Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1475
Before the lights come up on A Thousand Clowns, the voice of Chuckles the Chipmunk, an inane children’s television host, can be heard in the darkness, carrying on a perky conversation about ‘‘Chuckle-Chip Dancing’’ with a screaming crowd of children. The curtain goes up to reveal the cluttered one-room apartment of Murray Burns, every surface covered with clocks, broken radios, hats and other items. Although it is 8:30 on a Monday morning, the only light in the apartment is the light from the television, as Nick, Murray’s nephew, watches the Chuckles the Chipmunk show. Murray, who has just gotten out of bed, enters from the kitchen with a cup of coffee, and the two begin their day.
Murray is a free spirit with an offbeat sense of humor. He phones the weather service to get the day’s forecast and carries on an extended conversation with the recorded message on the other end. He has been unemployed for several months, having quit his job as a writer for Chuckles the Chipmunk because he fears becoming trapped in normal middleclass life. Although he has been promising Nick that he will look for a new job, he has no intention of doing so today, because he is celebrating the birthday of Irving R. Feldman, the owner of his favorite delicatessen. Nick, who is twelve, has decided to skip school in honor of the occasion as well. Clearly, Murray and Nick are fond of each other, and just as clearly, Murray has unconventional ideas about raising children. Nick, in some ways the more mature of the two, warns Murray that they are about to be visited by a social worker from the Bureau of Child Welfare. Murray promises to behave himself and considers again the possibility of looking for a job, but the prospect depresses him. Instead, he suggests a trip to the Statue of Liberty.
Before Murray and Nick can leave, they find at the door Albert Amundson, a social worker, and Sandra Markowitz, a psychologist, both from the Bureau of Child Welfare. Murray has been ignoring their phone calls and letters for eleven months, and they have come to see whether he is a fit guardian for Nick. Murray answers their serious questions with jokes and non sequiturs. Albert is earnest and stuffy, and he has no appreciation for Murray’s whimsical sense of humor. Sandra, on the other hand, finds Murray and Nick charming.
Murray and Nick truly are charming. They show off by guessing where Albert and Sandra grew up, based on their accents. Nick can also do imitations of Peter Lorre and James Cagney, famous movie actors from the 1940s and 1950s. Sandra is impressed by Nick’s intelligence, but Albert refuses to be distracted from his list of prepared questions. Sandra draws Nick aside to talk, and Nick does his best to tell her what he thinks she wants to hear about ‘‘educational-type magazines’’ and ‘‘wholesome and constructive-type games.’’ When asked about his favorite toy, Nick produces an electric statue of a topless hula dancer whose breasts light up. Nick has an ironic appreciation for how tacky the statue is, but Albert and Sandra try to establish deep psychological meanings for it. Murray explains that Nick’s mother, Murray’s sister, abandoned Nick years before. She never even gave her son a name. ‘‘Nick’’ is just a name the boy is trying out; he is to choose a permanent name when he turns thirteen in a few weeks. Sandra can see the humor in the way Murray and Nick live and in the inadequacy of the investigators’ probing, but Albert cannot. When Albert asks Sandra to be quiet and let him complete the investigation, the two quarrel, and Albert leaves, threatening to have Nick placed in foster care.
\With Albert gone, Sandra begins to cry. She knows she is not well suited for her job, because she becomes too involved with the people she is studying. She is romantically involved with Albert, but she knows that the relationship is also hopeless. She is worried about Murray and Nick and their chances for staying together. Nick is disappointed, but not surprised, that Murray was unable to behave during the interview. To cheer everyone up, Murray picks up his ukulele and begins to sing an old song, ‘‘Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.’’ Soon Nick picks up his own ukulele and joins in the rousing performance, complete with dance steps. Before the song is over, Nick looks thoughtfully at Murray and Sandra, sees that they are acting like a couple, and grabs his pajamas so he can spend the night with a neighbor.
Act 2 opens in Murray’s apartment the next morning, where Sandra has spent the night. While Sandra is getting dressed, Murray’s brother Arnold stops by with his daily delivery of a bag of fruit. Arnold is also Murray’s agent, and he tells Murray that he has two job prospects for him. Arnold knows that the Child Welfare Bureau is investigating Murray, and he wants to help him get a job so he will look more reliable. Murray refuses to discuss work, and Arnold leaves.
When Sandra emerges, they have a few moments of tension before they realize they are both happy about their night together. As Sandra delights in her new-found independence and spontaneity, Albert returns to the apartment. He informs Murray that a hearing will be held in two days to determine whether he may continue as Nick’s guardian. When Albert leaves, Murray tries to convince Sandra that Nick would be better off in foster care. He is unable to convince Sandra—or himself—that he is indifferent to Nick. Instead, he heads off to buy a new suit and get a job.
The next scene takes place in Arnold’s office, where Arnold is talking on a speakerphone with Leo Herman, also known as Chuckles the Chipmunk. They are negotiating a new offer for Murray, who is on an interview with another man named Sloan. Leo wants Murray back, but only if Murray can be more respectful. Murray comes into the office and reports that he has not taken the other job because ‘‘Sloan is an idiot.’’ He has decided to work with Leo again. But while talking with Leo, Murray is unable to hide his dislike. He tosses the speaker phone in the wastebasket while Leo is talking and storms out.
The third scene is back in Murray’s apartment, but it is an apartment transformed. Sandra has been tidying and redecorating, putting all of the broken clocks and radios in boxes, and adding new bedspreads and pillows. Nick arrives and is pleasantly surprised to see Sandra still there and to see the changes she has made. The two chat in a friendly way. Murray comes home in a cheerful mood, but Sandra slowly realizes that he has not gotten a job and that Nick will have to leave. Disappointed with Murray, she leaves, too.
About thirty minutes later, act 3 finds Murray alone in his apartment, which he has restored to its original chaotic condition. Arnold comes in and tries to have a serious conversation with Murray about the future. Murray accuses Arnold of having given up all of his youthful dreams, but Arnold insists that he is content with his job, his home, his wife, his children. He refuses to apologize for not living like Murray and proclaims ‘‘I am the best possible Arnold Burns.’’
Arnold leaves and Nick comes in. He proudly announces that since Murray has gone out and gotten a job, he has decided to complete his own unfinished business: he has decided to take ‘‘Murray Burns’’ as his permanent name. Murray is touched by this but tries to convince the boy to choose another name.
Leo arrives to try to talk Murray into coming back to work. Leo is a pathetic figure; he is neither warm nor particularly funny, and it bothers him that he cannot get Nick to like him. The more he tries to amuse Nick, the duller he appears. As Nick sees how empty a man Leo is, he understands why Murray does not want to work for him, and he tries to chase Leo away with another chorus of ‘‘Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.’’ But Murray knows now that he loves Nick, and he will do what he has to do to keep Nick with him. He quiets Nick and accepts Leo’s job offer. He will be back to work in the morning. Leo leaves, and Sandra returns. She hints at ideas for fixing up the apartment again, and Nick encourages her. For now, the three are a family, and Nick and Sandra will unite to keep Murray in line. Murray resignedly accepts his fate, and the curtain comes down.
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