Paddy Chayefsky Essay - Critical Essays

Chayefsky, Paddy


Paddy Chayefsky 1923–1981

(Born Sidney Chayefsky) American playwright, scriptwriter, and novelist.

Chayefsky was a pioneer in utilizing the immediacy of the television medium to dramatize the undramatic in life. His characters are average, unexceptional people who find something special through love. Marty perhaps best illustrates Chayefsky's ability to bring out the poignancy in the lives of ordinary people.

Some of Chayefsky's later screenplays, such as Network, are more cynical. His central characters are persons of wealth and power who deal with society through their positions and influence rather than through love. But in Altered States, a sophisticated horror story, Chayefsky returned to the theme of love as the salvation of humankind.

Throughout his career, critics praised Chayefsky's close attention to detail and dialogue which enhanced the realism of his stories.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., Vol. 104 [obituary]; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981.)

Jerome Ross

Mr. Chayefsky is the first television dramatist whose work has been given the permanence of the printed book, and deservedly so…. [The six plays collected in "Television Plays"] indicate TV's coming of age and the development of a new literary form especially designed to meet its needs. These plays are hardly more than character vignettes, but drawn with such perception and honesty that, even in printed form, they are enormously effective and as readable as short stories. Mr. Chayefsky has a keen ear for realistic speech and a compassion for his people.

In one of his series of explanatory notes the author describes his deliberate attempt to deal "with the world of the mundane, the ordinary and the untheatrical. The main characters are typical, rather than exceptional; the situations are easily identifiable by the audience…. Mr. Chayefsky certainly lives up to his intent in such portrayals as that of Joe Manx in "The Big Deal," a has-been who still dreams of recouping his lost fortune, or the old lady in "The Mother," who cannot bear to live in idleness off her children, or Marty, the butcher who feels himself too ugly to find a girl. It is largely through their direct, unadorned dialogue that their little stories carry tremendous impact.

Jerome Ross, "A New Drama Created for Television," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), June 19, 1955, p. 4.


[By] contrast with the vapidity of routine cinematic fare, Marty appears—at least at a casual glance—as a refreshingly unusual film….

Marty has all the qualities of an unpretentiously filmed fait divers, an anecdote involving ordinary people and presented with an effort to achieve veracity in characters, backgrounds and moods. And it could be accepted as such and dismissed with a conventional review were it not for the fact that it obviously attempts to be something of far greater depth and that both critics and public seem to have looked at it through a magnifying glass which lent it dimensions it does not even approximate….

At the root of the misunderstanding is the claim that Marty is a realistic film. Seen in proper perspective, it is at best a "slice of life", a fairly adequate exercise in imitating the premises and practices of those among the Italian "neo-realists" whose art has been steadily on the decline towards naturalism. Inspired by the oversimplified tenets of this school, the author and director of Marty have inevitably lapsed into the errors inherent in its approach. If we now examine Marty more closely, we shall see that it betrays reality rather than reveals it. There are three basic abberations—symptomatic of the naturalistic outlook—in the authors' vision of man and society:

—Instead of interpreting objects, people and situations so as to bring out their essence, the film merely reflects their superficial aspects.

—It seeks to represent the individual and society statically, "as they are", instead of capturing them in transition, in the process of becoming.

—It selects particular, idiosyncratic rather than typical characters and events, sacrificing realism to "story interest".

(p. 7)

[On] the plane of characterization the consistent under-interpreting leads to a diminution of clarity. Out of deference to the premise that mere showing is sufficient to unveil, Chayevsky and [director Delbert Mann] have refrained from any implicit comment. Only the more advanced, more conscious members of the audience will perceive the anomaly in the fact that the schoolteacher's habitual Saturday-night occupation is watching Jackie Gleason on television; only they will realize that in the afternoon bull-session among Marty's pals, not merely their ennui but the work of Mickey Spillane is being stigmatized and ridiculed. But the Angies of America will at best have a laugh and may wonder which book of Spillane's was quoted in the film. The much-praised ballroom scene contains some apt reportorial touches. But it appears pale when seen through the lucid compactness of analogous scenes in Studs Lonigan. It is undeniable that Chayevsky and Mann often show a remarkable capacity for noticing detail, as in the gum-chewing, the bovine faces, the antiphonal "I dunno". But a sense of observation can no more be equated with the power to reveal than an impression can be with a judgment.

In the static treatment of character is manifest the...

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Brooks Atkinson

Mr. Chayefsky has written ["Middle of the Night"] in a minor key, deliberately holding down the emotion and laying emphasis on the homeliness of the material. Everyone is intentionally average—the manufacturer and his daughter and sister; the blonde and her mother, sister and impulsive husband.

The reactions to a love affair between a middle-aged man and a girl who is younger than his daughter are average, and the dialogue is composed of average talk. Toward his material Mr. Chayefsky has a kind of O. Henry sense of familiarity. Apparently it is part of his design to underwrite the plot….

The play that is underwritten may turn out not to be as picturesque as Mr. Chayefsky probably imagined. Without some pressure back of it the average may emerge as dullness in the theatre….

Mr. Chayefsky has a particular talent for writing about the temperament of his Jewish family. He describes the homelife of a garment manufacturer with taste and authenticity and also with sympathetic humor….

There is never anything wrong with anything about "Middle of the Night."

But Mr. Chayefsky's intentional cultivation of the average and the obvious has its own limitations. It cannot wholly escape being average drama.

Brooks Atkinson, "Theatre: Edward G. Robinson Back," in The New York Times (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 9, 1956 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XVII, No. 4; February 13, 1956, p. 371).

Anatole Shub

Paddy Chayefsky, it has been said many times, is the Clifford Odets of the 1950's, and the differences between the two playwrights largely reflect a shift in popular attitudes since the 30's. Chayefsky's theatrical world is the same Bronx evoked by Odets twenty-five years ago, and his fundamental note, too, is the pathos of the lower middle classes. Like Odets, Chayefsky writes mostly about immigrants and their children, draws heavily on Jewish folk humor, and is more inventive at comedy than at serious drama. The aspirations, passions, and defeats of his characters are usually minor in scale; and, even more than Odets, Chayefsky likes the up-beat ending, the note of triumph over the "forces" which bedevil the "little man."…

Yet there is a striking difference between Chayefsky and Odets, and it is ideological. Both writers are evangelists or millenarians: their plays work toward a single magic revelation which will end the dreariness of day-to-day life and announce a vision of redemption. But where Odets's inspiration was Popular Front Communism, Chayefsky's is popular psychoanalysis. Odets's key word was "strike"; Chayefsky's is "love."

In Marty, The Big Deal, The Mother, Middle of the Night, The Bachelor Party, and The Catered Affair (all of which present recognizably Jewish types although their names are non-Jewish), Chayefsky has shown an alert topicality, keen humor, and a rare ear for the common speech. But these gifts only partly explain his popularity. For, a little like Odets, Chayefsky seems to be speaking for his time. His message of love is certainly modish in the commercial theater now…. (p. 523)

Chayefsky's message of love has some of the tone of "positive thinking" and is part of the popular culture of psychology. It soaks all real conflicts—personal or social—in a murky rhetoric of good intentions, "mutual understanding," and self-limitation. Chayefsky's most popular works have no villains. Love's enemy is an internal state, the inability to love; and the quality of this affliction doesn't vary much, whether a man and woman are concerned, or parents and children, or whoever. In his happy endings, in which the will to love finally breaks through, much must be taken on sheer faith—wishing will make it so—and much remains open to very diverse interpretations. The mistiness of Chayefsky's view of love is most apparent in … The Tenth Man; but it has also kept his best work, such as Marty, on this side of the line which divides popular entertainment from art. (pp. 523-24)

[For] Chayefsky and others for whom the "capacity to love" is an issue, the emotion is not the beginning of the play, but the end—a goal to be reached, if at all, in the final scenes. This kind of dramatic structure, which uses monologues and flashbacks in place of a sequence of action, is not inevitable in a play which employs psychoanalytic insights….

Actually, the structure of Chayefsky's plays rather suggests the old Christian religious dramas, which celebrated the triumph of grace over original sin and worldly temptations. And, indeed, the "love" which Chayefsky's characters pursue seems an idealized state of mind. It has nothing to do with passion, but is a rather low-keyed, diffuse sentiment which seems appropriate to all occasions. If it has any definable quality at all, it is that of the kindliness with which a parent consoles a hurt child—or perhaps that feeling as the child will sentimentalize it in later years….

Only in The Goddess, his most ambitious work …, has [Chayefsky] ever detached himself...

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Richard Watts, Jr.

The first thing to be said of "Gideon" is that it has distinction and a haunting fascination…. Paddy Chayefsky's dramatization of the Old Testament story … combines bold imagination, intensity of searching contemplation of the relationship between God and man, and a delightful vein of humor. Its first act is completely successful. But I can't help feeling that, in the second half, Mr. Chayefsky courageously plunges in beyond his depth….

Mr. Chayefsky's conception is that Gideon, who vanquished the Midianites with his small army, was a gentle and modest dolt of a man chosen by God to lead the people of Israel to victory because his weakness and inadequacy made his unexpected triumph the clearest...

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Allan Lewis

The Passion of Joseph D (1964) well illustrates the problems of the television writer now dedicated to the theatre. The play deals with the Russian Revolution and the role played by Stalin…. Influenced by the expressionists, and Bertolt Brecht in particular, Chayefsky attempted a political burlesque comparable to those frequently seen in German nightclubs.

The play is in the form of historical episodes, often unrelated; actors address the audience directly, and songs and comedy routines interrupt the action. (p. 181)

Had the play maintained [the broad satiric tone of the nightclub scenes], it might have been a bright new form. Chayefsky, however, turns serious and realistic...

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Penelope Houston

[Paddy Chayefsky has described his intentions in writing Marty]: to catch the characters "in an untouched moment of life"; to write the dialogue "as if it had been wire-tapped"; to explore that "world of the mundane, the ordinary and the untheatrical."… (p. 31)

The film's emphasis is on loneliness in the city: the bored aimlessness of the young men hanging about the bars and street corners, the unhappiness of the widow whose children no longer need her, the fear that attacks Marty's mother when she realises what his marriage may mean in terms of her own life, and the despairing anxiety for affection that brings Marty and the girl together. The writing accurately catches the tone of everyday...

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John M. Clum

"Marty" provided one of the classics of both television and the American film because it captures vividly and touchingly a number of aspects of the American experience. While being about people who are far from glamorous, its mundane characters have a beauty and a dignity that were felt by viewers far from the Bronx. (p. 46)

What is most extraordinary about "Marty" is the amount of material Chayefsky can include in less than an hour. We have not only Marty's bourgeoning relationship with Clara but also those with his family and with his friends. We see Marty in all his roles: first, as butcher; second, as an aging adolescent with his aimless friends; third, as a son and a brother; and, fourth, as man...

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George Morris

[After] zealously attacking the labyrinthine bureaucracy of metropolitan hospitals in Hospital, Paddy Chayefsky has now turned his fervor toward the inner workings of a large television network [in Network]. Chayefsky has dubbed his fictional network the United Broadcasting System, a self-enclosed world of corporate clashes and power struggles which heartlessly creates and destroys its own lifeblood. Television as a scapegoat for contemporary dehumanization and dying democratic values is an unwieldy metaphor, and Chayefsky uses highly questionable methods to prove his rather facile, specious points. His screenplay is certainly audacious, but the deliriousness smacks of an uncertainty of approach, a lack...

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David Thomson

Network is a furious and infuriating tangle. Is it a brilliant shocking corrosive satire on America's dwelling in screened imitations of reality, or is it a snake devouring its own tail? Is the satire cleansing or only huckster raillery, responsible anger turned into self-contempt or the cynicism that ravishes every ideal? It is a reckless but literate film, incoherent and pretentious, piercing yet evasive. It is itself very like TV, the monster it mocks…. Network is thunderously written and as contentious as Paddy Chayefsky's last picture, The Hospital. Every time I saw the film in America, audiences identified with its haphazard spleen and applauded at the end. Was that simply a version of the...

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Lois Gould

[What] is a successful, much-admired dramatist doing here, in a wild-eyed, exclamation-pointed science fiction?…

"Altered States" is Mr. Chayefsky's first novel. It reads, however, more like a screen treatment that someone rashly advised him to "novelize"—a process that may itself be biologically impossible. Instead of camera close-ups of mild-mannered endocrinologists registering horror at the brink of the Dread Unknown, instead of stunning cinematography and eerie sound effects to accompany a man's regression into prehuman form (and then reconstituting him, like freeze-dried coffee), the book rains heavy Star-Treknology at us; a steady downpour of exotic, often incomprehensible scientific...

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Roberta Rubenstein

Eddie Jessup, the ambitious, monomaniacal scientist of Chayefsky's [Altered States, seeks] … consciousness of the "original self," but in the form of "a real, mensurate, quantifiable thing, tangible and incarnate."

During his postgraduate research in physiology, Jessup accidentally stumbles upon the convergent phenomena of mind-altering experiences, as manifested through hallucinogenic drugs, sensory deprivation, Zen meditation, and schizophrenia. Readers conversant with … authorities in the vanguard of consciousness research, will recognize the territory and will acknowledge Chayefsky's impressive synthesis of information from depth psychology, quantum mechanics, neuroanatomy, molecular...

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Robert F. Moss

Chayefsky is like a small, affable tornado…. His characters are famous for their loquacity and it's easy to see where they get it.

Chayefsky began earning the respect of critics during the Fifties. At first, he wrote as a naturalist, mapping the folkways of lower middle class New Yorkers, cupping his ear to catch the unique flavor of their speech in Marty and in his play The Middle of the Night (1956). He later wrote slightly more avantgarde theater pieces, cultivating a mystical strain in The Tenth Man (1959) and in the biblical drama Gideon (1961)….

In his latest, finest incarnation, Chayefsky has been reborn as a surreal satirist…. Social satire...

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