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The meaning of the moon: the plays of Arthur Laurents.

Arthur Laurents is one of the most versatile, talented, and socially committed of the playwrights who came of age in the aftermath of World War II. If he lacks the luminary stature of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, he more than holds his own with other more celebrated colleagues like Lillian Hellman, Robert Anderson, and William Inge. Laurents has solo authored seven published plays, as well as ten others still awaiting publication, most of which have been performed in New York and at a variety of regional theaters. One of his most recent works, 2 Lives, will have its premiere at Lincoln Center in 2003. In these plays Laurents experiments with a variety of dramatic forms and moods and he tackles important psychological and social themes. Indeed, since the appearance of his first play Home of the Brave (1945), he has been considered one of Broadway's most serious playwrights. And yet, although he has devoted the better part of his fifty five year career to work in the theater, a major success with one o f his own plays has so far eluded him.

Laurents has achieved international renown, however, as the librettist for two of the pre-eminent works of the American musical theater, West Side Story (pr. 1957, pub. 1958) and Gypsy (pr. 1959, pub. 1960).

The latter, which has arguably the best book ever written for a musical, displays an attention to plot and mood and especially to the psychological articulation of its protagonist that makes for one of the most complex and satisfying of musical plays. Laurents has also won Tony Awards for the book for Hallelujah, Baby! and for directing the musical version of La Cage Aux Foller. He also wrote the book for the cult favorite Anyone Can Whistle. In addition, he has won similar acclaim for his work as a screenwriter primarily for his two original screenplays, The Way We Were (1974) and The Turning Point (1977). He also adapted Rope for Alfred Hitchcock (1948), Anastasia for Anatole Litvak (1956), and Caught for Max Ophuls (1949).

Despite his success as screenwriter and librettist, Laurents considers himself a playwright, and has devoted most of his artistic energies to the stage. There he has explored the issues that have preoccupied him throughout his writing life, notably, the blacklist, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and gay rights. Consistently, he focuses on the individual's need to confront a troubling reality and to accept the concomitant burdens of responsibility and guilt that go along with it; this moral progress becomes the key to a genuine and fulfilling existence. In Original Story By (2000), his memoir, Laurents notes that "the theme of discovery and acceptance" informs much of his work (4), but Laurents doesn't push it far enough. For the most part he short-shrifts his solo playwriting career, particularly the more recent efforts that have not received Broadway productions. In his recent work he pushes the theme of "discovery and acceptance" most deliberately and most effectively into the world of social controversy and conflict. Some of these newer plays may be less dramatically integrated than the earlier ones, but the thematic development is more ambitious and complex.

In his study of American drama since World War II, Gerald Weales compares Laurents to Robert Anderson and William Inge because all three share a psychological orientation. Weales, however, concludes that he prefers Laurents because his plays, unlike those of Inge and Anderson, are "given a social context." (51) The distinction is apt, for if the immediate focus of Laurents's drama is to expose the emotional and psychological depths of his characters (this was truer in 1962 when Weales's study was published), these revelations also serve to illuminate something about the culture in which they are grounded. In Laurents's early work, culminating in Invitation to a March (1961) the connection between the public and the private is perceptible but hardly pronounced. When he resumed his solo playwriting career with The Endave (pr. 1973, publ. 1974), the connection between personal failings and public betrayals became noticeably sharper.

Laurents's first play, Home of the Brave, reflects a playwright already in firm command of his craft. It also announces his preoccupation with psychological conflict and the need to confront one's inner demons as a prerequisite to forging a new and healthier beginning. During the course of the drama, one soldier, Peter Coen ("Coney") confronts the loneliness of being an outsider in his platoon and then struggles to overcome the debilitating effects of guilt over the death of his best friend, whom he once suspected of anti-Semitism.

Home of the Brave had its origins in Laurents's earlier efforts as a dramatist in other media. After graduating from Cornell in 1937, he wrote for radio, contributing to popular series such as Hollywood Playhouse, Dr. Christian, and The Thin Man. Then, in 1940 he was drafted into the Army where he eventually ended up working on military training films and writing scripts for radio programs, including The Man Behind the Gun, Army Service Forces Present, and Assignment Home. Developed to address the problems of returning servicemen, Assignment Home won a Variety Radio Award as "one of the outstanding shows" of 1945. One of Laurents's scripts for the series, "The Face," which portrayed a maimed veteran's rehabilitation, was included in The Best One-Act Plays of 1945-46. The research required for his work on that series clearly influenced Home of the Brave. In his memoir, Laurents claims that a haunting photograph he had kept from those days actually triggered the play's setting and subject. "The photograph in th e drawer...was an army shot of some GIs in a South Pacific jungle looking at a mutilated body of a buddy....I didn't know why it was a play but I did." (OSB 49) After reading John Howard Lawson's Theory and Technique of Playwrighting, the novice playwright also felt that he should know what his play was about. He decided that his theme was, "Underneath we are all the imperfect same." (OSB 49)

Even though Laurents can't be regarded as an innovative stylist, he has explored a variety of theatrical styles over the course of his career, often integrating a "realistic" story line with heightened theatrical effects. For Home of the Brave, his production note recommended simple, stylized sets: "To me, most plays suffer anyway from too much scenery and too little use of the audience's imagination." His development of the jungle setting here reflects the influence of Eugene O'Neill in its use of sound, especially bird screams, to evoke the soldiers' own fears and emphasize the tensions between them. Home of the Brave employs a dramatic strategy that would be utilized almost thirty years later by Peter Shaffer in Equus (1973) and even more recently by Arthur Miller in Broken Glass (1993): a doctor attempts, through the use of drugs to have a patient act out events from the past in order to uncover the cause of his symptoms. Because Laurents is exploring memory and the roots of behavior, these scenes from th e past function as the equivalent of a fictional stream of consciousness rather than as a simple series of flashbacks. This technique, coupled with the highly stylized sets and expressionistic use of sound, creates a sense that the play's complex dramatic action is all taking place in the present.

Peter Coen suffers from partial paralysis and amnesia brought on after he is forced to leave behind his best friend, Finch, during a dangerous reconnaissance mission on a Japanese island. One of the few soldiers who has refrained from making anti-Semitic remarks to Coney, Finch had even physically defended him from abuse by others in their unit. Becoming friends, the two planned on opening a bar together after the war. The overt culprit in the play is Colonel T.J. Everitt, a former company executive, who makes Coney the object of his resentment for being in the military. Laurents makes it clear that Coney's sensitivity stems from childhood encounters with anti-Semitism in his family's apartment building and in school. Refusing to spare his audience from heating such racially charged epithets as "sheeny" and "kike" during the play, Laurents echoes the approach of Doctor Birterger, the army psychiatrist, who attacks Coney's illness by attempting to desensitize him to this kind of prejudice. Events come to a hea d in a memory sequence when, under the pressure of their mission, Finch calls his buddy a "lousy yellow...jerk," and Coney suspects that Finch has only caught himself before saying "Jew bastard." Then when Finch is killed, Coney is overwhelmed by guilt at the possible connection between his momentary reaction of hatred on hearing Finch's remark and his decision not to stay behind and die with his friend. This guilt is the root of his amnesia and paralysis. Dr. Bitterger tries to convince Coney that he acted in much the same way that anyone else would have under the circumstances.

Coney's recovery is slow, and it is not until he is scheduled to be shipped back home that he comes to understand that Bitterger is right. He is being sent home along with another member of his company, Mingo, who has likewise sustained both physical and psychological injury. While on the mission, Mingo confides to Coney that he has recently received a "Dear John" letter from his better educated wife, announcing that she is leaving him for another man. Having had his arm amputated as a result of a wound suffered on that same mission, he is returning home a cripple; like Coney, he will be an outsider. When Coney discovers that Mingo, despite his injury, also feels glad to be alive after witnessing the deaths of other comrades, he accepts that he is part of a larger community -- that in spite of their differences, all men share a common humanity. By recognizing and accepting their own humanity, these two damaged souls, can go home and start life new: Coney and Mingo will now open the bar that Coney had planned on owning with Finch. If the country they are returning to is not free from prejudice, at least these two men have forged in the crucible of their own suffering a sense of kinship that offers a glimpse of a better world. Laurents's perhaps too neat ending is saved from being maudlin by the suggestion that these characters' rejuvenation is based on a hard-won choice, and that the new life they foresee is possible but not guaranteed.

Laurents's optimism sometimes seems forced -- imposing an ending on a play that the work seems to be moving against and undercutting his best work. In Original Story By, he reflects on the raw energy of his first play: "Innocently and unintentionally, I clouded my theme by using epithets uglier than 'yellow Jew boy' in scenes of blatant bigotry never before seen or heard on the Broadway stage. They were so harsh.. that Home of the Brave emerged for too many as simply an angry play about anti-semitism." (50) In fact, this vivid description of bigotry in action, is the source of the play's power and its central thematic focus. It is instead, the happy ending that rings false. The two wounded survivors' epiphany in recognizing their shared humanity is too hurried to be convincing; it seems contrived simply to bring a dark and disturbing play to a satisfying conclusion.

Laurents would return to the themes of Jewishness and anti-Semitism later in his career -- most famously in his film, The Way We Were, but also in his unpublished plays My Good Name, Big Potato (formerly Scream), and Claudia Lazlo -- and there he would examine them again with an intensity that recalls the harsh notes introduced in his first play. But, like Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller, who struggled to write around their Jewish heritage only to confront it again in mid-career or later, Laurents would focus on other matters in the plays that followed that early outburst.

His next play, Heartsong, never made it to Broadway. During an extensive pre-Broadway run -- it played in New Haven, Boston, and Philadelphia -- the play went through a number of cast changes and numerous rewrites, but Laurents finally judged it not ready for New York and asked his producer, Irene Meyer Selznick, to close the play. In his memoir, Laurents claims to remember very little about this project, except that it "began as a high comedy in the first two acts, then collapsed under a load of uncertain drama in the third." (65) The plot centers on the foundering marriage of a young couple whose troubled past involves a concealed abortion. Laurents writes, "My guess is that the abortion is in the play because dramatically, I needed a secret from the young couple's past, a socially unacceptable secret that could damage their marriage. My suspicion is, that I wanted to use homosexuality but was afraid to..." (65) Homosexuality and the gay man's struggle to accept it and confront it in a public way were subj ects, like Jewishness, that Laurents would focus on with varying degrees of success later in his career. Early on, the pressures of forging an identity as a playwright were obviously enough. Heartsong did, however, introduce him to Shirley Booth, who was the only lead actor in the play to survive through all three tryouts. She would win acclaim five years later in Laurents s greatest Broadway success, The Time of the Cuckoo.

Laurents's next play, The Bird Cage, received the kind of star treatment befitting the work of an important writer. It was directed by Harold Clurman, who would also direct Carson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding that same year (1950). Clurman, who had co-founded the Group Theatre, brought with him Group alumni Sanford Meisner and Eleanor Lynn. (Stella Adler was supposed to co-star, but she was feuding with Clurman, her husband, and was replaced by Maureen Stapleton.) Like Home of the Brave, The Bird Cage is essentially a realistic play, though with less psychological emphasis, and its set, too, is meant to be "suggestive rather than realistic" (5)--Boris Aronson's two-tiered set design showed the house bar, the dressing rooms, and the boss's office.

The Bird Cage, however, is a more ambitious play than its predecessor, as Laurents attempts to expand his theatrical range. Whereas Home of the Brave focused essentially on the psychological rehabilitation of a single character, here he creates an entire world populated by numerous varied characters, many of whom are well-rounded and deftly drawn. The play's title identifies its locale, a nightclub presided over by Wally Williams, a petty tyrant who runs the club as if it were his own miniature kingdom. During the course of the play it is revealed that Wally wormed his way into ownership of the club dishonestly, but since he now dispenses the jobs and the paychecks, a retinue of employees and family members remain uneasily loyal to him. His partner Ferdy is a weak but honest and simple man, whose guilty conscience leads him to believe that his daughter's affliction (who is deaf and dumb) is divine retribution for his acquiescence in Wally's unsavory schemes. Engaged in an increasingly destructive balancing ac t to keep his past at bay, Wally eventually frames Ferdy, breaks the fingers of his piano player, Vic, who owns a small percentage of the club, contributes to the delinquency of his own son, and drives his wife to drink.

Wally behaves as if he were king of his private kingdom, but like many of Laurents's characters, he is masking his own insecurities behind this aggressive behavior. "A man spends half his life to find where he belongs. I belong here. This is mine, I made it. Hell, anybody tell a king to start a new country?" (23) Wally's abuse of everyone around him clearly derives from a catalogue of personal frustrations: his loveless upbringing, his lack of formal education, his fear of showing weakness. Although he envisions his club as a place where all his employees feel a sense of belonging, it is in fact a cage and a trap for them all. Wally explains his philosophy to Vic as his power is under siege at the end of the play:

I'm not ashamed. Ferdy was waiting for God. Well, God helps those who helps himself--to anything he can get his hands on....Kiddie, the guy who survives ain't the guy with a conscience. It's the gent who doesn't need nobody. (69)

Wally will not tolerate anyone who talks back, but he respects Vic because he is educated. Wally listens respectfully but remains unmoved when Vic tells him that most of the employees are "silent with fear, we're sick with it. Fear of jobs, of God, of not being loved." (55) The play ends when India, a chorus girl, who has been wooed simultaneously by Wally, his son Joe, and Vic, suddenly stands up to Wally and leads a mini-revolt. She quits the club, leaving with Joe and Vic, while Wally, ever defiant, is left alone, insisting, not very convincingly, that he doesn't need anybody. As in Home of the Brave, Laurents thus concludes with a small group of survivors who have struggled to escape the past and forge new identities. They walk away from the security of a home, job, or family to face an uncertain future, but a more hopeful one that is based on a renewed understanding of themselves.

The Bird Cage, with its collection of victims, demonstrates how kindly, well-intentioned people caught up in their own needs, fears, and desires, can contribute to their own victimization and contribute to the escalation of dictatorial cruelty. In developing this theme, Laurents may have been alluding to the abusive powers of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. After the failure of Heartsong, Laurents went to Hollywood in 1947, the same year in which the group that became known as the Hollywood Ten were appearing before HUAC. Laurents, who would find himself blacklisted in 1950, remained a lifelong foe of the Committee, writing about that period years later in the script for his most famous film, The Way We Were, and in the play, Jolson Sings Again.

Laurents began to suspect that he had been blacklisted during negotiations for his work on a film about the ballet. Originally developed for production as a Broadway musical for Jerome Robbins, it was called Look Ma, I'm Dancing. Laurents had backed out of the theatrical project on the advice of his psychiatrist; but when Paramount bought the rights, Robbins asked Laurents to write the screenplay. Laurents's agent at the time told him that he was "out," that he had asked for too much money, even though no figures had even been discussed. His suspicions were later confirmed by a story editor he knew at Paramount who told him that he was blacklisted. Laurents was also listed in Red Channels, a book-length report of Communist influence in radio and television published by "Counterattack," a newsletter published to combat communism. He was cited for sponsoring the "Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace" in 1949, for signing an amicus curiae brief which petitioned the Supreme Court to review the convi ctions of John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo, and for the American continental Congress for Peace in Mexico City. He also wrote a dramatization of Albert Maltz's novel, The Journey of Simon McKeever, presented at Carnegie Hall in 1949 as part of a program on behalf of the National Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions. While in Hollywood, Laurents spoke at a Thought Control Conference organized in response to the HUAC investigations and held at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Laurents claims not to have been a member of the Communist Party; and although he believed in their goals, he thought many of the members naive. (McGilligan) He left Hollywood as the blacklist was coming to a head and returned to New York to resume his playwriting career. No doubt his experiences with the blacklist contributed to the mood, if not the plot, of The Bird Cage. Despite its impressive cast, The Bird Cage was not a critical success, and it lasted only three weeks. Laurents realized that the play had problems and continued to revise, despite continued assurances from Clurman that it would be a success. The play does offer evidence of some substantial growth in Laurents's technique--his attempt to take on so large a canvas is especially impressive--but it falters primarily in not providing a credible antagonist to Wally Williams. Ferdy is too eccentric and weak to give the audience much hope that he will ever stand up to his partner. The most glaring failure, however, is the underdeveloped character of Vic, who should have functioned more prominently as the playwright's spokesman. Vic's evolution from a passive observer to reluctant rebel is imperfectly realized, and he is never allowed to articulate effectively the liberal values that Laurents positions him to represent. As a result, his final decision to join India in defying Wally lacks the authority that a stronger character's revolt would have carried, and the play's conscience remains oddly muted.

If The Bird Cage had succeeded, Laurents might have remained in New York, but after waiting three months for the restoration of his passport, which had been revoked by the U.S. Government, he decided to go to Europe with friends. While there he met with the producer Sam Spiegel, who had just produced The African Queen, and was interested in developing a film with Marion Brando and Ingrid Bergman. Until Spiegel stopped paying him, Laurents worked on the film, which never got made.

Laurents returned to the United States to mount his third play, The Time of the Cuckoo (1952), which became his first Broadway success. Also directed by Harold Clurman, it featured Shirley Booth, who won a Tony Award for her performance. A bittersweet comedy/drama about an American spinster looking for romance in Venice, it displayed Laurents's special talent for rendering psychological complexity, and equally important, his genuine sympathy for a varied cast of characters. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote that the play "is written with grace by a man who is mastering the theatre and who can afford to take liberties with conventional forms." (Oct. 16, 1952) The form of The Time of the Cuckoo actually makes it the most traditional of Laurents's early plays. It requires only one set, the garden of the Pension Fioria, where Leona Samish has come to spend a few days of her summer vacation. This setting is suffused with romance, a heady atmosphere accentuated by the sounds of the gondolier's call "Gondo la, Gondola!" which echoes throughout the play, and church bells, which in Venice "don't have anything to do with time."

Although Laurents rehearses the Jamesian theme of the culture clash of Europeans and Americans, his focus is on the character of Leona whom he claims to have patterned on himself (OSB 190). A spinster "well into her thirties," Leona is a warm but lonely person whose plight acquires a measure of pathos because of her inability to know herself, to trust her instincts, or to accept love -- characteristics she shares with many Laurents protagonists. Having raised her siblings after the death of her parents and having worked most of her life, she prides herself on her independence, and hides her insecurities behind drink and an effusive personality. She seriously miscalculates her attractiveness to the older Di Rossi, a shop owner who turns out to be a married man with children. Leona is outraged by the discovery of his status as family man, and she decides that he must be after her money.

Dr. Rossi does nor believe in such abstract notions of right and wrong -- instead he tells Leona, "I am in approval of living." (51) He advocates raking a chance on love, and he decries the tendency of Americans to wallow in guilt about sex. Above all, he finds the American notion of romance to be childish.

You will never find romance by being romantic....You come here, you ride in a gondola, and you sigh: Ah Venice! So beautiful, so romantic, such children! And you dream: he is young, handsome, rich, witty, brilliant, a gondola of his own....Well, I am a shopkeeper. Not handsome. Not rich, not young, not witty, not brilliant. No title; no gondola....But, Miss Samish, I am a man, and I want you....You are a hungry child to whom someone brings -- ravioli. "But I don't want ravioli, I want beef-steak!" You are hungry Miss Samish! Eat the ravioli! (52-53)

Di Rossi's persistence and the musings of Signora Fioria, another advocate of living life fully (she is currently having an affair with Eddie Yaeger, a painter experiencing a creative block and a bit exasperated with his doting wife) finally win over Leona. It is Di Rossi's gift, of a garnet necklace, however, that finally overwhelms her. When she receives it at the end of Act II, scene 1, Laurents's stage directions bring the gondola calls, the church bells, and music from a nearby garden to a symbolic crescendo, "The music sounds louder now, loud enough for us to hear what Leona is hearing finally: a waltz." (67)

Leona's dream of a romantic ideal is shattered when she learns that Di Rossi owes money on the necklace; when she pays it off with money he has exchanged for her, the bills prove to be counterfeit. Suspecting that perhaps Di Rossi is something of a counterfeit himself, she gets drunk at a parry she is hosting at the pensione and in anger and frustration alludes to Eddie's infidelity. Prior to the party, as Leona was decorating the area with paper lanterns--linking her to Blanche Dubois, whom she resembles in her persistence in clinging to idyllic visions of romance, Signora Fioria rebuked her for her avoidance of reality: " make me impatient, excuse me--Stop looking at the moon. Look here. See things as they are and make from them the best you can" (58). Afterwards, when Leona has lashed our at Di Rossi and demanded that he leave, Signora Fioria again teaches her friend," You know why you threw our Di Rossi? Because he is not your dream of perfection. That dream, that ideal, does not exist, Miss Samish. " (80) Di Rossi finally breaks off the affair, lamenting, "But with you--cara Leona, with you the complication is you yourself and--it is too much!" (88)

The Time of the Cuckoo is a beautifully realized comedy dealing with denial, sexual guilt, and the disguising of emotion. Still struggling with his own feelings about his homosexuality, Laurents poured much of his conflict into the character of Leona. Unlike his characters, Laurents does not judge either his American protagonist or the Italians but presents their different points of view and lets the audience judge for itself. Both Leona and Di Rossi are individuals looking for fulfillment in their own ways, and it is a testament to Laurents's evolution as an artist that he can portray both of them sympathetically. At the end of the play, Leona has come to understand several things about herself: most importantly, her inability to love herself and her need of others to affirm her self-worth. While in Venice, Leona buys two red eighteenth-century goblets, and Di Rossi gives her a garnet necklace. The vivid color of both tokens is symbolic of her long repressed passion, a life force that is being released in th e brief affair. Although the necklace reminds her of the dispiriting reality of her liaison, Leona insists on paying for it herself and taking it back home with her--clear signs that she has confronted her own nature and learned from her experience and that she will grow from it.

The Time of the Cuckoo has been Laurents's most frequently revived play. In 1958 it re-opened in a more intimate off-Broadway playhouse. There, Kathleen Maguire, who was younger than Shirley Booth when she originated the role, played Leona as a more spirited and adventurous woman who is better equipped to compromise. Arthur Gelb in the New York Times felt that the new Leona was "more believable and more dramatic." (Oct. 28, 1958) It was recently revived again at Lincoln Center with Debra Monk, whom the critics found too hard edged. Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote that her Leona "is more likely to make you cringe than sniffle." (Feb. 22, 2000)

Laurents also turned the play into the musical entitled Do I Hear a Waltz? with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. In his autobiography Laurents recalled that Sondheim and Rodgers didn't jell as collaborators and that Sondheim didn't even feel that Cuckoo should be turned into a musical. Laurents's own conception of Leona had evolved over the years, moving away from the image of an older woman who cannot give of herself physically to that of a younger woman who has trouble giving of herself emotionally, and the musical did feature a younger actress in the role (Elizabeth Allen). The show opened to disappointing reviews but nonetheless enjoyed a respectable run.

The story's most famous incarnation, however, was in the film Summertime (1954), directed by David Lean--who also co-authored the screenplay with H. E. Bates after Laurents's own script was rejected. Starring Katharine Hepburn (who didn't like Laurents's script) and Rossano Brazzi. the film is much more sentimental than the play. Hepburn's character, renamed Jane Hudson, has enough money to buy an expensive movie camera, as well as Italian gowns and shoes. Unlike Leona, Jane loses her virginity with Di Rossi, as is announced by fireworks exploding in the Venetian sky. After a torrid affair, Jane herself breaks off the relationship, declaring that she has always stayed too long at parties and that she wants to leave before the affair sours. Laurents disliked the film and refused screenplay credit:

The picture itself is a beautifully photographed travelogue, a coffee-table hook on film. What little story it tells is mawkish and sentimental, made more so by the maudlin performance of its star whose weeping threatens to overflow the troubled canals. Hepburn told me crying made her voice less monotonous. She was wrong. (OSB 210)

Back on Broadway in 1957 Laurents changed moods and styles again and offered A Clearing in the Woods, which, according to the playwright, was the most difficult of his plays to write and the most satisfying. For the published version of the play, Laurents wrote a Preface in which he discusses some of his ideas about theater and muses on his own thematic interests:

I think the man who is lonely is the man who is lonely with himself because he has not accepted himself for the imperfect human being he is. Until he makes that difficult acceptance (and so many of us are startlingly unaware that we have not), he cannot feel very much, he cannot give very much, he cannot have very much. (vii)

The need for this process of self-discovery and self-acceptance links Virginia, the protagonist of Clearing with Leona, Wally Williams, and Coney. In this play, however, Laurents deepens the "heightened theatricality" he has been moving toward and attempts a form that defies easy labels. In his Preface, he emphatically discounts such terms as dream, nightmare, and flashback. Its method is non-realistic, but unlike Strindberg's Dream Play, it follows a logical, linear progression. It presents a grown woman in dialogue with her three former selves, yet it does not rely on a dream structure. Laurents asserts simply that the form is determined by the content and that the play adheres to the unities of time, place, and action. Clearly, his approach flirts with Expressionism, but in mood it comes closest to fantasy.

Virginia is a woman who must confront the past if she is to deal effectively with the future. In trying to make peace with herself, she comes upon a clearing in the woods and seeks to find the pattern of her life in its magic circle. In so doing, she meets and speaks with her former selves. Jigee (Virginia at the age of ten) rebels in jealous frustration against her distant father who she thinks is too absorbed with her mother. Virginia's (her adolescent self) initiation to sexuality is reflected through Nora who has an affair with a woodchopper, Virginia/Nora is seen entering a secluded cottage with George, who like Di Rossi, advocates enjoying the pleasures of today but, unlike his Italian counterpart, claims to believe in "nothing"--for then there can be no risk of disillusionment. Virginia's failure at marriage is represented by twenty-six-year-old Gina and her relationship with Pete, who married her thinking she was pregnant. Pete was a campus star (anticipating Hubbell Gardiner of The Way We Were) who has never grown beyond his glory days at college. Gina thinks of him as a perpetual boy, while Pete believes that she secretly rejoices in his failures, and he feels emasculated by his wife.

Virginia herself, like her three earlier incarnations, aspires to be exceptional--at each stage of life she has wanted to be set apart from the ordinary. Two years prior to the time of the play, she called off her wedding to Andy because she realized that he would never become a brilliant researcher, only a competent one. Now, hoping to erase that day, Virginia invites Andy into the magic circle in the clearing, but she still demands that he live up to her expectations, while he is content with his life as it is. Virginia's predicament anticipates that of Quentin, the protagonist or Arthur Miller's After the Fall, who also must come to terms with past failures before moving ahead to a more promising future. Within the magic circle, Andy acts as a guide and therapist for Virginia, much like Birterger and Di Rossi. He makes her see that she has never truly loved anyone, including herself, and as a result has tried to destroy all the relationships in her life. Like Leona, Virginia has been in love with a dream of life; she must learn to love life as it is. Andy explains to her, "Loving is knowing someone and still loving." (51) As she opens her eyes to what they teach her about herself, learning to accept and be satisfied with who she is, Virginia can finally assimilate her former selves.

A Clearing in the Woods is Laurents's most straightforward examination of the concept of self-confrontation and acceptance of reality as the requirement for personal growth. Recognizing her own cruelty and seeing her dream of life for what it is, Virginia learns that accepting reality is the only basis for living a life of wholeness and integrity. The dramatic strategy of the play enforces its theme: that the truth can be reached only through courage and honesty. Despite its innovative structure and psychological clarity, A Clearing in the Woods does not succeed because Virginia is not a very interesting or well-developed character. The scheme of the play isolates her from any social context, and so we know little about her except her neurotic symptoms. Where Arthur Miller connects his protagonists' private failures to social and historical evils, the problems of Laurents's characters are ultimately private ones that don't command the interest or sympathy of the audience. This leaves Virginia's ultimate emot ional breakthrough a hollow victory. Larents's recognition of the need to integrate the variety of experience, displayed, albeit awkwardly in The Bird Cage, seems lost here in the pursuit of deeper psychic insights and bolder dramatic methods. A Clearing in the Woods closed after a dispiriting three-and-a-half week run. Four years later it was revived to great acclaim when it was presented in the television play anthology series, The Play of the Week, with Celeste Holm in the title role.

While Laurents was in Hollywood in the mid-fifties working on the screenplay for Summertime, he ran into Leonard Bernstein, who was there writing the score for On the Waterfront for Elia Kazan. The two revived the idea of a musical based on Romeo and Juliet, a project that Jerome Robbins had proposed and discussed with them in 1949. His original concept involved feuding Jewish and Catholic families on the East Side of New York around Passover, but Laurents and Bernstein now took note of reports in the L.A. papers about Chicano gang wars, and this more contemporary conflict planted the notion that would evolve into the final setting for West Side Story. Although the musical was promoted as a work conceived, choreographed, and directed by Robbins, Laurents's book was as integral a part of the show's success as Bernstein's music and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics. Writing about the human condition in the context of a particularly vivid moment, Laurents put his own stamp on the mood and theme of West Side Story. The singular accomplishment of his book is in maintaining a strong focus on the central culture clash, effectively stripping down language and merging brief scenes to make room for Robbins's choreographed confrontations to build toward the release of passion and ultimate catastrophe. If Shakespeare's play is a tragedy of love, Laurents's version emphasizes the plight of a couple at the mercy of their volatile environment and the spiralling pressure of time. Laurents is more concerned with the economic and sociological forces that will crush his young lovers than with Tony and Maria as characters, which makes West Side Story the least character-driven of his plays. And interestingly, considering that it is a musical, it is also his darkest portrait of the possibilities for human progress and reconciliation.

Laurents didn't think West Side Story would be successful, and so, to make some money, he agreed to adapt Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse for Otto Preminger. That venture, he later admitted was "a miscalculation," especially since West Side Story turned out to be a major hit, running for about two years. His next project, however, would prove to be an even more rewarding experience, as well as his most enduring contribution to the musical theater. Gypsy again teamed Laurents with Stephen Sondheim and Robbins but now with a musical score by Julie Styne. His book, based on the memoirs of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, is notable both for its carefully structured plot and the psychological sophistication of its central character. Blending a variety of backstage settings with parodies of vaudeville styles, Laurents presents a lively portrait of a bygone theatrical era by concentrating on the vital energy of his grand protagonist.

In creating this compulsive figure, the stage mother who pushes her children relentlessly toward fame so that she can experience it vicariously herself, Laurents's book and Sondheim's lyrics explore Rose's strength, her naivete and most poignantly her sense of inferiority--the feeling that without success, she is incapable of being loved. This destructive emotional insecurity links her most clearly to Virginia in A Clearing in the Woods, a character Laurents must still have been pondering while writing Gypsy, although Rose also mirrors the bullying bravado of Wally Williams as well as Leona Samish's fantasizing bent and fear of compromise. The story's dramatic high point comes with Gypsy's stardom and embittered rejection of her mother, but the play ends with a tentative reconciliation between mother and daughter. Nevertheless, it is clear that, unlike earlier Laurents protagonists, Rose has learned little from her experience--while her strength, tenacity, and gusto may be admirable, she remains something of a monster.

Laurents's loving recreation of the vaudeville of an earlier era in Gypsy and his experimentation with conventions of theater and theatricality clearly influenced his next effort, a straight play entitled Invitation to a March. His first outright comedy, this exuberant and charming tale provides a refreshing break from the dark, brooding underpinnings of both West Side Story and Gypsy, but it was to be Laurents's last attempt at such an upbeat, warm, and tender play. It was also his first experience as a director, a role he would pursue with much success in the future. In an interview given shortly before the opening of Invitation to a March, Laurents offered what could stand for one of his playwriting credos: "The theater should be a land of magic. When the curtain goes up the audience should be in fairyland." (NYT, Oct. 23, 1961) This fabulist's ambition, most dramatically realized in this play, links Laurents with Thornton Wilder, who also believed that the fictitious nature of the theater was its essence. Built on the fairy-tale structure of the Sleeping Beauty story, Invitation to a March recounts the emotional awakening of a young woman who has been sleep walking toward the conventional life of her mother when, to borrow an image from an earlier Laurents play, she "hears a waltz" and decides to join in the dance of life. This heroine's need to choose between the confining expectations of others and her own dawning inclinations revisits the territory that Laurents has explored in both West Side Story and Gypsy.

Laurents emphasizes the fantasy/fairy tale element here by freely adapting other theatrical conventions. Like O'Neill in Strange Interlude, he has his characters speak directly to the audience in frequent asides, although Laurents takes the device a step further by allowing the other characters to hear and comment on these asides as well. His tale-telling strategy is announced in a bold theatrical gesture as Camilla Jablonski, the mother of the hero, prefaces the story by welcoming the audience to the South Shore of Long Island, the play's locale. The play's cast of characters includes Dedee and Tucker Grogan, who have come to Long Island for the marriage of their son Schuyler to Norma Brown. Norma's mother, Lily, a General's widow, performs a flag ceremony each afternoon while her young son plays a toy bugle. Despite this bit of eccentricity, Lily is like Dedee, a conventional, status-seeking woman. The prospective bride's own peculiarity is her tendency to fall asleep, her quiet protest against the staid, c onformist life of her parents' social group. Norma sleeps because her life is not worth staying awake for until she is literally brought to life by a kiss from Aaron Jablonski, who rides up on a horseback to fix the plumbing at her house. His mother, Camilla, the nonconformist who introduces the play, is an unmarried woman who has raised Aaron alone. The play's title derives from Camilla's warning to Norma about the marchers of the world, who seek to deny other people's individuality by expecting everyone to join in lockstep with their own standards and values.

Laurents's chief mouthpiece in the play, Camilla, is an individualist who understands that life must be lived by raking chances and by seizing any opportunities that present themselves, as she herself did twenty years earlier by having a summer affair with Aaron's father. He turns out to be Tucker Grogan, who is thus father of the groom no matter what. Camilla's attitudes about sexual freedom are reminiscent of those of the free-spirited Italians in The Time of the Cuckoo. Unlike Leona, Camilla was able to abandon herself to the moment (as does Jane Hudson in Summertime) and she has never regretted the affair or wanted another man. Although Norma, too, feels no guilt after spending the night with Aaron, she hesitates a while before deciding to free herself of the conventional suburban life represented by Schuyler and give in to her love for Aaron. Schuyler proves himself no Prince Charming when, finding the shoe that Norma has kicked off before dancing away, he confesses to not believing in princes. Then he s ymbolically falls asleep, a passive victim of the societal march he continues to step in time to. After Aaron and Norma have gone off together, Lily looks up to the sky and sees "a piece of the moon"--Laurents's poetic image of magic realized. Despite it's reworking of a familiar theme, invitation to a March is a witty and well-integrated comedy that succeeds as an exercise in theatrical magic. Laurents's first and only fully comic work thus gives full voice to the romantic optimism that was present, if deliberately muted, in his earlier plays. In an openly playful mood here, he offers an uncharacteristic, unqualified happy ending, signaling the completion of a joyful fusion of form and content.

In 1962 David Merrick invited Laurents to direct the musical comedy version of Jerome Weidman's play about the garment industry in New York City, I Can Get it for You Wholesale, which introduced Barbra Streisand as Miss Marmelstein. After her smashing success, Laurents then wanted Streisand for his next musical with Stephen Sondheim, which he was also to direct. But while Sondheim debated the choice, she was offered Funny Girl. and so Anyone Can Whistle went on with Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury A fanciful rale about the efforts of a small town mayor to save his decaying town by promoting the curative powers of a local miracle rock, the play suggests that madness is a better hope for the world's ills than sanity--a tonal variation on the theme of Invitation to a March. This pastiche of various musical forms failed to win over the critics, and it closed after nine performances. Over the years it has, however, attracted a dedicated underground following because of its subversive message and avant-garde theatri cal effects, and its book was reprinted in 1976.

Continuing to write for the musical theater, Laurents based his second original libretto on the experiences of an African-American couple who appear at seminal moments of black history in the twentieth century Although Hallelujab, Baby! had lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Julie Styne and although its star, Leslie Uggams, received glowing reviews, the play drew lukewarm reviews from some of the major critics, including Walter Kerr of the New York Times. Still it managed a nine-month run and garnered four Tony awards, including one for Laurents's book. Laurents is currently reworking the book for a possible revival.

Laurents's next solo play The Enclave, did not appear until 1973, when it premiered in Washington, D.C., and then opened in New York at Theater Four on West 55th Street. Laurents directed both productions of the play himself. That this work, as well as five subsequent solo efforts by this veteran playwright, have had to seek production elsewhere, shamefully comments on the state of the Broadway theater today. The Enclave, Laurents's first direct examination of his own experience of homosexuality, features a gay protagonist. As such it seems a rather uneven attempt at exposing the hypocrisy that Laurents sees in modern society. As in Invitation to a March, Laurents elects to present his themes within the mode of high comedy, a genre that accentuates his strength as a writer of lively, witty, funny and acerbic dialogue. Dispensing with the fantasy structure of the earlier play, however, Laurents here positions his characters within a more realistic setting, the contemporary world of successful, upper-class New Yorkers. The plot revolves around a group of liberal, seemingly liberated, longtime friends who plan to create an island of security for themselves in a restored townhouse, where an architect, who is one of their group, has designed for them separate but adjoining apartments. When the architect's brother, Ben, who heretofore has carefully hidden his homosexuality from his friends, announces that he wants to live with Wyman, his younger lover, this revelation devastates the members of the group and their sense of community shatters.

The play's greatest strength is in the honesty of its confrontation of a difficult reality. As he would later do so successfully in Jolson Sings Again and My Good Name, Laurents refuses to draw his heroes without revealing their warts or his less sympathetic characters without acknowledging their merits. When his plays are working at their highest levels, as dramatic debates over controversial issues presented in all their messy complexity, it is difficult at times to tell where the playwright himself stands. Ben is clearly the protagonist of the piece, but through much of the play he is a very tentative one, afraid to alienate his friends for the sake of his relationship with Wyman. The enclave is important to Ben for it represents security and family, while Wyman, who is young and brash, feels that Ben is too attached to the past, that he should expect his friends to change and accept their love. Ben admonishes him for trying to live in an idealized world (like Virginia) and tries to impress on him the nece ssity of integrating his prior connections into his present reality. His heart-felt cry that "sometimes honesty is not saying everything out loud" comes at the end of the first act, and it is the emotional high point of the play. Alienated by Ben's ambivalence, Wyman, who continues to insist that the older man must learn to accept his sexuality, moves out of the apartment. Eventually Ben realizes that his love for Wyman is more important than the security of the enclave and decides that his friends must accept him for what he is. The play ends on an upbeat note as Ben and Cassie, who has learned to accept that her husband is bisexual, drink to friendship.

Despite the power of some of its individual scenes, the play's central conflict strains for credulity. It seems implausible that bright, mature, sophisticated characters living in New York City in the 1970s would react so violently to Ben's revelations. Ben's own fear of revealing his secret is honest, believable and touching. He is the head of a foundation, and his need to present a conventional facade is understandable. But Laurents focuses almost exclusively on the members of the enclave, who are Ben's family and closest friends, who have known each other for years, and who seem to accept each other's sexual entanglements, infidelities, and even wilder deviance with equanimity. Some are in analysis, and they all freely discuss psychoanalytic theories among themselves. For this tight group of friends to react with such shock and cruelty to Ben's admission of his homosexuality and his desire to live with Wyman is rather a lot for an audience to accept. Laurents dismisses such complaints. While admitting that it was a mistake to set the play in New York, he insists, surely with justification, that open displays of homosexual love are still not accepted in "sophisticated" society and would certainly not have been tolerated in the seventies. In writing about the thriving gay life that existed in the fifties when he first met his own lover, Laurents sounds a note of caution that is echoed in his play: "In the Fifties trouble came when we stepped outside the ghetto. Even now in the Nineties, much of the straight world is still not hospitable to gay lovers." (OSB 403) It is difficult to argue with Laurents's experience. It is obvious that writing The Enclave was for him an act of personal courage. But if he had placed his first attempt to confront that experience openly in the world outside the ghetto and not in the improbable enclave, it might have wielded greater power in its attack on prejudice and hypocrisy.

Laurents would re-examine the problem of confronting homosexuality in The Radical Mystique, which opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1995. Like The Enclave (and much of Laurents's other work) this play deals with the lies and hypocrisy that are central to sustaining human relationships. Here Laurents displays his gift for social satire, although it is too often undercut by the introduction of situations that become farcical for no apparent reason, such as a comic bit about the FBI agent Merriwell's first name. Laurents sets his play in the sixties as two old college friends--Janice, a black woman married to a white man, and Josie, a blue collar Roman Catholic who is married to Tad Gruenwald, a Jewish man from a moneyed German family--are planning a party for the Black Panthers. The guest list is reminiscent of that for a similar party given by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein, famously satirized by Tom Wolfe in a New York magazine article, "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's." (Wolfe's objection to Laurent s's proposed use of his coinage led to the variant that serves as the title for the play.) Also mentioned in the play are the explosion of a bomb being prepared by the Weathermen in a nearby building, and a report of the Stonewall uprising, at which Josie and Tad's son, Parker, discovers his own homosexuality which motivates him to confront his closeted father.

Laurents's story is overburdened by the satiric concentration on a party that hardly needs to be satirized and by the multiplication of plot devices beyond the scope of a two-act, five-character play. In addition to the sixties references and the motif of homosexuality, the playwright throws in anti-Semitism and racism; the introduction of so many issues ultimately forces him to take too many shortcuts to resolve all of them. As a result the recognition of homosexuality, which clearly was to be his focus, gets lost in a contentious confusion. The two friends' confrontation over the party which forces them to reconsider their relationship and their attitudes toward race and sexuality, is an effective dramatic device--one that Laurents had used twenty years earlier in his screenplay for The Turning Point which also dealt with marriage and homosexuality (although the latter theme was mostly cut out of the film). That promising scene gets overwhelmed in Act II, however, by the argument between Josie and Tad over his homosexuality and whether Josie knew his secret before she agreed to marry him.

Josie, who emerges as the play's heroine, reminds us Ibsen's Nora as she defies the FBI and her husband to host the party. It is her first aggressive act, and she is proud of finally being noticed. Castigating Tad for denying his sexuality and thus building his life and their lives on a lie, she vows to become "complete," and she promises Tad that "I will be delighted with me and so will you." Like Nora she wants to build a marriage on a true foundation, although Laurents's rebellious heroine sees no need to leave home to accomplish that goal. Josie's emerging strength and determination to liberate herself at the end of The Radical Mystique recalls the defiant spirit of the character created for Barbra Streisand in what would prove to be one of his greatest screenwriting successes, The Way We Were (1973).

Laurents has always been adept at writing strong roles for women--witness Leona Samish of The Time of the Cuckoo, Rose in Gypsy, and the female foursome who dominate the action in Invitation to a March--but The Way We Were's Katie Morosky is the strongest and most willful of all. She comes closest to Virginia of A Clearing in the Woods in her resolve to push her lover and then husband, Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford), to achieve the brilliant success she feels he is capable of. Her single-minded commitment finally overwhelms him, and Katie, like Virginia, loses the man she loves. Katie, however, is a much more finely wrought character, whose genuine passion and corresponding vulnerability suggest that perhaps Hubbell is not worthy of her. Unlike the play's rather abstracted characters, Katie and Hubbell are placed in a social and political milieu that is effectively realized if imperfectly integrated into the plot. A typical Laurents heroine, Katie is an individualist who insists on going her own way and st anding apart from the conformists who surround her. Indeed, at the first meeting, Katie the campus activist, with her anti-fascist and anti-isolationist rhetoric, seems worlds apart from the handsome fraternity boy in a convertible and v-neck sweater whom she will fall for. The physical contrast and cultural incompatibility of Katie, the dark, curly-haired Jewish outsider, and Hubbell, the blond all-American boy, are already apparent, but Laurents's screenplay and novel (written after the screenplay) delve deeper to find the human impulses that draw them together. Despite her strength, Katie displays the insecurity that plagues many Laurents protagonists. She longs for the ease, security, and sense of belonging that Hubbell represents, while Hubbell, the natural insider, is attracted by her passionate commitment and by the novelty of her status as an outsider. When his early, seemingly inevitable success as a novelist wins him a summons to Hollywood, she willingly follows him and makes a concerted effort to m ask her temperament and fit in with the bland movie colony social scene.

The delicate counterpoint of their relationship is torn apart by their experience in Hollywood. Katie finds it increasingly difficult to be the devoted wife who smiles politely at parties, and Hubbell, though genuinely pained by Katie's compromises, is unable to bridge the gap. Their marriage breaks up over the blacklist as Katie refuses to keep quiet about the HUAC investigations, while Hubbell, who is too cynical to get involved, refuses to risk his job over an issue that he feels will ultimately fade away. Laurents's treatment and original script contained more nuanced political overtones than were left in the released film. The producer, Ray Stark, cut the crucial scene in which Katie and Hubbell agree to divorce because the studio can't tolerate his having a subversive wife. Laurents was fired from the film and then asked back when the production was having script difficulties, but he couldn't overcome Stark's insistence that the love story dwarf the social/political themes. Sidney Pollock, the director , went along with Stark. As a result, the final cut from Hollywood to New York, where Katie, now remarried, is passing out "Ban the Bomb" leaflets, seems a too abrupt transition to the estranged couple's poignant final meeting in front of the Plaza Hotel.

The Way We Were shows off Laurents's great strengths as a writer. His talent for embedding funny, sentimental material in a well-realized social background and his attention to the psychological complexity of his characters gave Streisand and Redford opportunities to do their best work as screen actors. Laurents's longtime thematic concern with ideals coming up against hard social realities has never been portrayed with such delicacy and warmth. The film's most significant achievement, however, was in the creation of one of the screen's strongest Jewish characters--Katie Morosky is the antithesis of the spoiled, demanding Jewish princesses of Goodbye Columbus and The Heartbreak Kid. Katie rejects the assimilationist ethic of much of her screen and fictional forebears, and in finally leaving Hubbell stands up for her own identity and ultimately her Jewishness. Unlike Home of the Brave, in which Laurents abandoned his examination of anti-Semitism to concentrate on the rehabilitation of his hero, The Way We Wer e maintains its focus on a truly unique heroine who holds on to her Jewish spirit and makes her way in the world on her own terms. There was talk for a number of years about a sequel to The Way We Were, and Laurents actually wrote a script for it, but an inability to get the principals involved doomed the project. It is especially welcome, therefore, to find the strong character types and issues from that film resurrected in his play, My Good Name, which was performed in a workshop production by the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1996 and presented at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, in July of 1997.

My Good Name is one of Laurents's most accomplished plays, combining his gift for satire and his ear for upper-class speech with contemporary social and political concerns. The play is a meditation on power, celebrity, greed, and, most importantly, ethnic identity. The protagonist, Rachel Beaumont, is a prizewinning poet who has lust completed a "big" novel that will bring her real fame. When the play opens, she is being photographed for an interview with Celeste Magowan, a mean-spirited journalist for Vanity Fair. Rachel, like Katie Morosky, is an outspoken social activist, both defiantly proud and oddly ambivalent about her Jewishness. She is married to Harry Beaumont, a powerful and influential investment banker, and like Hubbell Gardiner, a handsome, debonair, fantasy WASP. (He is the WASP equivalent of Tad Gruenwald of The Radical Mystique.) Rachel, like all Laurents protagonists, struggles to come to grips with herself. She first met Beaumont when they both worked for a New York advertising agency, whe re she was forced to change her name from Rosen to Rose because the firm did not hire Jews. Her first marriage, to a Jewish activist-lawyer, failed. Their daughter, Rebecca, who now lives with her as Becca Beaumont, longs to be adopted by Harry because that would make her more glamorous. Rachel's marriage to Beaumont gives her entree into society--the union of the well-known financier and the critically acclaimed poet makes them a "hot" couple.

Rachel, who longs to become a member of the literary "A List," has just completed what her agent considers a breakthrough novel, but she is even more excited about her newest poetry volume, which includes a number of poems about Jews and the Holocaust. The first book in which she has allowed her Jewish self to emerge, she is both anxious about it and eager to mention it during the interview. First, however, she must deal with her agent, Muriel Feinstein, a Southern Jewish woman of German ancestry, who considers the book too polemical --: it "isn't poetry. It's that eternal wail." Muriel thinks being Jewish is "overrated," and she is uncomfortable with Rachel for flaunting her Jewishness in poems about Reagan at the Bitburg cemetery excusing the S.S. officers as victims of Nazism. Rachel fires Muriel because of her reaction. Unfortunately, Celeste Magowan, the journalist, is less concerned with promoting Rachel's literary efforts than with exposing Harry as an inside trader, thus linking him with Ivan Boesky a nd Michael Milken. Her questioning forces Harry to admit to Rachel privately that he is guilty but that he did not consider his actions a crime. He claims that he was not as greedy as Milken and Boesky and therefore not the main target of anyone's investigation. To stay out of jail, however, he made a deal with the district attorney and informed on his colleagues.

Rachel is shocked to learn of her husband's duplicity and underhandedness, which she associates with the Jewishness of the more infamous traders. She is also outraged that his "insider," WASP status shields him while the Jewish "outsiders" are prosecuted. Harry, however, turns the tables on Rachel's naive stereotypes: "How could I give evidence that could help send an associate to prison? To save my ass, Rachel....Do you think ignoble behavior is restricted to Jews, Rachel?" Rachel thus discovers that being "inside" is a "disappointment" and that she needs to accept who she is rather than seeking a sense of belonging by changing her name from Rosen to Beaumont. Instead, her artistic self as explored in her poetry must become one with her social self. She is an "outsider," and she must face that fact as she does in her poetry, and glory in it. Laurents's final image of Rachel and Harry sharing a last dance together neatly juxtaposes his deceptive glamour with Rachel's hard-won realization that she, like Katie, must continue to wail in protest against injustice.

Wailing is unfortunately the sole, defining pursuit of Nessa, the protagonist of Laurents's dark comedy on the Holocaust, which was originally entitled Scream when it premiered in Houston in 1978. By the time of its New York premiere in 2000 at the Jewish Repertory Theater, it had acquired a new title, Big Potato. This, however, was a disastrous production from which both Laurents and the play's director Richard Sabilico, disassociated themselves. Nessa runs a beauty parlor in Kew Gardens, Queens, and lives above her shop with her husband Itzhak, a writer, and her son, known as Sonny, a Vietnam War veteran who works at the shop. Her daughter Rachel, who has renamed herself Rochelle, is a suburban housewife. Nessa, a Holocaust survivor, is an indomitable woman whose life is wholly consumed by her determination to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and her need for retribution. She resolves to capture an important Nazi war criminal, the "big potato" of the title, hoping that the resulting publicity will bri ng the horrors of that time back to the attention of a public that is already forgetting. But it is set in 1975 and even her own children are no longer interested in hearing about her experiences. Sonny sums up his reaction and the public's when he tells her, "Nobody remembers, nobody cares." (3-15) Even Itzhak, himself a survivor, has become cynical: "They captured Eichman, positive? They wrote books, they make headlines, positive? Pointless! All forgotten!" (2-10) Nessa refuses to give in, but continues to hector her son not to forget her experience or his Jewishness. She talks of the seeds of another Holocaust:

But again it starts: the Russians, the Arabs, the Frenchies. Not here? No? Where oil matters more than life? Where they put Swastikas on motorcycles to prove they are big men?...Again humiliation? Again die? I don't sit on my quiet sitter anymore! I don't forget and they must not be forgotten! (2-34)

Nessa's scheme for revenge takes shape when she meets Julius, a German businessman, at an airline ticket counter. Convinced that he is a Nazi, she lures him back to her shop, chloroforms him, and handcuffs him to Itzhak's wheelchair. The conceit of the captive turning the tables on the captor has obvious potential, but unfortunately Laurents doesn't manage to exploit it. Instead, the black-comic possibilities are abandoned too often in favor of debates about Germans and Jews, forgiveness and penance, survival and death. The basic dramatic problem is that Julius turns out to be a low-level attache, an ordinary and uninteresting bigot. Any element of surprise or complexity--such as the intriguing arrogance of Robert Shaw's Man in the Glass Booth--might have made the play come alive. But the circumstances are simply too bizarre, and Laurents seems unable to control the tone, which veers wildly between the comic and the serious, repeatedly throwing the play off balance. Big Potato also lacks believable or engagin g characters. Nessa's rage and determination may be understandable and even admirable, but she is ultimately little more than a mouthpiece, sharing Katie's and Rachel's passion for justice but none of their warmth and complexity. Neither the dull Julius (who embodies the "banality of evil" carried to the nth degree) nor Nessa's family display any individualizing touches, and the emptiness of plot and character reduces the play to the level of diatribe--a "scream," to borrow its first title--with an insular, claustrophobic setting that only magnifies its faults. It is a comedy with few laughs and too little humanity.

Laurents's most recently produced play, Claudia Lazlo, premiered at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 2001. The story of "Claudia Lazlo," which is really a play within a play, concerns a great singer (her character likely based on the eminent soprano, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf), who is being denied work by an American army captain in postwar Salzburg because she was formerly a member of the Nazi party. Her cause is championed by an American lieutenant, a Jew, who even proposes marriage to help her secure permission to sing again. The main play, which serves as the frame to this tale of art and politics, deals with the backstage quarrels, jealousies, and artistic issues that emerge as a theater company rehearses the play. Laurents introduces some promising themes here, including the players' identification with their roles and the intersection of theater and life, as well as the Pirandellian perception of how role-playing allows people to hide their true selves from others. Still, it is unclear why he decided to clutter the more interesting play-within-the-play with these devices. He manages to keep the various strands of the play moving in a lively, amusing, and at times insightful way, but the needlessly complicated structure prevents sustained exploration of his central problem: the questions raised by the story of Claudia Lazlo, about how much one may forgive an artist for political sins and how much an artist must be willing to sacrifice to pursue her art. Both Claudia and the actress who por trays her, Madeline Gray, are passionate personalities trumpeting the battle cry for art and embodying the creative fire of the artist as a divinely possessed creature who is beyond rules. Art such as theirs exists for the betterment of mankind, trampling over the political exigencies that render the real world evil or merely petty. Unfortunately, the moral validity of this pose is not pushed deeply at either level of this double-barreled drama. Nor does Laurents focus meaningfully on the relations hip between Lt. Feingold's Jewishness and his desire to dominate both Claudia's career and her life.

Laurents dealt more effectively with problems of the artist's life in The Turning Point (1977), which was directed by Herbert Ross. It was one of a group of films in the seventies--others were Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, An Unmarried Woman, and Annie Hall--that examined how the social upheaval set off in the sixties was affecting the private spheres of family, marriage, and sex. The Turning Point embeds that societal turmoil in an emotional clash between the artist's all-consuming drive for self-realization and the humbler rewards of sublimating energy in creating a family. The reunion between Emma (Anne Bancroft), the star of a ballet company, and Deedee (Shirley MacLaine), who once danced with the same company, ignites mutual jealousies that have lain dormant for years, since Deedee gave up a promising career to marry another member of the company. Deedee and Wayne (Tom Skerrit) now run a ballet school in Oklahoma, where they have raised three children, while Emma has become a major star but has fou nd no fulfillment in her private life. The simmering emotions come to a boil when Deedee's daughter Emma (Leslie Browne) is invited to join the dance company by her godmother Emma, for whom she is named. The elder Emma's encouragement of the girl offers her a taste of the parental role she has never experienced, but Deedee, who resents Emma's fame and success, cannot tolerate what she views as her daughter's defection. In the celebrated confrontation scene between the two women, Laurents effectively conveys both the enormous sacrifices of the artist's commitment and the equally draining demands of family life. As these bitter rivals pour forth decades of pent-up anger and frustration, the scene could have devolved into soap opera, but the torrent of emotions is portrayed so simply and directly that it remains balanced and moving.

Laurents makes no judgment on the central issue, but allows both women to recognize and accept the fundamental rightness of their choices and to acknowledge that the wisdom gained from experience would not have solved the problem if they were starting all over again. Like The Way We Were, this film ends with its two protagonists remaining true to themselves, bound together by memory and affection but still separated by the personal differences that skewed their priorities years ago. The Turning Point was an enormous success at the box office and was a greater critical success than The Way We Were, earning Laurents multiple awards. Although it lost out in the Oscar race in 1978 to Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman's Annie Hall, it did receive the Writer's Guild Award for best drama written for the screen. Nevertheless, Laurents was dissatisfied with the final result, as he had been with the earlier film, and for the same reason: directorial interference that resulted in the cutting of essential material from t he script. According to Laurents, there was an important subplot based on the revelation that Wayne is gay, but Ross and his wife Nora Kaye, the executive producer of the film, subverted his intention, reserving mention of the character's homosexuality until the end of the film and leaving the theme unexplained and undeveloped. Laurents has never elaborated on how this material was to be included in the film; he simply dismisses the incident by calling it "shameful." He has not had a film story produced since 1977.

During the sixties and seventies, Laurents worked primarily in film and musical theater. When he sat down to write Jolson Sings Again in 1992, he had not completed a full-length play since Scream in 1978. Despite the hiatus, Jolson is one of his most powerful works, and it deserves to be ranked among the most important American plays of the last quarter-century. With the possible exception of Walter Bernstein's screenplay for The Front, it offers the best nondocumentary representation of the blacklist. Laurents's approach to his subject was triggered by events in his own life and by incidents involving colleagues. Having been blacklisted himself, he has been vocal and unequivocal in damning those who cooperated with the witch-hunters by informing on others. Taking its title from a newspaper headline referring to the film biography of Al Jolson as played by Larry Parks, a notorious informer, Jolson had its East Coast premiere at the George Street Playhouse in March 1999, just a day before Elia Kazan, another w ell-known informer, received his controversial honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement. Laurents was outspoken in his opposition to Kazan's receiving the award, and the entire incident generated a lot of publicity that did no harm to Jolson's box-office. It did nor hurt either, that one of the play's central characters, partially based on Kazan, is a charismatic director whose career has flourished since he consented to name names for the inquisitors.

Laurents's relationship with Kazan was more complicated than this condemnation might suggest. In the late sixties, Kazan asked Laurents to adapt his best-selling novel, The Arrangement, for the screen. Flattered by the great director's confidence in him, Laurents, despite his anger at Kazan's informing, agreed to do so. He made the same compromise when he agreed to work with his former close friend, Jerome Robbins, also an informer, on Gypsy. His willingness to work with these people whose actions he despised, forced Laurents to question his own integrity, although it was not unusual in the aftermath of the blacklist period. Laurents's friend, Zero Mostel, also a victim of the blacklist, starred in Fiddler on the Roof, which was also directed by Robbins. And Arthur Miller, who broke off his relationship with Kazan during the fifties, later agreed to his directing After the Fall, which deals in part with HUAC and with Miller's relationship with Kazan. Laurents's dramatic exploration of the blacklist theme, alt hough brutally honest, is the work of a writer who was able to reflect on his personal experience during and after the period with perspective and wisdom. Jolson has no real heroes or villains--just a small group of characters who must struggle to deal with a demeaning and awful political reality. Laurents expressed his sense of the human dilemma: "It wasn't so black and white after all. There was a line not to be crossed but what was that line and who would determine it?...There had to be a line the playwright in Jolson Sings Again would not cross--there was too much of me in him--but what was that line?" (OSB 303)

The play places this ethical test at the center of its plot. The impossibility of living one's life as a series of bold moral absolutes is the lesson to be learned by a young New York playwright named Julian (read Laurents), who is brought to Hollywood after the success of his first Broadway play, and by Robbie, a left-wing political activist who is also Julian's agent. Robbie is married to Sidney, who also started out as a radical New York playwright but has become an unsuccessful Hollywood screenwriter. Never having outgrown the revolutionary fervor of his youth, Sidney still thinks and talks in simplistic terms. The fourth character in this tight group is Andreas, who directed Julian play in New York and is now a rising Hollywood director. A charming, confident showman who will not let anything stand in the way of his success, Andreas has known Robbie and Sidney since their New York days. Robbie is also Andreas's agent and sometime lover. The play's action spans the years from 1947 to 1952, framed by two s cenes that take place in 1962. Its story traces Julian's arrival in Hollywood, his evolving relationship with the other three principals, and their various responses to HUAC subpoenas and the pressure to inform. Julian himself is not subpoenaed, but he must deal with the implications of his friends' decisions.

Andreas is one of Laurents's great character creations. A brilliant, charismatic director, he retains his humanity and a measure of vulnerability because of his love for Julian and Robbie. Laurents implies that he feels an erotic attraction to Julian as well, and this is an important undercurrent in the play, which the actor must work to suggest if the play is to succeed on stage. Andreas is unapologetic about having named names before the committee. Unlike Kazan, he doesn't insist that he did so "to save the country from Russia and atomic war"--indeed, he admits that "there is no political justification for being an informer." He has done it simply to save his career: "Making films is everything to me. It's my center, my identity, my reason for being. I don't claim that's a justification. It's my explanation." (1-7-4, 1-7-5) Robbie and Julian are shocked by his betrayal of their ideals, but Andreas checks them: "Don't romanticize me. You know exactly what I am, I know exactly what you are." Despite their obj ections, his friends have a hard time trying to stand up against this man's ability to size up the situation and his confident sense of purpose. Eventually, Robbie herself gives in to the pressure to inform. She does so because she is the sole breadwinner in her family--Laurents makes it clear that Sidney, the unrepentant leftist, couldn't sell a script even before the blacklist--and she wants her son to have the advantages he has grown accustomed to.

Julian comes to Hollywood as an innocent. He learns his first lesson in the ways of Hollywood when the studio decides to turn his play about anti-Semitism into a story about prejudice against blacks (this was the fate of Laurents's Home of the Brave). When Julian objects, Andreas advises him to accept the change, arguing that the play will not really suffer in the transition. Eventually Julian agrees to compromise and make the adjustments. Thereafter, realizing that he will not succeed as a playwright unless Andreas directs his plays, he continues to work with Andreas in spite of his distaste for informing. By the end of the play, although Julian has become more established in his own right, he ends up capitulating to Andreas again--this time it is the homosexuality of his protagonist that must be sacrificed if his new play, "The Betrayer," is to be staged. Andreas argues that John Garfield should play the lead, but Garfield wouldn't play a homosexual, nor would his agent allow it. Julian acquiesces, and the controversial theme is dropped. Jolson Sings Again ends in 1962, following a New Haven tryout of "The Betrayer." The play is a hit, and it seems likely that it will triumph on Broadway as well. Robbie is there to congratulate Julian and Andreas, who are basking in the evening's success. Julian, however, is about to go off with his lover to celebrate without Andreas. (He has revealed late in the play that he had only posed as a communist as a cover for the homosexuality that he feared would be a greater threat to his career than being branded a communist.) Suddenly drawing the line that Laurents knew his surrogate would have to determine for himself, Julian announces that Andreas is not welcome at his party; he will work with the informer but he refuses to be his friend. The play ends with Andreas in the spotlight, the last of the applause fading, very much alone.

Jolson, like My Good Name , is about public and private failure. Both plots center on occasions for betrayal that gnaw away at the human spirit and leave it compromised and weary. The solace that Julian finds in his lover may be enough--as Andreas says, "people are more important than principles." At this point, however, Laurents is not so optimistic; in both plays one is left with the feeling that their battles for identity have drained his characters, leaving their future prospects a matter of hope rather than a confident prediction. In Big Potato, Laurents dramatized the fate of a character who hangs on to her principles so rigidly as to become grotesque: Nessa is so unyielding, so domineering that she is frightening even to her own family. In Jolson, Laurents articulates the next stage of an evolving vision, and a later work entitled 2 Lives--his masterpiece, and a great work of the American theater--shows him working toward reconciliation and transcendence.

Laurents has written aspects of himself into aspects of several of his characters, most notably Julian in Jolson Sings Again. The protagonist of 2 Liver is Matt Singer, a not very thinly disguised stand-in for Laurents who functions much like Edmund Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey into Night. Unlike O'Neill's masterpiece, which looks back to the playwright's youth, 2 Lives deals with the playwright as an older man (72 is the age indicated in the script) who has already enjoyed a substantial career. Writing in his diary in 1941 after finishing the second draft of Long Day's Journey, O'Neill referred to it as a "quiet play," and this is an apt description for 2 Lives as well. In a work that might also be called autumnal, Chekhovian, and poetic, Laurents combines the otherworldly texture of A Clearing in the Woods with a realistic story to create a heightened theatrical experience that mixes the lyrical with the literal, the realm of artistic creation with that of commerce, and the everyday world with the spiritual, thus forging a dramatic idiom that is unique in his body of work. The play takes place in a private park dominated by trees, shrubs, and flowers--a space that is reminiscent of Chekhov's cherry orchard, with its nostalgic associations of family, harmony, the pastoral, and the passing of an age. It also recalls the fantastic quality of the magic circle of A Clearing in the Woods, a place suffused with light and hope, and whose woods Laurents describes as having "the shape of memory.

Memory and place combine to extraordinary effect in the play. As he did in Invitation to a March, Laurents sets his dramatic action in Quogue, Long Island, where he maintains a home, and here he emphasizes its magical, mystical, recuperative powers. In his memoir, Laurents writes, "In 2 Lives, the playwright is in touch with his spirituality. In life, this playwright was too rational for spirituality a.k.a. Higher Power until Tom [Hatcher] created his park in Quogue." (412) Laurents found his "spirituality" while visiting Burma with Tom Hatcher. On that trip, while exploring a pagoda, he kept climbing higher until he stepped out into the sunlight (see the closing image in the play). Walking further, he looked onto the shimmering Irrawaddy River: "the air was quiet and still. At that moment, for the first time in my life, I knew the feeling of serenity. Nothing happened. it was like the aura around a Buddha: it was just there warming me like the sun." (416-417) The park that Tom designed and constructed at Quo gue is the inspiration for the setting in 2 Lives--it serves as a refuge and a haven:" day as I sat on one of those benches just taking in the view, the feeling became definable, recognizable. I had experienced it once before--in Burma." (413) The play is an expression of the evolution of spirit.

Indeed, very little happens in 2 Lives. Matt, a playwright, and Howard, his lover and partner of over thirty years, live on a beautiful country property surrounded by other homes that they rent out. Their property contains the wooded park, which has been designed and maintained by Howard and a friend, Scooter. The first act takes place as Howard is about to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday and the town's local theater is preparing to stage Matt's play about homosexuality (like Laurents's The Enclave), which the mayor decides to cancel at the last minute when he is warned about the play's subject matter. Matt and Howard's current tenants include Leo Kondracki, a wealthy and successful Hollywood producer, who is producing Matt's new play, and Willi Thurman, a lesbian who has been married a number of times and is having a difficult time accepting her sexuality. Her current lover is Nerrisa Gray, a famous British actress (modeled on Madeline Gray of Claudia Lazlo) by whom she is so enthralled that she literally waits on her like a servant. Nerrisa condescendingly refers to her as a "minionette." Act I concludes with Howard, who was very close with Willi thirty-five years earlier, accusing her and Nerrisa of using their friendship to get at Leo Kondracki. He warns Matt that he is making a mistake to trust Leo, Willi, and Nerrisa. The curtain falls as Howard pitches forward in the grass during a picnic lunch.

In Act II it is made clear that Howard has died, though he continues to appear on stage--seen only by Matt, who has not yet come to grips with his death and often needs to speak with him. Howard's warning about the perfidy of Leo and Nerrisa turns out to be correct when Leo decides against producing Matt's play and instead announces that his next project will be the American production of "Antigone in America," a success in London, where it starred Nerrisa Grey. Matt's serene acceptance of this reversal demonstrates that he has been changed by the satisfaction he takes in his work and his love of Howard. The inner peace he has found has freed him of his preoccupation with success. In a conversation with Nerissa, Matt recalls the aftermath of a recent theatrical failure (based on Laurent's experience with Nick and Nara): "I had the worst experience of my career....A colossal flop. I was drawn and quartered as though the critics were getting even for every good review they'd ever given me....and I found myself sitting here--on this bench, with my yellow pad and my Blackwing pencil--and I felt something benign was out there, watching out, something good was coming from that disaster. It was a very unfamiliar feeling: serenity." (2-33) Matt must, however, free himself of grief, of his dependence on Howard, in order to rediscover his creative self. The play concludes with his accepting death, which frees him to resume his new play, presumably the one we have just seen.

The "lyrical" quality of 2 Lives represents Laurents's striving for an expressive form more nuanced than straightforward physical action. Matt's spiritual journey toward peace and acceptance is thus represented through his encounters with other characters and with the spirit of Howard and through the evocative atmosphere of the park setting and the lighting. Another thematic agent is Eloyse, Howard's ninety-year-old mother, who occasionally forgets the time of day and even who her son is, but who signals her role as a creative life force by singing snatches of songs about love, union, longing, and acceptance. Eloyse enters through the trees singing "Tea for Two" and exits through the trees singing "Row, row, row your boat...Life is but a dream," merging her own frail hold on life with her son's spirit. In 2 Lives Laurents abandons the social issues he was exploring in My Good Name, Jolson Sings Again, Claudia Lazlo, and Big Potato. Like Chekhov, he posits a universe in which goodness and evil, heroism and vil lainy no longer function as ethical categories or determining forces. Laurents was already moving toward this mood of transcendence in Jolson, wherein he resolutely refused to make hard distinctions between informers and those who chose not to inform. In My Good Name, Rachel struggles with the notion of compromise and the temptations of fame and her need to write not so much for a large public as out of her experience and identity.

In 2 Lives the social world itself seems to collapse. The play's space is invaded by emissaries from the theater world who value success over art, but their mundane strivings no longer represent temptations for Mart. As his progress toward peaceful acceptance gradually advances, Kondracki and Nerrisa fade like shadows from another world, temporary tenants in the magical park who leave when their lease is up. Nerrisa's winning over Kondracki and Howard's dying are not so much events leading toward a denouement as episodes that form part of a continuum. The ending of the play celebrates not its protagonist's triumph or defeat but his capacity for endurance--for, like Eloyse, lasting through life's experiences with acceptance. For Laurents, finally, heroism is measured by staying with one's life and resisting the temptation of exploiting others. He was working toward this message as early as Home of the Brave; in his early work it was most manifest in the struggles of Virginia in A Clearing in the Woods. It is why Julian finally embraces his homosexuality and presumably why Rachel, despite her final dance with Harry, finally accepts her Jewishness. In 2 Lives, Laurents's artistic journey of over fifty-five years achieves a large measure of generosity and transcendence.


Laurents's unpublished plays were sent to me by his agent. They are xeroxes of typed manuscripts and are undated.

I have cited the acting copies of Laurents's published plays because they are easy to find. Original hardcover editions are scarce and the acting edition (the only published edition) of The Bird Cage is out of print. I quoted from the hard cover edition of A Clearing in the Woods because Laurents's "Preface" is not included in the acting edition.


Laurents, Arthur. Big Potato. Unpublished.

-----. The Bird Cage. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1950.

-----. A Clearing in the Woods. New York: Random House, 1957.

-----. The Enclave. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1974.

-----. Home of the Brave. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1972.

-----. Invitation to a March. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1961.

-----. Jolson Sings Again. Unpublished.

-----. My Good Name. Unpublished.

-----. Original Story By. New York: Knopf, 2000.

-----. The Time of the Cuckoo. New York: Samuel French, 1983.

McGilligan, Patrick. "Arthur Laurents: Emotional Reality." Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940's and 1950's. Ed. Patrick McGilligan.

Berkeley: U. of California P., 1991. 129-156.

-----. Red Channels: The Report of Communist influence in Radio and Television. New York: Counterattack, 1950.

Weales, Gerald. American Drama Since World War II. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.

GABRIEL MILLER is Professor of English at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ. His book The Films of The Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man was published in 2000. His conversations with Martin Ritt was published in January of 2002.
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Date:Jan 1, 2003
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