Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture
(1900 - present), Spring 2003, Volume 2, Issue 1
A well-reputed cartoonist of The Village Voice by the beginning of the 1960s, Jules Feiffer had become an expressive representative of the American intellectuals skeptical of the political Establishment. At the turn of that decade, Feiffer, the artist, had fully developed his blend of farce and social criticism and articulated an explanation for the political and social frustrations that had dizzyingly multiplied throughout the New Frontier and the Great Society. Off-Broadway theater proved to be a most appropriate channel to express his perception of how far the promises raised had deformed and rendered a shattered society, divorced from its political elite and threatened with the rise of a "soft" authoritarianism, professedly opposed to outrageous communist regimes.
As a contemporary critic suggested, Feiffer was placed close to those playwrights of the 1960s who resorted to the postmodernist celebration of fragmentation per se. Like them, he did not seem to see much sense in deploying "the use of logic, argument and rhetoric to make every member of the audience think and feel some preconceived way" (Hewes, "'69" 19; cf. Ross 659). I believe an accurate evaluation of his work should also take into consideration Irving Howe's assessment of the intellectual environment of the late 1960s, that "despises liberal values, liberal cautions, liberal virtues. It is bored with the past: for the past is a fink" (Teres 235).
Feiffer definitely parted from the cultural politics of the liberal-conservative consensus by means of two plays, Little Murders and The White House Murder Case. The latter, first performed in 1970, makes reference to a political status quo on whose behalf American soldiers could die in a foreign war; here the administration in Washington framed lies to appease the public opinion and secure the survival of the Establishment it served. The audience of this farce found clear correspondences between the exaggerations performed onstage and the world outside, which the American left had denounced for years and liberals began to dissociate from once they had been displaced from the ruling bloc (cf. Hewes, "'70" 19).
For its part, Little Murders presents distinct features that turn it into a more complex cultural production. Ostensibly a "post-assassination play," as Feiffer described it in a letter dated in early 1967, Little Murders positively refers to the "malaise" that the political developments in the mid-1960s had provoked within the American social fabric. Firstly, as he stated in the letter mentioned above (Feiffer 82), he saw symptoms of the fiascoes US foreign policy had brought in South Vietnam and the Dominican Republic. Secondly, one infers that the inconsistency of the postwar consensus and its ensuing social stratification had created conditions that placed violence—random or political—at the center of American life. Strife, thus, had become a tool for vindicating policies left unattended by the Establishment. In that context, JFK's assassination started the political and social upheavals that ruined the liberals' agenda for the rest of the decade.
Little Murders, besides, has a history of its own that senses how far the audience eventually grasped Feiffer's speculations about the nature of violence in contemporary America. Initially performed in 1967, the play closed after one week onstage; however, one year later it was awarded in London the best foreign play of the year and returned to the United States in 1969 to be appreciated by a public already stunned by more political assassinations, the Tet offensive, and the sequels of racial, cultural, and generational fractures nationwide. Another hint that suggests Little Murders had entered the American cultural mainstream can be found in the fact that in 1970 Twentieth-Century Fox released Alan Arkin's cinematic version of the play, whose script was supervised by Feiffer himself.
It is my contention that ubiquitous violence in this play underscores the failure of the liberal agenda and the rise of a newer kind of conservatism to check what one of Kennedy's mentors, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., had described as "the downward spiral of social decomposition and moral degradation" (21). Schlesinger, like other American architects of the political consensus, followed an exceptionalist vision of America in which social transformations had taken place without a real ideological debate. On the contrary, widespread agreement had fostered a conformist mentality that celebrated the nation constructed by the Cold War. Especially if comparisons with the Soviet Bloc were raised, patriotic fervor hailed the individual's willing acceptance to place a limit on his/her personal rights (cf. Ross 659). Scarcely could that centrist vision make visible social groups that did not enjoy the status that characterized an elusive, abstract middle-class; neither could it succor those who thought they had reached social recognition when they found out respectability, conformity, and security would exact a high price in terms of personal repression and social formlessness.
The Newquist family, the cartoon-like central characters of the play, become almost formulaic. They are instrumental in Feiffer's ability to break down the idealized consumer family of the previous decade that had served as prime recipient of American values and were therefore endowed with the responsibility of countering things Un-American (cf. Hurtley 1306). The culture of consumption and consensus that rose with the postwar prosperity caused havoc here; unlike the 1950s model for the average American family, the Newquists experience a process of decomposition: Majorie is a neurotic mother; Carol, the father, is losing his patriarchal prerogatives; Kenny, the son, is a homosexual coming in and out of the closet; Patsy, the daughter, is torn between her self-recognition as an oppressed woman and the sequels of her education as an all-American girl. They have little in common with Lucy and Ricky, or Harriet and Ozzie. Majorie's cry "come an' git it" while serving snacks sounds like a crude distortion of the family world portrayed in a Norman Rockwell print, and her continuous quotations from her mother's proverbs suggest a "petty-bourgeois populism" that celebrates the folk traditions threatened by the decade's cultural dislocations. The Newquist family express the anxieties grown inside mass society, "half welfare, half garrison," as Irving Howe had it (196). Alfred, Patsy's partner, is eloquent in this respect when he quips in their comfortable and secure apartment that "the family that drinks together sinks together" (Feiffer 66).
These characters seem to be aware of their social fragility as members of the lower-middle class in the turmoil of the 1960s. Indeed, Little Murders is prescient in its farcical portrayal of what president Nixon would later label the "Silent Majority;" at the same time, it criticizes the helplessness of liberalism to prevent the social upheavals that made violence so attractive a political formula. The Newquists live in a bubble-like apartment, where windows are blinded—especially after a random bullet kills Patsy—and the door is secured by several locks. Although the apartment may protect the family from snipers and pollution, it cannot shelter them from the divisiveness of the world outside. Kenny and Alfred sneer at moral and social safety by means of their subversive posse, which blend a countercultural rejection of the individual as an instrument for maintaining the status quo and a New-Leftist celebration of direct-action. Alfred introduces himself as an "apathist," who lets himself be beaten by people in the streets so they may vent their anger: "It is not something I choose to happen. It is something you learn to live with" (19). But if he starts as an updated example of David Riesman's "inner-directed," alienated individual who survives on the fringes of his society, he ends up as an apostle of violence. Alfred's impulses are eventually channeled by an Establishment that prefers violent men who can purchase guns in the open rather than self-righteous free-willed citizens. This attitude is also present in the scene of Alfred's and Patsy's wedding, when a sniper is spotted and the guests start to discuss self-defense. Their casual comments on the inevitability of violence help us to understand the structural connections between the social consequences of late capitalism and the persistence of different degrees of violence, be it sanctioned or tolerated by the State. For Carol Newquist, New York City is rife with crime, and its inhabitants are doomed to coping with the possibility of being victimized:
But Carol perceives violence in essentialist terms; he just does not give a thought to the facts that have made disorders not only part of the urban landscape, but the only plausible way of life for many members of the underclass. Feiffer's use of this distorted image of conformity leads us to the anti-Establishmentarian thinkers of the 1950s and beyond, particularly David Riesman and Wright Mills, who made out the dooming consequences that were raised by a "lonely crowd" of post war, "metropolitan" US society, which had substituted status seeking for the totalitarianism of other powers; it seemed to represent the darker side of the society beyond ideologies Daniel Bell had advocated in 1960. Also, like Norman Brown, Feiffer seems to have a pessimistic vision of culture as a neurotic, repressive tool in the hands of a ruling elite; I do not think, though, that he is an anti-intellectual, as has been said of Brown, because Feiffer assumes intellectual sources to discard consensus ideologues (Noland 61). By the middle of the decade, anti-intellectualism (inasmuch as it opposed the ideological apparatus of the Cold War) had led the New Left towards a gesture politics that eventually obscured the ends of direct action. Like Mills, Feiffer in Little Murders ponders the obliteration of formal freedoms by an agenda previously set, on an analogy with the enforcement of social mobility in a corporate state. I feel Feiffer's conclusion is far less optimistic than that of Mills in the late 1950s. Political liberalism had not provided a heuristic social transformation of America, reined by the agenda set by the "military-industrial" and intellectual complex; it should not be subverted, lest the whole Norman Rockwell civilization be doomed. Passing the Civil Rights Act or avoiding escalation in South East Asia were the acid tests of a liberal democracy. But advocating further positive action would upset the power bloc and eventually ease the social construction of normalcy before the Sixties, as it took place years later. In the context of 1969, when Little Murders reached its second and most successful season, the Great Society had become history, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey being reviled as ineffective statesmen and the Kennedys, McGovern, and Eugene McCarthy dubbed as "deceptive stalking horses who distracted attention from more basic issues" (DeLeon 521).
The vigilante attitude raised in the Newquists by the end of the text alludes to their paradoxical celebration of the State (articulated around the premises of "law and order") and the fulfillment of freedom of initiative (absence of institutional forces that effectively coerce them away from killing pedestrians in the street). In this sense, the attitude of the family in their private activities in the home suggests that liberalism has not persished; the power elite has managed to have it transformed into corporate liberalism. Feiffer refers us to what Jack Newfield, a colleague of his in The Village Voice, would call "the rhetoric of objectivity" (Morgan 207). Such a discourse sanctioned violence only if practiced by the State; repression silenced opinions that associated downward mobility in a competitive society with sniping, racial riots and crime. What is good for Colt is good for the Newquists.
The "rhetoric of objectivity" is supported by widespread consensus on a balance between the affirmation of individual freedoms and the expediency of the state. So considered objectivity in the hands of the ruling bloc created what Christopher Bay called "semantical fortifications," that rephrased violence as the use of guns by the black nationalists and later the Weathermen; instead, violence exerted by the National Guard, the US Army, and other institutions were responsive to "defense," or "national security," or "American interests" (Bay 635). Little Murders most clearly shows this point in the references made to the Newquist's deceased son, Steve, as "a hero. He bombed Tokyo. When his country called on him to serve again he bombed Korea" (30). However, his prospects as a successful businessman are truncated when he is shot on Amsterdam Avenue, in an area where "violence" and "strife" have been racialized for generations. This idea is important to underscore, especially if we fix our attention on the social construction of race violence that was reaching an ever-higher point by the turn of the decade. The process that has taken place between the initial version of the play and its definitive text of 1969 witnessed a gradual radicalization of African-American political assertiveness, from Dr. King's initiatives for integration to the radicalization of SNCC and the rise of the Black Panther party. But the growing up of Little Murders into its final shape also witnessed the rise of the white backlash that solidified the conservative majority that secured its predicament for the next decades. It follows, then, that the Newquists understand the different uses of violence in essentialist terms, and their rationale for understanding their New York has defaced the social context of the racial/social turmoil, including, of course, race riots.
A linguistic (or better, neolinguistic) formulation like the one seen above ultimately points out the crisis of liberal formulas. American history has registered many an example of "law and order" checking social convulsions that may threaten the status quo: the middle classes experiencing shock waves after the Haymarket affair in the 1880s, the Red-baiting that followed World War I, and, of course, McCarthyism rank among the most obvious cases in the twentieth century.
The election of Ronald Reagan as governor of California in the 1966 elections revealed to conservatives that the law-and-order discourse had a growing bipartisan audience, alienated by the liberals' politics of inclusion. By no means was the law-and-order dialectics altered by the fact that social malfunctions and structural poverty were collateral phenomena of late capitalism. But the factions of the right in the United States provided a discourse that blamed "limousine liberals" and Eastern intellectuals for the ills of the nation (cf. Garry 167). Characters in Little Murders distaste the sequels left by the postwar political contract. Carol Newquist and police lieutenant Practice are articulate advocates of right-wing populism. But none like Judge Stern misses the values dissolved by what he identifies as permissiveness and lack of patriotism. As a minister that admonishes Patsy and Alfred to be married in a conventional ceremony (and not in the Countercultural one performed by Reverend Dupas, of the Greenwich Village-based First Existential Church), Judge Stern is pivotal to prove Feiffer considered right-wing populism to be a formidable threat to political liberalism:
Judge Stern vindicates a society organized on principles alien to those of industrial capitalism (cf. Lasch 35-6; DeLeon 518). Lieutenant Practice, on his part, incarnates a petty bourgeois protestant ethic. Practice honors a producerist public morality that demonstrates property and individualism provide the key to professional success and social respectability. Practice's zeal at his work as a police officer leads him to extremism: he concocts a conspiracy theory to explain the crime wave that grips the city—and the whole of the nation—as the audience had experienced by 1969. Here Feiffer alludes again to the rise of a semi-organic society, to be substantiated in a "Silent Majority." Practice's daydreaming recalls the activities of the FBI's COINTELPRO plans devised to thwart serious threats to the status quo. Radicals, civil rights activists, and social reformers were under surveillance for the security of the nation. A plan started in 1956 in the wake of Senator McCarthy's denunciations, COINTELPRO involved the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and served as blueprint for Nixon's own and ill-fated Huston Plan. Practice's obsession to monitor discontents rivals Carol's longing to return to a nation purified from un-American ploys:
Little Murders concludes with the Newquist family toasting togetherness and coziness, after the men in the home have practiced marksmanship on pedestrians—accidentally killing lieutenant Practice. The ending is left open to be sure. How far the conclusion refers us to the most pervasive myth in twentieth-century American culture—the frontier—is a matter that would lead us well into a different and much longer discussion. But if it is an urban adaptation of an OK Corral, it falls short of distinguishing between the good and the bad guys. No Turnerian thesis would manage to explain why the middle-lower classes celebrate the rise of an elite that restored honor and decency by means of the authority of the State. Actually, the text invites us to explore how far the frontier thesis has been abused as a rhetorical justification for more contemporary uses of violence (cf. Slotkin 558). No celebration of the frontiersmen's self-reliance, however, provides a sufficient explanation for our understanding of American foreign policies in the Third World or the political assassinations that took place in the States throughout the decade.
As a humorist, Feiffer had the ability to distort social and political concerns into absurd farces. Liberal thinking of the Schlesinger type was uncomfortable examining the deeper roots of violence in America, lest "social decomposition and moral degradation" (21) would render reformist liberalism superfluous for the structural problems that the country faced. The New Deal Legacy had not managed to check the record of social injustice, anomie, explosive race relations, status quest, and consumerist brainwashing that maligned Postwar America—actually, they seemed to be assumed the price to pay for US ascendancy in the zenith of the American Century.
As a man of his time, Feiffer somehow foresaw how the Sixties could be revised, and its social and political legacy, disavowed. He did not fall prey to the pessimism of American intellectuals of the day and concluded that the nation had gone from being the best in the world to the worst. His absurdist techniques allowed him to advance a postmodernist (or, rather, late modernist) reflection on the extent and consequences of the way monopoly capitalism has appropriated the social constructions of reality.
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