Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Thousand Clowns by Herb Gardner

Murray Burns
Used to write for Chuckles the Chipmunk TV show, unemployed because five months ago he hated that he was chugging the same path everyday to work- feeling empty and just going through the motions of day-to-day life- so he quit, doesn’t take any crap from anyone, lives his life how he wants to live it and doesn’t want anyone telling him what to do or how to live, collects old machinery, yells spontaneously at people to wake up, very intuitive, very funny by nature, Peter Pan Syndrome (a socially immature adult)
Nick Burns
12 years old, smart kid, knows what the Social Workers are there to do and puts up a fa├žade, hates living with his uncle but loves him nonetheless and plays his games, in search of identity and a new name, bastard child who doesn’t know his real parents and it doesn’t phase him, wants his uncle to get a job and be normal
Albert Amundson
Social Worker, in a relationship with Sandra at the beginning off the play, dominant one in the relationship, all business, professional
Sandra Markowitz
Social Worker, in a relationship with Albert at the beginning of the play, as the play progresses she’s not in a relationship with Albert, takes things very personal in her work, loves to help people, just finished grad school, younger than Albert, sleeps with Murray and takes a liking to him, forgetful- or always leaving her files at Murray’s place- on purpose?
Arnold Burns
Murray’s brother, earns $30,000 a year, every time Murray visits him- his office is higher and higher (has been moving up in the business), has a wife and kids, softspoken, brings fruit to Murray everyday
Leo Herman
The new voice of Chuckles the Chipmunk, not funny but earns $1,500 per week, bad listener, thinks everything he does is funny and that all the kids love him

mid1900s. A time when $30,000 was a lot of money to comfortably raise a family
Manhattan- lower west side

-      What is normal vs. what people perceive as normal
-      Does age matter or is it intelligence? Nick, a 12 year old boy acts more grown up than his uncle; Leo earns a living acting like a child

Nick lives with his Uncle Murray in a fun, free spirited environment. Nick’s off-kiltered remarks, a show and tell on a night club, and his paper on unemployment insurance and the fact that his uncle is refusing to comment or answer the Bureau of Child Welfare’s inquiries, sends the Bureau to Nick’s home for investigation. Albert and Dr. Markowitz arrive at the Burns’ one room apartment, where it is a mess, Nick is home from school celebrating an unknown and possibly made up holiday with his uncle. Nick knows exactly what the BCW is there to do; Uncle Murray just makes everything a joke. Albert and Sandy have a very unprofessional relationship quarrel which leads to Albert telling Sandy that she is not fit to do this type of job and goes onto their next case without her. Sandy breaks down in hysterics.

After one can only imagine a night on the town, Sandy wakes up in Murray’s apartment. As she is drinking her morning coffee, Albert knocks on the door and Sandy hides in the closet. Albert tells Murray that Sandy never came home last night and tells him straight that the BCW is going to take Nick away and that Murray’s only chance to persuade the courts otherwise is in a few days. After Albert leaves, Murray tells Sandy that he is going to straighten up and not let them take away Nick.

Nick buys a new suit and goes down to his brother’s office to find a job. Leo wants Murray back because he believes that he is not funny without Murray writing his stuff. Arnold gets Leo on speakerphone with Murray and in the middle of the conversation Murray throws the phone in the trash and walks out. Meanwhile, back at his apartment Sandy has completely cleaned it up and redecorated. Murray comes home to Nick helping Sandy finish putting up the new curtains.

Excited that Murray has gotten a job, Sandy wants to hear about his new job. Murray tells her the story of how he not only didn’t get a job, but realized, while standing on a street corner that people are just going through life but can forgive people for anything and everything, even if they don’t know what they are forgiving them for. Arnold follows Murray back home to tell him that after his behavior with Leo on the phone, he invited him to Murray’s apartment tonight to re-discuss the job position. Murray and Albert have a little brotherly quarrel.

Leo arrives, flaunting his wealth and his Chipmonkery, which insults Nick. Answering Leo’s question if he is funny or not, Nick tells him straight to his face that Leo is not funny nor does he enjoy Chuckles the Chipmunk. This fury increases to Nick destroying the life-size cardboard cut out of Leo as Chuckles and playing on his ukulele just to get Leo to leave. Murray is embarrassed by Nick’s outburst and realizes that this is how Nick feels during Murray’s outbursts. He accepts the job and comforts Nick. The play ends with one of Leo’s outburst yellings.

Now the moral question for me here, is this: When one is faced with life in the bare-assed, job-hunting raw on the one hand, and eleven fifty-cent double features on the other, what is the mature, sensible, and mentally healthy step to take? I.i.14
Look, if Nick has to leave if he goes, he goes, and my life stays about the same. But its no good for him, see, not for a couple of years anyway. Right now he’s still ashamed of being sharper than everybody else, he could easily turn into another peeled and boiled potato. II.i.51
I just want him to stay with me till I can be sure he wont turn into Norman Nothing. I want to be sure he’ll know when he’s chickening out on himself. I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he wont notice it when it starts to go. I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are, I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument, I want a little guts to show before I can let him go. I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities. I want him to know it’s worth all the trouble just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance. And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair. I will be very sorry to see him go. That kid was the best straight-man I ever had. He is a laughter, and laughters are rare. II.i.52
You came into my office like George God; everybody’s supposed to come and audition for Human Being in front of you. Aw, Murray, today, one day, leave the dragons alone will ya? And look at the dragons you pick on…III.i.73
You got that wide stare that people stick in their eyes so nobody’ll knows their heads asleep. III.i.75
Arnold, five months ago I forgot what day it was. I’m on the subway on my way to work and I didn’t know what day it was and it scared the hell out of me. I was sitting in the express looking out the window same as every morning watching the local stops go by in the dark with an empty head and my arms folded not feeling great and not feeling rotten, just not feeling, and for a minute I couldn’t remember, I didn’t know, unless I really concentrated, whether it was a Tuesday or a Thursday- or a-for a minute it could have been any day- in the dark through any year- Arni, it scared the hell out of me. You got to know what day it is. You got to know what’s the name of the game and what the rules are with nobody else telling you. You have to own your days and name them, each one of them, every one of them, or else the years go right by and none of them belong to you. III.i.75-76

What does Chuckles the Chipmunk represent?

How can you own the days? Are you going through life with your head asleep, just going through the motions and not stopping to celebrate Irving R. Feldman’s birthday?

Why do we look down upon those who are living a “free spirited lifestyle”? Is it because we are jealous or because they are different for not living a “normal lifestyle?”

Especially relevant for today because just coming out of the recession where 10% of the population was unemployed. The play is not a struggle of trying to find a job and support your kid, it’s the struggle of how to live your life fruitfully, whether employed or not

Sandy’s character is the weakest. She is not grounded in anything- her career, her motives, etc. She randomly appears throughout and tries to help Murray “get his life back on track” but her version of helping is not the same as Murray’s.

Could be played very comedic (or farcical), could be played very serious. I think if played seriously, the little quips are comedic relief; however, if played comedic, not sure if the audience will realize the seriousness of the issues at hand.

Very Neil Simon especially Barefoot in the Park-ness.


2003 lung disease
Year Written:

Started off as a cartoonist (The Nebbishes) and started writing plays and screenplays when he was 22

Married twice and has two adapted sons

Famous for conducting Project Washoe with his wife. Project Washoe was the attempt to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee named Washoe.-

A Thousand Clowns: Broadway premiere 1962, adapted for the movies in 1965 and was nominated for an Oscar and Academy Award for best-adapted screenplay. Revived in 2001 starring Tom Selleck. Gardner won New York Drama Critics award for Best Playwright and the movie garnered the Writer’s Guild Award for Best Screen Comedy.

In 2000, he won the Lifetime Achievement Award form the Wiriter’s Guild of America

Jason Robards (who played Murray onstage and in the movie) wrote: "I feel A Thousand Clowns is his masterpiece. It is a real human comedy of poignancy and laughter, with all of humanity's foibles and eccentricities. There is a great depth of love and understanding for all in this play. There are great life lessons to learn daily, which I find myself still doing. For Herb Gardner to have written this play in his early twenties is a miracle."-

“The play [Clowns] opened to rave reviews in every paper except one: The Jewish Daily Forward. At the Gardner family's Passover Seder that year, the playwright's Aunt Rose read the Forward's review aloud. “Rose didn’t know that it was his only pan,” Gardner's widow Barbara Sproul told playwright Wendy Wasserstein. “As she read it, the family was at first silent, and then they all began laughing. So a new tradition began.” At every subsequent Gardner family Seder, the Forward’s pan of CLOWNS was read—right after the Four Questions.”- Alan Waldman

In Britain’s Guardian newspaper, David Patrick Stearns wrote, “Few writers have dramatised the plight of the elderly with such penetrating insights as Herb Gardner. Gardner's voice was an authentic New York one. He created a gallery of stubborn, pain-in-the-ass personalities who refused to accept the paltry corners of the world that society left them. His plays were unapologetically talky. His characters would not shut up until the audience accepted their humanity.”- Alan Waldman

Other Work:
A Piece of Action- an autobiographical novel
The Goodbye People- starred Milton Berle, closed after 7 performances
Who is Harry Kellerman, and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?- screenwriter
One Night Stand (a musical co-written by Jule Styne)- closed after 8 performances before officially opening
I’m Not Rappaport- Tony for best play in 1985, Judd Hirsch won a Tony for best actor, made into a movie in 1986, revived in 2002 with Judd Hirsch and Ben Vereen
Conversations with My Father- autobiographical, Judd Hirsch won a Tony, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize

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