Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

"One of Those Little Things You Learn to Live With": On the Politics of Violence in Jules Feiffer's Little Murders

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

"One of Those Little Things You Learn to Live With": On the Politics of Violence in Jules Feiffer's Little Murders

Article excerpt

A well-reputed cartoonist of The Village Voice by the beginning of the 1960s, Jules Feiffer had become an expressive representative of the American intellectuals skeptical of the political Establishment. At the turn of that decade, Feiffer, the artist, had fully developed his blend of farce and social criticism and articulated an explanation for the political and social frustrations that had dizzyingly multiplied throughout the New Frontier and the Great Society. Off-Broadway theater proved to be a most appropriate channel to express his perception of how far the promises raised had deformed and rendered a shattered society, divorced from its political elite and threatened with the rise of a "soft" authoritarianism, professedly opposed to outrageous communist regimes.

As a contemporary critic suggested, Feiffer was placed close to those playwrights of the 1960s who resorted to the postmodernist celebration of fragmentation per se. Like them, he did not seem to see much sense in deploying "the use of logic, argument and rhetoric to make every member of the audience think and feel some preconceived way" (Hewes, "'69" 19; cf. Ross 659). I believe an accurate evaluation of his work should also take into consideration Irving Howe's assessment of the intellectual environment of the late 1960s, that "despises liberal values, liberal cautions, liberal virtues. It is bored with the past: for the past is a fink" (Teres 235).

Feiffer definitely parted from the cultural politics of the liberal-conservative consensus by means of two plays, Little Murders and The White House Murder Case. The latter, first performed in 1970, makes reference to a political status quo on whose behalf American soldiers could die in a foreign war; here the administration in Washington framed lies to appease the public opinion and secure the survival of the Establishment it served. The audience of this farce found clear correspondences between the exaggerations performed onstage and the world outside, which the American left had denounced for years and liberals began to dissociate from once they had been displaced from the ruling bloc (cf. Hewes, "'70" 19).

For its part, Little Murders presents distinct features that turn it into a more complex cultural production. Ostensibly a "post-assassination play," as Feiffer described it in a letter dated in early 1967, Little Murders positively refers to the "malaise" that the political developments in the mid-1960s had provoked within the American social fabric. Firstly, as he stated in the letter mentioned above (Feiffer 82), he saw symptoms of the fiascoes US foreign policy had brought in South Vietnam and the Dominican Republic. Secondly, one infers that the inconsistency of the postwar consensus and its ensuing social stratification had created conditions that placed violence--random or political--at the center of American life. Strife, thus, had become a tool for vindicating policies left unattended by the Establishment. In that context, JFK's assassination started the political and social upheavals that ruined the liberals' agenda for the rest of the decade.

Little Murders, besides, has a history of its own that senses how far the audience eventually grasped Feiffer's speculations about the nature of violence in contemporary America. Initially performed in 1967, the play closed after one week onstage; however, one year later it was awarded in London the best foreign play of the year and returned to the United States in 1969 to be appreciated by a public already stunned by more political assassinations, the Tet offensive, and the sequels of racial, cultural, and generational fractures nationwide. Another hint that suggests Little Murders had entered the American cultural mainstream can be found in the fact that in 1970 Twentieth-Century Fox released Alan Arkin's cinematic version of the play, whose script was supervised by Feiffer himself.

It is my contention that ubiquitous violence in this play underscores the failure of the liberal agenda and the rise of a newer kind of conservatism to check what one of Kennedy's mentors, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. …

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