Apr/May 2000 Humor/Satire

Introduction to the Collected Plays of Martin Manofsky, Volume 1

by Craig Butler

It's still hard for me to believe that Martin is gone. It seems like only yesterday that he was sitting in his underwear, pounding at the Underwood, putting the finishing touches on FLAMBOYANT AS THE MELON. (Ah, how well I remember this one day--the day after the McKnucklebaums' half-anniversary party--when his hangover was so severe that he accidentally sat on his Underwood and pounded at his underwear! When I brought this to his attention five hours later, how he laughed at his own foolishness. True, he also broke my nose and tattooed my posterior with the waffle iron. But it's the laughter I remember, except whenever I catch sight of myself in the mirror as I step into the shower.)

MELON, of course, was his masterpiece, but I was there for all of them. (He would be mad at me for referring to that searing prison drama simply as MELON. Most playwrights insist that the full, correct titles of their works be used, not abbreviations or nicknames. Legend has it that Tennessee Williams once sent Eugene O'Neill on a four-day binge simply by referring to DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS as KISSY-KISSY, TREE-FACE. However, as O'Neill had been planning on a five-day binge, you can see that Williams actually did him a favor. Martin resented other people shortening his titles, but he himself had sweet little pet names for his plays, such as INSUFFERABLE BRAT #1 and HATEFUL JUICY PROSE BAG #8. Those nicknames practically sing, don't they? Such was his gift.)

Some people have expressed surprise that I do not figure more, or at all, in Martin's memoir, DRAMA JOCK, despite the fact that I was his significant other for the last three decades of his life. As has been widely discussed, Martin was not comfortable with his sexuality. For many years he even claimed that he did not know I was a man when we first met, despite the fact that said meeting took place on a nude beach. (Also, at the time of this encounter, a stunning creature had just walked by whose physique made Arnold Schwarzenegger's look like Pee Wee Herman's, so the evidence of my gender was unavoidable, if you know what I mean.) It took him a long time to even acknowledge we were a couple, and sometimes at a party if he was asked, "Who's your friend, Marty?" he'd blush and say, "Oh, I thought he was with you" or "That's just some pickled cabbage I picked up at the salad bar." But I didn't mind. Genius has its own quirks, and if my initial anonymity allowed him to write something as memorable as SOFTLY CLOTS THE CREAM, what reason have I to complain?

So many people assume that CREAM's Siegfried Natterbrain, the love interest who commits suicide by impaling himself on a tray of bananas flambe, was based on me. In point of fact he was a composite based on Spiro Agnew, Jinx Falkenburg and a particularly persuasive Rumanian dwarf we met one season in Rio. But I can certainly understand the confusion.

CREAM had a very difficult tryout. The subject matter--chicken plucking among the leisure class--was shocking at the time, and out of town (Keokuk, don't!) the audience didn't seem to understand what Martin was saying. Finally, the day before we came to New York, I suggested he rewrite the entire third act, taking out all of the commas and replacing them with dashes. He did as I suggested, and the next night we triumphed!

Martin never publicly acknowledged my contribution, of course. But three months later when he picked up his award from the Manhattan Association of Cabbies, Tupperware Dealers and Drama Critics, he told them, "Thanks for the award. Gotta dash. Bye!"

I knew what he was trying to say.

His reputation to the contrary, Martin was not a vindictive man. True, FLACK LIKE ME is a scathing, brutal indictment of the public relations industry. And true, his father was the head of the largest p.r. firm in, well, in all of the world. And true, the unspeakably foul lead character in FLACK, the one who flushes his mother's ashes down the toilet so as not to offend the funeral home magnate who is a potential client, does have the same name and character quirks (e.g., fear of personal pronouns, inability to cough in front of cattle) as his father. BUT in the play, the character's son drugs the father, sews him into a large chicken suit and leaves him on the doorstep of a nearby KFC, something Martin never succeeded in doing. So I think the charge that Martin was striking back at his father is hardly fair.

Besides, could a vindictive man have written I MARRIED A MORON, his surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Nancy Reagan? I will never forget the scene in which Nancy, played with impeccable skill (and even more impeccable coiffure) by Joe Pesci, walks in on Ronnie having a heated foreign policy debate with a box of Wheaties and realizes that perhaps her desire to become First Lady "at any cost" may not have been in the best interests of the country. And I must pause to say that in the role of Ronald Reagan, Howdy Doody gave the performance of a lifetime. Several lifetimes. The Tony committee's refusal to nominate him--"He was a block of wood playing the President, where's the challenge in that?" they claimed--is one of the great injustices of this and several other centuries.

Martin himself, of course, was a favorite of the critics and the awards givers. How else to explain how LEPIDOPTERA TREACHEROSUS, his exploration of Chaos Theory, could win the Pulitzer before he had even written it? This prompted Marsha Norman's oft-quoted comment, "There are a dozen plays I haven't written that are twice as good as that," as well as my famous retort, "Ah, Marsha, if only 'NIGHT MOTHER could have remained so unwritten."

Even I was surprised, however, when AIN'T IT AWFUL THE HEAT?, his retelling of the Salem witch trials, won the Tony over Neil Simon's BORSCHT BELT MEMORIES. Not that HEAT isn't good, it's just that it slips in and out of period rather severely, like in the scene in which John Proctor (Gary Burghoff) offers his defense to the court using a snappy hip-hop beat. (Interestingly and perhaps significantly, HEAT is the only one of Martin's major plays which does not feature a toaster oven in the denouement.)

And now a confession. I suppose I must take the blame for Martin's disastrous foray into the world of television. Although we were living quite comfortably at the time, I wanted more, and as his latest plays--PARASITES ON PARADE, about the 1992 Presidential election, and THE CRINGING DEATH, his perhaps ill-named screwball comedy--had been financial disappointments, I persuaded him to try his luck with a detective series. Unfortunately, DIAL "E" FOR EVANGELIST, in which a Billy Graham-type character would solve one of the mysteries of the universe each week, garnered extraordinarily low ratings and was canceled before the opening credits were finished. I was greatly saddened by that, as I think his work on the end credits was quite exceptional, among the finest end credits ever created. And who got to see them? (They are preserved here, for the record, on page 421.)

I suppose it's also my fault that Martin agreed to write the book for A SHAMROCK OF OUR OWN, the musical about Irish patriot Michael Collins. He harbored an intense hatred for the Irish--one of his favorite pastimes was to hide outside the local firehouse, yell "Kevin, would this old penny be belonging to you?" and pelt the firemen with potatoes when they ran out--so perhaps I shouldn't have pushed him to take on this project. Still, I thought Frank Rich's assessment of it--"Jesus Christ, what WAS that? Somebody get me a gun!"--was a wee bit harsh.

You may have noticed that many of Martin's plays involve social and/or political issues. (Did you?) Many people have argued over whether he was a Republican or a Democrat, but in fact, he was neither and usually voted on the basis of which candidate looked least like a muskrat. Indeed, he was going to sit out the 1980 election entirely until John Anderson came along.

Despite his use of political and social themes, Martin's real interest lay in the heart, not the head, and it is the vivid emotional lives he created for his characters--from Mary Ann, the love-starved milliner in AS WE THREE REGURGITATE, to Jorge, the terminally happy Portuguese kreplach vendor in A CARTON OF SNOW, to ONLY DISCONNECT's Madame Syphillica, the widowed telephone operator who weeps uncontrollably at the mention of certain area codes--that will be remembered centuries from now.

All of these plays are now collected in one fine volume. If you've already experienced them, prepare to become reacquainted, although you may have to reintroduce yourself. We're none of us as young as used to be, after all. And if you've never read them, you're in for a real treat. (You are; don't argue. And stop slouching.)

Either way, just buy the damn book. I, and the estate, of course, can use the royalties.


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