Anne Burr Essay - Critical Essays

Burr, Anne

Burr, Anne 1937–

Ms Burr is an award-winning American playwright.

["Huui, Huui"] … is about a young man fighting off madness—or certainly a severe attack of the fantods—in a rooming house somewhere in this city [New York]. I suppose … something can be said for this young man, whose name is Feisel Hitselberger, and whose victim is himself, poor soul….

The play is, I think, pretentious rubbish—casebooky and often gratuitiously disgusting. There is no humor at all, though there are plenty of samples of conventional whimsey and conventional outrageousness. (p. 142)

Edith Oliver, in The New Yorker (© 1968 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 7, 1968.

Although written by a 31-year-old American, "Huui, Huui" is very much in [the] Middle European and America-of-the-30s genre [with its] blend of social concern and more or less expressionist irony…. "Huui, Huui" is a flawed play, but the spectacle of a work by a young playwright in which esthetic weakness and strength fight each other in an overt and humane way is a bracing spectacle in this time of on-the-make, hysterical and phony writers.

"Huui's" hero is Feisel, a dislocated, razor-edgedly neurotic young man with a fearsome fixation on the father from whom he has been cut off and the classic kinds of bad luck with girls. This sounds about as bad as "Jimmy Shine," but Anne Burr is an honest writer, and if her pathos often slips into sentimentality her feeling is unequivocally real and she has many moments of real power.

Jack Kroll, "Razor's Edge," in Newsweek (copyright 1968 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), December 16, 1968, p. 115.

["Mert & Phil"] consists of a scrutiny, nearly always on a level of relentless sordidness, of the psychological consequences not only of mastectomy but also of alcoholism, senility, cachinnatorrhea, and cunnilingual satyriasis. We are in a sick bay, and no mistake; all evening long, we never leave it and are never invited to experience the slightest lifting of spirits. The fact is that the lower shallows are less interesting by their nature than the lower depths, and so less rewarding. The middle-aged couple whose domestic miseries we are expected to share would fail to entertain us under the happiest of circumstances; they are dead souls inside dying bodies, and the integrity of their dreariness as they eat and drink and sleep and fumble at each other defies dramatizing.

Brendan Gill, "The Lower Shallows," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 11, 1974, p. 105.

[The] driving force of Burr's play [Mert and Phil] is a compassion so intense that it jolts the esthetic balance…. Mert has had a mastectomy, but this is really a symbol for the spiritual deprivation of all Burr's characters, inarticulate slobs living at the most primitive level of mind and body. Hysteria, lust and drunkenness have turned them into tragicomic grotesques whose closest approach to humanity is their own groping self-disgust.

Burr achieves some scenes of perturbing power and unsettling absurdity, but she crushes her play with the relentless, repetitive pressure of her pity. Still, the play draws blood…. (p. 122)

Jack Kroll, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1974.

Mert and Phil is a jarring mismatch between the drama of oppressive realism and the theater of the absurd. It is scabrous in word and action. Some of it is quite funny; some of it is extremely sad. It possesses a barbed honesty that obviously unsettled some of the playgoers who hissed and booed it on opening night, as well as several of the critics….

The truth is that Mert and Phil abrasively tweaks raw nerves. Mert is well into middle age and has recently had one cancerous breast removed. Only too conscious that her breasts were the chief attraction she exerted on her husband, she is sinking into a state of garrulous alcoholic despondency….

Mert's husband Phil is a gregarious fuel-truck driver of excessive bonhomie who reeks of gasoline fumes. He cannot cope with his wife's mastectomy….

Is the play, then, simply lubricious Erskine Caldwell country shipped north? Not really…. The easy and obvious charge to bring against Mert and Phil is bad taste, but it, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. More than likely, the play and Joseph Papp are being lambasted for presenting subjects that audiences deeply dread facing: the corruption of the flesh, the death of love, and growing old in bleak utter loneliness. There may be too little craft in Mert and Phil, but there is undeniable courage.

T. E. Kalem, "Tweaking Raw Nerves," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), November 18, 1974, p. 98.

[Mert & Phil, Anne Burr's] play about the lowest of the low—a couple for whom there is nothing but truck driving or housework, booze and TV, a live-in, senile mother-in-law and a few drop-in, dismal friends, a barroom brawl or a special potato dip, and a drabness and boredom ravaging them from within and without—clearly calls for the gifts of a Gorki or Büchner, or else! It is far easier to write even about the most mediocre members of the middle class than about these barely roofed-over plebeians, whose only fluctuations are between feeble attempts to shirk their misery and a torpid or groveling acceptance of it. It takes a very special talent to make such abjectness dramatically viable and spectatorially endurable, and Mrs. Burr is rather lacking in even much less special talents….

Several reviewers have made much of Mert's mastectomy, as if that, rather than the soul's dry rot, were the subject of the play. With every [scene], Mert and Phil have sunk a little lower yet, and the endless-seeming play might well be called "The Seventeen Descents of Mert 'n' Phil." Oh, the long and simple annals of the poor! (p. 122)

John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), November 18, 1974.

Mert & Phil … has been rather too harshly dealt with by most reviewers.

The first thing to be said about the play is that its theme is not the psychological depression caused in a woman by the removal of her breast but the maddening dreariness of many marriages among blue-collar workers. There is comedy in Ms. Burr's depiction of the environment, and there is pain. Certain scenes and speeches possess genuine pathos. The play suffers from the unresolved mixture of dismally farcical elements with the quiet truthfulness that is also unquestionably present. A proper blending or unity might perhaps have been achieved by cutting and by reducing the monotonous repetition in both the laughable and sentimental aspects of the play. (p. 573)

Robert Hatch, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 30, 1974.

The critical reaction [to Mert & Phil] was astonishing. On opening night, a few reviewers openly hissed and booed…. Critics wrote of feeling "battered," of "writhing" in their seats, and they used words like "coarse, sordid, vulgar, tawdry, dirty, rotten" to describe the offensive drama. (pp. 38, 40)

The tone of hostility and hysteria in the notices was so strident that a few critics took the unusual step of referring to their colleagues' reactions in their own reviews. Transcending merely "bad" or "unfavorable" notices, these were, rather, the intensely personal cries of victims, reeling from something that stung, wounded, attacked, and inflicted pain.

Certainly the play is vulnerable to objective criticism. Structurally both weak and untidy, it pursues a fragmented plot through confusingly episodic scenes. The mood staggers from realism to surrealism, frequently without purpose. And the demands it makes on an audience's compassion are almost too intense to meet. But whatever the work's artistic limitations, its vision and its voice compel respectful critical attention, not vituperative rage. To understand the violent overreaction of the reviewers, we must look deeper into the play, straight down to the core of its central character, right to the spot where Mert, as a woman, becomes a threat to men and their values.

The character of Mert is representative of women who feel themselves to be failures in the socially defined role of Woman. Aging, losing her sexual appeal, physically maimed (by a mastectomy), Mert is anguished by a dawning sense that the physical decay of her body means the loss of her identity. Her perception is tentative, but she senses that if she can no longer function as a sexual object, the world has no use for her at all.

But Mert doesn't sit back and accept pity; she explodes in anger, and her rage is eloquent….

Burr was violently denounced by critics who still cherish the very values she is questioning. Neither evil nor vindictive men, the critics illustrated an imbalanced and limited perception. They were caught off-guard by an attack on values they hold dear and are afraid or unwilling to question themselves. And the playwright, whatever the artistic flaws of this play, was denied the encouragement, respect, and admiration she has at the very least deserved. (p. 40)

Marilyn Stasio, in Ms. (© 1975 Ms. Magazine Corp.), September, 1975.