Lenny Bruce Harold Clurman - Essay

Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bruce's life was disturbed and soiled by the physical, social and moral mess which city life on its lower levels often fosters. His attitude toward male sexuality, for instance, was distorted. He asserted with unconcealed pleasure that men are incapable of fidelity. But he was essentially intelligent, observant, extraordinarily receptive to a wide range of impressions. He was fundamentally honest and, for all that was coarse in him, he possessed an acute sensibility. He seems to have absorbed everything from his environment, so that while he was infested with its poisons, he was also sound enough to eject them in dismay, mockery and laughter. The result was ambiguous and, for those who are themselves balanced, largely salutary.

Bruce uncovered the sores of our urban life. He disclosed its filth and confusion without shame because he regarded them as the reality of contemporary existence. He thought them "funny" and was still keen enough to know that they were humanly destructive and that they had their source in the corruption of our society. His "art" was therefore partly a symptom of diseases of which we are victims and, in greater part, a curative. In this way it served a satiric function. If we do nothing but guffaw at its improprieties, we betray complicity with its negative aspects; if we also view it as evidence of what is noxious in the world about us, we must applaud it.

There are artistic as well as social reasons for doing so. Bruce's feeling for the vocabulary of our common speech is richly inventive. His language is a mishmash of gutter talk, the lingo of show business with all its clichés and the scrapings of sophistication such as a half-educated person of alert mind picks up. The mixture, through Bruce's natural volubility, becomes an amazing rhetoric, a poesy.

It would be worse than an exaggeration to call him the [Jean] Genet of the night clubs, because for one thing the Frenchman's language is thoroughly classic; but like Genet, Bruce in his own way created a radiance out of squalor.

Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'The World of Lenny Bruce'," in The Nation (copyright 1974 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 219, No. 4, August 17, 1974, pp. 122-23.