"But some people ain’t me!": Arthur Laurents and "The Face" Behind Gypsy

Gypsy again? I guess that is what many theatergoers thought when, only five years after the previous revival, the show opened on Broadway for the fifth time since its debut back in 1959. I have seen three of those revivals and, not inclined to wield my thumb, shan’t ponder publicly whether or not this might be the definitive production. It better not be, since I hardly mind seeing the play interpreted a few other ways, if only to get a chance to catch the old routines with “new orchestrations.” Still, be it stagecraft, performance, or my own very gradual process of maturity, I have not seen the dramatic finale of Gypsy staged any more movingly than in the current production. To be sure, I am opening to Arthur Laurents’s book differently now that I have completed my doctoral study on American radio drama since seeing the 2003 revival starring Bernadette Peters. I am reading between—not into—Laurents’s celebrated lines to find the former radio playwright’s “Face.”

“May we entertain you?” Laurents’s career in radio began in 1939, when the Columbia Workshop produced his first original play, “Now Playing Tomorrow” (30 January 1939), a fantasy concerning the doubtful advantages of gazing into the future. With such a high-profile debut to his credit, the young writer had little difficulties selling scripts to various network programs, including Hollywood Playhouse (1937-40), The Adventures of the Thin Man (1941-50), and This Is Your FBI (1945-53). “Commercial pulp, all of it,” he commented sixty years later; yet unlike fellow playwright Arthur Miller (one of whose wartime radio dramas I discuss here), Laurents was not dismissive of, let alone bitter about, his radio days. He had actively pursued such a career, attending an evening class in radio writing at NYU. Laurents did not feel that he was “faced with the art vs. commerce dilemma”; besides, he was “too flattered” being “wanted, too thrilled at being paid for being happy.”

“Extra! Extra! Hey, look at the headline! / Historical news is being made!” Contributing to the war effort by writing plays for a number of dramatic propaganda series kept the draftee from facing combat overseas and secured him an income of up to $350 per script. The Army arranged for him to work on programs like Armed Service Force Presents (1943-1944), Assignment Home (1944-46), and the Peabody Award-winning documentary drama The Man Behind the Gun (1942-44).

Toward the end of the war, Laurents had found his voice as a radio playwright—a voice strong and convincing enough not to be muffled by spineless industry executives. Drawing on personal experiences, he managed to explore themes similar to those he tackled on Broadway, where he made his entrance with Home of the Brave (1945), a play dealing with anti-Semitism in the Army. While Washington looked closely at his scripts after he had been accused of communist affiliations, Laurents not only managed to get a controversial play about black soldiers on the air, it (“The Knife”) even earned him a citation.

Like Gypsy and West Side Story, Laurents’s radio plays are personal records; their author arrived at a code that made it possible for him to share his own story, the story of an outsider. There is a bit of Louise in many of them. “The Face,” a Writers’ War Board “best script of the month” for April 1945, is no exception. “Do you love a man for his face?” the play asks of us, exploring the experience of a disfigured soldier dreading his reintegration into post-war society, a society, he knows to place great importance on appearances.

“Small world, isn’t it?” Like many of Laurents’s early works for stage and screen, from Home of the Brave to his screenplay for Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), “The Face,” as I put it in Etherized Victorians, is a play of masked figures and figurative unmasking. Dreading the prejudices of post-war America, the disfigured Harold Ingalls and his fellow patients must learn to be strangers “joining forces”:

GOLDSTEIN.  When you get plastered . . . who do you go with?
INGALLS.  There used to be a fellow—but he was discharged last week.
GOLDSTEIN.  Was he—like us?
INGALLS.  Yeah.  So now I go alone.
GOLDSTEIN.  If—if I can get a pass . . . can—I go with you?
INGALLS.  Sure! You know it makes it good, when there are two of you.

“Together, wherever we go!” Rather than confronting his biological family, the mother and brother he’ll never quite “get away from,” Ingalls is eager to escape with his double, his secret sharer:

INGALLS.  You’re more of a brother than he is.
GOLDSTEIN.  Now that’s a real compliment.
INGALLS.  Oh you know what I mean.
INGALLS.  Well, I’ll get my mother over with quick and then we’ll beat it into town and really tie one on.  You and me.
INGALLS.  That’s the best way.
(Biz: Fade in MOTHER’s footsteps approaching slowly.)
INGALLS.  You and me.  That’s the— (He cuts as he hears the footsteps.  They are still off but coming closer, closer.)

Those footsteps are the sound of reality encroaching on oblivion and denial, of a past that Ingalls has to reconcile with his present. To move on, Ingalls needs the strength to let go of both by forging new relationships from or in spite of his state of effacement. “If Mama Was Married,” what might have happened to stripper-novelist Gypsy Rose Lee and her sister, June Havoc, who teamed up with a big name in radio? One stuck in infantilizing routines, the other in the rear of a cow costume, each fashioned a career out of a pipe dream of vicarious living.

When Ingalls is discharged, the Army psychiatrist reminds him that “every single day, people get slapped because of ignorance. They get slapped for religion, for color, for how they talk or what they look like.” She encourages him to “stand up to them and tell them they’re wrong!” The play ends with the wish that “this will be the beginning, the beginning of a world where the only thing that does matter is each man himself for what he is himself.”

“But I / At least gotta try [. . .].” While it may never be “Rose’s Turn,” the resilient Arthur Laurents—whose next project will be a revival of West Side Story—has long had a “wonderful dream” worth living, a vision of that “place for us, somewhere,” the voicing and realization of which is well worth the agony of uncovering the not always handsome face behind our masks . . .

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