With the end of the 1948-49 theatrical season close at hand—a year rich in variety if not distinction—Alfred Kazin finds one theme chiefly preoccupying the present-day American theater and its playwrights. In this article, Mr. Kazin describes their somewhat unsuccessful struggles to deal with that theme.
Broadway is not usually thought of as the keeper of America’s conscience, but among the serious American plays this season a favorite theme has been the American struggle for integrity. In Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife, the setting is Hollywood, and the hero, America’s favorite male star, is so dismayed by having to submit to a fourteen-years’ contract, at I forget how many thousands a week, that what with his wife’s contempt for him and the accumulating small wretchednesses of life, he finally cuts his throat in the bathtub. In N. Richard Nash’s The Young and Fair, which had a short run but was really not much worse than many successful plays, only intellectually threadbare, a young, poor, and militantly liberal alumna of a fashionable junior college, serving as administrative assistant to the directress of the school (once a sterling liberal, but now unfortunately compelled for financial reasons to serve a near-fascist board of trustees), succeeds only by a hair’s breadth in winning her superior back to democracy. In Fay Kanin’s Goodbye, My Fancy, a distinguished liberal woman correspondent, returning to her old college, finds that she must struggle with the corrupt president, a former lover, to return to his youthful ideals. In Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky, a young and tenderly naive playwright, who has written a sternly “idealistic” vision of the future which on its tryout in Boston is supposed to have failed, is so roughly handled by the producer and the cast that it is not until the favorable notices have come out that he realizes he is not a martyr at all, but a triumphant visionary who has won the advantage over the crass Broadway characters around him. Even in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which is inestimably better than all the plays noted above, and one of the few things now on Broadway, along with Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot, that even give one the experience of being at a play at all, “integrity” is somehow dragged in at the end to explain a human tragedy accountable only in deeper terms.
Of course we all know that the uniform American drive for success inflicts a certain burden of guilt. This has been a proverbial theme in our 20th-century literature. The only change of late has been in the vocation of the hero, who now—ever since it became clear that it is not only in Russia that actors and writers have great social prestige and may even enjoy incomes equal to that of the managerial elite—tends to be the intellectual who has “sold out,” to Hollywood, or Luce, or the advertising agencies, then repents just in time to accept honest poverty and write the great American novel exposing Hollywood, or Luce, or the advertising agencies. Apparently it is their bad conscience that gives our ex-hucksters their morality, as their old experiences furnish their plots. It is out of bad conscience that we make our secondary literature. But then, a materialistic culture always knows the antidote to guilt: it attacks the boss.
For me, at least, there is always something mechanical and unexplained about the “idealism” of such plays and novels. Their writers all assume that Americans know what the good society is, that most of them are liberals by nature, kept from fulfilling themselves by the tyranny of certain dominant forces—“the big knife,” Odets has told us, is not confined to Hollywood, and is meant to symbolize all the pressures upon the individual in our society. In most of these plays the drama is entirely one of will rather than of knowledge—will the hero or heroine have the courage to break with false luxury?
But if anything is clear in Odets’ confusing play, it is that Charley Castle does not know what he wants, has no idea of right or wrong, is so confused by drunkenness, lechery, emotional turmoil, and actor’s egomania that he does not know where he is half the time, and that he is reluctant to sign the fourteen-years’ contract chiefly because he is afraid of earning his wife’s contempt. She is his conscience, a familiar fixture in American social drama, but she is peculiarly unconvincing in this role, for she is constantly brandishing a weapon. At periodic intervals, she simply withdraws the sexual compliance that is so necessary to him. Since he owes his prominence on the national scene to the fact that he has become the favorite male fantasy of millions of Americans, he would, of course, like to feel equally dominant at home. Far from being a repressed idealist, he is a moral cretin and a scoundrel. He runs over a child in his automobile, and allows his press agent to go to jail for him. Odets tells us that this is because of the pressure of the studio on him; that he finds no happiness in his luxurious Brentwood surroundings and would be happiest back in the Village—all through the play Waverly Place is longingly invoked as the honest American’s lost Arcadia—with his wife, child, and Rouaults. It is impossible to believe this. Obviously he likes being Hollywood’s “difficult” star, the quasi-intellectual New Yorker who despite his tough roles on the screen spends his money on Rouaults rather than the races. There is a moment in the play when his agent, trying to persuade him to do a particularly bad script, says in exasperation but also with admiring wonder, something like: “Do you have to say no to every script the studio shows you?”—at which the hero complacently smiles. No, no: this one obviously likes Brentwood, the adoring Negro butler, the pleasure of shocking the Louella Parsons columnist with the “foreign” pictures on his walls, the double ice bucket on the bar—that double ice bucket which, as one of Charley’s girls says in such awe, always has ice cubes in it, such a luxury, for everyone in this play drinks all day long. And obviously, too, the studio magnate, villainous as he is, will not keep Charley Castle from doing an occasional Broadway play, if his heart is really set on it; the movie-makers have been known to profit from such “folly” on the part of their biggest stars. What Charley Castle wants is not very clear, but part of it is certainly his wife’s homage; and even that he has somehow recaptured by the last act.
What, then, makes Charley so acutely miserable? Is it simply the pressure of the studio, the bad scripts they force him to do? Is it perhaps his guilt over the accident, which, though it gnaws at him, is never enough to make him think once of going to the police? Is it simply the craving for integrity that explains John Garfield’s nightly rages at the National Theatre? Is Charley really the common man caught under the big knife of American oligarchy? Somehow those rages touch on something else, without ever defining it, for Charley is ridiculous without being pitiful. All through The Big Knife I had the uneasy feeling that the lines were in excess of the play and that Odets knew it; that they were not even meant for this play. Integrity cannot be the subject of The Big Knife, for the hero is too limited to convince us of his struggles; so far as the play touches on integrity in any real sense, it is symbolically, as a reflection of Odets’ personal humiliation in Hollywood. But integrity is the familiar convention—we want to be honest, but it costs too much!—which he has introduced to support a certain violence of personal declamation. The Big Knife is a bad play, and Odets has written bad plays before; but never before did I feel at a play of his the pathos of a half-conscious insincerity in the choice of subject and characters. It is the most uncharacteristic of his plays, the most external and arbitrary—he literally didn’t know how to end it. He must have felt himself in a corner when he wrote it, for at times he actually quotes old lines of his as a joke, parodying the intensely personal rhetoric of his early plays.
But if the play out-Hollywoods Hollywood, it is full, even over-laden with Odets’ own desperate emotions. The emotions are irrelevant to the action, they make the play so far as there is one at all, while Odets shouts over the heads of his characters. But what was he aiming for here? Why has he insisted that the play is only nominally about Hollywood—an ironic point when one considers that, the play almost certainly owes much of its success to the éclat of a Hollywood setting and the fact that John Garfield, “in person,” stars in it? On the lowest level, I think, it is Odets’ understandable bitterness against Hollywood; above it, an honest if confused sorrow over the 30’s and the golden era of American-Soviet friendship—one of the significant and most passionate statements in the play comes when the wife cries out in lament for the dead FDR, the father of us all—what has happened to us since then? How could we have fallen into this political ice age? But on a higher and more crucial level it is Odets’ own pain and rhetoric seeking an antagonist, Odets in open mourning for the stormy and deeply satisfying days when there was still a certain revolutionary quickness in the air and America was not so full of fear as it is today. Actually Odets was never a dramatist of “social consciousness” either in the best or the worst sense of a phrase now confined to its agit-prop meaning; his flair is for intuitive revelations of personal character. The strength of an Odets play is usually its monologues; it will be noticed that the characters are usually too moved by each other to reply quickly. This happens even in The Big Knife, but here the big speeches are forced, parody Hollywood grandiloquence, and only batter people into submission. Nevertheless, Odets did depend for a certain formal love and hope upon the world’s moving in the “right” direction. His characters might denounce themselves as the most lost and wretched of earth—and they were; but in Odets’ mind they were clowns calling an end to the age of artifice.
Now, to judge from the savage misanthropy that bursts through all the bad Hollywood jokes about Hollywood in The Big Knife, there is nothing. Emotionally—and this is not so much a play as it is a furtive commentary on a concealed situation—the central element in it is protest against the absolute desperateness of the present.
I am surprised that so little has been said about this. It is the subject of the loudest and most pitiful exclamations in the play; it is repeated so often as to make it clear that the pain, the horror, the total disorientation, go far beyond Hollywood; that so far as this protest can have any application in space at all, it covers the whole length and breadth of the American myth; it cries out in the bitterest rage against America’s invocation and betrayal of happiness. It makes clear Odets’ underlying conviction that we do not betray ourselves at all, but that our culture is simply inhuman, and makes us its prisoners, next to the double ice buckets that always have ice in them. Hence the formal theme of “integrity” is only an excuse for Odets’ incoherent anger; he thinks as little of Charley Castle as we do; “integrity” is a theme that everyone in this country can recognize and respond to; the man who “sells his soul to Hollywood” is really innocent, and even to be regarded with a certain affection, for we sacrifice upon him all our real, or imaginary, or tentative guilt. But I doubt that “America” is the ultimate object of Odets’ wrath. I think it is himself. The Big Knife is a work of spiritual confusion, and the problem of integrity in Hollywood is only a convenient approach to the problem without meeting it. If happiness were only a question of living up to our ideals, why do we define our ideals so badly?
In Moss Hart’S Light Up the Sky integrity again serves as a convention; the naively idealistic playwright even wins the prize in the end, to the amazement of the producer and the cast. But of course this is only a comedy at the expense of certain well-known theater people; no one can believe for a moment in the play they are supposed to be doing. If Hart made his young hero-playwright so simple, it was only as a foil, to show the Broadway animals fighting among themselves. Here one man’s idealism or “integrity”—call it what you will—is only a pretext, and the point of the joke is that the damned Utopian thing they are playing has the makings of a hit in it, after all. The Broadway wiseacres are all confounded, and gather around the now triumphant young playwright to be nice again. Of course it is all a joke; there never was such a play, there never could be such a play; it exists only by virtue of Moss Hart’s genial patronage, a parody of his marginal self.
For consider the difference between Light Up the Sky and the play that is set up for its mockery. Hart is never confused, or angry, like his young hero, or Clifford Odets; any excess of emotion or waste of force would be as incongruous as a Bible lesson on a pair of nylons; he makes only streamlined goods. This particular piece of goods happens to be a play about theater people, and from the moment the curtain goes up there is that familiar exhilaration on the part of actors playing actors, not to forget that some of these are very well-known theater people, and that the dominant figure on the stage, Sam Levene, is playing one of the most “lovable” Broadway tycoons of our day. The setting—a white sitting-room in the Boston Ritz that gleams like a Madison Avenue jewelry shop—is more than half the play: American luxe suprême, the audience was flattered to be let in on so many Broadway trade secrets, gasped with delight to hear the producer’s tough wife making jokes about male sex organs, waited in ecstasy for each character to be delivered of some new riposte. One felt the excitement from the first: it was a privilege to be there—a woman next to me kept screaming,“ He’s killing me! That Moss Hart, he simply kills me! Have you ever heard such . . . !” We were in the hands of a playwright who would never let down this tired but eager audience for a minute. The lines got harder and bolder; never had there been such a Jewish producer so noisily and ecstatically Jewish, yet at the same time such a figure of moral yearning, incarnate with the American businessman’s longing for cultural prestige—three hundred thousand dollars on a play in which the leading lady went about in rags! Still, there was a certain clumsy heroism about this man: investing all that money in an “idealistic” play about the “future” did represent for him an act of faith. At the moment when the production seems to have failed, he turns on the young playwright like all the rest, storms against him asking comically for restitution, runs up and down the stage shrieking, lamenting, the most “charmingly” vulgar Jewish tycoon you have ever seen. But when the rather encouraging notices come in before dawn and he realizes he hasn’t thrown away all that money after all, he apologizes to the young playwright, and with one shrewd and admiring confession gives the game away and ties up Moss Hart’s play in an atmosphere of plain common sense—you were right after all, he tells the young playwright; I was wrong not to follow out my first hunch about you; but for heaven’s sake let’s now be sensible; let’s fix up the play so there won’t be any danger of it failing!
It is not until almost the very end of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman that the problem of integrity is named, as it is all through plays like The Big Knife, Goodbye, My Fancy, and The Young and Fair. But here, at least, integrity is not a rhetorical substitute for intelligence, and certainly not the makings of a joke, as it is to Moss Hart. It represents the climax of personal discovery, on the part of a son who all his life has suffered from the grandiloquent deceits of his salesman-father, and now, desperately aware that it is almost too late, struggles to make the father look squarely at his life for once. And significantly, it is the least convincing passage in the play, dramatically even an interruption of its emotional rhythm. For Death of a Salesman, though in idea an attack upon the self-deceptions and hollow expansiveness of the American booster, is in effect not so much about the vainglory of the success story as it is the decline and fall of a human soul; and this is all to Miller’s credit, he does not need to spell out his meaning in the son’s speech near the end.
The immense tragic force with which Lee Cobb plays the salesman, reminding us at every point that a man is dying before our eyes, not a symbol, has already so deeply pledged us to follow to the end one individual existence that the son’s last-minute appeal to the father to “know yourself” seems curiously unreal. Is Willy Loman’s life only the parable of a familiar lower-middle-class failure, the story of the naive little dreamer run down by the juggernaut of American power? This, presumably, is the “meaning” of the play—but only in the sense that the meaning of a man bleeding to death in the street is that he has been run down by an automobile. It was not this meaning that I carried away from Death of a Salesman. On the contrary, what makes it memorable is a concentration of tragic insight and pity directed entirely on the theme of individual destiny. The audience is not so much moved by the situation as it is stunned by the unexpected, the unhoped-for, dignity of emotion brought to bear on it.
The play is a dream, the story of a man dreaming his own death, a man always outside the social framework in which he is trying to recapture a fictitious place. What is actually said on the stage is the paraphrase of an emotion—felt from the moment Lee Cobb, with that harsh and individual pathos of his, shambles onto the stage under the weight of his salesman’s cases, struggling late at night to get into a house that is not one in which people have lived or could live, for it is an expressionistic nightmare, the idea of his doom. The weight of Cobb’s suffering is so heavy upon the stage that no one can believe for a moment that his dying is reducible to a social formula.
Why, then, the son’s stilted plea for integrity? Why do all the characters gather around Willy Loman, pleading with him to be something other than he is? Why are Miller’s emotional honesty and directness in conceiving his characters not equalled by interpretative power? His situations usually have deep family roots; the dominant relationship in this play, as in his first, All My Sons, is a strong attraction and repulsion between father and son; but he likes to attribute the son’s disillusionment with the father—the basic motif in his work—to a past social cause, the father’s outward guilt. In All My Sons it was the father’s dishonesty in selling the government defective planes; in Death of a Salesman it is the father’s adultery.
Yet in both plays the father so dominates the action, his sons so openly betray their resentment of his greater strength, that it is obvious that the hostility between them is intrinsic and has deeper causes than the father’s wrongdoing, which in fact is only a legal synonym for his greater guilt, a way of “explaining” it, and therefore an excuse for his suicide. In both plays of Miller’s the real subject is the father’s realization that he must die and the son’s half-expressed awareness that he has been threatening the father and will let him off only by his death. They are really Freudian plays, built up out of great depths of feeling, crystallizing around strong family archetypes. But for some reason Miller likes to rationalize their inherent tensions into “topical” drama. Ostensibly, Willy Loman might not have died if he had caught on to himself in time, if only he had had integrity. So that if you ask what Death of a Salesman is “about,” Miller’s last-minute moral forces you to say—what one’s whole experience of the play works against—that it shows up our American success story. Society explains Willy Loman; is Willy Loman, then, only our society made clear?
Somehow one doubts it. This is partly because Cobb’s emotional complexity, his unconscious deep air of grievance, is always in excess of naive Willy Loman (originally, I gather, the part called for a small man, the proverbial American drummer, to be flanked by a big-looking wife, whereas here Cobb had to be set off by the marvelously humble, thin, diminutive Mildred Dunnock), for by his very presence on the stage, his inveterate suggestion of some human pain too deep for words, one momentarily expects him to cry out like Lear on the heath. And partly because Elia Kazan’s direction results in so hypnotic a “mood” play that, as with his productions of Tennessee Williams, one hardly knows what the play is like. It is characteristic of Broadway today that one goes to see not a play but a production; more and more our sophisticated theater seeks the condition of our movies, where the script-writer is just another employe working for expert manipulators, an “idea man,” and everything is calculated to a specific audience reaction, as in radio, group journalism, and totalitarian political rallies.
I used to think that this dominance of the production-machine over the playwright was an autonomous technical development, for as our playwrights become less individual, the directors and production “experts” must of necessity do a great deal of their thinking for them. And certainly it is not to be overlooked that the subtly woven “atmosphere” which Elia Kazan learned in the ateliers of the Group Theatre (by way of Stanislavsky) has become indispensable to the really chic Broadway production. But obviously a more crucial reason is the increasing number of solitary character-studies on our stage, quite outside any “dramatic” situation except the toil and stress of the unconscious, and therefore to be softened, diffused, in a sense even replaced, by artfully stylized productions which really serve as liberal formulas—i.e., they ascribe success or failure to social backgrounds, like Odets’ Hollywood or Miller’s Brooklyn, which are rationalizations after the fact. Our drama has become increasingly subjective, but hates to admit it; Americans are allowed to bring the human problem on the stage only if they are willing to call it something else. And this is not difficult, for when certain liberal formulas have nowhere else to go, they can always find a home on Broadway.