Jules Feiffer Essay - Feiffer, Jules (Vol. 8)

Feiffer, Jules (Vol. 8)

Feiffer, Jules 1929–

A widely syndicated cartoonist, Feiffer is also an American playwright and novelist. Known in literary circles for his play Little Murders, which John Simon called "a bloody-minded play, boldly proclaiming that our irrational and vicious society turns ordinary people into maniacal murderers," Feiffer possesses a style of writing which rests between absurdist farce and satire. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

What gives [Knock, Knock] its humor—and a great deal of it is screamingly funny—is the incredible accuracy of [Feiffer's] language, and his use of it to paint the urban neurosis in exact colors. This we know from his cartoons, and we learn it anew from this endearing, congenial theater piece…. There isn't a sincere or honestly felt moment in his play. Let him darken his tone for a moment, and immediately he demolishes the mood with a gallumphing surge of breast-beating and spatterings of guilt. Better even than in the admirable Little Murders, he has learned to aim his pen into the heart of life's absurdity, and direct it unerringly to its target.

Alan Rich, "Pie-Eyed Feiffer," in New York Magazine (© 1976 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Alan Rich), February 2, 1976, p. 64.

In his classic early cartoons Jules Feiffer carried on the tradition of James Thurber and William Steig in their rueful dissection of middle-brow idealism. At the same time he was the link between the burgeoning idea of "popular culture" and writers like Bellow, Malamud and Roth. In his later plays and movies—"Little Murders," "God Bless," "Carnal Knowledge"—Feiffer moved closer to these writers while keeping his comic's license. You could say that Feiffer is the comic muse of the urban Jewish artist-intellectual.

His charming, mournfully hilarious new play, "Knock, Knock", is a very personal work. Using the same velvet scalpel that soothes as it draws blood in his cartoons, Feiffer depicts two middle-aged dropouts from our pre-apocalyptic state. His shambling, seedy heroes, called Abe and Cohn, have retired to a little house in the country, from which they haven't moved in twenty years….

Abe is a retired stockbroker and Cohn a long-unemployed musician, but they're really one character split into two dialectical poles—the two sides of Feiffer's own spirit. Ironically, Cohn, the musician, is the realist, believing only in things he can touch. Abe is the romantic, hedging his bets "just in case" there's a prince inside the frog of reality….

Cohn wishes for a new roommate and his wish is promptly granted in the form of a mad magus named Wiseman who is a mixture of Mephistopheles and Groucho. This leads to another invader, none other than Joan of Arc, who calls Abe and Cohn to join her in a pilgrimage to Heaven before the coming holocaust. This cute kid from the realms of sainthood causes Abe and Cohn to switch credos—Abe becoming the skeptical realist and Cohn the true believer. All of which allows Feiffer to create some tenderly sardonic comedy about idealism and the female as male fantasy….

"Knock, Knock" is a laughing elegy for the gently demoralized humanist spirit represented by Feiffer himself. He sketches this screwed-up but still hopeful spirit in a mad mélange of echoes from Pinteresque colloquies to Grouchoid semantics to Shakespeare's Lear.

Jack Kroll, "Feifferland," in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), February 2, 1976, p. 68.

[Knock, Knock] is a kooky, laugh-saturated miracle play in the absurdist tradition. It is as if someone had merged The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys and peppered the mix with Kierkegaard and the Marx Brothers. Nor is that all. The unifying element is Jewish humor—skeptical, self-deprecating, fatalistic and with an underlying sadness that suggests that all the mirth is a self-protective mask hiding imminent lamentation….

The words are manic—puns, syllogisms, answer-and-question games, in that order. Some scenes are animated versions of Feiffer's cartoon strips. Basically one-line throwaways, they lack dramatic continuity, but they sputter with hilarity.

T. E. Kalem, "Kooky Miracle," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1976), February 2, 1976, p. 55.

One should distinguish between Feiffer the drafter of theatrical moments and Feiffer the dramatist. "Knock, Knock" so effervesces in its parts—the first wishing sequence, Abe's soliloquy, the card game with Joan as the stake (no pun intended)—moves one along from joke to joke so briskly that it is easy not to notice that the play lacks continuity, that the sum of its parts is no whole.

Feiffer's genius as a cartoonist is for dramatic moments—establishing and comically concluding a situation in eight still frames. His characters have personality only for the purpose of making the point: They do not have, as breathing dramatic characters must, the freedom to develop, to grow away from their status as idea-bearers.

"Knock, Knock" is easily divisible into moments, routines, the connections between which are awkward, unnatural acts of determination. It is as if Feiffer, intent on writing a play, had concocted a plot to hang his ha-has on. The more artificial and fragmented the plot, the less the chance that anyone would notice the discontinuity. But Abe and Cohn, the two protagonists, are supposedly the same persons throughout, and we should be able to recognize their dramatic evolution, even if we cannot describe it. Instead of sliding from one state of mind to the next, though, they jump, or are jumped. One day Cohn is a disbeliever, the next a believer, but we miss the minute increments of change, the drop by drop growth which makes up a life or a sand castle. As in movies, where the rapid display of stopped moments produces the impression of real motion, so in all dramatic art, where instant by instant must combine to make a man….

"Knock, Knock" must be commended as a witty, brilliant evening with a cosmos-conscious comic, but not as a play. (p. 110)

Carll Tucker, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), February 2, 1976.

Jules Feiffer's … novel [Ackroyd] isn't always fun to read, but it is fun to figure out. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you'll recall, was the Agatha Christie mystery in which the crime was perpetrated by the narrator himself….

It's no accident that this Rags-to-Roger saga is set in the years between 1964 and 1971. The reference points include the New York status scramble, antiwar activism, JFK (who may be the real ghost haunting both men), and, of course, the ultimate private investigation of psychotherapy. Unfortunately, the best clues are buried under long, dull stretches of dialogue that are all too reminiscent of Woody Allen's Sam Spade parody—with the funny lines omitted. Feiffer can't bring himself to act out his own madness. Instead he picks away at it like an overscrupulous analysand. The result isn't a very satisfying story; just a fascinating bundle of neuroses that uncannily mirrors our own. (p. 35)

Joyce Milton, in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), May 14, 1977.

My strongest reaction to Jules Feiffer's new novel ["Ackroyd"] is to wonder why he wrote it. We have to remind ourselves, every now and then, that a novel is a transaction between author and reader, and I'm tempted to ask Mr. Feiffer: "What did I do to deserve this?"

Feiffer has a reputation as a funny man, and this, in effect, exonerates his work from sober consideration. If at first you don't laugh, try, try again. Wit works in mysterious ways, and the burden of proof has somehow come not to be the writer's, but the reader's.

Many are the disguises of wit: irrationality, gratuitousness and negativism are only a few of its masks. Didn't Freud teach us that truth is often an inversion of what we feel? So convoluted is the modern reader's gullibility that the spectacle of Feiffer being unfunny will probably be taken for precisely such an inversion, a meta-joke. The deadpan need never dissolve into the uncool grimace of laughter….

"Ackroyd" is about a young man who changes his name because, as he puts it, "I don't respect myself. It was not a rejection of my family—my father—when I took on this joke of a name, Roger Ackroyd. It was a rejection of me. Self-mockery. A recognition that I was not a serious person, so did not deserve a serious name." Among the other things Ackroyd did not deserve, apparently, is a prose style, and the reader of his story has to slog through 349 pages of the kind of pidgin English such self-deprecation imposes on its subjects.

Ackroyd has borrowed the name of an Agatha Christie character because he is "going into the detective business." Symbolism: the first obligation of all honest men is the search for clues to the meaning of life. Most of the book consists of a tangled and interminable investigation of the commonplace neurosis of a character named Rags Plante, who consults a detective instead of a psychoanalyst so that he can control the pace of revelation. What is revealed reminds me of Edmund Wilson's remark to the effect that reading certain detective stories is like ransacking a crate of straw in order to discover a rusty nail.

If I were to hazard a charitable guess, I'd say that "Ackroyd" is intended to be a morality tale on the subject of identity. At the end of the book, the private eye laments the fact that he is still working on Rags's case when he should be investigating his own. However, it is the reader, at this point, whose lament should be heard: If "Ackroyd" has a moral, it is not that the characters should look to themselves, but the author. (p. 12)

Anatole Broyard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 15, 1977.