The MacLamity

The News That Stays News, Reported Live

Sunday, October 24, 2004


The annoying thing about Woody Allen is that he can write fantastic prose. Just when a decade of shabby movies bred comfortable contempt for an intimidating idol, Woody Allen proves that he can write about complicated issues in a light, funny, intelligent and heartfelt way. His Bergmasn essay made use of quotes so expertly at the beginning that I put it down almost immediately. I've never been able to find it again and never read the end of it, in fact. His essay on George S. Kaufman produce in me the same kind of awe. His admiration for Kaufman is so simply put that it seems an easy thing to say. It is therefore a perfect act of homage:
Groucho Marx, who was not impressed by much in this world -- he told me he found it hard to keep awake at dinner at T. S. Eliot's and held a kind of reserved view of Perelman, whom I believe to be the single funniest human of my lifetime -- was in genuine awe of Kaufman. I think that was because in addition to Kaufman's comic talent, he had such a thoroughly rigorous command of stagecraft. Kaufman could work at home or late in hotel rooms under pressure and do the hard labor, the tedious, glamourless structuring and rewriting and merciless cutting that is crucial to making comedy breathe. Hart has written about Kaufman's ability to edit and pare to the bone, to throw out jokes should they dare to impede the plot -- to kill his children. Kaufman felt that while a drama could survive with a bit of slack, a comedy had to be airtight. The story is told of a playwright suffering with his opus in Philadelphia who asked Kaufman how he could improve it. Without seeing the failing play, Kaufman replied, ''Make it shorter.''
Did Kaufman have his flops and are the plays dated? To work in the theater is to strike out as often as not. A much-quoted line of his is ''Satire is what closes on Saturday night.'' Alas, too, comedy dates, and there is plenty dated about his plays, which were fabulous in their time, although a few still hold up quite well, when blessed with a good production. Given the state of the theater -- strangled by economics, mortally devastated by the maw of television and by the financial and artistic seductiveness of film -- it is hard to imagine a comedy-writing titan like George S. Kaufman coming along to dominate the Broadway season. On the other hand, there may be a figure equal or even greater just around the corner from Columbia University -- but don't go looking for him.