Murray Schisgal Essay - Schisgal, Murray

Schisgal, Murray

Schisgal, Murray 1926–

Schisgal, an American playwright, is best known for his successful comedies, especially Luv. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

Several years ago, Murray Schisgal demonstrated with two short plays—The Typists and The Tiger—that he had certain modest gifts, among them a talent for creating comic situations and offbeat characters. This was enough to put him two steps ahead of our usual money dramatists, who generally paralyze one with their triteness and ineptitude. But since Schisgal was also able to adapt the formal techniques of the French avant-garde to a homogenized view of life, he was immediately drafted into Walter Kerr's ideological war against the advanced theatre—America's answer to European despair. All of Mr. Schisgal's qualities, including his blandness, are confirmed in Luv. The work has been padded to twice its natural length (Schisgal is obviously more comfortable with the one-act play), but it has an attractive simplicity…. (p. 91)

I can foresee Mr. Schisgal writing a hundred such plays in the future, each of them a gold mine. With a little luck, and equally able support, he could become the Henri Bernstein of our stage. But I can also foresee the swift termination of his appeal if he begins to believe what Mr. Kerr and other reviewers are now telling him—namely, that he has profound things to say about marriage, romantic ideals, suicide, divorce, bohemianism, and so forth. Actually, the Broadway success of Luv can be attributed to the fact that it doesn't say a thing about anything. While Schisgal's material is potentially satiric, he renders everything down into a soothing demulcent, so that the Broadway audience can have the tribute of the avant-garde without its tribulations. Even further removed from reality than the opiates of James M. Barrie, Luv has value primarily as "pure" comedy—that is, as a neutral canvas upon which a gifted director, Mike Nichols, and a brilliant comedian, Alan Arkin, can splash wild colors. For Nichols and Arkin are the real creative minds behind Luv—if you doubt this, watch how quickly the play fades when … routine actors … are alone on stage…. What these two men cannot give the work—for all their inventiveness and versatility—is an intelligent spine. But then if the work contained any intelligence, it would not be the comedy everybody loves. (pp. 91-2)

Robert Brustein, in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1958, 1960, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969.

In a comic book world, a millionaire discovers that threats on his life cure him of smoking, drinking, over-eating, and sexual inadequacies. It's a harmless enough theme, and periodic humorous exchanges even make parts of it laughably funny. But lukewarm entertainment is all there is to [An American Millionaire]. The story is skimpy and the dialogue is not witty enough to overcome the plot….

Like the Sunday funnies, [An American Millionaire] is a series of mildly comic highlighted moments and characters. Like the Sunday funnies it lacks cohesion. And like the Sunday funnies, it is inoffensive and undemanding—neither of which is a compelling reason for going to the theatre. (p. 13)

Debbi Wasserman, in Show Business (copyright © Leo Shull), May 2, 1974.

Mr. Schisgal's trust in his talent is touching, and would be enviable if the consequences of that trust amounted to a substantial piece of theatre, but ["All Over Town"] is a flimsy mockup, with whose failure we can feel only an irritated impatience. Mr. Schisgal appears to be under the misapprehension that farce, strictest of all forms of dramatic composition, consists of putting a crowd of disparate eccentrics onstage and allowing them to muddle about in a cobbled-up simulacrum of a plot until, a sufficient period of time having passed and a sufficient number of sight and verbal gags having been enacted, the curtain can be rung down on a final, hard-breathing implausibility….

[A] series of actions aimed in a single direction (singleness of purpose being of the essence of farce, however complex the plot) might have imposed a certain discipline on Mr. Schisgal. Instead, he has brought in eight or ten … stereotypes—and has tried to pretend that they are all in a necessary relation to his subject…. We are always aware that there … are no genuine motives behind the conduct of the characters. (p. 63)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 13, 1975.

Murray Schisgal commands the last manic outpost of the theater of the absurd. He can be terribly funny—provided his audience possesses sympathy with the dipsy doodlers of this world.

In terms of dramatic biodynamics, Schisgal has attempted [in All Over Town] to fuse the zany family comedy of You Can't Take It with You with the door-slamming wackiness of Feydeau's geometrically composed bedroom-chases-cum-orgies. Unfortunately, Schisgal's characters are as charmless as unthreaded spools, and he has yet to learn the primal lesson of the Feydeau farce: comic tension depends on who is hiding behind the door rather than who breezes casually through it.

T. E. Kalem, "Dipsy Doodle," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 13, 1975, p. 53.

All over town, says Murray Schisgal, things have gotten so out of whack that for all practical purposes everyone's crazy. The town is New York, but Schisgal means it to stand for the contemporary world in general, where human beings have lost their reason in pursuit of strange gods and goodies. His firecracker farce ["All Over Town"] sees modern urban life as a mad misadventure in which metropolitan nuts collide instead of commune….

Schisgal's play belongs to a kind of New Conservative black comedy that includes Neil Simon's new play, "God's Favorite," Bruce Jay Friedman's "Scuba Duba," Mel Brooks's "Blazing Saddles" and, at a higher level, Saul Bellow's "The Last Analysis." These comedies operate in that area where, as Bellow says, "laughter turns into insanity." The insanity these writers see is the breakdown of the old order with its comfortable certainties, now replaced, as [Schisgal] puts it, with "strikes, revolution, anarchy, chaos."

The problem with much of this work is that the writers are really lamenting not the breakup of old faiths, but the comfort that has been lost with this breakup. Tragedy is the flea in the pelt of comedy, but in Simon, Friedman and Schisgal the real tragedy is the sheer inconvenience that urban middle-class chaps like themselves have to undergo as the old order changeth.

Jack Kroll, "Lighting the Fuse," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January 13, 1975, p. 51.

[All Over Town] is, in one word, repellent. Murray Schisgal, whose up-and-down career I have viewed as a steady downward march since his one viable play, The Tiger (only half of an evening's fare, at that), has now outdone himself with the opportunistic and vulgar drivel that, in some quarters, passes for playwriting. How injudiciously some of my colleagues have here invoked Feydeau as ancestor. Feydeau always started and ended with a human reality, and what came in between was only a giant enlargement of the pettiest human foibles, not their falsification. Schisgal, conversely, exploits every crude and unrealistic longing of the moment. If whites want blacks to become amenable and even decadent (and thus doubly amenable), that is the kind of blacks he serves up. If blacks want, minimally, to make fools of whites some of the time, that is what Schisgal feeds them. If many men (especially of the theatergoing variety) are homely and undersexed, he purveys to them a supremely plain little fellow seducing women right and left, without even the benefit of playwriting that can make the improbable seem believable. Buy why bother, if even the reviewers will buy such wish fulfillment like hot cakes? If Jews are always a good old laugh for a New York audience, and the new cults of Oriental mysticism are the trendiest recent religious laugh, count on Schisgal to come up with a Yiddish guru, and, while touching every base, avoid grappling with the trickier basics of any.

All this might be overlooked if Schisgal were a born humorist, but, after a tremendous running, churning start, his leaps of wit are piddling. If it is not the verbal infelicities of "A word to the deficient should be sufficient," it is the wallowed-in puerilities of "I masturbate a dozen times a day." [Laughter from the audience.] "He's wonderful: he masturbates a dozen times a day." [Louder laughter.] "Any special way?" "No, the usual way: manually. [Frenzied and prolonged laughter.] I am right-handed." [Cataclysmically orgiastic laughter.] (pp. 56-7)

[The] most pitiful display comes from Schisgal at the end, when he sends off each character with a mechanistic farewell line whose schematism is surpassed only by its witlessness. This is what you would get from someone who had taken one night-school course in playwriting—someone who should have stayed in bed. (p. 57)

John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), January 20, 1975.

All Over Town purports to be a satirical view of middle-class liberals, yet the play's comic situations actually hinge on the point of view that women are sexual hysterics. In Schisgal's stage household, a hypochondriacal woman is cured of her neurosis by an inspired lover. Another woman's urge to do social work is seen as a compensation for sexual frustration. All the married women, from the female head of the house to her cook, are having tawdry sexual affairs. Even the dour maid is transformed into a lion of sexual aggressiveness after being "straightened out."…

Both because the play claims to be comedy (and therefore not to be studied all that closely for content values) and because all these attitudes toward women are part of an enduring comedy tradition of the American theater, the mainly male critical establishment took no special notice of the play's perspective on women. By accepting it as a given convention of comedy, they were, in fact, tacitly condoning it, thus ensuring that such a perspective will continue to be an acceptable convention of comedy….

Like much of what passes for theater art in the pop entertainment field, the Schisgal comedy is offensive far beyond the scope of its misconceived "comic" notions of women. It is an artistic vulgarity. If it had been written by a woman with sensibilities similar to Schisgal's, it might not contain the same insulting views on women, but—all other things being equal—it would still be an artistic vulgarity…. A commitment to reform the commercial theater of gross shows by male playwrights to make way for gross shows by female playwrights is not my kind of crusade. (p. 38)

Marilyn Stasio, in Ms. (© 1975 Ms. Magazine Corp.), September, 1975.