Ira Levin Essay - Levin, Ira (Vol. 3)

Levin, Ira (Vol. 3)

Levin, Ira 1929–

Levin is an American novelist and playwright most famous for Rosemary's Baby. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

Ira Levin. Now there's a name to conjure with. And conjure is surely the right verb to use in connection with this best-selling author who's as full of tricks as a Disney cartoon. I chose this simile not entirely spontaneously. Mr Levin uses a Disney derivation as an exercise in contemporary witchcraft in his latest novel The Stepford Wives.

Mr Levin's second novel, it may be remembered, was that updated excursion into the realms of Gothic horror tales, Rosemary's Baby, the chilling chronicle of the young wife fallen into the clutches of a Devil-worshipping sect, even of the Devil himself whose child she bears….

Rosemary's Baby, I did not find too unnerving an experience to read…. But if my flesh declined to show a tendency to creep while its terrors were related in grisly detail, it was not because Mr Levin's writing lacks graphic impact—he is a very fine writer indeed. Just that to be frightened out of one's wits, those same wits must first of all accept the possibility of those terrifying events actually happening. I don't believe in the Devil (says I, fingers crossed)….

But probably the main reason I thought Rosemary's Baby not all it was cracked up to be was because I was, still am, carrying the torch and banging the big drum on behalf of Ira Levin's first, marvellous novel. A Kiss Before Dying I claim to be, if not the best (though it could be), the most electrifying thriller ever written. I know it sent me out of the chair with shock and excitement….

Ever since then, the name Ira Levin on a book-jacket is a point-of-sales appeal I cannot resist. Alas, The Stepford Wives, is back to the Rosemary's Baby theme of metaphysical mayhem, not the cerebral but human hankypanky of Kiss Before Dying.

Eve Perrick, in Books and Bookmen, December, 1972, pp. 94-5.

[For his play "Veronica's Room," Levin] has borrowed a cunning structural principle from Agatha Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution," namely, that the way to create a surprise ending for a mystery, once you have established that a crime has been done, is to give out, as successive shocks, an interlocking series of motives for it. The elegance of Mr. Levin's finale lies in the way each successive shock makes a piece of the puzzle fall into place, clarifies something about the murky unexplained events that have preceded it. Bearing in mind that a mystery is a game, Mr. Levin has played his game out very skillfully….

Fortunately, Mr. Levin has out-clevered his own nastier side. His plot, straightforwardly laid out though it is, is too subtle to be followed by ignorant people on whom it might have an unhealthy effect (in terms of strengthening the awful ideas they already hold): the daily reviewers have proved it resoundingly by missing the point with near-unanimity. Anyone who is intelligent enough not to miss it is also likely to be aware of the niceties of structure, foreshadowing, and puzzle-piecing that make it only a terrific game. It is especially recommended for dabblers in abnormal psychology, but general intelligence will do as a basic qualification. And, as I said, the fact that the atmosphere of "Veronica's Room" is a shade gamy doesn't detract from the skill and wizardry of its game.

Michael Feingold, "A Good Game, But Gamy," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1973 by The Village Voice, Inc.), November 8, 1973, p. 77.

In one sort of suspense thriller, the audience is let in on a secret that the characters do not know. In another, the characters possess some piece of knowledge that the audience is in the dark about. Inadvertently, Ira Levin has written a mystery in which his characters seem to know something that has eluded him. Veronica's Room poses a puzzle in the first act and tries to resolve it with three or four new puzzles in the second act. Result: frustration.

Despite its ultimate failure, the play is not badly written, and an air of expectancy, abetted by expert performances, hovers over it….

Levin develops the weirdness of his characters at the expense of their motivations. Thus incest, necrophilia and schizophrenic identity shifts enter the picture without clarifying it. This is a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces.

T. E. Kalem, "Jigsaw Puzzle," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1973 by Time Inc.), November 12, 1973, p. 135.

Veronica's Room belongs clearly in the category of Unnecessary Plays: works for the theater that have nothing to do with what the stage, the times, the people today can use. Ira Levin's latest is a Gothic horror story that tries to be part mystery, part psychiatric case history, yet manages to engage neither our desire to guess and play along nor our ability to accept the pathology involved; it remains a mere Gothic horror story, for which few souls nowadays evince a strong urge….

My point is that except perhaps as camp, our age no longer needs the works of "Monk" Lewis, Horace Walpole, and Mrs. Radcliffe: Gothic horror has been driven out of business by everyday horror. For horror, it should be understood, is a form of titillation (just like gratuitous sexuality, which the show also contains), needed in periods when there is no manifest horror to feast on in our daily lives. The Augustans and Victorians, who deluded themselves into believing in a rationally or morally ordered and secure world around them, desperately craved little jolts that would let in bits of thrilling, nonquotidian chaos. But today, when political and social horror thrives in the world, the media, and the popular imagination, there is no useful escape through a make-believe freak-cum-horror show such as Veronica's Room. If there were some psychological credibility in it (as in, say, Angel Street, alias Gaslight), or if there were even a vague relevance to it (as to, say, Levin's own Rosemary's Baby, which drew on the presumed actuality of certain demonic cults), all right; but all we get here is preposterousness and poor stagecraft: nothing but exposition for one whole act, and nothing but hectic, inscrutable reversals for the final mauvais quart d'heure.

John Simon, "For Gothniks and Ethniks," in New York Magazine (© 1973 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), November 12, 1973, p. 75.