I just saw a matinee of Pulitzer-winner Paula Vogel's play Indecent, a timely story about our herd propensity. In 1907, a young playwright named Sholem Asch wrote a play called God of Vengeance which was frightening to his Jewish colleagues because it exposed Jews as flawed people. "You can't show this," they rail at him. Nevertheless, the play is put on, is a big hit, tours throughout Europe and eventually lands in New York . . . where it is censored for an uptown production. What is cut out is a love scene between two women. Subsequently, it becomes a play about a Jew who runs a whore house, abuses his lesbian daughter, and disrespects the Torah. And the show is shut down and the cast jailed.
The New York herd was spooked — something had to be done, somebody subdued, trampled, shut up.
The reason that I think this play is important — particularly in our time when political correctness has become a divisive topic — is that it movingly expresses the value of (and price paid for) speaking truth, no matter who may get offended by it or who may use it to bolster arguments for bigotry. In my opinion, this is the tightrope negotiated by all artists who are working to express something bigger than they are. If you really say it, somebody is going to be infuriated.
Well, today's New York herd sees things differently. They gave the play a Tony Award and, after being cancelled, its run has been extended. GO SEE IT . . . before the herd loses interest; yes, we are a fickle lot.
In 1934 when James M. Cain published The Postman Always Rings Twice, it was extremely successful but also so notorious for its blatant violent sexual content that it startled the Boston herd and they banned the book. Founded by the early Puritans, Boston could ban works featuring "objectionable" content, and they had been doing so since 1651. However Cain's book managed the amazing feat of inspiring stampedes to it and from it at the same time.
I recently found a paperback on my shelf, decided to read it, and — wowee kazowee was it good. And the reason I was so surprised is that I started out laughing at the campiness of it: boy meets girl; they violently canoodle … and then some; boy and girl kill girl's guy; etc. The abrupt transitions and 1930s lingo were funny!
But then something even funnier happened: I couldn't stop reading. I became part of Cain's herd.
The unattributed cover blurb on my tattered 1935 Knopf Borzoi copy says:
"If you once begin it you will finish it; and you won't forget it. It is one of the toughest, roughest, cruelest, sometimes heartbreakingest and always readablest books yet."I can't say that it broke my heart, but it hijacked my noggin, dry boiling "spare writing" to a level of hard-boiledness I never imagined.
In fact, if the adjective "hard-boiled" didn't exist, I might have to invent it for this book.
"I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called," wrote author James M. Cain in the preface to his novel Double Indemnity. "I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort."
Well, by golly, he understood the herd. Despite a title that has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, he has moved us — for 74 years we've kept running, through seven film adaptations, an opera, a radio drama, and two plays.
Which brings me back to politics.
What causes these herd movements really? I've been wondering a lot about that lately. People can have their lives threatened — no movement. Families can be torn apart — maybe some stampeding at airports, but nothing that disrupts day-to-day life. A guy makes a gross comment about bleeding because apparently he doesn't ever do that and thinks it's embarrassing; some mysterious critical mass thing happens and the media (social and otherwise) explodes. But I know my spot in the herd: I watch and tell and step quietly out of the way.