James Purdy Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

James Purdy consistently experimented with the dramatic medium since the beginning of his writing career. Some of his short plays exist only on the printed page; others have been produced onstage, mostly in New York theaters Off-Broadway.

Critical examination of Purdy’s one-act dramas in the late twentieth century can be credited largely to the revival of interest in this genre, thanks in part to theater companies such as the Ensemble Studio Theater of New York. For example, Purdy’s one-act play Clearing in the Forest had its world premier at the Ensemble Studio Theater in 1978, the first year of the company’s later celebrated annual marathon productions of short plays.

Purdy’s short dramatic pieces can be said to be the theatrical equivalents of his short stories. Over the years, a number of these works have been published along with the short fiction in mixed collections. Because both his short plays and short stories rely heavily on vivid characterization and the use of dialogue, there is often a blurring of genres. In 1963, for example, the short play Cracks and five stories from the collection Children Is All were adapted for the stage, packaged under the title Color of Darkness: An Evening in the World of James Purdy, and performed at the Writer’s Stage in New York.

The characters in Purdy’s plays, like those in his fiction pieces, grapple with issues of self-identity. Their attempts to define themselves are complicated by the simultaneous desire for independence and the yearning to belong. Sometimes the latter longing is confined to the level of personal relationships, especially that of parent and child. At other times, Purdy pits the individual against society as a whole, in a setting informed either by the middle-class values of small town life or the often-bewildering lifestyle options afforded by residency in a big city.

Although recounted in the generally spare language of everyday speech, the hopes and dreams of Purdy’s characters are complicated and charged by a strong undercurrent of sexual tension and pent-up violence. These two factors Purdy attributes largely to an essential flaw in modern American society, which he felt is “based on money and competition” and “terrified of love.”

Children Is All

This early play is representative of one of Purdy’s major thematic preoccupations—the child’s essential need for and often betrayal by his parents. In ironic contrast to its title, Children Is All focuses on one woman’s inability to live up to the demands of motherhood.

After a fifteen-year absence, Edna’s son Billy sends his mother a hastily scribbled postcard indicating his intention to return home. Imprisoned for embezzlement, a crime for which he may have been framed, Billy desperately needs Edna’s acceptance. For her part, however, she cannot reconcile herself to her son’s homecoming, fearing that he will resent her for not having supported him at his trial and never having visited him in prison. Furthermore, Edna fears that she will not be able to recognize her thirty-three-year-old son when he does return.

True to her own premonition, Edna fails to acknowledge Billy when he arrives, fatally wounded while escaping from prison. As her son dies, his bloody head in her lap, Edna mechanically comforts “the stranger” while lost in personal reverie. Their posture, seated mother and dying child, is reminiscent of the Pieta, the classic image of the Virgin Mary mourning for the dead Christ, but Purdy’s unflattering portrait of Edna Cartwright serves to distance the character from the reader, and there is an absence of pity for her fate.

A Day After the Fair

Another play with archetypal aspects is A Day After the...

(The entire section is 1572 words.)