What I’m Reading: A Thousand Clowns
A few nights ago, I pulled a play off my bookshelf, A Thousand Clowns by Herb Gardner. It’s the story of an outsider, the self-appointed court jester Murray, who can’t keep a job or a friendship, because he won’t play by anyone else’s rules. Murray is raising his nephew, Nick, the straight-man in the early scenes, although he shows his own ironic humor throughout our few days observing their lives together. Murray’s brother, Arnold, tries to help him get a job when Child Services raises flags about the moral turpitude Murray is raising Nick in.
The play offers an exploration of the awakened Individual–Murray delights in shouting skits in the early hours in their wanderings across Manhattan–butting up against the demands of Society. To fit in, Arnold pleads with Murray, you need to surrender. But as Murray struggles with the trade-offs, we realize that it’s really a question of when or whether a person will assume the Responsibilities that are thrust upon them. Murray’s refusal to compromise begins to look more and more selfish, especially as it puts his tutelage of Nick at risk. Will he bend his rules and make the adjustments to his life that are needed to keep his nephew in their shared one-bedroom apartment? It is evident that Murray loves the boy, and he speaks approvingly of Nick’s incisive sensibilities and potential, but his mission to raise him to follow in Murray’s own misanthropic footsteps provides the first signal of self-centeredness at the core. Will his Love lead him to accept his Responsibilities and formalize their family unit? Is this necessarily what love demands: to subordinate your own standing, for the benefit of the other person? Or, more to the point, does love demand you put the shared relationship before your own drives?
Murray makes several attempts to swallow his pride and play the game, finally meeting with his former and potential future boss, but he can’t seem to keep a straight face through the course of any conversation. He eventually explains to Arnold why he plays the jester:
If most things aren’t funny, Arn, then they’re only exactly what they are; then it’s one long dental appointment interrupted occasionally by something exciting, like waiting or falling asleep. What’s the point if I leave everything exactly the way I find it? Then I’m just adding to the noise; then I’m just taking up some more room on the subway. (Act III)
Murray has already spoken at length about his efforts to raise Nick to maintain an ironic detachment from the status quo, so we know he’s not at risk to “leave everything exactly the way he found it,” at least through the next generation. But, if parenting is where he is achieving his objective to have an impact on the world, then why shouldn’t he be able to maintain a job, to just swallow his pride during the day? He explains this existential dread to Arnold as well, telling him about a subway ride so mind-numbing that he forgot what day of the week it was:
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. And that ain’t just for weekends, kiddo. (Act III)
The task of grinding through the socially acceptable work schedule is too draining for Murray. To lose any day, any hour, is too much for him. In the final lines, he has finally realized that he needs to make these compromises in deference to Nick’s needs, and he agrees to try again to meet the demands of the job. He has realized that Nick needs him, and Murray decides to put aside his selfish drives out of his love for the boy. But, in surrendering to Society, does he lose the very thing Nick admires most, and the very thing he most needed from his uncle?
* * * * * *
These are interesting reflections at this time in our history, while the nation has been shut down to stop the spread of coronavirus, and political manipulators have begun to pit people’s sense of individual liberty against the common good. Murray presents the other side of the libertarian coin; although he shows glimmers of rage in moments, he is mostly a joyous rebel, gamboling through the streets of Manhattan and playing practical jokes to resist disappearing into the backdrop of Acceptable Society. He struggles to bend to the will of Child Services, weighing what he thinks is best for Nick–to avoid becoming a mindless cog on the wheel–against what the social workers demand–a structured life where Murray goes off to work 5 days a week and sends Nick to school with the same regularity.
Today, the Responsibilities that Individuals are struggling to accept are not owed to their immediate family, but rather to the wide tapestry of Society due to the way coronavirus spreads through our public interactions. Unlike Murray’s refusal to surrender to acquiesce to a day-job, today’s self-centered Individual resisting the demands of Society is asserting the “right to Work” and asking to send their children back to the regular schedule of school. The “common wealth” does not offer the same demands of Love to conquer individual will, and thus has inspired humorless obstinacy in the face of calls to break routine. The folks refusing to act out of love for their neighbor–or for the grocery store worker checking out their purchases, or for the nurse who may eventually be tending to their COVID-19 treatment–are not refusing to surrender to inspire their influential young nephew, but rather are acting out of preference to remain blinkered on the conveyor belt of the Economy.
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