Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Send in the Clowns

Sunday, July 15, 2012

by Linda Loving, MCT Board member

(IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: There are no clowns appearing on stage in A THOUSAND CLOWNS; no red noses, no big shoes, no cotton candy, nothing.)

Fifty years later, it's never too late and not a minute too soon to experience the delightful dialogue and depth of Herb Gardner's 1962 award-winning comedy A THOUSAND CLOWNS. Six quirky yet winsome characters dance in and out of each other's New York City lives for two days, resulting in choices and insights which will last a lifetime.  At the heart (in every way, the heart!) of the play is a precocious 12-year-old  "O.W." (out of wedlock) boy Nick and his eccentric uncle Murray, who take turns being the child and the adult.  Their redefinition of "family" bordered on radical in the 1960s Father-Knows-Best-era; for our time it is a refreshing reminder of the truest possible "family values."

Murray is determined not to live "as if life is one long dental appointment," and he challenges everyone around him to find their truth, claim their freedom, embrace spontaneity.  Murray's character curiously foreshadows the anti-establishment voice which was gaining in volume by the time the play was made into a film in 1965 (Gardner as screenwriter and associate producer). The warmth, wisdom and wit of CLOWNS created a counterpoint to the1950s' anti-communism and to the 1960s' escalating conflict in Vietnam.  Murray is outrageously funny which somehow tempers his in-your-face persona; in 2012 we seem to have excelled at "in-your-face," but perhaps need a recovery of heartfelt humor.

Murray's unemployment/underemployment stress resonates in our time.  As a TV writer Murray's only choice may be to return to writing for the insipid Chuckles the Chipmunk in order to preserve his "family" with Nick and to extend it to include Sandra, the judgmental  Child Welfare social worker whom Murray wins over at "hello."  Or if not at "hello," surely by the time he tells her

"It's just there's all these Sandras, running around who you never met before and it's confusing at first, fantastic, like a Chinese fire drill….but isn't it great to find out how many Sandras there are? Like those little cars in the circus, this tiny red car comes out…suddenly its doors open and out come a thousand clowns, whooping and hollering and raising hell."

(I must admit that when I played the role of Sandra myself - over 30 years ago - I thought Murray's speech conveyed an image for my own feminist self-discovery!)

What is the balance between self-discovery and selfishness? Between creativity and chaos? Between reality and illusion?  Between conformity and confinement?  As many questions as clowns bounce off the walls of Murray's cluttered one-bedroom Manhattan apartment as the characters disarm, delight, dismay each other, themselves and the viewers.

A THOUSAND CLOWNS received a Tony nomination for Best Play and the New York Drama Critics "Best New Playwright" honor. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for writing and won the 1965 Writer's Guild of America award for best written American comedy.  Actors from both the original play and the film received several nominations and awards.  After A THOUSAND CLOWNS, Herb Gardner wrote THIEVES, THE GOODBYE PEOPLE, I'M NOT RAPPAPORT (Tony Award-winner for Best Play) and CONVERSATIONS WITH MY FATHER (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize). Herb Gardner has been one of the most produced playwrights worldwide.

When A THOUSAND CLOWNS began its 428-performance run on Broadway, Gardner was only 27 years old. Howard Taubman of the New York Times found the play "sunny and wistful, sensible and demented, and above all, unfailingly amusing." Fifty years later, expect similar reviews - throw in "intelligent," "moving" and "thought-provoking."

Send in the clowns.


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