Apr/May 2003 Humor/Satire

Deconstructing Mandelbaum: A Critical Survey

by Jack Goodstein

It began, as such things often do, with the French.

It was the noted (noted at the time, notorious at present) French critic Paul D'Homme whose seminal paper, "Marcel (Mandelbaum) Marceau: Colliding Vocabularies of Silence," delivered at the biannual conference of the Societe Phililogique of Central Kentucky, developed the contextual framework which transformed Mandelbaum, acclaimed idol of stage and screen, into the darling of the academic community.

Silence, D'Homme argued, is simply speech without sound. To choose silence is to privilege the essential mystical intuitive message inherent in the unheard over the mundane facile rationality of what is merely heard. With this as his premise, he went on to compare the two masters of "unvoiced eloquence," Marceau and Mandelbaum, much to the latter's advantage. For while Marceau had done little more than substitute a visual "sound" for the auditory, Mandelbaum, in what amounted to giant metaphorical leap, akin D'Homme admonished to the development of moveable type, instantaneous communication and improvisational music (le jazz), tolerated no barriers between his silence and the ear of his audience. "One communicates with Mandelbaum," he declared, in the words that revolutionized the aesthetic theory of a generation, "as one communicates with God."

When Jacques Derriere's commentary on Mandelbaum's Bernie in the landmark remake, or rather rethinking of Weekend at Bernies, then reissued on DVD, "Of Mandelology," pointed out compellingly that the communication choices one does not make cast an indelible shadow upon the choices one does make, this aptly named "shadow theory" provided the philosophic cognitive base for D'Homme's imaginative (de)construct. In effect what Derriere's work showed was that Mandelbaum's silence in fact contained everything he had chosen not to say. "In Mandelbaumian silence," he concluded, "there is the world."

Using his position as Chairman of the Theatre, Dance, Communication, English and Performance Studies Department as a magnet, Derriere drew theorists and artists to Prince Georges County Community College, much as at an earlier time they had been drawn to Firenze by the Medici, to London by Rossetti, to Provo by Robert Redford. And while a detractor here sneered with turned up nose at the "brussels sprouts of literary theory spreading kudzu-like over the fields of American academia from the shores of France by way of Maryland," as cultural imperialism of the rankest sort, and while a detractor there ranted, also in mixed metaphor, about the Maryland theory factory grinding out treatises like burgers at the King of that name, Mandelbaum criticism had taken on a life of its own.

Mandelbaum: The Suicide of the Artist, Stanley Gefilte's epic study of Mandelbaum's life and art, marked the next major development in the burgeoning field of Mandelbaum studies.

It was Gefilte's thesis that by perfecting an art in which voice, indeed language itself, was abolished, Mandelbaum was annihilating the source of that voice, the artist, as well. "The message," he asserted, "of Mandelbaum's messageless art is that in great art there is no message. And if no message, why a messenger?" (p.212) In Gefilte's vision, Mandelbaum had transformed art from the elitist pursuit of the few who happened to possess puny genius or paltry talent to a vocation for the masses. "Everyman an artist; an artist, everyman."

Although finding himself in agreement with Gefilte about the essential Mandelbaumian message that art has no message but itself, and therefore needs no words, the actor poet Archie Leach, sometimes denigrated as an insignificant impersonator, sometimes a Pauline disciple, insisted on the necessity of the artist: "A Mandelbaum should not mean; it must be."

Southey Broile, whose prize winning study of the physicality of myth, Corporeal Archetypes Anatomized, had anointed him the current minion of the university community, entered the fray with the publication of his study "Mandelbaum and Oedipus" in the prestigious Journal of the Modern Language Association. Arguing that Mandlebaum's obliteration of voice was in fact a figure for the Oedipal eradication of sight, and since, as in the case of Oedipus, it was consequent upon tragic sin, it was necessary to look carefully into Mandelbaum's life and career to discover the tragic source of his parallel rejection. Repudiating the popularized writings of Ehrlichman, the sole claimant to any direct knowledge of the man, Broile predicted with confidence that were the data available, another Oedipal pattern or two would certainly emerge.

From the department of African American Woman's Studies at South Union School of Technology, the first salvo in the Mandelbaum backlash was heard. Cornelia East charged first that Mandelbaum's disavowal of speech was but a feeble attempt to assume for himself the current cachet of minority status. "Oedipus, Shmedipus," she told a cheering audience of racially diverse lesbians at a talk back after her one-woman show, Clitoria Regina, "he might as well be putting on black face." Secondly she accused the academic power structure of seeking to use Mandelbaum's fraudulent invasion of the ranks of the oppressed to maintain the hegemony of the straight, white, male, bourgeois, western European, capitalist. "The irony," she screamed, "to perpetuate those whose voice has ever been heard above all others through the espousal and near deification of a pretender to voicelessness."

Criticism fabricating odd bedfellows, East found herself aligned with Alan Bud Bennet, secular guru of the New Moralism, who indicted the Mandelbaum phenomenon as yet another example of that creeping relativism—"What else could it be to find equality between nothingness and somethingness, non-being and being, to choose the empty void over the teeming abundance"—engulfing the self ordained intellectuals whose intrusion into academia threatened to subvert millennia of civilization. The exaltation of a pop icon to near divinity was but another symptom in this post modern decline: merely another tale told by an idiot signifying nothing but the need to return to the traditional values, the western canon and apple pie.

And so the swords have been drawn. The theorists have marked their territories. Mandelbaum: genius or charlatan, that is the question. The answer? Time will test and tell.


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