On the Horizon: Paddy Chayefsky's Minyan
Paddy Chayefsky, it has been said many times, is the Clifford Odets of the 1950’s, and the differences between the two playwrights largely reflect a shift in popular attitudes since the 30’s. Chayefsky’s theatrical world is the same Bronx evoked by Odets twenty-five years ago, and his fundamental note, too, is the pathos of the lower middle classes. Like Odets, Chayefsky writes mostly about immigrants and their children, draws heavily on Jewish folk humor, and is more inventive at comedy than at serious drama. The aspirations, passions, and defeats of his characters are usually minor in scale; and, even more than Odets, Chayefsky likes the up-beat ending, the note of triumph over the “forces” which bedevil the “little man.” Finally, both playwrights—in contrast to O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and others—relied greatly at first on an intense style of staging, which made their work more interesting to watch than to read: Odets depended on the Group Theatre, Chayefsky on the “Method” of the Actors’ Studio.
Yet there is a striking difference between Chayefsky and Odets, and it is ideological. Both writers are evangelists or millenarians: their plays work toward a single magic revelation which will end the dreariness of day-to-day life and announce a vision of redemption. But where Odets’s inspiration was Popular Front Communism, Chayefsky’s is popular psychoanalysis. Odets’s key word was “strike”; Chayefsky’s is “love.”
In Marty, The Big Deal, The Mother, Middle of the Night, The Bachelor Party, and The Catered Affair (all of which present recognizably Jewish types although their names are non-Jewish), Chayefsky has shown an alert topicality, keen humor, and a rare ear for the common speech. But these gifts only partly explain his popularity. For, a little like Odets, Chayefsky seems to be speaking for his time. His message of love is certainly modish in the commercial theater1 now; it has been proclaimed in hit after hit by William Inge, another postwar playwright, and in the “wholesome” musical-comedy lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II (a sharp departure from the wise-guy lyrics of the late Lorenz Hart, who was Richard Rodgers’ librettist before the war).
Chayefsky’s message of love has some of the tone of “positive thinking” and is part of the popular culture of psychology. It soaks all real conflicts—personal or social—in a murky rhetoric of good intentions, “mutual understanding,” and self-limitation. Chayefsky’s most popular works have no villains. Love’s enemy is an internal state, the inability to love; and the quality of this affliction doesn’t vary much, whether a man and woman are concerned, or parents and children, or whoever. In his happy endings, in which the will to love finally breaks through, much must be taken on sheer faith—wishing will make it so—and much remains open to very diverse interpretations. The mistiness of Chayefsky’s view of love is most, The Tenth Man; but it has also kept his best work, such as Marty, on this side of the line which divides popular entertainment from art.
Romeo falls in love in the first act; Cordelia’s filial affection precedes the opening of King Lear. But for Chayefsky and others for whom the “capacity to love” is an issue, the emotion is not the beginning of the play, but the end—a goal to be reached, if at all, in the final scenes. This kind of dramatic structure, which uses monologues and flashbacks in place of a sequence of action, is not inevitable in a play which employs psychoanalytic insights. O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, a very Freudian drama, nevertheless unfolds in the traditional manner, moving forward from passions through actions to consequences and forward again. The traditional structure is, however, more trying for the playwright, for he must clearly dramatize emotions and relations, make them visible, rather than just talk about them.
Actually, the structure of Chayefsky’s plays rather suggests the old Christian religious dramas, which celebrated the triumph of grace over original sin and worldly temptations. And, indeed, the “love” which Chayefsky’s characters pursue seems an idealized state of mind. It has nothing to do with passion, but is a rather low-keyed, diffuse sentiment which seems appropriate to all occasions. If it has any definable quality at all, it is that of the kindliness with which a parent consoles a hurt child—or perhaps that feeling as the child will sentimentalize it in later years. Here is Chayefsky’s picture of ideal marriage, from The Bachelor Party: “. . . if your girl is halfway decent, she’s going to make it her job to make you happy. Then you get to feel, I can depend on this person. And that’s love, man. That’s the greatest thing in the world. There’s nothing like it. I have moments sometimes with my wife, Arnold. . . . We’re just lying sometimes in bed, you know, before you go to sleep. We’re just talking. . . . You know how you can get to feel sometimes. . . . What’s the sense of working? What’s it all mean? What do you get out of this crazy life, but people yelling at you all day and trying to save a couple of bucks every week. And then my wife tries to talk to me. She’ll say: ‘Look, you got a wife who loves you. Your mother, your father, your kid brother loves you. You got friends. . . .’ Arnold, I don’t know how to explain this to you . . . but that’s what my wife does for me. She’s the one that makes life worth living.”
Chayefsky’s Marty thinks explicitly of parental understanding: “Well, I figure,” he says, “two people get married, and they gonna live together forty or fifty years. So it’s just gotta be more than whether they’re good-looking or not. My father was a real ugly man, but my mother adored him. She told me that she used to get miserable sometimes, like everybody, you know? And she says my father always tried to understand. I used to see them sometimes when I was a kid, sitting in the living room, talking and talking. . . .”2
What Marty is yearning for are the favored consolations of the 50’s: consideration, mutual respect, adjustment—above all, relief from loneliness and the problems of manhood. His final decision to woo Clara for these reasons is a triumph, Chayefsky insists, considering the “latent homosexuality of the middle class” which Marty is escaping. Marty’s urge to an illusory normalcy is, indeed, a victory over candy-store opinion; but it is possible, too, that a love conceived with such limited vistas may prove as oppressive as the tyranny of the boys on the street corner.
Has that thought occurred to Chayefsky? Only in The Goddess, his most ambitious work and the most recent before The Tenth Man, has he ever detached himself from the love-seeking reveries of his characters. The self-centered heroine of that film attempts a new, loving relation with her selfish mother; it lasts only a few weeks, after which each woman reverts to type. But The Goddess was a dual failure for Chayefsky: its literal Freudianism offended the daily critics, while its grim conclusion scared off the public which had applauded his TV comedies.
In The Tenth Man, Chayefsky returns to the simple old love-faith, and tries to associate it with Jewish traditions. Transposing the dybbuk superstition to an Orthodox shul in Mineola, Long Island, he plays Hasidic mysticism off against psychiatry, seems to express affection and skepticism toward each, and—in the closing seconds—attempts to wrap both up in the religion of loving, Bachelor Party style.
Chayefsky does this by surrounding his two young protagonists—neither of them particularly appealing or credible—with a group of earthy old East European Jews who pray, eat, dance, laugh, and argue with one another in a vivid manner that must evoke nostalgia if not affection.3 He invents enough comic business for them to stretch what dramatically should be one act into two. There are gag-sequences about cemetery plots and daughters-in-law. Not once but twice do elderly gentlemen dash off (and report) on frustrating subway expeditions in search of a Williamsburg Hasidic sage. Twice, too, the sexton must hunt up enough additional Jews to constitute a minyan: in the first act for morning prayers, then again in the third for the exorcism. All this helps distract us from the action, as opposed to the atmosphere, of the play.
What actually happens? A psychotic teenager named Evelyn Forman is brought to the shul by her grandfather, who fears she will be returned to an asylum, and who has heard a dybbuk speak through her lips. This evil spirit is one Hannah Luchinsky, “the whore of Kiev,” whom the grandfather had first set on the primrose path. None of the old men can quite believe this, especially since Evelyn’s outbursts of dybbukry alternate with both lucid moments and conventional hallucinations; but there seems no harm in trying exorcism, for the girl, a student of the Zohar, admits that she has religion all mixed up with her sex problems.
To complete the morning minyan, the sexton has collared a young lawyer, Arthur Brooks, who is the Crisis of Civilization personified. He has joined and quit the Communist party, divorced his wife, attempted suicide, and is being psychoanalyzed; he has also enjoyed money, prestige, power, and all the girls he wanted; he calls life “meaningless”; and he views love only as an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. At first young Arthur opposes the idea of an exorcism, but the synagogue atmosphere, the old men’s busyness, and the girl’s avowals of love wear him down. Besides, his analyst says exorcism might be a “kind of shock treatment.”
Arthur’s mixed motives, and Evelyn’s mixed-up madness, show the irony with which Chayefsky treats both religion and psychiatry, permitting the spectator to believe what he pleases. The young rabbi of the shul (mostly a bystander in all this) provides still another example. In an amusing phone call to a seminary classmate offstage, he satirizes the socializing aspects of the religious revival (“organize a Little League team, Harry!”); but he blames “them,” the congregation, for the absence of a more substantial faith. We, on the other hand, know he is rarely in shul.
Only one of the members of Chayefsky’s minyan—Hirschman, the venerable Cabbalist—openly professes belief in God. (One, Schlissel, is actually a Communist—drawn to the shul, as are the others, out of loneliness.) And Hirschman’s recounting of a dream in the final act is perhaps Chayefsky’s most imaginative bit of ambiguity. In the dream, Hirschman’s long-dead father forgives his youthful transgressions, and he takes this to mean absolution by God Himself. Hirschman tells the dream with the language and gestures of mysticism, but the Freudian interpretation is also obvious. The other Jews rejoice, but one cannot tell if it is because they share Hirschman’s belief in a divine revelation or are simply glad that he has ended his three-day fasting.
When the minyan for the exorcism is assembled, it is the pious Hirschman who reassures Arthur that “it is better to believe in dybbuks than in nothing at all.” Schlissel speaks for the audience: “Here I am, an atheist. What am I doing at an exorcism?” At the fourth sounding of the ram’s horn, while Evelyn stands unmoved, young Arthur falls in a dead faint. “All this trouble, and we’ve exorcised the wrong dybbuk!” Within a few seconds, Arthur has told us that he has been reborn, that he will marry Evelyn and care for her forever, psychotic or no. He has gained, he says, the capacity to love. But not, someone points out, belief in God. “Is there any difference?” is the comeback as the play ends.
How are we to take the miracle we have just witnessed? Until the last few seconds, Chayefsky seems to have covered all flanks. But the pretentious sentimentality of that final moment reveals his condescending attitude toward religion, psychiatry, thought generally, the Jews, and his own creations.
Had Evelyn rather than Arthur been “saved,” we might have accepted it as a kind of fantasy-romance. She might have been cured by a combination of the synagogue atmosphere, the affection of the old men, and—with a somewhat altered characterization—the love of a sensitive and experienced “professional man.” In that case, Chayefsky’s irony would have held up to the end. We wouldn’t have much cared precisely what cured Evelyn, since her rather ridiculous hallucinations would have been just a pretext to live, and laugh, among the colorful old Jews in the shimmering half-light of the shul. This sort of play could easily have become a musical.
But Evelyn is a mere object, a foil, for Chayefsky. It is Arthur who is saved, and his very character and demeanor announce a serious message—a prescription for all the complex malaises of modern times. The prescription turns out to be a sugar pill. In barely a dozen lines, at 11:10 P.M., we are asked to believe that Arthur’s new-found “capacity to love,” which allegedly absorbs the essential wisdom of both psychiatry and Judaism, will succeed where education, hard work, his first marriage, bedhopping, drink, power, and the Communist party have all failed. The switcheroo is just too abrupt; the pretension just too overarching. We simply refuse to be let off, even in a comedy, with a few quick verses from the old love lyrics. What may have sufficed for Marty the meat butcher in his little corner of the Bronx will not do here. Chayefsky’s facile disposal of the young lawyer strikes the same jarring note as the quick comeuppance which Herman Wouk dealt out to Lieutenant Keefer, the “master mind” of The Caine Mutiny.
It is a note of anti-intellectualism. Arthur, with his education, his skepticism, his frustration with the whole range of secular values, signifies the rational person in a complete funk. Chayefsky, “exorcising” him with a wave of the love-wand, seems to be saying to all people who have ever recognized a single intellectual or moral contradiction: “See how simple it is? Why waste our time with your brains, when we common folk knew the secret all along?” Wouk, at least, was urging his customary view of the virtues of tradition and authority. Chayefsky, off the evidence of The Goddess, knows better—or, at any rate, knows otherwise. In his graceless parody of Arthur, he is pleading no deeply felt cause, but appears merely to be striking what the English call the mucker pose.
In this perspective, we can better understand a number of irritating details within The Tenth Man. Now we see, for example, why Evelyn’s grandfather, who first believes in the dybbuk, is cast as a “teacher of science,” while Alper, one of the more credulous of the old men, is represented as a Yiddishist intellectual, a kind of writer for the Forvaerts. Now we understand, too, some rather vulgar remarks made about Communism: Of Schlissel, someone says, “He’s not a Communist; he’s just disagreeable,” and Arthur recalls that he himself quit the Communist party when he found “an easier way to seduce girls.”
This kind of sneering seems to me implicit in the cult of loving, which pretends to sweep away all life’s dilemmas and the very need for thought about them. But such sentimentality, no matter how it is enveloped in comic cotton, inevitably betrays an artist. In the light of Chayefsky’s shabby conclusion, his previous mockery of psychiatry, religion, and life generally no longer appears to be so clever. Rather, it seems to be—as so deliberate an irony often is—an aggressive self-pity, which masks an essentially low view of man and his possibilities. And at this point we feel that the synagogue, the Jews in it, and the dybbuk myth have been used cheaply.
To be sure, The Tenth Man does not directly offend against the Jewish religion; Chayefsky, in keeping with the style of the times, has even had the “advice and assistance” of an Orthodox rabbi. Yet the Judaism of the script is confined to a few mumbled chants and simple references (all we ever learn even about dybbuks may be found in a half-page article in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia), and in the end the religion of Moses and Maimonides is reduced to “white robes,” “black candles,” and an ill-defined “capacity to love” which seems identical with parlor psychoanalysis.
It may sometimes be better for artists to believe in dybbuks than in nothing at all. S. Ansky in The Dybbuk, Bashevis Singer in Satan in Goray and other works, brought art to bear on superstitions of this kind and lent them a terrible human beauty. They did not revere superstition as such, but they did consider sacred the human souls captured by it: they accepted the reality and the intensity of the beliefs of the men, women, and children who held them. In this sense, they believed in the Evil Spirit—and in the mystery of a transcendental love—as the creator of The Tenth Man does not.
1 As elsewhere—see “By Love Redeemed,” by Hans Meyerhoff, September 1959.
2 Quoted from Television Plays by Paddy Chayefsky, Simon and Schuster, 1955.
3 Once again, imaginative actors provide a richness not in Chayefsky's lines—particularly Arnold Marlé, a veteran of the pre-Hitler German stage, as an old Cabbalist, and David Vardi, a founder of the Habimah Theater, as the sexton. Tyrone Guthrie's direction, and David Hays's set, are likewise excellent.