James Kirkwood Essay - Critical Essays

Kirkwood, James

Kirkwood, James 1930–

Kirkwood is an American novelist and playwright. His own experiences have often formed the basis for his works. In 1976 he was one of the five recipients of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for the book for the musical A Chorus Line. He says of himself, "I have the outlook of a survivor. Whatever I've gone through, good and bad times, it tells me that I will survive. I write from that belief." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Gilford Academy, the setting of James Kirkwood's hilarious and terrifying novel, "Good Times/Bad Times," and its deranged headmaster, Mr. Hoyt, should become classics of the prep-school genre, just as Notre Dame is the definitive cathedral and Quasimodo its inevitable bell-ringer….

The novel is a long, explosively honest letter from young Peter Kilburn to his attorney, the man who will defend Peter in a murder trial. If the letter is also a confession, it certainly is not the sort of tidy, legalistic document so beloved by district attorneys. Peter tells his lawyer everything, as a good client should, and his tale is neither mea culpa nor a cop-out. He tells it as it happened, in an adolescent diction so precise and so accurate as to be spooky….

[Peter's] loose-jointed but lucid narrative, and his point of view—sometimes sophisticated, sometimes naive, but always crisp—are what make the novel such a joyful taste of Heaven and a shattering glimpse of Hell. (p. 77)

Richard Bradford, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 8, 1968.

James Kirkwood's "P.S. Your Cat Is Dead!" amounts through artistic miscalculation to two plays for the price of one, and this is nearly always less of a bargain in a theatre than it is in a supermarket…. Go and laugh at Mr. Kirkwood's many excellent jokes in the first act and, during the second act, ponder with gravity his preaching on the subject of sex, which he wishes to free from the usual tiresome discriminations in respect to gender. "Bother gender!" says Mr. Kirkwood, and I happen to think he is right, but he has chosen the wrong occasion for such a sermon; his audience, having been encouraged to do nothing but laugh until the first-act curtain falls, is astonished upon its return to discover that the first item on the agenda has become the reform of unthinking heterosexuals.

Mr. Kirkwood's comedy takes place on New Year's Eve, and I confess that I've a weakness for plays that make use of that particular holiday; one knows that something is bound to happen, be it only the ringing of nearby church bells or someone drunkenly exhaling "Auld Lang Syne." We are in a delightful loft in the Village…. The occupant of the loft is a thirty-eight-year-old actor named Jimmy, and he is in trouble. He has just been dropped from a play, his role is being written out of the TV soap opera that provides his daily bread, and his girl has decided to break off their relationship. It is she who appends to her note of farewell the postscript that his cat is dead. Nor is that all, for what he doesn't know upon arriving home is that a burglar is hiding under his bed….

The plot of the play revolves around the relationship that develops between the two men. At first, Jimmy, having captured Vito, is tempted to turn him over to the police, but it occurs to him that he will gain greater satisfaction from punishing Vito on the premises. Starting as adversaries, they soon perceive that neither of them will be able to hold the upper hand for long. Thanks to Vito's persistence and in spite of Jimmy's reiterated objections, a bond begins to form. In the first act, the bond is largely a matter of gags, both sight and verbal; in the second act, when we have learned that Vito is bisexual, the gags diminish and a serious demand for affection begins. By the end of the play, though Jimmy and Vito go to sleep in separate beds, they are no longer separate. (p. 103)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), April 21, 1975.

[The characters of A Chorus Line] are mostly refugees who dread having to return to the outside world either by failing or by aging. The border between psychic needs and creative impulse is always fuzzy; and this show makes clear that most of these people are here, have suffered to get here, are suffering to stay, at least as much out of hatred of their pasts and past selves and the glare of daylight as out of their love of dancing and the theater.

None of this is startling or deep, some of it is show-biz corn, but most of it is authentic, even some of the corn. And almost all of it is well done. (pp. 20, 31)

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 21, 1975.

Self-revelation, of course, is not new in drama. When Oedipus confesses his sins, or when Lady Macbeth mutters guiltily, their confessions relate to both plot and character. But in modern confessional drama, there often are no plots. Confession has come to exist for its own sake.

Nor do these plays bear much relation to traditional autobiographical drama. O'Neill at least bothered to transform the members of his family into viable dramatic characters, but today's playwrights often simply plop remembered parents, siblings, and friends onstage. Instead of writing scripts, they have even been known to transcribe actual dialogue from tape recordings.

An excellent example of current confessional drama is A Chorus Line …, a glossy, virtually plotless musical about aspiring dancers…. [A Chorus Line] is set at an audition for a musical. Between dynamic rehearsal numbers, the spotlight singles out one anxious hopeful after another, and each in turn talks about his or her past, present, or dreams of the future.

For the most part, these personal confessions reveal a vast desert of conventional emotions and motivations, as well as a fairly high proportion of male and female homosexuality….

A Chorus Line is a hit primarily because it's fast, polished, and relentlessly entertaining, and also because it sounds the way an audience wants a confessional play to sound—real. Since the cast is made up of bona fide dancers, rather than actors and actresses who pretend to be dancers, there is a ring of authenticity to begin with. One long, exceedingly banal discussion of why dancers dance, and what they do when they can't dance any longer, sounds so realistic, so utterly undramatic, that it almost seems the cast has forgotten its lines and is improvising. (p. 50)

Barbara Mackay, in Saturday Review (© 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 9, 1975.

Some Kind of Hero is not panoramic, grand, [or] epic like … but the big social message is clear enough …: our society is unredeemable, hence the individual had best rush out and make it on his own. Making it for this particular hero, Eddie Keller, means pulling a couple of holdups for which we are apparently supposed to respect him more: he is brave, determined, resolute in the face of continuing long odds….

So Eddie Keller is profound in being "some kind" of hero rather than the usual kind. Kirkwood is certainly anxious not to tell us outright what kind but as the story progresses he can't keep it from us. Eddie is a hero because he is normal. He is a sensitive, sexually precocious (all heroes of all kinds now have to be sexually somehow precocious) young soldier who meets the enemy and is captured, jailed near Hanoi for four years and released unharmed to return to the US as a momentary usual hero; then relegated to poverty and trouble by a variety of forces from a bad daddy to a thankless Pentagon but never allowed by his creator to react to those forces unpredictably, that is, react to them the way an all-American boy wouldn't. During his miscellaneous adventures on two continents he meets one POW who is a good guy, one military medico who is a good guy and one girl who becomes his wife, but otherwise the notlarge cast consists of grotesque including his mother (paralyzed by a stroke), a tyrannical jailer, a hooker who is so sexually precocious that she has a room full of whips and other useful items and a number of subordinate eccentrics who enforce Eddie's normalcy by contrast. (p. 35)

And of what does normalcy consist? Aside from sexual potency, which is basic, the main normalcy ingredient would seem to be a wholly desirable capacity to feel warmly, hopefully toward others. Eddie is meant to be a man with lovely honest feelings in a world not distinguished for lovely honest feelings. He even has lovely honest feelings toward his country, and when his plane flies in over San Francisco at dusk he discovers that his life, which has "been in black and white for the last four years … has turned Technicolor again." He is in other words an apple-pie American at heart and we should be grateful, the drift of the text suggests, for his existence.

The apple-pie drift is even strong enough to have caused one critic, quoted on the jacket, to go slightly ga-ga, saying, "You will root for, cry with and cheer Eddie on"; but since the cheering, if there is to be any, must include cheering for Eddie as he lifts approximately 100 grand from a couple of strangers it is a cheering for an individual who has a nowhere-questioned prerogative to determine what apple pie is. That prerogative would seem to include the right to kill though no one is actually killed, and it is the prerogative that probably chiefly distinguishes the "some kind" of hero of our time from the old heroes who lived by laws beyond themselves. Eddie is a most representative modern American hero in his assertion of the prerogative, and his creator's insistence that Eddie remain a good guy when he asserts it is a representative modern putdown of all possible institutional prerogatives. Onward and upward with Eddie and his gun. (pp. 35-6)

Some Kind of Hero … shows no scruples at all about violence for the private good, none, that is, unless the introduction of Eddie's Ma constitutes a scruple.

Yes, Ma. For Eddie, it turns out, is not working wholly for himself as he battles the bad world and picks up his 100 grand. He is working for himself and Ma…. Without Ma and the girl, I suppose, he might be criticized for being selfish. (p. 36)

Reed Whittemore, "American Pie," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 16 & 23, 1975, pp. 35-6.

A Chorus Line … is Broadway's most celebrated and talked about show in years….

It isn't an easy show to write about, unless you simply want to settle for a parade of such adjectives as "exhilarating," "innovative," "luminous," "explosive" and "poignant," all of which it has been called and all of which it is. It has a very simple idea at its core—or, more appropriately—heart. Day after day, year after year, the "gypsies," the chorus kids of the theatre, troop from audition to audition, rehearsal to rehearsal, show to show, for the most part unidentified and unrecognized, certainly uncelebrated by other than their peers. Yet, they are individuals, every bit as individual as the Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Gwen Verdon or Zero Mostel who's taking the applause a foot or two in front of their chorus line….

There isn't much around for these "kids," and what there is has been rapidly diminishing. Some, perhaps most, dream of becoming a star, and all live with a haunting fear: "What do you do when you can't dance any more?" (p. 40)

[A Chorus Line] prompts both laughter and tears. (p. 41)

Catherine Hughes, in America (© America Press, 1976; all rights reserved), January 17, 1976.