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NDE are the national educational radio network presents special of the week from the Yale University series called Yale reports. Today we bring you a report on satire in the theater. To begin we take you to the stage of the Yale University theater for information on the ingredients of a new play about our political folly. God bless. By Jules Feiffer. My name is Robert. We have here. Obviously what you're seeing tonight is a play that's been carefully calculated to insult everybody along the political spectrum. And I think it's interesting that while the main thrust of the play seems to be satirical of the liberal political tradition in America for the last hundred some odd years. That the people who have been most sensitive
as I understand it to the events of the play and to the satirical thrust of the flag have been students of a radical bent I suppose somewhere along the line I am. I realize that that obviously this would come up and of course it bothered me because in a way the kids are doing the protesting today and even to a certain degree the disrupting. R. I think the only important and certainly the only interesting force that there is in the country today. That was Jules Feiffer with Robert Bruce Dean Dean of the Yale Drama School speaking on stage at the Yale dater about some aspects of satiric writing for the theatre after a performance of god bless. For more details here's Pfeiffer in conversation with Alvin and Yale professor of English Mr. Koenig.
People have often puzzled a good deal over why it is that satire hasn't flourished in this country and the number of answers have been proposed. None I think really satisfactory. But I've always thought that perhaps the one answer that came closest to it was the general feeling in America expressed in the Rotarians phrase of boost Don't knock somehow attack and specific blame directed sharply and pointedly at particular people or activities or ways of thinking makes Americans more uneasy than the English say even with the English. I really appreciated by many people more than the literary and intellectual community of the time and even among the English even Well certainly Swift of their readership was in a minority and what we know about and probably mainly from the attacks of those people who are outraged by what they said. That's very true and the people who felt good about their work like that work had
simply had it. You know intellectual security or class security so that they weren't threatened by it and could except with the work had to say. That's something that I don't think we've ever had in this country among the academic community intellectual community of the literate community I think that sense of assuredness which would provide a home for work such as this so that when words have been written they've usually just disappeared. I don't know if they have been written I think many of them have I discovered a brilliant satire on capitalism written in one hundred twenty is that I never heard of and still haven't heard of anybody anybody right before the Woodward book. You know I don't know I go and it's a marvelous book and terribly funny you know and I'm sure there must be other books like that that just vanished into thin air because there were there was an audience for them. Well it's very true isn't that our guy and satire is the one that's viewed with most suspicion and the most uneasiness by the greatest
number of people. It is I suppose very simply because it is the engine of anger. As one critic called it it's the way in which we attack verbal E and by way of pictures as well. And people are always nervous about attack about aggression and about anger. And so we seek to control it in a great variety of ways to control it and even disguise it general complaint is. Why are you so against Why are you always against when you force some. Yes yes what what is it that you that you stand for what is it you people want you. There is however a theory suggested a number of years ago by Kenneth Berg that satire flourishes best in times of greatest repression. It's like the Friday and theory of the joke the naked display of aggression is not acceptable but that which is managed either in conventional terms or is covered up in some way or modified in some ways perhaps a better way of putting it modified by wit and by cleverness. This aggression then becomes
acceptable and an outlet for aggression which is available to all of us. And so Burke feels that at the time of the greatest repression and censorship the best kind of satire is likely to be written to be written but I don't know if it becomes more acceptable when I think of him particularly as the McCarthy period the 50s. Senator Joe McCarthy. When. This country went through the most severe repression it had undergone since the. Palmer aerated era of repression in nine hundred twenty eight. And this was much better organized than that. And yet very little satire was written. Virtually none was published. The satire that was published had very little to do with the politics of the time with repression a lot of stuff came out of mass culture and that's where the attention we focused on areas that was safe in publishable. But what was social political comment was happening was happening in nightclubs
was happening with Mort Saul Lenny Bruce and Nichols and May in another area. And that kind of strength you didn't see in the pages of The New Yorker or or even for that matter a Partisan Review or commentary. Yet we do seem to live at least in the 60s in a time when satire has become much more popular and much more prevalent than it had been previously. That began with the moral lesson life period of the Kennedys when things began to open up in the Eisenhower repression was over. And it was discovered that dissent could be allowed because in the end it didn't seem to mean anything. Does it you think. I think it does. I think it does it's been if the movement of Senator McCarthy proved nothing else it showed that all those years of of peace marching teach ins speak ins.
Had some effect of that somewhere on a level very very basic in a row to the government's confidence in himself and and after one primary in New Hampshire which everyone in government said didn't mean anything Lyndon Johnson collapsed totally. And I don't think that could have happened without all the previous effort which at the time seemed ineffectual in many ways. There were certain myths about outsells that that have to be dispelled that have to be exploded and. And I don't think there's going to be much progress of any kind in this country until now. The American Dream meets the American dream of the 9800 century meets the American reality of the 20th century and. And the man who thinks of himself as as the good honest nice American who wouldn't harm anybody recognizes that in a very large measure He's
also a killer. You are you do have the American dream in the US don't you. Yeah that's what so many of Bradman's memories are about they certainly begin with that the old America which was agrarian where there was community control where the communities control the education of the children they controlled the way they dressed. The way they lived where one married the neighbor next to his daughter. Where everything seems simpler when there were no minority problems. That dream America which if it ever existed at all only existed for a minority of people only for a short period of time. The majority of people who are listening to this program may not have seen or read your play God bless. I wonder if it might be helpful to provide a brief description of the plot line of the story was a political play.
And when I wrote it it was originally dated 10 years in the future and by the time I got around to a second to second draft some of the events in the play had already begun to take place so I had to read dated into the immediate future. Now it seems to be in part a documentary of some past events I think any political play or any play about. About the problems of today almost has to take place within the confines of a happening because it operates against a back loss of the American society. It's interesting to see for example Joseph Heller's play the bomb in New Haven which I saw last year up at Yale. And so again in New York just recently. And how differently the play now seems to me. Because of Chicago and because of the Ante being upped
in American society on the anti gun violence the other and the ending of repression. So this play will operate against an audience of sensibilities that are out there. We're in for four years of what's very likely to be the most difficult and repressive period in you know history. In the event it deals with the birthday of America's greatest elder statesman who is great and very elder because he's 110 years old and has lived through every important and social political and international crisis that's confronted this country since Reconstruction and has in some important way or another dealt importantly with these crises. And. And has been an enormous influence as a great liberal and a great dissenter on just about every line of liberal thought that's come down and the
following 50 60 years and has been honored by everybody and on this day his birthday the next American revolution breaks out. And everyone concerned with the revolution from the president on to the revolutionaries have been at one time or another his students this close concludes the secretary of state the CIA chief people on all sides of the fight and they all gather for reasons that would only seem realistic in the theater at his house at an appropriate time and and have it out. You mentioned that he has been involved in every important issue since Reconstruction. He has also I think it's fair to add been involved in every piece of chicanery and every sellout that the Republicans engaged in since that time. You know he's a pragmatic liberal and believes only in being effective that morality has no place in politics one knows where he wants to wait one knows where he wants to go one wants to do the best he can. And politics is the art of the possible and the art of compromise and one moves
ahead by inches but continually keeps his eye on the horizon toward which he wants to move and makes whatever deals he can to get in there. So the route is rather circuitous and he is not interested really in making that grand. Speech is about where we should go he wants to he claims that he wants to get there and the argument that's brought up in the play is how close is it gotten or how far back is he really gone through this route. I really wanted to do an examination of real politic it's become popular in the liberal community and oh in the past 15 or 20 years. Look at the cold war liberalism as it were which is quite proud of itself for having done away with that. Well we minded Julie eyed. Impractical idealism that you never seem to get anywhere. And what this looks into is how far pragmatic liberalism has gotten us. You make it sound as if Brock won the one hundred ten year old liberal really a kind of
heroic figure and that the values he represents are the values that you'd be willing to settle for in reading the play however I didn't get that impression. Oh no not at all not at all. No it's not what I was trying to do in the play and show what I'm what the heritage of modern liberalism has brought us to. And in the current climate the Viet-Nam climate is I think very largely a product of that. I'm weary of the climate that allows. Hubert Humphrey to preside over the Chicago convention and and quietly watch from his window as kids are being beaten up and still come out as a liberal and still be considered vulnerable for because he's a lesser evil like that kind of money think which is which only can be defended in terms of practicality. Practicalities got us for example of Vietnam and I
involved and there was a triumph of the pragmatic liberal approach. Indeed that's the way I read the play although I haven't seen it yet and I don't know quite how it will come out on stage. But it seems to be that rocked by and the kind of Muzzy headed liberalism and practicality that he's the spokesman for. Are indeed the source of all the trouble in the play. It's he who has sold out values and ideals again and again through the history of the country. It's as you pointed out who has been the teacher of all the people who are involved in the media fiasco. In the end he presides over the last and final sell out. It's he who gets the opposing radical forces in the establishment together and makes them accept a deal which as I remember it gives all the Southern States to a black republic and permits the revolutionary powers to bomb 25 American cities and all because it's all a good solid compromise. Yes something that that works. You know the interest not only in the greatness and consensus and bringing
conflicting viewpoints together. I expect though there are going to be a lot of people who see your play who think that the dream that Brackman phrases is the ideal of the play that the world that it is the world that you would really like and that indeed most of us would like to return to. I don't think the wait stage they'll be able to think of. I certainly hope not. It's interesting that the end of the play I find rather moving with those old hypocrites going back over of his dreams and. And it is sort of touching. But when one thinks of the context within which it's operating it becomes at the same time which should become rather horrifying. Well I think that that mixture of mood is not inappropriate to a show you do. So he's he's real and believable and understandable for a moment but at the same time that's one of the things that amazed me in reading it that I
thought of all the caricature was he would be. The most the most obvious one. And I found instead that as as he was being written that he took on all sorts of different shapes and dimensions and I got to like him. Yes there's an old saying I forget who put it this way that every great satirist really loves the great satirical idiots of the past do indeed show that the man who had who created them has some sympathy and some feeling for them. I found it interesting in reading the play that it didn't exactly move where I had intended it to go when I began it and in a way that's what I find exhilarating about play writing as opposed to say cartooning where working in a very short form. It's quite clear to me at all times what each cartoon is about and and why I'm doing it. But working in the theatrical fall and in a longer form where
characters start having relationships to each other into I did as and move in directions which I plan but have results that may be unplanned. I found that at the end of the play and the play ended exactly right for me. I still wasn't quite sure where I had taken it. If I had to if I had to do an essay on what I said or what the what the message of the play was other than some of the things we've just spoken about it would be difficult for me to be explicit about it. I think the liberals would be rather unhappy about it but I also think that in a number of the new lessons kids will rejected parolees counterrevolutionary because the way the radicals now play the black nationalist leader and the white radical leader revolutionary leader are not pussycats either. You know I thought that there was no choice among the characters all of them were
and all positions are really as frightful as all other positions. You know my hope was that in showing this I wasn't even handedly. Casting aspersions on all sides because it's a form of satire I have no respect for. What I was doing instead was showing what all these many years of Backman ism had brought us and and the nature of the left we see in the country today grows very much out of that. Just as the nature of the pragmatic presidency that can start with Lyndon Johnson as a war on poverty hating war hating liberal and cutting his poverty program and bombing the enemies but the radicals of the students on the radical left who are creating the revolution at the time the players taking place are just simply the EP of the cardio ad absurdum. The enlargement to the point of absurdity of the Rockman liberal
position were not to be taken as heroic figures or as people who are struggling for truth or justice who are unwilling are in their own light I find them considerably sadder. Bracken part puzzle because I am forced to take them more seriously because they are the future and they are what in a way the play is. It is about and and I suppose a lament. Unspoken in the play is that. This is a sort of radical leadership which is becoming more and more anti human that the country is moving toward and its. It's unfortunate for the radicals but it's unfortunate for the country because we need a strong radical movement in the country but it can't as it now seems to be losing its. Its humanity and losing it for a rhetoric that is as totalitarian and rigid and
as blind as the radical communist rhetoric in the 30s. Well perhaps I was reading out of my own prejudice but it seemed to me that in the play itself the radical left the negro and Norman are X and the white boy James and James were just minor versions of broccoli. In fact you used exactly the same technique to deflate and reveal them. They speak in grand abstract words about peace and honor and dignity and then first thing when it comes to practicalities they speak of using the atomic bomb on cities beheadings of tortures and of mutilations is the difference between being in and out of power and it defines certain positions they find that once they move as they do in the last scene of the play to a power position of negotiation. Then they get into the same business of horse trading that has brought us to the point where we are now. But even their program before they arrive at power is not one in which the play makes it acceptable in
those terms is it not. Now what but one of the points I want to make is is how Brackman being a liberal is first horrified by the actions of the revolutionaries when they tell him that. Among other things that they've done is cut off the ears of. Career military offices and he finds us atrocious and yet by the end of the play he's quite sanguine only negotiating how many American cities should be bombed in order to teach the American people lesson about violence and whether it should be 50 of 40 or 30. And the only other general political or social position represented in the play that of the liberal and the establishment and the young black and white revolutionaries is that of the backlash radical right. The army of taxi drivers storming the streets of Washington in counter revolution.
Surely they're not to be taken as a model of conduct either. They're not what you believe in or support. Is there anyone in the place who does represent what you would consider your values. You know that's deliberate. I'm always been bothered by the voice of the author in in plays it's more acceptable in novels. Somehow you get around it more easily and so often but when everybody on stage is awful except for Mr. Nice who comes on and says well the right things and has all the best lines. He's always Henry Fonda. It's something in me dies and it's sitting in the theater there and I. I think. That it's a mistake. If you want to affect an audience to give them any party line from the stage what I would hope to do what I try to do is Little Murders and what I'm trying to do and God bless them
is. Is have characters who confront each other and who represent ideas real ideas in a society and. And by the open positioning of these ideas creating the audience perhaps new terms for their own examination of these ideas so that when they leave the theater they'll be they'll be an argument not necessarily with each other but with themselves trying to figure out exactly how they feel about this thing how it strikes them because perhaps they didn't quite see it in this light earlier. And if I if I can manage simply that I think it it it will be helpful. Well I agree with you. I found that by the time I'd written a second draft of the play these political cartoons which they were in the first draft had taken on some kind of inner conviction if not an inner life that made them a bit
more rounded. And I think the way they can be played more interestingly is not simply as a as a caricature as that one might see in a review but with oh an inch or two more deaths than that. So one of the things of course is that the difference between this and say a review is that at all times the actors must take their arguments quite seriously that one of the important characters in the play is the president. And he says. Things that are so obviously insane that that act is at first have a tendency to comment on them while acting on it. And it just doesn't work that way. It can't work that way because what he's saying in the end is only insane we see in the theater but it's really not very different than politicians say when they were in the being very serious and this man has been quite serious. It seemed to me that although each character's dialogue was put together very skillfully
to reveal the ghastly truth about the man and his ideas it was made up really of modern political and sub political cliches. Somehow the words didn't come out by themselves they were words that were provided by newspapers and magazines not coming directly out of the character but by really little efforts of the times I found it fascinating to meet politicians and be in Washington a bit and discover that the. The way that world is just as one dimensional as it looks on the Hunley Brinkley put that that they are people just like many movie stars who have no backs to their bodies and whose eyes don't focus when he gets off. When the subject gets off the politics and power and and have no identities other than their political identity I think this gives them a certain quality of hollowness and emptiness.
Their style doesn't come out of their or out of their being but is acquired like their clothes. You made your reputation first as a cartoonist and a satirist in that medium. Do you find a great difference between the way you practiced as a cartoonist you mentioned earlier that you had first seen the characters in God bless his political cartoons. Do you find the shift involves a shift in ways of thinking. Oh yes he's working here even that way. Well the first play of it was Little Murders in which. I didn't see the characters as cartoons at all although some of the critics insisted that they did. But to me they're the characters had real relationships with each other. Above and beyond the dialogue they had with each other on stage in and God bless the play has no reason for being other than politics it's a political play and and everything the characters say on stage they mean there's no real subtext. And
Special of the week
Issue 52-1968
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