Sunday, March 23, 2014

This Day in Theater History (‘Detective Story,’ Tragedy in Station House, Opens)

March 23, 1949— Detective Story, a gritty drama featuring wisecracking, world-weary cops, petty crooks, eccentrics, and a secret that shatters the calm of its New York station-house setting, premiered at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre, beginning the first of 581 performances—as well as the squad-room genre that would shortly become a mainstay of television.

The Manhattan melodrama’s run turned out to be the second-longest in the career of playwright Sidney Kingsley, who had already won a Pulitzer Prize before the age of 30 for Men in White (itself a parent of another TV genre, the medical show). Nowadays, however, if it is known at all, it will be primarily because of the excellent 1951 film adaptation, directed by William Wyler and starring Kirk Douglas (pictured here), which occasionally appears on Turner Classic Movies.

It’s not hard to see why the play is not performed as frequently as it used to be. Its 30-plus speaking parts, for instance, mean a serious drain on the resources of Broadway houses, never mind Off-Broadway or regional theaters. Its hard-boiled slang lies submerged not only under generations of newer phrases but under profanity-laced dramas, across all entertainment media, that make Kingsley’s squad room look like Disney World. The plot point once considered explosive—abortion—is now no longer a criminal offense, and has even ruled by the Supreme Court as a constitutional right. The cynical police reporter and the Irish American-dominated squad room (including one officer, a law unto himself who causes endless trouble for his by-the-book superior) are regarded as cliched. The ending is simply seen as unbelievable.

It amuses me, then, after a rare revival is staged, as it has, the last 15 years, in places such as Chicago or Canada’s Shaw Festival, when the local reviewer praises it. Surely, it must be due to the efforts of the director or crew on the hoary material, the review seems to imply—never the playwright.

To be sure, the drama does have its problems—notably, that reporter, who comes on every once in a while to Tell the Audience What To Think, as if it needs a reference to Captain Ahab to understand that the protagonist is a vengeful obsessive, or that, for a democracy to exist, the press, the people, the cops, and the courts must always check on each other.

But the play lives (as does Wyler’s largely faithful adaptation). Kingsley, a thoroughgoing theater professional, painstakingly researched his dramas, then, because he also usually directed them himself, just as painstakingly staged them. He caught the way a station house could be filled with so much tedium that its occupants would do almost anything to relieve it—until the point when, all of a sudden, the premonitory joke that they are “ripe for a homicide” becomes a terrifying reality.

If you want to understand how shows such as Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, or the various Law and Order series (or, on the comic side, Barney Miller) have dominated network fare for so long, look no further than Kingsley. His play's title might have initially misled those who expected a standard exercise in the detective as hyperrational problem solver. But he realized that the squad room could be more than a venue for ratiocination, even for his stated hope of awakening postwar America to the dangers to democracy spelled by unchecked, powerful investigatory units. No, like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (which itself had premiered on Broadway only the month before), Kingsley was translating the conventions of ancient Greek tragedy for a modern audience.

I mean this in two senses. First, Kingsley strictly adhered to the classical unities for tragedy set out by Aristotle, of time (the plot occurs within 24 hours), space (the single setting of the station house) and, arguably, action (subplots—except for the one involving a mousy female shoplifter, played by an amazing Lee Grant—all contribute to the main action).   

Second, Kingsley, in effect, created a Sophoclean station house. Oedipus Rex has been called the first detective story, as a guarantor of order follows a clue that will solve a mystery: a crime that is imperiling the health of his city. Similarly, Lt. Jim McLeod of the 21st Precinct pursues every lead that will put away an abortion doctor whose incompetence has resulted in several deaths. Just as Oedipus blindly pursues his quarry, unaware that the source of the pestilence and crime lies closely than he ever could guess, a bewildered McLeod angrily disregards warnings that his pursuit of the abortion doctor holds personal dangers for himself. McLeod is even, in a sense, struggling through an oedipal conflict: resentment of his father for mistreating his mother so badly that she ended up in an insane asylum, a bitterness now so poisonous that he can’t compromise in any realm of his life, whether in giving a break to suspects who have made a single mistake or to the wife who has done likewise.

As with Kingsley’s other major foray into social realism, Dead End (also adapted to film by Wyler), ethnicity figures strongly into Detective Story. Although Italians, Greeks, even African-Americans are among the cast of characters, the lion’s share of the names reflects the heavy representation of Irish-Americans on the New York City police at the time (and even, to a somewhat diminished extent, to this day).  Though Kingsley was himself Jewish, most of his police characters engage in a dialogue that pivots implicitly on the demands of Christianity.

McLeod’s fury over his wife’s abortion and the premarital love affair that preceded it seems overshadowed by his church’s insistence that the act is a mortal sin. But it is also part of a worldview in which he is preternaturally disposed to mistrust all motives and to judge rather than forgive. When he tells partner Lou Brody, “I am not a Christian,” he is actually referring to his eye-for-an-eye mentality. On the other hand, Brody embodies the precepts of Christ probably as well as anyone in that workplace can. His first appearance onstage is carrying in sandwiches for everyone, and he comes by his empathy for the embezzlement suspect Arthur (whom McLeod insists on prosecuting) because he sees something of his dead son in this decorated war veteran.

The final scene—McLeod’s death at the hands of a suspect who has swiped a gun off an unsuspecting officer in the station house—fuses the perspectives of Greek tragedy and Christianity. The detective’s suffering (the loss of his wife) and impending death leads to both an Aristotelian notion of purification (catharsis) and a Christian one, as he atones for his former lack of forgiveness by tearing up the complaint against Arthur.

Two members of the Broadway cast, Ralph Bellamy (who lost out to Douglas when it came time to cast McLeod for the film) and Horace McMahon (who repeated his role as Lt. Monaghan, McLeod’s tough-but-fair boss), went on to play cops on television (Bellamy, in Man Against Crime, aka Follow that Man; McMahon, on Naked City). In a sense, they were the first occupiers of ground carefully prepared by Kingsley, who found, in the confined setting of a station house, outsized, elemental emotions and themes dating back to the Greeks: fate, love, jealousy, hatred, order and its discontents, anguished self-recognition, and mercy. In the process, he helped shape the template of the TV police procedural that made the cops’ everyday stresses even more important than the clues and circumstances of a particular case.

(A longtime resident of Bergen County, NJ, where I come from, Kingsley remained active in the community long after his last play, Night Life, opened on Broadway in 1962. Partly in tribute to wife Madge Evans, a child star in silent films made in Fort Lee, he became the founding chairman of New Jersey's Motion Picture and Television Development Commission in 1977, charged with luring movie makers to the state. This Oakland resident also made a big impression early in the life of Ramapo College, where he visited and read plays submitted to one of its spring arts festivals. A friend of mine who attended the school in those days recalled him as a “gracious man” who preached the importance of researching the facts surrounding a play so that they, along with the characters, become part of the conflict.)

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