Israel Horovitz Essay - Critical Essays


In En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954), Samuel Beckett created an indelible image of modern humanity: two bums cut off from any reality other than their immediate present and each other. The image of two men bound together in a mutually dependent but uncomfortable relationship was central also in Beckett’s next play, Fin de partie: Suivi de Acte sans paroles (pr., pb. 1957; Endgame: A Play in One Act, Followed by Act Without Words: A Mime for One Player, 1958). The tradition continues in the work of Israel Horovitz. In his plays, the most characteristic relationship is not that of man and woman, as in Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, nor that of parent and child, as in Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. Rather, it is the relationship of two men, generally equals in age, intelligence, and social class but bound by mutual insecurity, the unrelenting need each has for reinforcement of his masculinity and his own sense of identity. Though considered friends, the two men share a deep undercurrent of hostility based on an insecurity related to both work and sex.

Such relationships in Horovitz’s work, however, are not homosexual in any sense. In fact, in contrast to Lanford Wilson—who, in a 1984 issue of The Advocate, said, “Since 10 percent of the population is gay, then every tenth character is going to be also”—Horovitz portrays virtually no homosexuality in his work beyond the transvestite in The Honest-to-God Schnozzola, with whom two American executives engage in sex under the impression that the transvestite is really a woman. The disgust and shame that they feel, like the feeling of Murph in The Indian Wants the Bronx when he makes his friend Joey take back a joking suggestion that Murph likes men, are evidence of a fear of homosexuality underlying this kind of relationship.

The Indian Wants the Bronx

Because of this fear, the men in Horovitz’s plays find any expression of affection difficult. A moment of tenderness may occur—even in that most tension-fraught of Horovitz’s plays, The Indian Wants the Bronx—but it is only a moment, and the “true” masculine stance, hard and aggressive, is bound to return with greater force. When Joey is left by himself at the bus stop with the non-English-speaking man from India, he begins to make friends, instead of merely taunting him, as he and Murph had been doing before. He begins confiding in the Indian, though the Indian can understand only the emotions Joey’s face and voice reveal. Joey’s anxiety leads the Indian to comfort him with a hug, which Joey accepts as fatherly affection. Yet Joey’s propensity for violence, along with the language barrier, betrays this moment: He takes out his knife to show as a cherished possession, but the Indian interprets this act as a threat, and when the Indian begins to move surreptitiously away, Joey believes that he is going to Murph to reveal what Joey had told him in confidence. Thus, the Indian’s attempted escape provokes Joey to hit him and triggers the increasing hostility that culminates in Murph’s wounding the Indian’s hand.

The play, Horovitz’s best known and certainly one of his most powerful, is filled with ironies. Like most of Horovitz’s work, it explores failed connections: Joey and Murph are friends, yet their friendship is marred by taunts and insults, signs of a constant quest to make the other seem inferior; the Indian is trying to reach his son, and here are two men in their early twenties whom he could reach (one of whom he does reach, for a moment), yet they finally offer him only hostility and bloodshed. The mutual misinterpretation from which Joey and the Indian suffer results in the exact opposite of what each of them actually wants. Most important, the knife that instigates the misunderstanding and resulting violence is actually being shown by Joey in mockery—it and another like it were given to Joey and Murph as Christmas presents by a girlfriend, even though Murph had been arrested for stabbing someone. Joey is not a truly violent person—much less so than Murph is—but his need to prove himself the equal of Murph, to assert his manhood, outweighs his decent instincts. Murph, too, is acting out imagined male behavior rather than his real emotional responses. Both young men, living basically aimless lives with no real hope for escape, are essentially dispossessed and seek a bogus manhood in tough behavior and aggressive action.


Compassion, in this postmodern world, simply does not pay. Jebbie, one of the title figures in the one-act Rats, has been enjoying a blissful coexistence with a human baby, whom he protects rather than attacks, when his territory is invaded by a younger rat, Bobby. Bobby has idolized Jebbie, and he feels betrayed when he sees that the older rat, a hero to numerous rats before him, is keeping company with the enemy. When Bobby tries to get a piece of the action (a piece of baby’s flesh), Jebbie stops him—in fact strangling him in order to do so. All should therefore be well—but the baby becomes upset and yells to its parents that there are rats, thus ensuring Jebbie’s death. Jebbie’s compassion for the human infant is largely a matter of self-protection, a kind of middle-aged complacence and gratitude for being free from worry, struggle, and “the rat race.” This desire for peace and comfort, like Joey’s deprecation of violence and desire for sympathetic human contact, results ironically in a return to violence and, in Jebbie’s case, to his own defeat. An ironic god is looking down and laughing at the intentions that never quite work out, and Horovitz is right there with him, finding as a touchstone these words of Beckett, which he has quoted in his film script Author! Author!: “The highest laugh is the laugh which laughs at that which is unhappy.”

Our Father’s Failing

There is certainly plenty of unhappiness in Horovitz’s plays—especially the insecurity reflected in constant one-upmanship, whether involving rats, street punks, the working class (in The Widow’s Blind Date), the professional class (The Good Parts), old men in a rest home (Our Father’s Failing), or the corporate world (The Honest-to-God Schnozzola, Dr. Hero). Some of Horovitz’s funniest dialogue comes from the banter between male friends as each tries to come out on top by putting the other down. Sam and Pa, two centenarians sharing their declining years in a home for the aged (or the insane) in Our Father’s Failing, provide the most memorable scenes in Horovitz’s Alfred Trilogy, part of his longer series entitled The Wakefield Plays. Constantly mocking each other, cutting in on each other’s jokes (far too familiar to them), and mishearing or misinterpreting each other, they provide a hilarious image of old age and the undying competition between two men whose lives have overlapped for decades. Their competition is not without its sardonic side, for it is based on secret on secret, what they are keeping from others as well as what one is keeping from the other. The long-concealed violence is bound to erupt at last, and it does, with serious...

(The entire section is 2986 words.)