Friday, March 12, 2010

Author! Author!

You can just imagine The Author shifting uncomfortably in his seat.
He was a tall man and the seats in this small theater weren’t meant for a man of his height.

Still, he had to be there. This was opening night, even if it was a bit off-Broadway and a good review in tomorrow’s TIMES could mean a good run. After that, who knows?

It had to be a bit of a helpless feeling. He had written a book, the book the play was based upon. But the play itself was the work of someone else.

Mrs. Fraenkel had first dramatized the book a decade before. She originally called it “Taboo”. She continued working on the play, refining it, tweaking. It was a difficult subject, you know. It won some awards and bounced around for a while. There had even been some interest of turning it into a movie. Nothing ever came of that, so it finally came down to this, this play.

Not that he had anything against The Theater. Some of his best friends were playwrights. Well, one of his friends.

Oh, they had their disagreements, him and Arty. Specifically about Arty’s play.

“What the play does,” Arty explained, “is make the individual ask himself whether his rationalizations about himself are not leading him to an ultimate rendezvous with a dreadful reckoning.”

“That is just what bothers me,” The Author interrupted, “The hero of your play has a false dream. He succeeds with it; he fails with it; he dies with it. But why did he have this dream? Isn’t it true that he had to have a false dream in our society?”

“To my mind,”
he continued, “there are two kinds of suffering. The inescapable like death and aging and the unnecessary which grows out of social conditions.”

The Author was disappointed. Arty seemed to be missing the point of his own play.

“Social content is most often little more than the author’s disguised opinion,” Arty stated flatly.

“The play makes the individual realize that his apprehensions about himself are shared by nearly everyone.”

“Don’t you think,” The Author countered, “that the audience, instead of having apprehensions about themselves should have fears about the social conditions in which these apprehensions grow?”

“I think that when the audience weeps,”
Arty said dramatically, “they are weeping for themselves.”

The Author had to sum it up for Arty.

“The question is, do they realize that it is up to them not only to sympathize and to deplore the evil that oppresses such families in our society, but to fight it?”

That was the point. That was the point The Author was always trying to make.

The Author probably scanned the audience to see if he recognized anyone. It was a packed as a theater with 300 seats could be. It’s likely the producers were there. The Author didn’t know them well, although he did kind of recognize one of them. He was an actor himself, a television actor it was said. He played “Casey, Crime Photographer”. A silly name, probably a silly show.

The house lights darkened and the play began.

The Author squinted to see the faces of the actors through his glasses. The woman seemed capable of playing mother Rosa. And the boy, Gino--he glanced at his program--”James Lipton”--was properly overwrought.

The Author wondered if the audience would catch the subtleties of the story. Sure, it was about an immigrant Italian family led by a licentious widow and her overprotective son, but would they see the parallels to “Hamlet” or “Oerestes”? He had worked hard to craft a true incident into a bestseller. The book’s subtitle likely sold a few copies in itself: “A Study in Murder”. Murder always sells well; crime does pay.

The audience watched the play unfold quietly, almost too quietly. Despite the sordid premise of a mother obsessed teen who stabs her to death with a carving knife rather than have her remarry, the play was remarkably reserved.

The review in the NEW YORK TIMES the next day would suggest that, “Perhaps she has underwritten it too severely for the good of the play as a whole.”

“Although it is always interesting and credible,” wrote reviewer Brooks Atkinson, “it does not have much life of its own as a piece of writing.”

While crediting the cast for generally winning performances, Atkinson adds, “no one ever speaks a complete sentence without pausing portentously.” And after a final dismissal that the play was, “closer in style to psychiatry than to art,” he allows, “it is worth an experimental showing.”

The review sealed the play’s fate. It closed after eight performances on March 29, 1952.

The Author had to be disappointed. Gone was the hope of a Broadway run. Gone was the chance it would be made into a movie. But there was always the next book. Research still to be done. And The Author, Dr. Fredric Wertham, could only hope that SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT would be as successful as DARK LEGEND.

“Dark Legend“, a play in three acts by Helene Fraenkel, opened March 24, 1952 at the President Theatre in New York City. Among the cast were Olive Deering as the mother, Rosa, James (“Inside the Actors Studio") Lipton as son Gino and James Daly as one of her lovers, Rocco. One of the play’s producers was actor Darren McGavin, best known for his cult classic television show, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”.

The discussion between Dr. Wertham and playwright Arthur Miller about his play, “Death of a Salesman”, took place in the Sunday edition of the NEW YORK TIMES, May 15, 1949 and was entitled, “A Dialogue: Let the Salesman Beware”.

Additional information came from various magazine and newspaper articles regarding both the play and Dr. Wertham’s 1941 bestseller, DARK LEGEND: A STUDY IN MURDER.

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