Tad Mosel Essay - Critical Essays

George Ault Mosel Jr.


Equally versatile in three dramatic media—live stage, television, and film—Tad Mosel has a knack for adapting material from one medium to another. His stage hit All the Way Home was adapted from James Agee’s posthumous novel A Death in the Family; his film Dear Heart was expanded and revised from his own teleplay; he adapted the stage play and film classic The Petrified Forest for television; his last film Up the Down Staircase adapted a popular novelized autobiography of a young teacher’s experience at a tough city school; and he rewrote his teleplays The Five Dollar Bill and That’s Where the Town’s Going as stage versions for a dramatic publisher. In going from novel to stage, he skillfully compressed the action, eliminated minor characters, and transmuted some of the narrator’s words into dialogue. In going from television to film, he took advantage of the possibilities of exterior shots and expanded action in many locations.

Stylistically, Mosel’s plays tend to be dramatic realism—with the notable exception of Impromptu. They tend to be about ordinary people at peak moments in their lives and to move toward bittersweet or unresolved endings. As such, they are typical of most plays of the mid-twentieth century, but what is extraordinary is that Mosel wrote this way for early television, when audiences, and sometimes network executives, were said to demand neat resolutions and happy endings. Thematically, Mosel’s drama, both on stage and on television, tends to explore societal conventions, with at least one character, not always the protagonist, consciously running counter to those conventions. The unconventional character is frequently an alcoholic, an artist, or simply an average American opposed to changes in American society.

All the Way Home

Readers of the James Agee novel A Death in the Family, on which Mosel’s play is based, are confronted with profound structural differences between the two works. The narrative style of the novel is stream of consciousness, in which past and present flow back and forth between the current experience of the characters and their memories. Time is very fluid in Agee’s novel. In the play, on the other hand, Mosel has ordered the action so that it progresses chronologically. Critics praised a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Masterpiece Theatre dramatization of the novel in 2002 for adapting the stream-of-consciousness style for television, comparing Mosel’s adaptation unfavorably. Yet Mosel’s decision to edit the action in a linear fashion was probably the right one for 1961, and its rightness is confirmed by the play’s receiving the Pulitzer Prize in Drama that year.

In this play, the unconventional character, a common Mosel type, is the title character of the novel, Jay Follet, whose death provides the tragic climax to the play. He is light and easy-going in general, though a point of tension in his marriage is his chafing at the religious strictures, not so much of his society, but of his devoutly Catholic wife, Mary, and her family. In the opening scene, Mary hesitates even to tell her six-year-old son Rufus about her pregnancy until she checks with a priest. This religious tension is confined to the narration in the novel, though Mosel brilliantly inserts just enough...

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