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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Charles Wright reviews A Bolt From the Blue, a collection of Mary McCarthy's stinging and insightful criticism. logo

The advent of Nora Ephron's Imaginary Friends, currently trying out pre-Broadway in San Diego, raises the unfortunate possibility that Mary McCarthy will soon be remembered for nothing but her well publicized feud with Lillian Hellman. Ephron's "play with music" recounts the dust-up that commenced on January 24, 1980 when McCarthy, in a PBS interview, derided Hellman as "overrated, a bad writer and a dishonest writer."

In youth, McCarthy was a beauty, as renowned for multiple marriages and a prodigious number of love affairs as for her limpid prose. When she made her fateful statements about Hellman on The Dick Cavett Show, she was a matronly 67 with a helmet of gray hair, sensible shoes, and a habit of tucking a hanky under her watchband. Her gripe against Hellman was related primarily to Scoundrel Time, the playwright's tendentious account of her 1952 appearance before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Hellman famously advised the subcommittee that she would not "cut [her] conscience to fit this year's fashions." Almost 30 years later, McCarthy quipped to Cavett that "every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Hellman, age 74, bitch-slapped McCarthy with a defamation suit. Their wrangling continued, to McCarthy's severe economic detriment, until the queen of The Little Foxes went to an unquiet grave four and a half years later.

McCarthy was a dab hand at invective long before she threw down the gauntlet on the Cavett program. Take her assessment of A Streetcar Named Desire. Back in 1948, when she was 36, McCarthy dismissed Streetcar as pure sensationalism designed solely to earn riches for its author. In a frequently quoted assessment, she sneered that Tennessee Williams' work "reeks of literary ambition as the [Kowalskis'] apartment reeks of cheap perfume; it is impossible to witness one of Mr. Williams' plays without being aware of the pervading smell of careerism." His "talent," she concluded, "is as rooted in the American pay-dirt as a stout and tenacious carrot." That's the kind of rhetoric that gets a young critic noticed. "A Streetcar Called Success," the much-reprinted essay in which she skewered Williams' with her merciless pen, took McCarthy's own career up a notch or two.

A pretty face, a poison pen:
Mary McCarthy.
McCarthy is remembered best for the perennially popular novel The Group, the heartbreaking Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and a handful of arch short stories and urbane travel essays -- and, of course, for the feud with Hellman. From 1937 to 1962, though, she was familiar enough among theater folk to be caricatured on the wall at Sardi's. During those years, she served as drama critic at Partisan Review -- a lively journal of politics and the arts, published quarterly, that was in the vanguard of American ideological debate. According to William Phillips, one of the founders of PR (who died on September 13 of this year), it was McCarthy's wit, exemplified by the colorful flourishes with which she attacked Williams, that prompted the editors to cede her the drama desk.

McCarthy's theater criticism has twice been collected in book form -- first, in 1956, as Sights and Spectacles; then, in 1963, as Mary McCarthy's Theatre Chronicles. Since play reviews are generally no more durable than the pages on which they're printed, there seemed little chance that her theater essays would be reissued in this new century, at least by a commercial house. New York Review Books -- an imprint of the New York Review of Books for which McCarthy wrote in the later years of her life -- has just published A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays, a selection of the author's prose, edited and introduced by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott. Approximately one third of the book consists of her theater writing.

The appearance of A Bolt from the Blue is a cause for celebration. Though W.H. Auden and Gore Vidal labeled her PR reviews "governessy," McCarthy is no commonplace theater critic. Mind you, Auden and Vidal had a point: McCarthy's drama criticism lacks the sense of childlike wonder characteristic of the liveliest accounts of theatrical events. All that erudition (McCarthy studied classics, Medieval French, and English literature at Vassar) fitted her out grandly for the critical tasks of reviewing, but she was too analytic to lose herself in fantasy. Her overweening concern with playwrights' political sympathies makes some of her essays sound more like unresolved quarrels than critical responses. She ignores the contributions of directors and designers and hardly mentions actors' performances, except as they relate to a production's interpretation of major figures in undisputed classics -- the Hamlets of John Gielgud and Maurice Evans, for instance, or Orson Welles's Brutus in the Mercury Theatre Julius Caesar.

As a reviewer, McCarthy's strengths were an eagerness to scrutinize what had previously been praised and her refusal to kowtow to convention. She risked heresy, for instance, by suggesting that Eugene O'Neill, like the novelists J.T. Farrell and Theodore Dreiser, has no "ear for the word, the sentence, the speech, the paragraph." What O'Neill produced, she argued, "is hard to praise or to condemn; how is one to judge the great, logical symphony of a tone-deaf musician?" Not that she dismisses O'Neill -- or Farrell and Dreiser. "Pulpy in detail," she says, "their work has nevertheless a fine solidity of structure; they drive an idea or a theme step by step to its brutal conclusion with the same terrible force they have brought to bear on their profession. They are among the few contemporary American writers who know how to exhaust a subject; that is, alas, their trouble. Their logical, graceless works can find no reason for stopping, but go on and on, like elephants pacing in a zoo. In their last acts and chapters, they arrive not at despair but at a strange, blank nihilism. Their heroes are all searchers; like so many non-verbal, inarticulate people, they are looking for a final Word that will explain everything."

Among the victims:
"graceless" Eugene O'Neill.
In that passage, McCarthy displayed not only a gift for lively disputation but the very talent she finds lacking in O'Neill: an ear for the rhythm and melody of words, sentences, and paragraphs. And she was right. Anyone inclined to quarrel with her thesis need only recollect O'Neill's relentless repetition of the antediluvian term "pipe dream" in The Iceman Cometh -- the play that's under review in McCarthy's essay, "Eugene O'Neill -- Dry Ice." (O'Neill himself seems to have seen eye-to-eye with McCarthy on this point when he gave Edmund Tyrone, the playwright's stand-in of Long Day's Journey Into Night, a speech lamenting his own inability to do more than "stammer." "That's the best I'll ever do....Well, it will be faithful realism, at least. Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.")

In her theater criticism, though, McCarthy's iconoclasm and her impatience with popular opinion often prevented her from appreciating good work. Besides overlooking the insight and originality of A Streetcar Named Desire, she pooh-poohed Garson Kanin's dazzling Born Yesterday as "the smash-hit comedy that pimps for progressivism." Such miscalculations make her sound, at times, like a scourge, even when there's an invigorating quality to the temerity with which she goes out on a limb. Whatever her batting average, McCarthy's sophistication and style make all of her essays a pleasure to read.

For the most part, editor Scott has chosen essays vindicated by time, as in McCarthy's admiring, empathic description of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Inevitably, there are missing treasures, such as the brilliant, contrarian "Unimportance of Being Oscar" from 1947, in which McCarthy grumbles that "the outrageous has its own monotony" and remarks that "the trouble with Wilde's wit is that it does not recognize when the party is over." Long before midtown Manhattan became a theme park of musical comedy revivals, McCarthy complained about Broadway drama being more commodity than art, packaged for consumption by uncritical consumers. Rereading the PR "Theatre Chronicles" over the past few weeks -- both the pieces that appear in A Bolt from the Blue and those Scott left out -- I've wondered what McCarthy would make of things I've seen recently. Smart money says she'd have no patience with the forced jollity of Thoroughly Modern Millie, but could she grasp the subversive quality of Hairspray or of Bat Boy? "Manipulative" would probably be her word for Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, with the heartfelt performances of Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci going unacknowledged. Could she appreciate the concision and insight of Terrence McNally 's libretto for Dead Man Walking?

These questions are tantalizing but unanswerable, since McCarthy died in 1989. What's certain is this: With her provocative insights, far-ranging associations, and that precise, Augustan prose, every word McCarthy writes is worth savoring -- including 'and' and 'the.'

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