Murray Schisgal Essay - Critical Essays


Murray Schisgal’s forte is the light comedy, with genial satire and topical references often worked into the content of the play. Schisgal’s plays have often enjoyed commercial success. Luv had a long run on Broadway in the mid-1960’s, and The Tiger (which Schisgal revised as the screenplay The Tiger Makes Out) was a moderately successful movie in 1967. For several decades, Schisgal has been a commercially successful, full-time playwright and theater person—no mean accomplishment in the financially difficult medium of playwriting. He has earned the friendship of influential theater persons in New York and elsewhere.

In their zany, topical, and often absurd touches, Schisgal’s light comedies are similar to those of his contemporaries Neil Simon and Saul Bellow and of the younger but similarly satiric filmmaker Woody Allen. His people are usually wealthy New Yorkers who remember a younger, poorer time in their lives and who are often comically bored with their marriages—sexual or psychological problems provide the motivation for the plots of most of Schisgal’s works. Schisgal often writes to evoke laughter and spectacle. His dramas are characterized by humorous sexual references and by satiric references to current fads in contemporary culture in general (especially New York City culture) and to the theater world in particular. Schisgal’s plays tend to refer to current trends in mainstream commercial New York or related milieus during the time of the particular play’s production. Although he made his initial breakthrough Off-Off-Broadway, Schisgal has become a central figure of commercial Broadway. His dramatic voice is conservative, urbane, witty, slightly cynical, and lightly comic.

Schisgal’s best plays are distinguished by a flair for light comedy. There is in much of his work a nostalgia for a youthful, less financially comfortable past, a winking understanding of adultery (especially male adultery), a tendency to satirize fads, and a general assumption of familiarity with New York locations; a belief in the old verities is just below the surface of his satire. Things are not so bad, Schisgal seems to be saying: People are basically good if limited, sexual creatures given to little adventures that tend to right themselves.


Typical of Schisgal’s drama is the 1960’s comedy Luv, which has two major comic targets: the nihilistic tradition of theater, often called Theater of the Absurd, and some of the insincere posturings that are often substituted for a deeper definition of “love.” Like the Theater of the Absurd that Schisgal’s play satirizes, Luv is not literally realistic or even psychologically plausible in its presentation of characters; rather, it is an idea play, a series of gags and satiric jabs at its targets. Two men, Harry Berlin and Milt Manville, in effect pass a somewhat overbearing, bluestocking woman back and forth between them in the twists and turns of the plot. The action is rapid, basically lighthearted, played with gusto, and aimed at provoking laughter. Foibles and fads, not major cultural undercurrents, are the butt of Schisgal’s comic critique.

Luv is set at the edge of a bridge on a dark, isolated night. Harry Berlin, an out-at-the-elbows Bohemian character (his nickname in high school, we learn, was “Dostoyevsky”), is about to leap off the bridge when his suicide is halted by an old friend, Milt Manville. Manville is as crass and philistine as Berlin is neurotic and typical of the counterculture. Manville has come to the bridge to pick valuables out of the garbage, thereby to add further wealth to his already considerable income. Berlin tells Manville that his (Berlin’s) life is meaningless, that he has abandoned all of his projects and education. Milt attempts to cheer Harry and restore in him a sense of life’s significance by...

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