Vol 27 no.1

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).

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