Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Unknown and the General

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Unknown and the General

Article excerpt

My black T-shirt feels painted onto me with sweat and my fingers are slippery inside the black leather motorcycle gloves as my chest heaves from the exertion, desperate for oxygen. I am going eighty mph on my Harley--and giving it to Marilyn at the same time. Her back is arched to get as much of me as she can and as she hits a peak, belts out, "Gee Rod, it's like fireworks on the Fourth of July." This is how it goes in my mind. Except this is no dream. I'm in a church. No. It's not a church anymore. It's been converted into a theater. The Actors Studio. And I have just finished performing in a scene from Norman Mailer's play Strawhead about Marilyn Monroe.

There is a pause before the next scene begins, as if everyone, audience included, has to take a breather after what just unraveled before them. And into this gap rises a husky matron who, with a piercing voice, suddenly launches into a loud harangue: "You don't know she did that. How dare you? What right have you to take such liberties? I was her first roommate in Hollywood. I was her best friend. You should be ashamed of yourself."

It is Shelley Winters. She seems ready to ream Norman at full blast for quite a while, but before she can completely bring the performance to an untimely halt, an older, bull-necked man with a pronounced nose in a long, deeply lined face, also stands up, turns to her full face, and says "Shelley. Shut up. Sit down."

And, instantly, she does. It is Elia Kazan, the moderator of the Playwrights and Directors Unit. So we continued that afternoon and finished the fragment of the play we had prepared. But the next time we presented it, at just about the same moment, another heckler stood up and started a harangue repeating Shelley's rant almost verbatim and the play again broke down.

Except this time it was Norman who had written it--he had planted her in the audience and was now investigating that uneasy but fascinating theatrical territory of where make-believe ends and reality begins. Talk about turning a disaster into a victory. Whew.

I'M SUPERSTITIOUS, I ADMIT IT. Or I'm at least given to paying attention to signs--when I see them. So I shouldn't have been surprised when about a week before Norman was supposed to show up in L.A. for a book tour, I was traveling around back of the group house I live in with other, mostly thwarted souls obsessed with filmmaking of an independent sort, to pick a lemon off of our tree, when something orange caught my eye nestled among its roots. Lo and behold, it was a copy of Norman's Ancient Evenings that in some bizarre way had found a resting place there. A thousand pages of Egyptian arcana, embalming procedures, and cavorting of various Egyptian gods and demons. I confess, I had read some but not all of it, yet out of some weird sense of loyalty, I couldn't leave it there and picked it up, brushed away the less crusted dirt and dropped it off at my workbench area where it would receive its own embalming at some later date. So there it was. And exactly the next day I got the call from Judith, Norman's most loyal assistant whom I had gotten to know over the last decade, and who was now inviting me to attend a talk Norman was giving and afterward join him and his party for dinner.

At that time, there had been quite a splash in the press about his long and illustrious career as a writer spanning fifty years, and his anthology of his work, The Time of Our Time, had been respectfully received, but almost nowhere was there more than a scant line or two mentioning his writing and directing in theater and film. This was dismaying to me, both because that was, in fact, how I had come to know and work with him, but also because--through my experiences with him as a performer--I knew firsthand that as a writer and, more particularly as a director for the stage and screen, he was first-rate. Yet for some reason, he never seemed to receive his just due in these endeavors. …

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