Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow, the Nobel laureate who died yesterday at age 89, is being lauded as a literary giant who, in the phrase headlining a front-page obituary in the New York Times, "breathed life into [the] American novel." The initial funerary tributes have skated swiftly by Bellow's connection to American theater and the fact that, for a short time at least, it was widely expected that he might give a regenerative charge to the waning energy of Broadway drama.

Born in Quebec during the summer of 1913 (his actual birth date is in dispute), Bellow -- originally known as Solomon -- was the youngest offspring of Abram and Liza Bellow, who had recently left their native Russia with their three older children. In 1924, the Bellows moved from Montreal to Chicago, Illinois, where Saul later studied anthropology and sociology at the University of Chicago and Northwestern. After a brief tenure as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, the aspiring writer returned to Chicago where he worked for the WPA Federal Writers' Project and as an editor on Mortimer Adler's Great Books project for Encyclopedia Britannica.

While serving in the US Merchant Marines during World War II, Bellow published his first novel, Dangling Man. On the strength of that publication and the largesse of a Guggenheim grant, he was able to live a peripatetic life in the years immediately following the war, with significant time in Paris, where he penned his first bestseller, The Adventures of Augie March (1953). He taught at various northeastern universities, including Princeton and NYU, and was briefly associated with Partisan Review, the left-leaning New York literary journal edited by Philip Rahv and William Phillips. For most of his career, however, Bellow lived in Chicago - the city in which much of his fiction is set - where he was a professor at the University of Chicago and produced the National Book Award winning novels Herzog (1964) and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) and the Pulitzer Prize novel Humboldt's Gift (1975). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979; moved to Massachusetts in 1993; and published his most recent novel, Ravelstein, in 2000.

Bellow's career as a dramatist, though brief, was conspicuous. While he had written a 1954 television play, The Wrecker, Bellow didn't face his theatrical baptism-by-fire until a decade later, when Roger L. Stevens mounted The Last Analysis, a farcical comedy-drama satirizing Freudian theory, among other things. Bellow, of course, belonged to a generation of American intellectuals who relied upon Freudian insight -- and, in particular, psychoanalytic methodology as developed in London and New York during the decades after Freud's death -- to refract their experience of the world. He was also, reportedly, a willing analysand during four different periods of his life.

"In America," Bellow wrote in the New York Times Arts & Leisure Section on the Sunday before the play opened, "few novelists ... write plays but almost all are perfectly sure that they could easily become dramatists. For them to have such confidence is quite natural. A writer must consider himself equal to any demand in his line. He is traditionally the anti-specialist. Though he has felt the universal pressure to limit himself to a single profession, a belief in his versatility, often forced to conceal itself in fantasies, survives in poems or other inspired utterances jotted down in old address books."

In his Sunday Times piece, Bellow recalled being recruited for the stage by his friend Lillian Hellman (who, by that time, had become famously disenchanted with commercial theater). After Hellman planted the idea that he ought to write a play, the novelist set to work on what became The Last Analysis. According to Bellow, Hellman found the initial version "amusing and estimated it would run about eight hours without Wagnerian orchestration." Later, at an informal reading, a revised script was "received with gaiety and gratitude" by a laughing audience of "artists and writers." Bellow recalled thinking, "[W]ell, this is very agreeable. One can write a play in the same language one would employ to write a novel. But it would be shared publicly by people who would understand and sympathize. It would be different because it would be immediate participation by many warm bodies."

The protagonist of The Last Analysis is a baggy-pants Everyman with the Bellowian name Philip Bummidge. A successful stand-up comic, Bummidge has embraced Freudian theory, convincing himself that he can serve as his own analyst. Bummidge resolves to perform that function on closed-circuit television for an international audience of psychoanalysts gathered for a professional convention at the Waldorf Astoria.

The original production of The Last Analysis featured Sam Levene as Bummidge, with Ann Wedgeworth and Tony Roberts in supporting roles. It was directed by Joseph Anthony, best known at the time for having directed Jean Kerr's runaway hit Mary, Mary. In an interview for Marilyn Stasio's 1971 anthology Broadway's Beautiful Losers: The Strange History of Five Neglected Plays, Anthony remarks that The Last Analysis "is filled with heroic juxtapositions. A man in torment as a comic figure inhabits a world of both brilliance and near-insanity. And the play is so dependent upon the man playing Bummidge that if you don't have an inspired genius of a clown in extremis to convey that kind of miserable magnificence -- you're killed."

Zero Mostel, Anthony's first choice for Bummidge, indicated initial willingness to play the role; but ultimately he signed on to be Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, which opened the same month as The Last Analysis. Writing in The New Republic, Robert Brustein proclaimed, "There is only one actor in our theatre capable of realizing the intricacies of [the] central character [of The Last Analysis], and that is Zero Mostel -- but he has elected to entertain the Hadassah ladies in Fiddler on the Roof. Sam Levene, who inherited the role by default, apparently doesn't understand one word of it, and to hide his bafflement, he plays this one too as if it were written for the Hadassah ladies, to the crash of splintering intentions. As for directors, William Ball is the only one I can think of whose touch would have been equal to the play's delicate balance, but Joseph Anthony handles himself in the driver's seat with all the grace of a teen-age drag racer at the wheel of his father's Rolls Royce. The result is vehicular homicide, for which the major victim, the author, alone has been arraigned. But never before, in my experience, have a play and its production been so at odds." Seven year later, when The Last Analysis was revived by Circle in the Square, with Theodore Mann directing and Joseph Wiseman playing Bummidge, the play and production seem to have been similarly at odds.

In Marilyn Stasio's estimation, Bellow's farcical comedy-drama (and the part of Bummidge in particular) could only be effective in the hands of a comic personality such as Mostel, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, or Sid Caesar. Without an outsized comedian of that ilk, suggests Stasio, "the director attempting to bring The Last Analysis alive on the stage must rely totally on his own ingenuity. The style of his production must flirt with genius on one side and madness on the other to bring the comedy to fruition. The basic flaw in Joseph Anthony's production was the same weakness he espied in Sam Levene -- intimidation."

According to Stasio's diagnosis, the Broadway production of The Last Analysis was "a classic case of displaced muscle." Stasio characterizes Stevens as a producer unwilling to be "the muscle behind his shows." And Bellow, as a novice in the theater, was "ill-equipped to take the strong position." Director Anthony, the "muscle apparent," was enduring "such severe artistic tribulations with his leading actor that he was unable to handle the power that fell to him by default" and relied upon conventional staging techniques in a play that was boldly experimental.

The Last Analysis survived only 28 performances on Broadway. Later, at Circle in the Square, it enjoyed a longer, though still relatively brief, run. In October 1966, Bellow returned to Broadway with Under the Weather, a triple bill of one-act farces starring Shelley Winters. Produced by Theodore R. Brauer and directed by Arthur Storch, Under the Weather closed after 10 performances and was Bellow's Broadway swan song.

In the Sunday Times piece quoted above, Bellow wrote: "There are certain obvious resemblances between Broadway and Washington, D.C. In both, progress is made by compromise. In both, one may see checks and balances at work. Both conduct public business by means of mysterious political arrangements. The dramatist writes the legislation, the director gets the bills through committee, and, after much negotiation and alteration, they are enacted." Bellow defended his comparison of playmaking and federal governance as "no idle analogy." He argued that a "novelist speaks intimately to his reader. The theater audience is not a collection of readers. The novel has democratic origins, but in its later development takes on an aristocratic coloration. The theater is for the millions. A French writer speaks of the drama as un art grossier. Its requirements are certainly more primitive than those of the novel, whether it is necessarily more coarse is another question."

The failure of the theater's infrastructure of checks and balances may have alienated Bellow and nipped his budding career as a playwright. Reading The Last Analysis -- which, unfortunately, is currently out of print -- one may feel that the last word on this script won't belong to the nay-saying reviewers of 1964 and 1971. Brustein characterized the premiere of Bellow's "beautiful loser" as the "head-on collision of a gifted writer...with the crassness and incompetence of the whole commercial theater system." Bellow's stature in American letters guarantees that it's only a matter of time until The Last Analysis (which Brustein calls, "potentially, a remarkable play") and its protagonist, Philip Bummidge (whom Brustein places "among the most flamboyant comic characters ever written for the America stage") get the fresh look they deserve.