James Purdy as Playwright: A Retrospective Reading of A Day After the Fair and The Paradise Circus

James Purdy (1914-2009)—a prolific American writer of fiction, drama, poetry, and essays—has been known almost exclusively as a novelist, recognized for his early portrayals of gay characters and themes. Accordingly, scholarship has focused almost entirely on his well-respected novels. Purdy’s most notable contribution to the theatre is indirect, by way of adaptation of his novel, Malcolm (1959), by Edward Albee in 1966.

This article considers two of Purdy’s minor plays that span a large swath of his career. Why Purdy now? And why two of his minor plays? There has been a recent turn in Purdy scholarship that has been gathering steam to examine his plays, which have been mostly ignored by academia. In addition to the publication of James Purdy: Selected Plays in 2009, since 2000, four of the seven articles published on Purdy have been about his plays. Douglas Blair Turnbaugh documented Purdy’s career as a playwright and recounts how Purdy told Turnbaugh that he “would just as soon write plays as novels.”[1] Though Turnbaugh does not comment on this statement, this suggests that Purdy scholars should give his plays continued prominence. Turnbaugh claims  that Purdy has an inherent theatricality and a flair for dramatic dialogue.[2] This is particularly evident in Albee’s adaptation of Malcolm. Similarly, Matthew Stadler writes, “Talk, in Purdy’s world, is the instrument of revelation.”[3] Purdy does not dwell on scene-setting exposition, character background, or speculative psychological depth.[4] Purdy focuses, instead, on “the awkwardness and abruptness of real speech.”[5] Like Stadler, Michael Feingold argues that Purdy does not pay much attention to plot.[6] Feingold discusses Purdy’s non-traditional dramatic style, which is characterized by anecdotal drama, and explains how the plays are about “why life is so full of suffering and why human beings cause each other so much pain.”[7]

Purdy’s reputation as a playwright has historically suffered for two reasons. First, the success of his novels has turned the finite amount of attention towards his novels (and, therefore, largely away from his plays). And, second, what scholarship that has been written about Purdy’s plays has focused almost solely on the structure of his plays (and, largely, in comparison to the structure of his novels). While it is important that academic journals have begun to publish work on Purdy’s plays, the fact that these articles do not really consider the content of the plays, has not done much to further his reputation as a serious playwright to be studied . Besides his prolific output of novels (and poems), James Purdy wrote, in total, eleven full-length plays and twenty shorter plays during his many-decade career. While many of Purdy’s plays were produced in non-notable theatres with limited runs—between the 1966 publication of his first short play, Mr. Cough Syrup and the Phantom Sex, and the 2009 publication of his fifth collection of plays, Selected Plays, published only months after Purdy’s death—, most of Purdy’s plays were published either in book collections or in literary journals/magazines during his lifetime.Unlike other scholars, I do not focus on structure, but instead, read his two plays about circuses and clowns through the idea of “clowning around,” playing off of the well-studied and complex idea of the carnivalesque, as theorized by Mikhail Bhaktin. This essay focuses on one of Purdy’s earlier published plays, A Day After the Fair (written in the early 1970s and first published in 1977), and one of his plays first published in a recent anthology, The Paradise Circus (written in 1991 and published in 2009). Though their dates of publication vary by almost thirty years, interestingly enough, both of these plays revolve around the circus. The figure of the clown haunts the pages, offering a unique opportunity to assess a change in Purdy’s thinking with similar characters occupying similar environments in both plays. While reading these plays, we may ask, what is a clown? and what is a circus? This line of inquiry gets us far; however, there is a much larger issue at stake when we examine the figure of the clown: Purdy’s characters only become themselves when they don the mask of another. Using the figure of the clown in such a manner is a sophisticated technique to explore this (above) idea—an idea that is not entirely without precedent in the history of theatre (e.g., becoming the “brother” in Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan and “Bunburying” in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest).

In the earlier play, A Day After the Fair, as Joseph Skerrett says in “James Purdy and the Works: Love and Tragedy in Five Novels,” tragedy is “played out against a backdrop of more than vaguely symbolic chaos in the natural order and/or disruption of the social order”[8] as the younger destroys the older in order to reverse the hierarchy. Love is a dangerous and destructive force here, as in Purdy’s earlier novels, because the characters cannot conceive or pursue it purely.[9] However, in the later play, The Paradise Circus, though the social order is disrupted in the beginning of the play as Arthur sells his sons and Arthur is incapable of pursuing love in the correct manner, the boys come back and the witch doctor becomes the doctor once more—restoring the social order—and Arthur does learn how to love, even though he quickly dies thereafter. Circuses are scary places in Purdy’s early works: the clowns are outcasts, and their makeup cannot hide the pain. However, by the time we get much later in his career in The Paradise Circus, life, in the end, can produce smiles. As these two plays represent his earlier and later career and both contain clowns, they offer a unique opportunity to see Purdy contemplate similar ideas and characters, but arrive at a different conclusion, demonstrating a fundamental change in Purdy’s outlook over the years. In interpreting the content of these two plays by Purdy through investigating the complex characters of the clowns, this essay aims to legitimate Purdy as a playwright and deserving of further scholarly inquiry.

In A Day After the Fair, there are two grown-up brothers who are clowns. The older brother, however, will not let the younger very innocent brother assume the role of a clown (not letting him put on his makeup or costume), because the older brother feels as though he is the master clown.  Like the younger brother’s lover who is a hired killer, the younger brother must become a killer, must become cold and calculating like his older brother. Only in killing his older brother, can the younger brother put on his makeup and finally become a clown. Like The Good Person of Szechwan, the previously-innocent younger brother must don another personality to live the life that he wants.

The Paradise Circus, set in 1919, is about the relationship between a father and his two sons. Arthur Rawlings is mourning the death of his son Rainforth, a captain in WWI. Arthur forsakes his two younger sons, Joel and Gregory, because they do not live up to the memory of their older, now dead, brother. Joel and Gregory spend their lives working on merry-go-round wooden horses. When Senor Onofrio of the Paradise Circus meets the two boys, he propositions Arthur, who is known to be a miser. For ten thousand dollars, Onofrio will buy the two boys for the circus. If it does not work out and the boys return, he will have to return the money. At first, Arthur is shocked, but then he reasons that his sons do not love him as much as Rainforth did and agrees to the deal. After a number of years, he misses his son and wants them to return. Spurning the advice of the country doctor, Arthur turns to a witch doctor, Alda Pennington, for advice. She convinces Arthur that he must burn the ten thousand dollars, which he does. A little later the two sons miss home and run away from the circus and return home. They have grown up and claim to have hearts of stone when their father greets them again. Onofrio comes to Arthur to get his money back, but when Arthur tells him that Alda burnt it, Onofrio goes to Alda. Alda tells him that ever since he bought those boys he has not been able to perform with women. Alda says that if he ever wants his manhood back, he must leave town, forget the money and never return. Soon after Joel goes to Alda to find out if his father really burnt the money. She gives the remaining ashes to Joel. By the time Joel returns he is too late to hear what his dying father said to Gregory. Arthur told Gregory that he loves them and his dying wish was to see the stone removed from their hearts. Both sons are touched and they have appeared to regain their emotions, ending the play in an embrace.

Many of Purdy’s other plays  also feature types/variations of complex role-reversals. Dangerous Moonlight (unpublished to date) is a hauntingly sadistic, cold, and calculating play about making the best of a no-win situation. The action between mother and daughter, who have grown up in the lap of luxury, revolves around Val Noble, a Stanley Kowalski-like brute who lacks even the pride that Stanley exhibited in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Val is merely satisfied and accepts who he is—a veritable animal, a practical beast, whose needs are quite basic: first sustenance (taking the form of a large roast of beef) and then sex. By the end of the play, the three have made an agreement that the daughter will remain Val’s wife, while the mother will take the place of the daughter and become Val’s lover. In True (1977), Chester, a thirteen year old boy who witnessed his brother commit a murder ends up killing his brother, to demonstrate to him that he is not a liar and is true; that, “he will not grow up to be like his brother.” Here, Chester must become his brother, a killer, in order to become himself. Or Jack, in Down the Starry River (unpublished to date), is a washed-up drag performer. By the end of the play, Jack discovers that in order to make himself happy, he needs his costume to become his daily outfit; he needs to wear dresses not as an act, but in order to be himself.

Donald Pease writes that Purdy laces his fiction with orphans, abandoned children, foundlings and outcasts.[10] In A Day After the Fair, the two brother-clowns are circus folk: certainly societal outcasts. Joel and Gregory in The Paradise Circus, are symbolically orphaned as Arthur sells them to the circus. The play A Day After the Fair has a pessimistic ending as the younger brother can only turn to violence in order to become what he wants. This holds true with what Pease writes when he says that there is an irreconcilable gap in their world and the world that cannot “adopt” them.[11] However, there is a very different ending in The Paradise Circus. The two brothers, who were symbolically orphaned, are reunited with their father at the end of the play as each party seems to forgive and love the other.

This focus on outcasts and innocents is found throughout Purdy scholarship. Part of the reason for this reoccurring theme is that, as Skerrett documents, as a gay man, Purdy identified with a socially marginalized race. In an interview Skerrett cites in “James Purdy and the Black Mask of Humanity,” Purdy—aligning and/or identifying himself with what he sees as a powerless and stigmatized member of society—discusses  that in dealing with his landlord,  he felt like an oppressed black person: “They treat you like an old nigger tramp. . . . I feel like an old nigger after I’ve talked with him. I just feel like saying, ‘Well, white boss, you sho got to me.’”[12]  Purdy expressed the same sense of oppression when he talked to Christopher Lane in a 1998 interview based on his sexuality. Purdy felt that his lack of recognition, stemmed from his perception of The New York Times as homophobic.[13] Reed Woodhouse writes how Purdy also felt personally attacked by members of the gay movement for not being “gay enough.”[14] Because of this, Purdy could most likely identify with his characters, and as Frank Baldanza says in “James Purdy on the Corruption of Innocents,” “A prominent feature in the microcosm of James Purdy’s six novels and numerous short stories is the relationship between a young innocent and the corrupt adult world in which he must make his way.”[15]

The social outcast and orphan figure prominently in his two plays that I discuss here. In A Day After the Fair and The Paradise Circus, Purdy captures the human in the guise of a clown-suit. In order to live life, one must clown around in a world that we know to be a circus. Like a clown, Purdy’s characters must assume another self in order to be true to their own selves. In order for Purdy’s characters to live the lives that they want, they must assume the role of another: they must become another to become oneself. Though full of obvious play and humor, Purdy’s circuses, however, are no laughing matter. These transformations are painful to all involved; even clown makeup cannot hide the pain, and when the clowns fall, or get hit on the head, they really get hurt. In makeup, clown performers exaggerate their bodily expressions, and clowns take on almost universal guises. It is an easy leap to imagine a modern day circus as a Bhaktinian carnival:

The body and bodily life have here a cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character; this is not the body and its physiology in the modern sense of the words, because it is not individualized. The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed. This is why all that is bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable.[16]

It is the body of the clown that becomes the focal point and not the speech. We focus on their makeup and actions. And it is in their action that the clowns grow and renew themselves. Clowns operate through degradation, but also by overcoming degradation until they do it correctly. As Bhaktin says, “the material bodily principle is a triumphant, festive principle.”[17] In the face of degradation, clowns triumph over folly. Bhaktin explains how regeneration comes out of degradation:

Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one. To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into the void of nonexistence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth take place. Grotesque realism knows no other lower level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb. It is always conceiving.[18]

At the moment when Purdy’s characters face degradation are they renewed. By permanently donning the mask of another, by degrading themselves and reducing their existence to a new bodily existence, by directly dealing with their orphaned status, they become themselves.

The short play A Day After the Fair begins appropriately with the scene being set: “A dilapidated unfurnished room in a lonely city near which loom up enormous skyscrapers and bridges.”[19] Immediately we think of the degradation that the two clown-brothers, Neil and Arnold, encounter every time they look out of the window. Their surroundings are indicative of success and human progress, though of the lonely sort, and the two live in a dilapidated room, reflecting their failures and the process of continual worsening conditions. The play begins with Neil playing cards by himself and wishing that he is allowed to once again put on his clown suit, which his older brother, Arnold, forbids. Instead of listening to Arnold, Neil puts on the clown makeup: “I’ll put on my Clown’s face too, though Arnold’s forbidden it. . . . And it will make me lose the blues. . . . ” (3). There is something about his ordinary state that saddens Neil, and this may be in part due to. Maybe part of it is the reminder of his poverty-stricken state. The assumption of the carnivalesque being cheers him up, but also makes him feel more like himself. “I was a Clown just like him,” Neil states (3). For reasons not entirely clear to the audience, Neil was stripped of his Clown title by the Clown Master. Neil and Arnold come from a family of clowns:

I said I was a clown at heart, and I need to live with Arnold. . . .  We are the only clowns! My father was a clown, and his father. And before him my great grandfather was a juggler. We have always followed the circus. (5)

They have a heritage, but Neil’s clown identity was stripped away. Neil is in the precarious position of both returning to his old identity—one that no longer exists—and creating a new identity.

The plot of the play is a series of complex love triangles. Oswin is married to Elga, who promised Neil’s mother to take care of Neil, but Oswin loves Neil, offering to take Neil away from his overbearing older brother, Arnold. Neil loves Oswin, but also feels the same, at least obedient, love for his brother, Arnold. Elga is in love with both Arnold and Oswin (and has a weird motherly love for Neil). Arnold is in love with Elga, but has a demanding love for Neil. And wrapped up in this series of intertwining love triangles, the Clown Master seems to have had relations with all of the characters, too. The basic action of the play has Oswin, in some sort of revenge for Arnold, kill the Clown Master. Meanwhile, Neil poisons Elga and in turn, Neil kills Arnold.

The love triangles afford the characters the ability to take on different roles, ones not determined by obligation. Oswin is obliged to be Elga’s husband, but Neil offers Oswin the possibility of being a lover. For Elga, too, she is obliged to be Oswin’s wife, but Arnold offers her the possibility of being a lover, as well. Neil is Arnold’s brother, but Oswin also offers Neil the possibility of being a lover. In a sense, all characters are trying to become lovers, trying to shed their obligatory mates. These characters become emboldened through love and held back by obligation. In assuming the roles of lover these characters can be free of the parts of themselves that is wrapped up in obligation.

But it is not just the idea of taking on another role that frees the characters from obligation. Instead, the assumption of these other roles is only successful with an accompanying degradation. As Bhaktin says, it is only through degradation that there can be a birth. Actually, in the case of Oswin, there is a rebirth. Oswin is described as an assassin, and Oswin is in a similar situation as Neil. In assuming the role of assassin, Oswin is returning to an old identity that no longer exists. Does he return to an old self, or is he reinventing himself once more by once again becoming an assassin? It is an obligatory act, though. Arnold, through force and persuasion convinces Oswin to assassinate the Clown Master. For Oswin, killing the Clown Master, and literally degrading his body as he cuts out his tongue, frees Oswin of Arnold’s overbearing demands. Once Oswin accomplishes this task, he expects to find himself free to pursue Neil. Through assuming the role of an old/new self, degradation is allowed to occur, paving the way for freedom from obligation.

The ultimate act of degradation and birth or rebirth comes from Neil’s character. Neil’s obligation to his brother is the one most firmly established. One can always divorce a wife, but a brother will always be a brother. By killing Arnold, Neil destroys part of his natural-born lineage as a clown. Like Oswin, Neil cuts out Arnold’s tongue: this degradation raises the question of whether Neil is returning to clownhood or is reinventing himself as a clown . But what it, ultimately, determines is that Neil will be the only clown. He assumes the privileged position of that title. And, finally, in the murder of his brother, Neil becomes the overbearing brute that his brother was, bullying Oswin. Neil, in freeing himself from his brother, has, in part, assumed the role of his brother.

What is it about being a clown that metaphorically fits the play? First off, clowns represent both social outcasts and misfits. Not being satisfied with their role as outsiders, they yearn to become a part of society. However, clowns have a subversive means of achieving their desired goals, and they are successful through  roundabout ways. For instance, they stumble until they find a certain, usually wacky, method of success. For Neil, degradation offers a way of subverting the natural order of birth and hierarchy. By toppling his brother, Neil is able to assume his old/new true and free self.

The Paradise Circus opens up with an author questioning Arthur about his son, Rainforth. The author is writing a book about soldiers from the American Revolution up until WWI. Rainforth received many citations and won many medals and, as the author says, deserves to be in the book. Arthur describes Rainforth only in opposition to his two younger sons. He says, “My two youngest boys can’t hold a candle to their brother, that’s certain . . .They’re retarded boys. Never finished school . . .”[20] Arthur really has nothing to tell the author about his son except about his name: “The world wants everything ordinary. And both his name and character were extraordinary. Rainforth was right for him, whether people like it or not” (88). This sets up a classic case of a parent favoring one child and forsaking others. As a result of Arthur’s preferential treatment, his two sons, obviously, are detached from him. And because the boys are detached from Arthur, he agrees to “sell” his sons. The rest of the play, then, concerns Arthur’s attempt to buy back his sons’ love. The situation is simple; the resolution is complex.

Before Arthur “sells” his sons to Onofrio, he meets with the family doctor, Dr. Hallam. Dr. Hallam is both the raisonneur, the critical outside observer, and a confidant to Arthur, much like James Herne’s famous homeopathic doctor, Dr. Larkin, in his classic play, Margaret Fleming (1890). Hallam correctly diagnoses the problem:

Sometimes young men can get sick for sheer want of a little encouragement and downright affection, Rawlings. . . . And all they hear from you, if you will pardon my frankness, is a steady diet of praises for Rainforth. (91)

If Arthur could follow Hallam’s simple prescription, the conflict in the play could have been avoided. But the memory of Arthur’s perfect son haunts him. In the face of Rainforth’s supposed perfection, everybody would be a disappointment. As soon as Onofrio offers to “buy” his sons, Arthur hits upon this point: “they have been a bitter disappointment to me, both of them” (95). And so three years have past and Arthur is dying to see his sons. It is not for another year until he actually sees them. Hallam warns Arthur how much they have changed. They have grown beards and have become much stronger even though they still use Arthur’s last name. Their meeting is short and polite. As Joel says, “we weren’t sure you would want to see us” (103).  After the boys leave, Arthur tells Hallam, “I wouldn’t have knowed them from Adam” (103). The boys have transformed and indeed look like the “first son.” The boys have taken on a “magisterial” aura (102), and have supplanted Rainforth in might and in Arthur’s mind. Arthur’s sole preoccupation, which used to be his “grief for Rainforth” (96), is getting his two sons to love him. Arthur cannot accept the prescription that Dr. Hallam gives him. Because of Arthur’s unwillingness, or inability, to follow the doctor’s orders,we get the first of two degradations that produce growth. In Purdy’s circus, even the raisonneur and confidant must don a different guise. The “doctor” becomes a “witch” in order to be a doctor.

Arthur says that he has had enough of doctors and decides to visit the local witch doctor to see if she can help him get his sons back. The traditional remedy for the situation, giving his children encouragement and showing more love, gives way to an untraditional remedy from an untraditional healer, a witch doctor. The audience must be weary of Alda Pennington before she even says a word. The stage directions read,

Antique furniture everywhere, beautiful carpets and mirrors. Fresh flowers. An air of restrained wealth and comfort, not the house one would associate with a midwife or “witch.” (104)

We know that Alda must be good at what she does, or at least good enough to trick people out of their money and make enough to buy antique furniture and beautiful carpets. But we might also look at it in another way. This is a person in touch with reality. We do not see the normal collection of ghastly thingamabobs that a “witch” would collect. Instead her decorations are sensible, even refined. She has one foot in magic, but the other is in a life of privilege. Her magic, then, is less foreign. And the pills that she prescribes are easier to follow than if she was a prototypical witch doctor.

Like Dr. Hallam, she is both raisonneur and confidant. She quickly assesses the situation:

RAWLINGS: They did come to see me . . . But without wanting to . . . They were cold as the brook after snowfall . . . Hardly said a word.

ALDA: Just as they were trained. (106)

After years of paternal neglect, Joel and Gregory naturally have nothing to say to him. They were, in fact, trained not to love Arthur. Dr. Hallam’s medicine would have worked it seems, if Arthur worked in usual ways. But he sold his boys. And an unusual medicine is needed to remedy that. Alda tells him,

The very first thing you must do in order to regain your hold on life and in fact bring back the boys you have lost, is to burn Onofrio’s money . . . Here, before my eyes . . . (109)

Alda, then, becomes a carnivalesqe doctor, one who deals in performance and bodily gestures. Her medicine is one of exaggerated excess, where the action is degrading and almost self-destructive. But these actions are done to regain a hold of one’s life. It is not enough that Arthur gets rid of the money. Alda tells him that he cannot donate the “blood money” to charity (34). He must burn it. He must symbolically rid himself of the “bargain” that was reached with Onofrio, who freed him of  his sons, and will thereby free him from his own guilt, actions and despair.

Arthur’s change as initiated by Alda, leads to the second of two degradations. Arthur must burn his own fortune and that of his sons’. Arthur is a miser, who, in part, defines himself by his money. He must destroy that part of himself. Alda says, “I would have staked everything on your not returning” (114). She thinks it impossible for him to take on this challenge. “I thought you at least would go on being yourself, resisting everything and everybody, that not even the lightning would touch your pride” (114). By becoming another, by becoming the opposite of a miser, one who would literally burn his own money, Arthur has become the man he always could be, a good father. In this destruction, something burns anew. When Arthur burns the money, he burns the intangible to make room for the tangible, his sons.

Once the two degradations take place, that is, the degradation of a doctor to a “witch doctor” and Arthur burning his precious money, the end of the play features the rebirth of the Arthur. Arthur, paradoxically, is dying. But there is still time for this new Arthur to make an impact on the lives of his sons. And with this, Dr. Hallam returns. Now that the unnatural deed of selling his sons has been remedied by the unnatural act of burning the money, traditional medicine can once again take over. On his deathbed, Arthur says to Hallam,

Greg and Joel. What can I say, what can I give them.

HALLAM: You want my opinion?

RAWLINGS: Oh I suppose, though your opinions always take the wind out of my sails . . . Well, go on give it to me, give me your unvarnished say, so why don’t you, though, I’ll probably choke on the words when I hear them.

HALLAM: (pacing the room, his head lowered) I can only tell you what I think I’d say if I had two fine boys like you have, if also I had done to them what you have done.

RAWLINGS: Sold them like cattle you said once.

HALLAM: Did I now? Ah, well . . .

RAWLINGS: And what would you say if you was in my stead, Doc.

HALLAM: I would say . . . (hesitates) I would hope one day they would find it in their hearts to overlook my failings, and that when they were my age they would understand how hard it is to tell those we love how much we love them. (143)

And this is exactly what Arthur tells Gregory (Joel was at Alda’s at the time). Even in the act of dying, something is reborn, not just in Arthur’s heart, but the stones are lifted from the hearts of his sons. As the Passover saying goes, “Our story begins with degradation, our telling ends with glory.”

As evidenced by these two plays, maybe there was a softening in Purdy’s heart over the course of the years. A Day After the Fair is utterly pessimistic and tragic. However, there are signs of hope and the possibility of love, albeit brief, at the end of The Paradise Circus. In Purdy’s early novels and plays, there are numerous instances of “orphans” as societal outcasts who will never fit in and will always grasp for the love of family. This holds true in A Day After the Fair. The tale of the orphan is, as Frank Baldanza says in “Playing House for Keeps with James Purdy,” “a recurrent Ur-fable of the lonely, desperate orphan, cut off from any family intercourse in childhood, who spends his brief career ‘playing house’ with intense, doomed seriousness, frustrated in his search for metaphorical family relationships that will provide the authority, security, and warmth of familial feeling.”[21] But The Paradise Circus is different. Most of the play follows this same pattern, but forgiveness and love are ultimately shared among the characters at the end. However, maybe the more elegant way to explain this shift is to return to the idea of Bhaktin’s carnivalesque. Early in his career, Purdy hurled his orphans “down to the lower reproductive stratum.” There, in the “fruitful earth and the womb,” Purdy’s orphans could incubate and experience a “new birth,” so that years later these orphans are “continually growing and renewed.”

MICHAEL Y. BENNETT is Associate Professor of English and affiliated faculty in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he teaches courses on modern drama. He is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to the Absurd (forthcoming 2015); Narrating the Past through Theatre (2012); Words, Space, and the Audience (2012); and Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd (2011/Pb 2013). He is the editor of Oscar Wilde’s Society Plays (forthcoming 2015); with Benjamin D. Carson, Eugene O’Neill’s One-Act Plays: New Critical Perspectives, (2012/Pb 2014); and Refiguring Oscar Wilde’s Salome (2011). In addition, he is also Editor of The Edward Albee Review.


Though much expanded here in this essay, some of the arguments about clowns and, especially, the section on The Paradise Circus come from my short article “Clowning Around in James Purdy’s The Paradise Circus,” Notes on Contemporary Literature 38.3 (May 2008): 7-10. Earlier versions of this chapter were also presented at two conferences: “Clowning Around in James Purdy’s The Paradise Circus.” 16th Annual American Literature Association Conference. Boston, May 28, 2005 and “Role-Reversals in Purdy’s A Day After the Fair.” 18th Annual American Literature Association Conference. Boston, May 26, 2007.


[1] Douglas Blair Turnbaugh, “James Purdy: Playwright,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 20.2 (1998): 73.

[2] Ibid. 73-74.

[3] Matthew Stadler, “The Theater of Real Speech,” The James White Review 17.1 (Winter 2000): 7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Michael Feingold, “The Basic Question: James Purdy’s Plays,” The James White Review 17.1 (Winter 2000): 40.

[7] Ibid. 40-41.

[8] Joseph Taylor Skerrett, Jr., “James Purdy and the Works: Love and Tragedy in Five Novels,” Twentieth Century Literature 15.1 (April 1969): 25.

[9] Ibid. 26.

[10] Donald Pease, “False Starts and Wounded Allegories in the Abandoned House of Fiction of James Purdy,” Twentieth Century Literature 28.3 (Fall 1982): 335.

[11] Ibid. 335-36.

[12] Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., “James Purdy and the Black Mask of Humanity.” MELUS 6.2 (Summer 1979): 81.

[13] Christopher Lane, “Out with James Purdy: An Interview,” Critique 40.1 (Fall 1998): 72.

[14] Reed Woodhouse, “James Purdy (Re)visited,” Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review 2.2 (Spring 1995): 16.

[15] Frank Baldanza, “James Purdy on the Corruption of Innocents,” Contemporary Literature 15.3 (Summer 1974): 315.

[16] Mikhail Bhaktin, Rabelais and His World, Trans. by Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984) 47.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] James Purdy, “A Day After the Fair,” in Two Plays (Dallas: New London Press, 1979) 3. All subsequent references are indicated in parentheses.

[20] James Purdy, “The Paradise Circus,” in Selected Plays (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publishers, 2009), 87.  All subsequent references are indicated in parentheses.

[21] Frank Baldanza, “Playing House for Keeps with James Purdy,” Contemporary Literature 11.4 (Autumn 1970): 488.



“James Purdy as Playwright: A Retrospective Reading of A Day After the Fair and The Paradise Circus

by Michael Y. Bennett

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 27, Number 1 (Winter 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: Phoebe Rumsey
Editorial Assistant: Fabian Escalona

Advisory Board:

Bill Demastes
Amy E. Hughes
Jorge Huerta
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf
Esther Kim Lee

Table of Contents:

  • “Refusing the Reproductive Imperative: Sex, Death, and the Queer Future in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s boom” by Jordan Schildcrout
  • Just Saying Our Goodbyes: Elegies’ Queer Interventions into the History of 9/11″ by Michelle Dvoskin
  •  James Purdy as Playwright: A Retrospective Reading of Day After the Fair and The Paradise Circus” by Michael Y. Bennett
  • “Sur la Pointe on the Prairie: Giuseppina Morlacchi and the Urban Problem in the Frontier Melodrama” by Andrea Harris


Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York NY 10016



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