A Thousand Clowns was first presented at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York City on April 5, 1962, with Jason Robards in the role of Murray Burns. Herb Gardner’s first full-length play, it was nominated for the Tony Award for best play and was so successful commercially that Gardner, named the most promising playwright of 1961–62, was able to turn to playwriting full time. A few years later, Gardner wrote the prize-winning screenplay for a film adaptation of A Thousand Clowns, also starring Robards.
The play tells the story of Murray Burns, a cheerful eccentric raising his nephew, a twelveyear- old genius, in New York City. Murray believes in living life fully, even if that means going to the movies instead of looking for a job. When social workers from the Bureau of Child Welfare come to investigate, he must decide whether to accept some level of conformity in order to show himself a fit guardian. The play is episodic and funny, as Murray meets all challenges to his lifestyle with irreverent humor. The text is available in Herb Gardner: The Collected Plays, published in paperback in 2001 by Applause Books.
Before the lights come up on A Thousand Clowns, the voice of Chuckles the Chipmunk, an inane children’s television host, can be heard in the darkness, carrying on a perky conversation about ‘‘Chuckle-Chip Dancing’’ with a screaming crowd of children. The curtain goes up to reveal the cluttered one-room apartment of Murray Burns, every surface covered with clocks, broken radios, hats and other items. Although it is 8:30 on a Monday morning, the only light in the apartment is the light from the television, as Nick, Murray’s nephew, watches the Chuckles the Chipmunk show. Murray, who has just gotten out of bed, enters from the kitchen with a cup of coffee, and the two begin their day.
Murray is a free spirit with an offbeat sense of humor. He phones the weather service to get the day’s forecast and carries on an extended conversation with the recorded message on the other end. He has been unemployed for several months, having quit his job as a writer for Chuckles the Chipmunk because he fears becoming trapped in normal middleclass life. Although he has been promising Nick that he will look for a new job, he has no intention of doing so today, because he is celebrating the birthday of Irving R. Feldman, the owner of his favorite delicatessen. Nick, who is twelve, has decided to skip school in honor of the occasion as well. Clearly, Murray and Nick are fond of each other, and just as clearly, Murray has unconventional ideas about raising children. Nick, in some ways the more mature of the two, warns Murray that they are about to be visited by a social worker from the Bureau of Child Welfare. Murray promises to behave himself and considers again the possibility of looking for a job, but the prospect depresses him. Instead, he suggests a trip to the Statue of Liberty.
Before Murray and Nick can leave, they find at the door Albert Amundson, a social worker, and Sandra Markowitz, a psychologist, both from the Bureau of Child Welfare. Murray has been ignoring their phone calls and letters for eleven months, and they have come to see whether he is a fit guardian for Nick. Murray answers their serious questions with jokes and non sequiturs. Albert is earnest and stuffy, and he has no appreciation for Murray’s whimsical sense of humor. Sandra, on the other hand, finds Murray and Nick charming.
Murray and Nick truly are charming. They show off by guessing where Albert and Sandra grew up, based on their accents. Nick can also do imitations of Peter Lorre and James Cagney, famous movie actors from the 1940s and 1950s. Sandra is impressed by Nick’s intelligence, but Albert refuses to be distracted from his list of prepared questions. Sandra draws Nick aside to talk, and Nick does his best to tell her what he thinks she wants to hear about ‘‘educational-type magazines’’ and ‘‘wholesome and constructive-type games.’’ When asked about his favorite toy, Nick produces an electric statue of a topless hula dancer whose breasts light up. Nick has an ironic appreciation for how tacky the statue is, but Albert and Sandra try to establish deep psychological meanings for it. Murray explains that Nick’s mother, Murray’s sister, abandoned Nick years before. She never even gave her son a name. ‘‘Nick’’ is just a name the boy is trying out; he is to choose a permanent name when he turns thirteen in a few weeks. Sandra can see the humor in the way Murray and Nick live and in the inadequacy of the investigators’ probing, but Albert cannot. When Albert asks Sandra to be quiet and let him complete the investigation, the two...
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