed on large placards. One was comparing Mr. van Itallie’s style to Bach fugues while another, after having granted that the author had created a metaphor for his time, was considering his plays as a possible harbinger of a renaissance in American drama. I was bewildered. I had just seen two of the three one-act plays that were to make up the evening and had felt that I was once again back in some drama workshop, pretending to teach playwriting; for it was in such environments that I first learned of the universal yearning on the part of dramatists to create timely metaphors. Sample stage directions from my students’ works were: “A bare stage with light upon a ladder that has no beginning and no end. X stands in the middle of the ladder, munching an apple, hesitantly looking above and below him.” Or: “Bare room. No furniture. Single light. X sits mutely on floor, while Y, a woman, is shaving his head with a straight razor.” Such situations, the authors informed me, and all the X’s and Y’s caught in them, were metaphors for our post-atomic age, and when I asked what made them consider a metaphor preferable to human beings onstage, I would be reminded of Beckett and his dustbins and that drama must expand beyond the personal. I would try to persuade them that once the curtain goes up, and there is a revelation of what the evening’s metaphor is to be, the audience may grow restive unless the ensuing play adds some intelligent, humorous, or tragic flesh to that metaphor. However, they generally were less successful at this second phase and their work seldom did more than italicize the initial stage direction.

Mr. van Itallie had so far shown himself to be more adept than my students were. Where they had limited themselves for the most part to one quintessential metaphor, a play, he was adept at thinking up half-a-dozen or so. Thus, for instance, in Interview, the first of his trio, we are shown that our age is a personnel interview where smiles mask indifference, that it’s also a simple housepainter asking his priest for guidance and receiving no answer or, again, that it is an anxious mind hearing from his psychoanalyst unintelligible jargon in which the only recognizable words are “mother,” “penis,” and “money.” No matter if these notions have been the ready stock of all third-rate sensibilities for the past three decades or that van Itallie’s thrusts at psychoanalysis and religion are just a little short of deep penetration—metaphors have been created, a general statement has been made, and, to be sure, made artistically by the use of crossed and interior monologues and expressionistic pantomime.

In TV, the going metaphor is, not surprisingly, television. Three employees of a rating company arrive to begin a day of channel watching, and proceed to reveal dull lives and squalid intrigues. Behind them, various stock television scenes are acted out and spoofed in a way major networks would never allow because it has been done much better over and over again by the comedians television itself hires. At the playlet’s end, the world of the screen and the world of the watchers become finally merged in banallity and thus . . . well, you can make up your own our-age-is-metaphor from there.

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After that gloomy intermission, I went dutifully back into the theater and was surprised to find that the last play of the evening, Motel, was funny, exciting, and, more important, carried with it a quality that makes me hope Mr. van Itallie may yet extract himself from the enticement of supermarket truths. The final play takes place in a motel room. A transient couple, portrayed by buskinned actors in oversized papier-maché torsos and masks, arrive and gratuitously let loose an orgy of wreckage and graffiti-scribbling. They exchange no words during the demolition that culminates in the utter destruction of the room and the dismemberment of the landlady who, throughout the barrage, has pleasantly chatted on about the modern comforts of the chamber under attack. The play seems to last no longer than ten minutes, but in that time van Itallie has given us a very distinct example of the sex and violence which no walls will contain no matter what the civilized restraints within.

Still, for all its merit, Motel says very little about van Itallie’s future as a dramatist. He seems much better off on his own personal quests than attempting the large, satiric view of society. Like Miss Terry, Mr. van Itallie is concerned in the right manner about the right things, but this is no substitute for art. It is all very well to come down on the side of the angels—but not with such an embarrassing thump.

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A play which comes down on the side of nothing is one which I have read but not yet seen. Still, since, like Viet Rock and America Hurrah, it is a satire on things American, I’ll anticipate and include it here. The name of the work is MacBird, and for some time it has enjoyed the privilege of an under-ground existence, gossiped about and praised by cognoscenti who were certain that it would never find a public bookstore for distribution, much less a stage all its own. The reason for this early sub rosa life is that MacBird is a political grotesque which places our two last Presidents into a plot which loosely parallels Macbeth.

President Johnson has the title role, the late John Kennedy is the murdered King Duncan, while Bobby, of course, is the avenging Macduff. The language is a mixture of modern political slang and Shakespearean verse, a marriage that does have its delights, and wherever necessary the author adds to this pleasure by filching and reshaping a speech or two from other Shakespearean plays. But the words, though cleverly devised, are no end in themselves; they serve to show how pedestrian and comic the author’s characters are when placed by the memory this language evokes. Thus Miss Garson, by no more than the style she chose, made her targets vulnerable to all sorts of legitimate abuse. Unfortunately, she goes too far, perhaps trapped by the Macbeth plot, perhaps trapped by hallucination, so that reality is so outdistanced that the satire loses much of its force. Shakespeare permitted even Macbeth some moral awareness, but Johnson is allowed none by Miss Garson, and so we laugh at this unmitigated villain because he is playing at heroics, but we don’t take our mirth too seriously. Still, I look forward to seeing the play onstage, just to hear Lord Stevenson, the Egg of Head, utter the following:

To see or not to see? that
              is the question
Whether ‘tis wiser as a
          statesman to ignore
Or to speak out against a
              reign of evil
And by so doing, end there
             for all time
The chance and hope to work
         within for change.

Ah, and there’s another metaphor for our age!

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