Arthur Laurents Essay - Critical Essays


If Arthur Laurents can be said to belong to any group of post-World War II American dramatists, his closest affinity is surely with those who might be called psychological realists and who came into maturity in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, especially William Inge and Robert Anderson. Like them, Laurents is primarily a playwright who focuses on character. He often, though not always, portrays women caught up in the age of anxiety, beset by self-doubt or even self-loathing. Yet unlike either Inge or Anderson, Laurents reveals a solid measure of Thornton Wilder’s influence, both in the generally optimistic philosophy as well as in the nonrealistic stylistic techniques of some of his later plays and musical books. Although he has, like Anderson, decried those playwrights, particularly of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, who value experiments in form and style over content, who make the manner rather than the matter count most, Laurents will depart from strict realism and from a linear method of dramatizing his story when a legitimate reason exists for doing so, as he does in his use of narrators in Invitation to a March and Anyone Can Whistle, in his use of characters to change sets in The Enclave, and in his use of variations on the flashback technique in Home of the Brave and A Clearing in the Woods. As he says in the preface to A Clearing in the Woods, he willingly embraces greater theatricality if it brings with it a greater ability to illuminate the truth.

In that same preface, Laurents provides perhaps his clearest statement of the central insight into the human condition that pervades all of his writing for the theater: If men and women are lonely, and they are, it is because they cannot accept themselves for the flawed, imperfect creatures that they are; and until they achieve such self-acceptance, they will be unable to feel sufficiently, or to give of themselves sufficiently, to experience a sense of completion and fulfillment. When Laurents’s characters are unhappy in this way, when they are hurting within themselves, they lash out and, attempting to deflect their own misery, hurt others. The pattern is as applicable to Peter Coen (Home of the Brave), Leona Samish (The Time of the Cuckoo), and Virginia (A Clearing in the Woods) as it is to Wally Williams (The Bird Cage), Mama Rose (Gypsy), or Ben (The Enclave). Wally, for example, is a sexually disturbed egomaniac who destroys others and eventually himself, while Ben has been hurting for so long from having to keep his homosexuality hidden that he finally decides to hurt his friends back by shocking them into recognition, if not acceptance, of his lover Wyman. Rose is the archetypal stage mother, seeking in her daughter’s accomplishments a substitute for the success she never had. (The influence of parents in Laurents’s work, it should be noted, is not invariably restrictive; for every Rose who uses a child to gain something for herself, there is a Camilla Jablonski—Invitation to a March—who, by example and urging, liberates the child.)

The diminished sense of self-worth exemplified by so many of Laurents’s characters has an individual psychological basis, but it can also be greatly exacerbated by social forces, such as prejudicial attitudes and the drive to conform. The prejudice may be racial, as in Home of the Brave, West Side Story, and Hallelujah, Baby!, or sexual, as in The Enclave, while the conformity may be either in the area of perpetuating the success syndrome through seeking a comfortable economic status, as in A Clearing in the Woods and Invitation to a March, or in the inability to break free of repressive sexual mores and conventions, as in The Time of the Cuckoo and Invitation to a March. Finally, Laurents’s characters are often plagued by an impossible dream, by a desire to find magic in their lives. Sometimes the magic is short-lived, as it is for Leona in The Time of the Cuckoo or for the young lovers in West Side Story; at other times, it endures, as it does for Camilla, Norma, and Aaron in Invitation to a March or for Fay Apple in Anyone Can Whistle. Indeed, characters such as Camilla and Fay (complicated women who need and, luckily, find heroes) come closest to embodying Laurents’s ideal of being free and wholly alive, of enjoying each and every moment, an ideal that he seems to have inherited from Wilder. If Laurents’s upbeat endings sometimes seem slightly forced and if his sentiment once in a while veers over into sentimentality, he remains an intelligent, sensitive, and thoroughly professional man of the theater.

No one would claim that Laurents belongs among the indisputably first-rank dramatists (with Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, for example). Still, he has produced, along with librettos for two of the best works of the musical theater—West Side Story and Gypsy—one or two memorable plays that readers will return to and little theaters will revive: The Time of the Cuckoo and Invitation to a March. The latter work, in fact, with its deft handling of tone and comfortable assimilation of Wilder’s philosophical outlook and stage techniques to Laurents’s own purpose, may finally be seen as his most significant play.

Because Laurents’s major efforts are so varied in form and structure, he remains difficult to categorize. He resembles both Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller in his hatred of prejudice and his compassion for those who must hide a facet of themselves, whether racial or sexual, to avoid rejection. In Laurents, however, it is not only, or even primarily, the other person or society that seeks to limit his characters’ world; rather, the central characters themselves, through their psychological inhibitions and moral or sexual repression, circumscribe their own existence. Like several other playwrights from the decade immediately following World War II, Laurents has not always escaped criticism for his “group therapy session” or “pop psychologizing” plays, which have, admittedly, sometimes ended with victories too contrived or too easily won: Simply recognizing one’s own frailties does not always assure a newfound freedom and integration and maturity. Laurents’s accurate reading of modern human beings’ injured psyches, awash in the anxiety and self-doubt that inevitably accompany any search for an ethical system running counter to traditional social and sexual mores, remains in somewhat uneasy balance with his innately positive view that the individual can win through to a sense of personal wholeness. Yet Laurents dramatizes this tension with such honesty and in such understated terms that Coney’s and Leona’s and Norma’s victories seem to be the audience’s own; the illusion complete, they, too, at least momentarily hear a waltz. Like his spokeswoman Camilla in Invitation to a March, Laurents at his best can be an adroit stage manager, gently pulling the strings that have always moved audiences in the theater.

Home of the Brave

A taut drama about prejudice during World War II, Laurents’s Home of the Brave dramatizes how the experience of being condemned as an outsider, being made to feel different from others, affects the victim. Although not as theatrically elaborate as Peter Shaffer’s Equus (pr. 1973) three decades later, Home of the Brave employs a surprisingly similar dramatic strategy: A doctor attempts to uncover the cause of a patient’s symptoms by having the patient, under the influence of drugs, abreact, or therapeutically act out traumatic events from the past; what might appear to be flashbacks, then, are more accurately considered as deeply embedded memories now reenacted. Private First Class Peter Coen (nicknamed “Coney”) suffers from paralysis and amnesia brought on when, of necessity, he left behind his friend Finch during a dangerous reconnaissance mission on a Japanese island. For a long time, the sensitive Finch (he retches after having to kill an enemy soldier) had been one of the few to refrain from—and even physically defend Coney against—the anti-Semitic remarks rampant among the other soldiers. Especially guilty is Colonel T. J. Everitt, a former company vice president who makes Coney the butt of his resentment over finding himself at war, not seeing any connection between his attitudes and those of the enemy.

Coney has been on the receiving end of such hatred ever since grade school, and Doctor Bitterger counsels that for his own good Coney must, to a degree, become desensitized to such unthinking prejudice. Under the pressure of their fatal wartime mission, Finch had hesitatingly called him a “lousy yellow . . . jerk,” and Coney sensed then that Finch had caught himself just in time to prevent “Jew bastard” from slipping out. When Finch died and Coney’s gut reaction was to be glad that it was not he who was killed, he felt shame and guilt, and he continues to imagine that there was some connection between the momentary hatred he experienced for Finch and his not staying behind and dying with him. Although Bitterger helps his patient understand intellectually that he acted in much the same way in which anyone else might have under the same circumstances, this realization does not sink into Coney’s heart until another soldier, Mingo, recounts a similar experience.

Coney is not the only soldier whom Mingo tutors. Their commander, Major Robinson, though—like Mingo and Finch—essentially free of judging others in terms of racial distinctions, still experiences some difficulty in knowing how to command a group of men. Younger than some of the soldiers under him, Robinson attempts to compensate for lack of experience through an excess of enthusiasm, seeing war metaphorically as a game to be won. He cannot easily admit that his men might instinctively know more than he does—he fails, for example, to see T. J. for the bigot he is—nor does he fully understand that they deserve respect as men just as much as he does as an officer. Mingo, already overly sensitive to the fact that his poet-wife is better educated than he, has recently received a “Dear John” letter telling him she is leaving him for another man. When, as a result of the mission on which Finch was killed, Mingo loses an arm, he feels doubly afraid to return home, since as a disabled person he will now be one of society’s outsiders.

When Coney discovers that Mingo, too, despite his crippling injury, felt glad to be alive when he saw comrades die, he has a vision of his communion with all humanity: Despite differences, all men are fundamentally the same. Two frightened individuals can now go home from the war brave enough to start life again. Together Coney and Mingo will open the bar that Coney had originally planned to run with Finch. The land to which they will return is not yet free of the prejudice that wounds men like Coney and Mingo, and this helps keep Laurents’s ending from being too saccharine. If the revelation that Coney receives seems perhaps too meager to effect much in the...

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