Paddy Chayefsky Anatole Shub - Essay

Anatole Shub

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paddy Chayefsky, it has been said many times, is the Clifford Odets of the 1950's, and the differences between the two playwrights largely reflect a shift in popular attitudes since the 30's. Chayefsky's theatrical world is the same Bronx evoked by Odets twenty-five years ago, and his fundamental note, too, is the pathos of the lower middle classes. Like Odets, Chayefsky writes mostly about immigrants and their children, draws heavily on Jewish folk humor, and is more inventive at comedy than at serious drama. The aspirations, passions, and defeats of his characters are usually minor in scale; and, even more than Odets, Chayefsky likes the up-beat ending, the note of triumph over the "forces" which bedevil the "little man."…

Yet there is a striking difference between Chayefsky and Odets, and it is ideological. Both writers are evangelists or millenarians: their plays work toward a single magic revelation which will end the dreariness of day-to-day life and announce a vision of redemption. But where Odets's inspiration was Popular Front Communism, Chayefsky's is popular psychoanalysis. Odets's key word was "strike"; Chayefsky's is "love."

In Marty, The Big Deal, The Mother, Middle of the Night, The Bachelor Party, and The Catered Affair (all of which present recognizably Jewish types although their names are non-Jewish), Chayefsky has shown an alert topicality, keen humor, and a rare ear for the common speech. But these gifts only partly explain his popularity. For, a little like Odets, Chayefsky seems to be speaking for his time. His message of love is certainly modish in the commercial theater now…. (p. 523)

Chayefsky's message of love has some of the tone of "positive thinking" and is part of the popular culture of psychology. It soaks all real conflicts—personal or social—in a murky rhetoric of good intentions, "mutual understanding," and self-limitation. Chayefsky's most popular works have no villains. Love's enemy is an internal state, the inability to love; and the quality of this affliction doesn't vary much, whether a man and woman are concerned, or parents and children, or whoever. In his happy endings, in which the will to love finally breaks through, much must be taken on sheer faith—wishing will make it so—and much remains open to very diverse interpretations. The mistiness of Chayefsky's view of love is most apparent in … The Tenth Man; but it has also kept his best work, such as Marty, on this side of the line which divides popular entertainment from art. (pp. 523-24)

[For] Chayefsky and others for whom the "capacity to love" is an issue, the emotion is not the beginning of the play, but the end—a goal to be reached, if at all, in the final scenes. This kind of dramatic structure, which uses monologues and flashbacks in place of a sequence of action, is not inevitable in a play which employs psychoanalytic insights….

Actually, the structure of Chayefsky's plays rather suggests the old Christian religious dramas, which celebrated the triumph of grace over original sin and worldly temptations. And, indeed, the "love" which Chayefsky's characters pursue seems an idealized state of mind. It has nothing to do with passion, but is a rather low-keyed, diffuse sentiment which seems appropriate to all occasions. If it has any definable quality at all, it is that of the kindliness with which a parent consoles a hurt child—or perhaps that feeling as the child will sentimentalize it in later years….

Only in The Goddess, his most ambitious work …, has [Chayefsky] ever detached himself...

(The entire section is 1495 words.)