A Thousand Laughs in "A Thousand Clowns," a Look at Life in the 1960s

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

A Thousand Clowns
Berkshire Theater Festival
Main Street
Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Russell Posner, C.J. Wilson, and Rachel Bay Jones in A Thousand Clowns.

We rented a condo in South Lee, Massachusetts for a week for the sole purpose of seeing history plays at the various summer theaters in the Berkshires, which is also home to Tanglewood, the music festival. For years, Berkshire theaters have been producing history plays as well as contemporary works; many went on to Broadway.

This year, in addition to A Thousand Clowns, the Berkshire Theater Festival’s history lineup includes A Chorus Line, staged in June and early July, about 1970s show business, the Puppetmasters of Lodz, about World War II, staged in June and early July, and Edith, about Woodrow Wilson’s wife, July 31-Aug. 3.

The history schedule at the Shakespeare and Company theater, in Lenox, a second playhouse, features, in repertory all summer, The Tempest, starring Olympia Dukakis, King Lear, Cassandra Speaks (1930s journalist), Satchmo at the Waldorf (Louis Armstrong biography), Endurance (turn of the century Antarctic exploration), and Tartuffe (17th century French farce).

The nearby Williamstown Theater offers history lovers The Importance of Being Earnest, which ended two weeks ago, and A Month in the Country, about Russian life, Aug. 1-19.

The first of four plays I caught was Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns at the Berkshire Festival in historic Stockbridge (made famous by artist Norman Rockwell, who lived there). The Berkshire Festival, under different names, has been entertaining people for just over one hundred years. Their theater in Stockbridge (one of their four theaters in the county) is an old, white wooden theater that sits on the side of a quiet, tree lined Main Street. There is a tent to the rear of the theater and huge lawns that surround it. The theater, a classic summer playhouse, has wonderful old floor boards that creak when you walk on them.

I wanted to see A Thousand Clowns there because the play is set in 1962 and takes a funny look at life in New York City fifty years ago. It seemed like a good history play.

The play is uproariously funny, a comedy without a single line of padded dialogue or excess mugging by the actors. It is, unlike many comedies of the ‘60s, very relevant and workable today (many plays so popular in the ‘60s are dead wood now). A Thousand Clowns is the story of TV scriptwriter Murray Burns, out of work for five months, who has spent the last six years raising his nephew Nick, dumped on his doorstep by his irresponsible sister. The eccentric Murray spends his time with useless activities, such as spending most days visiting the State of Liberty and the Empire State Building. He is self-centered, feels he does not need anybody, does all he can to make his life go wrong, and ignores help and each morning howls non-sensical speeches at the world out of his apartment window.

Nick, his goofy but adorable nephew, 12, is a hilarious character who uses different names every year of his life, goes along with Uncle Murray’s stunts. The pair are a couple of misguided Don Quixotes battling the pace of 1962 New York. They have a big problem, though, because child welfare wants to take Nick away from the unemployed Murray and put him in a foster home. Murray seems likely to lose him, but the woman in the child welfare team falls in love with Murray and agrees to help.

All of them then conspire with Murray’s talent agent brother, Arnold, as sensible as Murray is not, to get Murray his old job back writing shows for Leo Herman, the star of the Chuckles the Chipmunk television show. What follows is a whirlwind of laughs.

What is fascinating about the play, though, is not just its look at single dads and the trauma of child welfare in the early 1960s, but its perch in the year 1962. Historically, it was the last year of American innocence. Over the next few years, President Kennedy was assassinated, the Vietnam War heated up, student riots broke out on campuses across the country, the drug culture began, and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were murdered. 1963 started a new and violent chapter in U.S. history, a chapter that continues today.

There are a lot of warm references to life in 1962. Murray and friends talk about television advertising and products of the day. They sing the Maxwell House coffee jingle, so popular in that era. They discuss why so many funny kids shows dominated television and what public elementary school was like and, through a dialogue by the very appealing Chuckles the Chimp, how television tried so hard to make shows not just interesting, but intellectual (the Jersey Shore and the Real Housewives of Beverley Hills were NOT on then).

Most of all, it is a play about people and their problems, and how they solve them without letting all of the problems of the world get in the way. For example, Murray is not bothered by the fact that he has been out of work for five months. The social worker, Sandra, does not worry about losing her job. They both know that they will get other jobs soon. Today, when unemployment is an epidemic, people don’t think like that. In the play, Nick spend much of his day walking around the city by himself and sleeps over at Murray’s friend’s house whenever Murray entertains women. Who would let a twelve year old live like that today? You could do that, easily, in 1962.

The one aspect of the play that still resonates today is that Murray, all of us, just can’t live fantasy lives, because we have responsibility to other people, whether spouses, children, co-workers or friends. At the end of the play, Murray suddenly realizes that.

A Thousand Clowns, a success in 1962, is just as funny today. It tells the story of dysfunctional people struggling to succeed in a simple and yet dicey America. It is a play that also serves as an historic milepost and makes you think about how everything changed right after it was first produced.

Director Kyle Fabel uses a deft hand in making this play as charming as it is by letting the audience understand and savor each character so that, together, they have great impact. He gets fine acting from C.J.Wilson as the irascible Murray, James Barry as Albert, Jordan Gelber as Leo, Rachel Bay Jones as Sandra, the social worker, Andrew Polk as Arnold Burns and Russell Posner, an adorable kid, as Nick.

PRODUCTION: Sets: Randall Parsons; Costumes: Olivera Gajic; Lighting: Daniel Kotlowitz, Sound: J. Hagenbuckle. The play is directed by Kyle Fabel.

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