a Production of
"The Male Animal"
by Robert Armin
In 1939, when James Thurber first decided to write The Male Animal, then tentatively called Homecoming Game, he conceived it as a straightforward comic triangle about a woman and two men, "one typifying mind and thought, the other body and action." But when he proposed the idea to his old Ohio State University buddy, Elliott Nugent (by then a successful Hollywood actor and director), Nugent was less than enthusiastic. Nugent might be interested, however, if he could add a bit of social significance, which--according to Nugent -- "had become almost obligatory by 1939, even in a comedy."
Thurber and Nugent hit upon the idea of placing their leading character, an English professor named Tommy Turner, into the middle of a controversy over academic freedom. Turner, with no political motives whatever, is condemned by a right-wing university trustee for planning to read a letter written by Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the immigrant fish peddler and self-declared anarchist who was executed in 1927, along with Nicola Sacco, for his alleged involvement in a payroll robbery and murder. This surprisingly serious sub-plot, skillfully blended into an otherwise typical domestic comedy, has given the play its lasting value.
The Male Animal is not a farce, although it is too often staged that way in stock and amateur productions. "We are a nation," Thurber wrote in 1960, "that has always gone in for the loud laugh, the wow, the yak, the belly laugh, and the dozen other labels for the roll-'em-in-the-aisles gagerissimo. This is the kind of laugh that delights actors, directors, and producers, but dismays writers of comedy because it is the laugh that often dies in the lobby. The appreciative smile, the chuckle, the soundless mirth, so important to the success of comedy, cannot be understood unless one sits among the audience and feels the warmth created by the quality of laughter that the audience takes home with it."
In my 1991 production, I chose to take Thurber seriously, and in doing so, the comedy of situation and character becomes all the more amusing. "Fundamentally," Thurber wrote, "the story is about the breakup of a marriage." The issues of brain vs. brawn and academic freedom are incidental to the relationships of the three leading characters -- Tommy Turner (played by John Eisner), his wife, Ellen (Becket Royce) and Ellen's former football hero boyfriend, Joe Ferguson (Jay Hammer of Guiding Light).
During the 1939 pre-Broadway tryout in Los Angeles, one of the sharpest critics of The Male Animal was Groucho Marx, who told Thurber, "You got too many laughs in it. Take some of them out." Thurber correctly understood this to mean that he and Nugent should "take out irrelevant gags and stick to the laughter of character and situation" and, for the most part, they succeeded.
Unfortunately, the two writers were not able to break away completely from one comedy tradition of the day which called for the inclusion of what Nugent referred to as the "dumb-colored-maid-on-the-phone" who provided exposition in the first scene. This is the character that guaranteed a career for such wonderful African-American actresses as Amanda Randolph, who created the role of Cleota on Broadway, and Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel, who played the role in the 1942 film.
Totally lacking any personal history of her own, the maid was there to do and say funny things, such as "Ah'm fixin' them hor doves for the pahty. Did you say put dem black seed ones in de oven?" During the cocktail party scene, Cleota, as is to be expected, takes a little nip of her employer's liquor when they're not looking. It is so offensive a caricature that by current standards of both political correctness and simple good taste, it is completely unplayable as written.
Because I wanted to avoid any racial stereotypes in the production, I decided to find another way to portray the role of Cleota. Several actresses auditioned using accents -- including Austrian, Greek and Cockney -- but none of them seemed right.
The more I thought about it, the clearer it became that Cleota makes no sense at all if played by anyone other than an African-American woman. Viewed from an historical perspective, contemporary audiences might accept the notion of a "colored maid" working for little more than room and board, but they will instantly question how a young associate professor (who is unable to buy a proper winter coat for his wife) could afford to pay anyone else to be a housekeeper for his non-working wife.
My solution was to eliminate the character of Cleota entirely, an operation which required surprisingly few alterations (trying to rewrite Thurber and Nugent would be folly, indeed). During the Turner's cocktail party, Ellen and her sister, Patricia, simply pass around their own canapes and Cleota's various telephone conversations have been reassigned to Ellen, Patricia and -- at one very funny moment - Dean Damon. Audiences unfamiliar with the original script will never miss Cleota and without her the play looks and sounds freshly minted -- quite unlike the period piece it appears on first reading.
Since beginning rehearsals, I have learned about at least one other recent production of The Male Animal in which the character of Cleota was cut. This classic American play is far too valuable a work to be suppressed because of one superfluous and stereotypical character. Both the authors' estates and Samuel French should consider making the change official in future editions of the script.
Copyright © 1991 by Robert Armin. All rights reserved.