Mad As Hell

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

From the “Golden Age” of television drama in the 1950’s, one name still stands out: Paddy Chayefsky’s MARTY (1953). Adapted to film, this gentle ode to the common man won Chayefsky the first of a record three Academy Awards for Best Screenplay; the other came for films Swiftian in their satire, THE HOSPITAL (1972) and NETWORK (1976). Considine finds his title in the latter film’s battle cry against depersonalization: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Born in 1929 of Jewish emigrant parents who fled Russian, Chayefsky (who died in 1981) schooled himself by copying out a Lillian Hellman play. Because of Chayefsky’s success writing for television, he later found it easy to wrest control from film directors, even hiring actors blacklisted by Hollywood. From his teens, Chayefsky was depressive and at times suicidal. Stung by anti-Semitism in the Army, by revelations about the Holocaust, and by watching his mother’s painful death, Chayefsky created existential heroes, in despair over man’s insignificance.

Considine argues that Chayefsky’s own fear of abandonment and arrested development led him to adopt a protective persona or mask. On the outside was the boisterous Paddy, arrogant, raging, driven; within was Sidney (his name at birth), sensitive creator, the injured soul.

Chayefsky called television “the basic theatre of our century.” When his television plays were published, he even shelved them next to those of William Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen. His dramas for the stage, however, clearly command less attention than those of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. So Considine’s book, rather than a literary or critical biography, is more a show business biography—but of a very high order. Fresh in insight, suitably detailed, and smartly written, it is all one needs to know about the public artist, if not the private man.