Thursday, July 12, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Locked Up' (on Jack Richardson's Gallows Humor)

locked up
by Douglas Messerli

Jack Richardson Gallows Humor,  reprinted in Douglas Messerli and Mac Wellman, eds. From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1998)

With the announcement of the death of American playwright Jack Richardson on July 1, 2012, I recalled how delighted Mac Wellman and I had been to rediscover his play Gallows Humor and reprint in our 1998 drama anthology. I immediately reread the play, and enjoyed it even more this time round.

     Richardson's play in two parts is really a study in early 1960s martial relationships more than it is about a murderer soon to be hung. There is a murderer, indeed, Walter, locked away for beating his wife to death with a golf club—"forty-one strokes from the temple to the chin." But Walter was clearly locked-away even before his tempestuous reaction. A man of complete order, he cannot abide the prostitute sent to him by the Warden to take the prisoner's mind off the gallows and lead him to his death with a smile on his face. Walter, who has also just been served up a large chicken dinner, cannot even think of eating it, and is horrified by Lucy's carnal appetites, which includes not only bedding down with him, but consuming the chicken and tossing its bones into the center of Walter's cell.

      Walter is clearly a man of order, determined to clean and organize his cell up to the very moment of his state-determined death. It is not that he is unattracted to women, simply that he has no intention of detracting from the system that has put him into the cell and now has determined the end of his life. Walter is a number, 43556, and like Zero of Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine is thoroughly a man of the the system, a man whom after the murder of his wife has clearly abandoned the dizzying world outside the prison walls and now is disturbed by "perfume and overpowered flesh" of the female with which he has been provided.  We can only suspect that self-imprisonment, being locked away in an unhappy life, is what led to his frenzied act.

      Lucy, on the other hand, has a job to accomplish, and with philosophical relish attempts to convince Walter to change his ways, to, after twenty years of living a meager existence to seek out his reward in her "mouth, fingertips, and breasts." The first part ends, obviously, with Walter's being seduced by the joys of life which he was clearly seeking in wife's murder.

     On the other hand, the Warden and Hangman are even more locked away in their lives than has been Walter. At least he has gone temporarily mad, has left the confines of normalcy. Phillip, the unhappy Hangman, is so frustrated with his life that he has, as is wife describes it, begun to do hundreds of little things—tossing ashes into his slippers, skipping club meetings, purchasing a pair of red socks—that reveal his determination to change his life or, as he puts it, his desire to "open the window and slither down the drainpipe to disappear forever."

      The morning of Walter's hanging, Phillip is determined to wear a black mask over his head, like a Medieval figure—an idea met with hardy resistance from the Warden and Martha, Phillip's. As he goes off to slip on the mask, the Warden and Martha discuss Phillip's behavior. Sympathizing with what she has had to endure, the Warden reveals his long-time love for Martha, and, eventually, she admits her love for him. The Warden also lives in an unhappy relationship, his own wife having had various sexual encounters with plumbers and other working men. The two determine to have an encounter, but hilariously cannot even find a date when they might meet, so involved are they with the society in which they live. As Phillip returns with his mask, he discovers the two kissing, and, outraged, insists he that can now leave as he long wanted desired.

      Martha off-handedly invites him to first help her with the dishes, and before he can even comprehend what he has agreed to, he perceives he is trapped, locked away in his own staid identity, unable to even open the kitchen door. When it comes time for him to attend the hanging, Lucy must pop the door open, promising him "something very special for dinner."

       At least Walter has had the courage of his convictions, while these "free" figures are more locked away in their determined patterns than Walker is in his cell. As the Prologue, performed by Death, suggests, they too will ultimately die. Walter has lived a freer life in the short time his has to remain on this earth, than the Warden, Hangman, and his wife.

       If Richardson's little masterwork seems cynical, it also represents the intense dissatisfaction with everyday existence that animated other American playwrights of the time such as Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, and Jack Gelber—precursors of the later 1960s generation that would ultimately, in only temporarily, alter definitions of freedom and love.

       Unfortunately, Gallows Humor, was to be the last of Richardson's successful plays. Two further works, Lorenzo and Xmas in Las Vegas closed on Broadway after only four performances each. Although he long served as drama critic for  Commentary, the author wrote no new plays. He did help his friend Elaine Kaufman establish her East Side restaurant, Elaine's, suggesting larger tables and promising to provide writers, which he did.

Los Angeles, July 11, 2012

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