Martin Duberman Essay - Critical Essays

Duberman, Martin

Duberman, Martin 1930–

American playwright, essayist, and editor, Duberman is best known for his plays which combine fact with fiction, as, for example, the documentary In White America or the quasibiographical Visions of Kerouac. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

In White America [is] a documentary of the Negro's trek through the jungle of white American injustice (and occasional decency), from his arrival here to this very day which is, if not a day, at least a dawn. From letters, journals, journalistic accounts, trial records, and similar sources. Martin B. Duberman has assembled a piece of history that makes good theater because it is true, interesting and overwhelmingly important. And it is theater—even if not art—in the best sense: moving, funny, humane, genuine and, best of all, unflaggingly provocative, coming as it does from sources most of us would always have been unaware of, and the worse off for it. (pp. 36-7)

John Simon, in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1975.

The life, as seen by Martin Duberman in his fine new play, Visions of Kerouac … is a moving and disturbing one. Duberman has changed the names of Kerouac's colleagues (Allen Ginsberg becomes Irwin Goldbrook, Gregory Corso becomes Raphael Urso), but the raw life is there; the testaments of poets stoned on physical love, on hard and soft drugs, on America, on raw literature, on spiritual journeys to the East are all vividly there…. [The] play, at its best, is like a series of kicks from a high-strung horse….

The play has its mannerisms; there is some windy writing, but it is that rare thing in today's theatre—it's alive. In its gut and its head. (p. 110)

Arthur Sainer, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), December 20, 1976.

Martin Duberman's didactic play [Visions of Kerouac] uses Kerouac's life and world, as he wrote about them, to prove that Kerouac was a man who suffered and died because he was unable to express sexually his love for his male friends, and claims that he was emblematic of the Beats and the counterculture they established: this, too, is a simplification.

There are two difficulties: the basic idea is reductive, and it's reductively expressed on stage. However seriously Duberman may be attempting to reinterpret the sexual doubts, fears, and ambiguities of that period—let alone the whole fabric of a major cultural upheaval—he fails. Intellectually, because he relies on a very partial theory; artistically, because he uses a tensionless and sentimental episodic form, and as a historian (and he is, when not writing drama, a distinguished historian) because his primary source is Kerouac's own novels. (p. 110)

But it's not true that Kerouac typifies those days. He reflected and popularized the ideas of his heroes, while originating only the subjective slap-dash style of his own sentences. The movers, those he wrote about, don't fit Duberman's thesis: Burroughs and Ginsberg were accepted (by themselves and their friends) as homosexual; others in the play (Snyder, Corso) were heterosexual; probably most people, then as now, occasionally made love across their "preference," for reasons of affection or loneliness. It was a sexy subculture, though not easy for women; and Kerouac's discomfort in it was quite personal.

The play ignores the religious, poetic, ecological, and political ideas of the Beats, who activated almost every counter-cultural notion that has fermented over the past 15 years. They were serious, knowing, brave, intellectual. Kerouac, however, lacked imagination and wrote only about people he knew and events that happened in his presence. Being simple, he described complex issues and people simplistically. In real life, the men he idolized could write and think rings around him. Duberman seems to have relied on Kerouac's portraits for hs characterizations; as his own style is flat and obvious, without Kerouac's vigor, the stage is stalked by cartoon phantoms about whom one is only sure that they never had the spirit to write Howl or Bomb or Naked Lunch.

Kerouac is similarly diminished. In his books he has a lumbering, melancholy, lovable self; he's a kind of prose bear among the poet foxes and butterflies, as well as an ascetic though lapsing Christian mystic. Egocentric, too—but not characteristically so self-pitying as in this play's repeated line: "Oh, what am I doing here, is there some way I am supposed to feel?" (pp. 110-11)

The often paradoxical, complicated relations of macho, misogyny, and homosexuality are diminished here. In his volume of collected plays, Male Armor, Duberman uses Reich's concept of character armor (though Reich was violently anti-homosexual) to investigate the question: "What does it mean to be a 'man'?" His answer: it means being a homosexual man. The one woman in these plays whom the playwright, according to his introduction, thinks of as "changing" and "generous" arranges for her husband to become a male whore, and, when he takes to the work more enthusiastically than she expected, tells him she's pregnant, wishes him well, and exits tearfully. In all respects except the man's job she's like one of the beatniks' barefoot broads. In Visions of Kerouac, the portrayal of Kerouac's lover Ruthie is meek and simpy compared to that Kerouac drew in his own work: and the mother he seemed wholeheartedly to adore turns weirdly Jewish and, at the end, horrible and demanding.

Duberman ends up using the same evidence to prove Kerouac's repressed gayness that a biased heterosexual would muster: he feared women and thought they were stupid, was celibate for long periods, alternated misogyny and idealization, hung around with gay men, idolized macho men, drank too much, was poetical and sensitive, loved his mother, and had a sentimental overwrought prose style. If a straight critic used these aspects of Kerouac's character as proof of gayness, she (or he) would justly be accused of simple-minded stereotyping.

In his novels, at least the ones I have on hand, Kerouac talks about his affection for his gay friends, his rejection of gayness for himself, and his love and fear of women…. I don't know why Duberman should spin a theory when there's a web of meaning like that available. (p. 111)

Erika Munk, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc. 1976), December 20, 1976.