Historical Context

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The Legacy of Vietnam
The villainous Owen Musser appears to have fought in the Vietnam War because when he first meets Charlie he taunts him by saying, ‘‘why—last time I saw a foreigner, he was wrigglin’ on the end o’ my bayonet.’’ Then, asking where Charlie’s mother is, Owen says, ‘‘where’s she at now? Down under ground, someplace? Some foreign graveyard the hell off someplace, pushin’ up—palm trees, ’er sump’m?’’ The slow-witted Owen probably jumps to this conclusion because ‘‘charlie’’ was a euphemism for the enemy Viet Cong soldiers in the conflict.

It can be assumed that Vietnam was on Shue’s mind throughout his brief playwrighting career. He served in the army at the height of the Vietnam conflict, though he never fought overseas. In Grandma Duck Is Dead, his first play for Milwaukee Rep, a group of college students in June of 1968 are concerned with avoiding the military draft. In his production notes for the play, Shue suggests that an anti-Vietnam war song used in the Milwaukee Rep production was highly appropriate. In The Nerd the character Willum is a Vietnam veteran who opens his home to a man who saved his life on a Vietnam battlefield. And finally, in Wenceslas Square, Dooley, drafted and in the army during the Vietnam years, expresses very negative feelings about army life. One of Shue’s thematic concerns in The Foreigner is prejudicial thinking, a distinctive part of the American Vietnam experience, and Owen’s Vietnam duty has certainly fed the building inspector’s preconceptions regarding ‘‘foreigners.’’

In 1983, the debacle of Vietnam was still a sensitive issue in America, even though nearly a decade had passed since the United States had accepted virtual defeat and withdrawn its last troops from Vietnam. Vietnam has been so traumatic an episode in American history, however, that its ghost rises even today whenever the United States is involved in foreign hostilities; in 1983 it had risen again because of American military involvement in Central America.

In March, 1983, President Ronald Reagan attempted to persuade Congress to approve $60 million in military aid to the democratic El Salvadorean government, and the news media was quick to draw parallels with the Vietnam disaster. As Newsweek reported in March, ‘‘Ronald Reagan, for one, raised the specter of Vietnam. ‘There is no parallel whatsoever with Vietnam,’ he said soothingly; then he went on to suggest that El Salvador is a bigger threat to U.S. security than Vietnam ever was.’’ Reagan argued that El Salvadorean and Nicaraguan rebels supported by Cuba and the Soviet Union had to be stopped before the cliched domino effect jeopardized the entire region, sweeping the entire world into communism. The debate escalated throughout the year but because of the legacy of Vietnam there was no uniform enthusiasm for military intervention in Central America.

The Ku Klux Klan
For nearly 150 years, the racially supremacist agenda of the Ku Klux Klan has waxed and waned in America. In the early-1980s Klan membership had experienced another resurgence, according to an organization called Klanwatch that was created in 1981 in response to that new growth spurt. In The Dragon and the Cross: The Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Middle America, Richard Tucker quoted Klanwatch figures that number Klan membership in 1981 at ‘‘an estimated eleven thousand.’’ This membership statistic was up from a low of ‘‘about fifteen hundred in 1974.’’ In 1965 membership ‘‘had climbed to forty-two-thousand at the height of the civil rights battles,’’ and at one point in the nation’s history there were millions of Klan members.

Founded in Tennessee in...

(This entire section contains 932 words.)

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the 1860s as an innocent social club, the Klan soon shifted to a racist agenda in response to southern disaffection over the politics of post-Civil War Reconstruction. But after a period of rapid growth, the Klan’s excesses led to governmental sanctions and a decline in its numbers until the major revival of the Klan after World War I. The heyday of the organization lasted from 1915 to the mid-1920s, when somewhere between three and five million Americans throughout the United States claimed membership. This version of the Klan focused first on Catholics, then on Jews and Blacks, as undesirable groups. The Klan’s moralistic, white, Anglo-saxon, protestant prejudice considered these groups ‘‘foreign,’’ not ‘‘100% American.’’ But the Klan’s negative publicity in the 1920s eventually caused another precipitous decline in participation and by 1930 there were only a few hundred thousand members, mostly located in the South.

Where racism persists, however, the Klan keeps at least a foothold, and the 1950s and 1960s saw another resurgence, this time smaller, less pervasive yet more violent than its historic predecessors. This ‘‘new’’ Klan was more focused in the South and, responding to the Civil Rights movement, was more targeted on blacks. As Tucker reported, ‘‘from 1956 to 1966, there were more than one thousand documented cases of racist terrorism, assaults, and murders committed by Klansmen and their allies.’’

Tucker reported that by 1988, Klan membership ‘‘had dropped again to about five thousand,’’ but in the same year David Duke, a former ‘‘Grand Dragon’’ (or high level leader) of the Klan, was elected to the Louisiana state legislature, running openly as a racist and former Klansman. He lost when he ran for the United States Senate two years later but, as Tucker attested, ‘‘he managed to get 44 percent of the total vote and 60 percent of the white vote.’’ In 1983, Larry Shue could ridicule the Klan and make the audience laugh at its silliness, but the humor was and continues to be powerful because the insupportable Klan idea refuses to die.

Literary Style

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Very often a comedy will succeed because it starts with an inherently funny situation. Take for instance two very close friends being thrown together as roommates and discovering they can’t live with one another because one is obsessively neat and the other is habitually messy. This is the situation in Neil Simon’s, The Odd Couple, one of his most successful stage comedies. Simon’s characters, Felix and Oscar, repeated their roles in both a movie and a long-running television sitcom and then spawned a female version of the play where all the genders of the characters were reversed.

Much of the enduring success of Simon’s creation is due to the humor inherent to the initial comic situation. In fact, Simon sold the movie rights to The Odd Couple, even before he had written the play itself, on the basis of a thirty-two word sentence that simply described the ‘‘situation.’’

On television, ‘‘situation comedies’’ or ‘‘sitcoms’’ dominate the comic fare, and they too get their initial power from their situational concepts. For example, a visitor from outer space joins an earthly family and the Mork and Mindy series (1978-1982) starring Robin Williams is born. In 1972, with the United States seriously conflicted over Vietnam, a comically disparate group of battle- field surgeons in the Korean War populate the longrunning M*A*S*H television series (1972-1983). Film director Blake Edwards created the bumbling French police inspector Jacques Clouseau and the popular ‘‘Pink Panther’’ series of films ran for three decades.

Shue’s situational concept starts with a middleaged and unusually shy British man who is whisked off for a relaxing weekend to the rural South of the United States, where he yearns to be left alone, is passed off as a foreigner, and overhears a plot against the basically good people who serve as his hosts. When he takes advantage of his assumed role and helps save these people from the villains of the story, this man discovers a deeper identity that leads to a much happier and more productive life.

But because Shue was a gifted comic writer, this initial situation breeds equally inspired situations within the framework of the play. For example, at the breakfast table in Act I, scene ii, the shy ‘‘foreigner’’ encounters a ‘‘slow’’ and decidedly southern young man who tries to teach him English, southern style ‘‘can—you—say—‘‘fork’’? (Holds up his fork) . . . two parts. ‘‘Faw-werk.’’ Later, the ‘‘foreigner’’ is trapped by his friend, Froggy, into telling a story in his supposedly native language, and, thinking very quickly, the foreigner makes up a hilariously fractured fairy tale, complete with wildly acted out gestures ‘‘(Imitating with his right hand a huge, slovenly beast crashing through the forest) ‘Broizhni, broizhni! Broizhni, broizhni!’ Y byootsky dottsky? Hai. (Skipping in a semi-circle with his left hand.)’’

Then, when given an opportunity to secretly confront the villains of the story, this same shy man, who thinks of himself as being ‘‘dull,’’ brilliantly humiliates the villains while maintaining his pose as an innocent ‘‘foreigner:’’ ‘‘‘Please calm down.’ That’s what he was saying, Owen. Not ‘Bees come down.’ I think that’s good advice, too. (Owen watches Charlie like a serpent.).’’ Much of the hilarity of Shue’s comedy comes from clever dialogue but the driving power of the play’s fun comes from ingeniously conceived comic situations.

The wildly comic situations in The Foreigner work well because they are complemented by surprisingly interesting characterization. Shue’s characters are not complex or profound, but they are far from the flat stereotypes that they initially appear to be. Jay Joslyn, in an essay from the Milwaukee Sentinel, said of Shue: even ‘‘his villains are not stickmen. They are well observed, a subtle mixture of weakness and hatefulness.’’ The villains and heroes would likely be the most melodramatic of the play’s characters, but the characterization of Owen serves as a striking example of Shue’s more complex comic skill.

That Owen is hateful in his melodramatic way is quite clear. When he first meets the ‘‘foreign’’ Charlie he absurdly mistakes him for a Vietnamese and taunts him with ‘‘Well—we don’t get s’ many o’ your kind in these parts. (Rubs his chin.) Why— last time I saw a foreigner, he was wrigglin’ on the end o’ my bayonet.’’ Asking ‘‘whar’s your mother,?’’ Owen opines that she’s probably dead and that ‘‘they’s probably not enough of ’er left to spread on toast.’’ Much of the comedy comes from the absurd exaggeration of Owen’s venom, but the comedy is heightened because the audience has also perceived how pathetically stupid and vulnerable Owen is. When he makes his first entrance at Betty’s he appears out of the pouring rain and says ‘‘Hey, Bet. Nice weather fer eels.’’ The substitution in the cliched phrase of ‘‘eels’’ for the more conventional ‘‘ducks’’ is funny but also chilling. Eels would be creatures Owen would enjoy handling. He is, himself, eel-like. But then, when Betty asks, ‘‘Owen, what’re you doin’ in here,’’ Owen responds in a comically literal way, focusing on the prepositional phrase, ‘‘in here,’’ and says, ‘‘It ’uz rainin’ outside.’’

Owen is genuinely menacing and frightening, but he is at the same time comically superstitious, literal minded, and potentially incompetent. Any situation he is put in, like the final scene where he and his klansmen terrorize Betty and her guests, is a situation with rich comic possibilities because of the complexity in his characterization.

Compare and Contrast

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1983: In April, Chicago elects its first black mayor, Harold Washington, in a very close race following a bitter campaign that frequently referred openly to the racial issue. Weeks before the election, incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne, a white female, announces herself as a write-in candidate, intensifying the racial overtones of the campaign.

Today: The country has considered a black candidate for the office of President of the United States. Public opinion polls in 1995 revealed that retired General Colin Powell, had he agreed to run, would have received widespread support as the first black candidate for President.

1983: In October, the United States Senate votes 78 to 22 to create an annual federal holiday to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the slain black civil rights leader of the 1950s and 60s. Opposition to the motion is led by North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, and individual states are left free to decide if they will officially observe the holiday.

Today: Martin Luther King Day is widely observed throughout the United States (including North Carolina) on the third Monday in January. The observance seems generally more visible than the Presidents’ Day set aside to honor the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

1983: Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs appears on Broadway as Simon attempts to shed his image as a mere ‘‘gag-man’’ and to portray himself as the author of more ‘‘serious’’ comedy. The first in an autobiographical trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs wins Simon a number of enthusiastic supporters among the critics.

Today: Simon has failed to win an enduring reputation as a ‘‘serious’’ artist, even though more recent plays like Proposals (1997) continue to promise a more ‘‘mature’’ and serious Simon.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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‘‘Audiences Have Taken a Shine to Playwright Larry Shue’’ in People Weekly, April 8, 1985, p. 123.

Barnes, Clive. ‘‘Funny ‘Foreigner’ Strikes Familiar Chord’’ in the New York Post, November 2, 1984.

Beaufort, John. ‘‘‘Foreigner’ Zany Adventures in Georgia’’ in the Christian Science Monitor, November 14, 1984.

Cherkinian, Harry. ‘‘So Short A Time’’ in Milwaukee, November, 1985.

Christiansen, Richard. ‘‘Actor Larry Shue Comedy Playwright’’ in the Chicago Tribune, September 25, 1985.

‘‘Farewell to the M*A*S*H Gang’’ in Newsweek, February 28, 1983, p. 44.

Freedman, Samuel G. ‘‘A Play Survives against the Odds’’ in the New York Times, November 19, 1985.

Gray, Amlin. ‘‘A Tribute’’ in A Book of Tributes (Glen Ellyn, IL), Glen Ellyn Public Library, n.d., p. 43.

Harris, Claudia W. ‘‘Get Acquainted with Hale’s Fast and Funny ‘Foreigner’’’ in the Salt Lake Tribune, January 21, 1999, B 3.

Joslyn, Jay. ‘‘Larry Shue’s Brilliant Gifts’’ in the Milwaukee Sentinel, reprinted in A Book of Tributes (Glen Ellyn, IL) Glen Ellyn Public Library, n.d., p. 11.

O’Donnell, Richard. ‘‘Real Life’s Awfully Hard’’ in the Door County Advocate, October 10, 1985.

Oliver, Edith. ‘‘Not Much to Celebrate’’ in the New Yorker, November 19, 1984, pp. 187-88.

Oliver, Edith. Review of The Nerd in the New Yorker, April 6, 1987, p. 81.

Rich, Frank. ‘‘Anthony Heald in ‘Foreigner’’’ in the New York Times, November 2, 1984, C 3.

‘‘Reagan Sounds the Alarm’’ in Newsweek, March 14, 1983, p. 16.

Richards, David. ‘‘Stage Lights & Laughter’’ in the Washington Post, September 29, 1985.

Simon, John. ‘‘If the Shue Doesn’t Fit’’ in New York, November 12, 1984, p. 135.

Pickering, Rose. A Book of Tributes (Glen Ellyn, IL), Glen Ellyn Public Library, n.d., p. 41.

Tucker, Richard K. The Dragon and the Cross: The Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Middle America, Archon, 1991, pp. 187, 192.

Watt, Douglas. ‘‘‘Foreigner’ Sounds Like a Lot of Nonsense Talk’’ in the Daily News, November 2, 1984.

Further Reading
Gorsline, David L. Larry Shue, An Appreciation, http//www.geocities.com/SoHo/Studios/4753/Shue.html, July 14, 1998.
A tribute to Shue that includes biographical information not found elsewhere, along with interesting details regarding the production of Shue’s plays.

‘‘Larry Shue,’’ in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 52, Gale, 1989, pp. 390-94.
Excerpts from twelve critical essays covering Shue’s major plays, including Douglas Watt, Frank Rich, John Simon, and Edith Oliver on The Foreigner.

‘‘Shue, Larry,’’ in Contemporary Authors, Vol. 145, Gale, 1995, pp. 411-13.
An overview of Shue’s life and work with biographical information, a brief summary and assessment of his plays, and a list of newspaper and magazine articles referring to Shue.

Winer, Laurie. ‘‘Theatre Jerry Zaks, Guide to Wenceslas Square ’’ in the New York Times, February 28, 1988, Section 2, p. 5.
Jerry Zaks, director of the original New York production of The Foreigner, is quoted extensively and his comments reveal much about Shue’s personality and skill as a playwright.




Critical Essays