Bellow’s Broadway blunder

The esteemed American Jewish writer was doomed to be a Nobel Prize laureate for his novels, not his plays.

Saul Bellow (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Saul Bellow
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A FAIRLY WELL established tradition exists of highly successful novelists who failed miserably at writing plays.
Henry James, for one, made repeated at - tempts through much of his career to succeed as a dramatist. Only one James play, “The American,” based on his 1877 novel, had a modest success; most of his efforts never even got on the boards. James Joyce wrote one drama, “Exiles,” in 1915; it took him four years to find a theater (in Munich) that would mount it, whereupon savage reviews promptly closed it. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a similarly spectacular failure as a playwright. His sole play, “The Vegetable, or From President to Postman,” died during its pre-Broadway tryout in 1923 in Atlantic City; Scott and his wife Zelda reportedly left the theater before the premiere performance was over, as did most of the audience.
Philip Roth, who early on had contemplated a career as an actor, labored over a play called “The Nice Jewish Boy” before giving it up. (Not that the effort was entirely wasted; he eventually turned the material into a novel of some renown called “Portnoy’s Complaint.”) Roth later tried his hand several times at writing television dramas for his then-wife Claire Bloom. Most were never produced, although a dramatization of his novel “The Ghost Writer” did make it onto British television. Ayn Rand (“Ideal”), Graham Greene (“The Great Jowett”), William Golding (“The Brass Butterfly”), Muriel Spark (“Doctors of Philosophy”) – the list of highly regarded novelists making fools of themselves as playwrights goes on and on.
Similarly, no one but the author was fooled when Saul Bellow turned playwright with “The Last Analysis,” which opened on Broadway 50 years ago this October. The timing of this turkey was nothing if not ironic. Just the previous month Bellow had published “Herzog” to rapturous reviews. It was his sixth novel, but his first No. 1 bestseller and the book that established him in the minds of countless readers and critics as the greatest living American novelist. So now he was offering a play. Even if it was Bellow’s first crack at writing for the stage, how bad could it be? Bad doesn’t begin to suggest the terminal badness of “The Last Analysis.” The 1966 Viking/Compass edition of the play is blurbed with endorsements by such critics as Eric Bentley (“an outstanding piece of theatre”), Robert Brustein (“rippling with energy and intelligence”), John Simon (“makes the word become flesh be - fore our very ears and eyes”), and Robert W. Corrigan (“‘The Last Analysis’ may prove to be one of the most significant American plays written in a long time.”) Well, them’s the critics. Opening night reviewers had a decidedly different view.
Walter Kerr was taken by Bellow’s “almost frightening naiveté as a dramatist,” and that was one of the milder notices. Howard Taubman gamely argued for this “wildly untidy” play’s “rare richness and complexity of texture,” but could offer no support for these assertions. Time dismissed it as  Saul Bellow: A novelist of genius “claptrap,” and Newsweek said the play “committed suicide.” Nor did revision help. An Off-Broadway pro - duction in 1971 was judged by Marilyn Stasio “as misconceived a pro - duction as the original.” Walter Kerr declared it “excruciating” to watch.
Critics and reviewers aside, audiences voted with their feet. The Broadway production closed after 28 perfor - mances. The Off-Broadway revision limped along for five weeks before expiring.
WHY WAS “The Last Analysis” so bad? Simply stated, the neophyte playwright did just about everything wrong, starting with the play’s prem - ise. A former television comedian called Bummidge (né Philip Bomovitch) has devoted himself since his re - tirement to a self-invented psychoanalytic therapy that he labels Existenz- Action-Self-analysis. The purpose of this therapy, says Bummidge, is to cure himself of “humanitis,” which he defines, not too lucidly, as “an emotional disorder of our relation to the human condition.”
The action of the play centers on Bummidge’s closed-circuit television presentation of his “revolutionary” discoveries to an invited audience of leading psychoanalysts, psychologists, professors, and media types whom the comedian has assembled at the Waldorf Astoria. The entirety of the two-act play takes place in Bummidge’s Upper West Side loft. The first half depicts preparations for the telecast, the second the telecast itself.
It is hard to decide which half is the more preposterous.
Not that there’s anything especially preposterous in the notion of a professional comic having a serious side, intellectual leanings or political or social engagement. At the time of the writing of “The Last Analysis,” we have Dick Gregory essentially put - ting his career on hold to devote himself to the civil rights movement; Bill Cosby, turning civil rights and education advocate; Mel Brooks (a noted hypochondriac) reportedly amassing enough medical knowledge to (the - oretically) pass state boards; Lenny Bruce becoming a determined First Amendment student and advocate.
And if we shake our heads at Mort Sahl eliding from political satirist to devoted Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist, we might find it sunnier that in more modern times Al Franken traded “Saturday Night Live” for the US Senate (or was that a mere change of venue?). Nor is the notion of a comic with “mental issues” all that improbable. Google “comedians and psychiatry” and you’ll get a quarter of a million results.
But no, the problem is what Bellow fails to do with the admittedly dicey idea of a clown seriously pursuing the study of the mind. Bummidge reveres Freud (as did, at least for a period, Bellow, who subjected himself to numerous forms of psychoanalysis). But Bummidge doesn’t appear to be especially in need of analysis, neither Freudian nor Bummidgian. Nothing indicates he’s suffering neurosis or psychosis. At worst, he might be depressed by having fallen from TV stardom – unless it’s that ill-defined “emotional disorder of our relation to the human condition.” But there’s little point in trying to delve deeply into a character that the author himself made so little effort to examine.
The action of the play is creaky in the extreme.
Leave aside the question of why someone would rena ballroom at a hotel, provide drinks and canapes, and then, rather than address the guests in person, lecture his audience via television from across town. Whatever. As the technicians prepare the lights and cameras for Bummidge’s presentation, fully a dozen characters visit the comic’s loft.
None of these characters is developed any more than Bummidge.
The characters are introduced in that cringe-inducing manner that signals the most amateur of playwrights. Virtually all characters make their entrances spouting clumsy explanations of who they are and each exiting just in time for the next character’s entrance. By the end of the first act, however, everyone is crowding the stage in the manner of the Marx Brothers’ packed stateroom in “A Night at the Opera.”
But if Act One of “The Last Analysis” is farcical, Act Two is beyond farce. Not only does Bummidge deliver his eminent - ly unenlightening lecture, but he convinces each of his visitors – ex-wife, mistress, lawyer, son, tailor, etc. – to don costumes and help him act out traumatic moments of his childhood. This is no more credible than it is amusing; like seeing adults romp in diapers, the effect is simply embarrassing. Nor are the traumas depicted especially traumatic; the young Bummidge, for example, is discovered peeking into his sister’s lingerie drawer. Finally, in an all too predictable stab at satire, Bummidge ends up triumphant when his program is hailed as a work of genius.
Bellow, who died in 2005, aged 89, was a novelist of genius, as well as a deft short story writer, an astute critic, a graceful essayist, a brilliant letter writer. He simply wasn’t a playwright. He could explicate the human comedy; he just wasn’t gifted in scripting farce, burlesque or satire.
“The Last Analysis” contains a few good throwaways and biting invective. (He calls his son an “ex-sperm.”)
TO MAKE matters worse, Bellow’s less than satisfactory script was sabotaged by a Broadway production that by all accounts was pretty wretched. James Atlas’s 2000 biography, “Bellow,” quotes Edward Hoagland as saying “an air of despair pervaded the rehearsals.” Bel - low was especially despairing of his lead actor, the veteran Sam Levene, of whom he later wrote in The New York Times: “Sam Levene is a dear man, but he found it hard to speak a sentence with a subordinate clause.” (Whether a playwright should be cramming subordinate clauses down an actor’s throat is another matter.) Bellow reportedly had wanted Zero Mostel for the role, but that wily rhinoceros of an actor was wise enough not to touch Bummidge. Milton Berle, another of Bellow’s choices, also declined. In any event, Levene was not the only actor in the opening night of “The Last Analysis” to fluff Bellow’s leaden lines. And in the Off Broadway revival a half-dozen years later, the eminently respectable Joseph Wiseman fared no better than Levene in the lead role.
Despite the stinging reception of “The Last Analysis,” Bellow never entirely abandoned his aspirations as a playwright. He made other attempts to get “The Last Analysis” staged, but these came to naught. Bellow also wrote a dramatic version of his novella, “Seize the Day” (a book he later professed not to like), but this never got beyond the workshop stage. (A film version, starring an effective Robin Williams and with a screenplay by the actor Ronald Ribman, was produced in 1986.) Over the years Bellow also wrote a few one-acters that either got published in magazines or performed in places like Spoleto, Italy. But in all, Bellow was doomed to be a Nobel Prize laureate for his novels, not his plays.
But why should someone with a genius for writing novels even flirt with the no - tion of making a success of writing for the stage? There’s likely no single explanation for this. It could be the sheer pleasure of hearing one’s words spoken by live actors. It could be the pursuit of additional fame and fortune arising in a different and time-honored genre. (Bellow be - lieved early on that the play would make him “rich as a pig.”) It could be – and I think this is perhaps most plausible – that an idea simply announces itself, even to the surprise of the novelist, as best suited, even destined, to be performed.
Fair enough. But is it even fair to dwell, as I’ve done here, on an acclaimed novelist’s misstep onto the stage? Well, there’s no denying good old schadenfreude, the satisfaction we get by noting that a writer might be the master of one trade but is not the jack of them all. Yet there’s more than that. Seeing a virtuoso stumble brings him down from Olympus and reminds us that, just as Nazis were not chthonic demons, even the most divinely touched of writers are human beings.
We may be reminded as well that while certain literary works may exhibit an almost unearthly excellence, they did not bloom overnight like roses. Such remind - ers should make us appreciate master - pieces all the more. And further, when even despite their sincerest efforts acclaimed artists turn their hands to a different creative pursuit only to crash and burn, we are instructed anew that every artistic endeavor has its own peculiar de - mands, its own challenges, its own conventions, its own rules.
Few artists are adept all over the creative map. (And why should we expect them to be?) Far more are in the mold of Picasso as poet, Bob Dylan as painter – or Saul Bellow as playwright. Or maybe, as the comedian Bummidge would have it, artists are infected with “humanitis.