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Curtain Call With Terkel | The Nation

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Curtain Call With Terkel

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What they find in Studs is a quizmaster not the least bit interested in private scandal. He seeks instead "a common thread" of tradecraft. He is--in this respect as in so many others--a vanishing breed. When today's celebrities aren't hiding behind their public-relations agencies, they issue canned or potted prefab sermonettes, attached to the trailers of their budget-busting movies, testifying to the anguish of their art, for which no interlocutor is deemed necessary. Nor are these "virtual privacies" hard to grudge, when every other interrogation in a modern era of bugs, taps and video surveillance is essentially punitive--the loaded questions of therapists, cops, prosecutors, gossip-mongers and deconstructionists. Who better and who else to talk to than a Studs containing so many multitudes that he can simultaneously entertain the contradictory messages of an Edward Albee (we can't live with illusions) and a Eugene O'Neill (we can't live without them), who is equally comfortable with either gnarled Beckett (the Theater of the Absurd) or epic Brecht (social plays with political content), and who can see, through Jonathan Miller's eyes, the common denominator between King Lear and Alice in Wonderland?

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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No wonder Arthur Miller cheerfully explains that he got the idea for The American Clock from Studs Terkel's Hard Times. That Tennessee Williams would show up at WFMT almost directly from the asylum, confessing that "I'm a man who has the San Andreas Fault built into him." That August Wilson offhandedly confides that his plays draw inspiration from Romare Bearden paintings. That Lorraine Hansberry was anxious to talk about Sean O'Casey. And no wonder, either, that blowhards like Brando and Schwarzenegger end up spouting their whalelike egos all over the innocent studio: "Knowledge in depth about oneself," says Marlon, "is reserved for a few people willing to journey through the night sea and find one's center. History never indicates, however, that people en masse are willing to make the enormous sacrifice required." Compared with this fortune cookie the size of a Big Rock Candy Mountain, Arnold is practically modest: "I am a strong believer in Western philosophy, the philosophy of success, of progress, of getting rich. The eastern philosophy is passive, which I believe in maybe three percent of the time, and the ninety-seven percent is Western, conquering and going on."

And what does Studs get out of it? Some laughs, especially from Robert Morley:

I loathe people with their briefcases hurrying about. That's the only moment I'm unhappy in America; when I get into the elevator in the morning and there are five grim gentlemen with their little briefcases. I wonder what they're thinking about. They're looking as if they're going to sell something improbable and work too hard all day. It's eight o'clock in the morning and they resent stopping at a floor to pick somebody up. You can see it in their faces. They didn't want to stop at the ninth floor.

But he also gets what every American radical has always longed for, which is community and faith. He gets a Federal Theatre and its Living Newspaper; a De Sica who thinks all films should be sensitive to social problems like poor people and old people and housing and unemployment; a Miller who reminds us that until recently, all theater "was involved with the fate of the kingdom, and the importance of power, of rank, of public policy"; a Clurman who insists that "we live to create art through conversation, through comradeship, through friendship"; a Satyajit Ray who says the father in The World of Apu "comes back to responsibility. I believe in that. I don't believe in denunciation. The acceptance of responsibility. I believe in that very strongly"; a René Clair who envisions "a great revolution" brought about by pay TV; a Joan Littlewood who tells us that "each man, each woman is part bird, part fish, wishing to fly, to dance, to fuck well, to eat well, to think.... Raleigh, the intellectual, and Marlowe, the poet, dreamed of a republic of clowns"; and an Uta Hagen whose Greenwich Village theater was wide open and free to all: "They say, 'I want to be a household name.' I say, 'What is that? Lysol? Toilet paper? Bounty? These are household names.' Listen to me, I'm shouting."

And all this is no less than Citizen Studs deserves--the grand old man with the brave songs, the cranky tape recorder and the magic hearing-aid. I wish him, as well, a Paris Commune and a New Jerusalem.

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