James Purdy Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1572

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...

(The entire section contains 1572 words.)

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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 Fair, which features the stock character of the clown who laughs on the outside while he is crying on the inside. In this case, there is a pair of clown brothers. Neil, the younger brother, is the object of all of the other characters’ projected desire, both psychological and physical. Arnold, the older brother, is his possessive protector. Oswin, a professional assassin, is willing to kill for Neil; Oswin’s wife Elga is willing to accept her own death in a botched abortion rather than impede her husband’s greater passion for Neil. Even the evil Clown Master feels compelled to banish both Arnold and Neil from the circus because he cannot abide his not being able to possess them both.

This tangled web of sexual obsession and barely repressed violence is indicative of so much of Purdy’s work, especially in connection with his depictions of the relationships between men. In this regard, critics have been quick to note Purdy’s groundbreaking use of homosexual subject matter as early as the 1950’s. For his own part, however, Purdy has resisted being labeled as a gay writer; for him the troubled male relationships in his works are one of many symptoms of the general inability of individuals in contemporary American society to reach out to others in significant, reciprocal, and life-enhancing ways.

One of the reasons that people have problems in relating to others is what Purdy sees as the basic treachery of language. For many of Purdy’s characters, their words betray them. In A Day After the Fair, for example, both Arnold and the Clown Master have their tongues posthumously cut out, the former by Neil and the latter by Oswin, because they are perceived as liars.

Proud Flesh

In Proud Flesh, perhaps Purdy’s most important collection of short plays, are four works that bring together some of his abiding character configurations and thematic concerns, including the often unbearable tension brought about by the simultaneous struggle for autonomy and acceptance.

Strong, a play that attracted the early attention of American dramatist Tennessee Williams, focuses on one of Purdy’s characteristically dysfunctional families: a dutiful and self-sacrificing son named Dana, a rebellious and self-destructive son named Corey, and a mother unwilling, like Edna Cartwright in Children Is All, to face unpleasant realities. In the face of Corey’s continuing trouble with the law, Dana presumes to take on the role of their absent father by adopting a stern, censorious stance while their mother persists in trying to mitigate the seriousness of Corey’s personal problems by saying that the “poor little fellow is confused.” The tension resulting from their contradictory responses takes its emotional toll on Corey, and when he cannot escape his family and their acceptance of the suburban values of 1950’s America, he kills himself.

A similarly violent ending awaits the two characters in the short play Clearing in the Forest. Gil and Burk are a pair of male lovers who are facing the dissolution of their relationship because of the younger Gil’s decision to marry Louise, a woman whose unseen presence permeates the farmhouse both men have shared for two years.

As the story’s title indicates, both Gil and Burk have reached a point in their partnership when their complicated feelings for one another are stripped bare and fully exposed for their own scrutiny and judgment. During the course of this mutual examination, Burk extols the storminess of their partnership while young Gil confesses that he cannot “stand a life of all storms and flashes of lightning.” He yearns, in part, for the sanctuary of marriage, symbolized by the forest, and he fears the emotional and physical tension inherent in his homosexual relationship with Burk.

In the end, Gil stabs and kills himself, an act that gay critics point to as evidence of Purdy’s inability to entertain the possibility that love between two men can be viable and that some commentators see as just another example of the author’s abiding insistence that love cannot endure in a world whose values do not support its flourishing.

In the Night of Time and Four Other Plays

The five plays featured in the 1992 collection In the Night of Time and Four Other Plays call attention to one of Purdy’s persistent compositional tendencies. He is prone to revisiting earlier works and translating them from one genre to another. The play Ruthanna Elder, for instance, first appeared as a five-page short story in the 1987 collection The Candles of Your Eyes.

In the short story, an elderly physician recalls the tragic tale of a young woman whose innocent beauty serves as a catalyst in the death of two men. Ruthanna visits the doctor out of her concern that she may have been impregnated during a single, passionate encounter with a fifteen-year-old male relative. Although her fears prove groundless, Jess, to whom she has been betrothed for years, intuits her changed status, elicits a confession from the young seducer, subsequently kills the boy, and then commits suicide.

The play version retains the essential threads of the short story but increases the role of the boy, now given the name of Judd. Like so many of Purdy’s physical and spiritual orphans, Judd is looking for any shelter in the storm. In part, he loves Ruthanna as a sister; in part, he looks to Jess as his brother and father. In either case, Judd’s need to belong leads to tragedy as he seeks a moment of intimacy with Ruthanna and then readily confesses his indiscretion to Jess, for whom he professes worship. In essence, therefore, the play retains the story’s basic love triangle but magnifies the roles of all three characters, particularly that of Judd.

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James Purdy Short Fiction Analysis