Jules Feiffer Essay - Critical Essays

Feiffer, Jules (Vol. 2)

Feiffer, Jules 1929–

Feiffer, an eminent American cartoonist, is also a play-wright best known for Little Murders. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)

A case of flagrant injustice … was the rapid demise of Jules Feiffer's Little Murders. This was a bloody-minded play, boldly proclaiming that our irrational and vicious society turns ordinary people into maniacal murderers. Feiffer elected to write in a style midway between absurdist farce and social satire, and to proceed from something seemingly zany but harmless to sheer grotesque horror. It may be that there was too much farce in the first act, so that the shift in the second was too sudden. It is certain that Feiffer is best at comic set pieces that sometimes fall flat and usually run on too long, and that the play tended to break into a series of vignettes without a continuous line of plot or character development. But this is not really what the reviewers held against it. Rather it was the fact that it had the courage of its bleak, misanthropic view of life—or, at least, life hereabouts; that it dared pronounce the joke a hideous reality—this is what doomed it. Accordingly, the first, funny, act was overpraised, and the second, frightening, one unanimously and excessively jumped on. Little Murders was a thoroughly uneven play, but with several very funny patches in it, and with the lopsided vigor of a sick joke that strikes at the root of some hidden, diseased truth.

John Simon, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1967, p. 302.

Put very gently, Feiffer's look at urban life in this country [Little Murders] is no Sound of Music or Hello, Dolly! Instead, it is a lacerating indictment of the social values and myths that these very films tend to perpetuate…. Together, the play and the city [New York City] form an unrelenting mental metropolis; one is the mirror image of the other. New York is the main character, and its mean, retching streets, its robbed and gutted apartments, power blackouts, and air pollution are the implicit inflections of the dialogue….

When the play first opened three years ago, Broadway just wasn't ready for its bizarre combination of comedy and terror. Audiences and critics defensively shied away from it and had trouble in making the jump between levels…. New York's casualty was performed in London as the first American play to be selected by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and was voted Best Foreign Play of the season….

A year later, it seemed as if America not only had caught up to the play in the horror of its daily headlines but was also out in front by a frightening margin: a real film itself, moving faster than any fiction. On April 13, merely days before Earth Day, Cambodia, and Kent State, Little Murders went before the cameras….

Now, if only America's little murders would stop long enough for the film to catch up.

Larry Cohen, "The Making of 'Little Murders'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, August 8, 1970; used with permission), August 8, 1970, pp. 19-21.