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Stereo Types

A pair of Broadway revivals stirs up an old debate about British versus American drama—brain candy or matters of the heart.

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Sean Combs and Audra McDonald star in A Raisin in the Sun.  

It is possible for theater to reach your brain and funny bone while bypassing that most important organ in between. It is equally possible for it to affect the heart most strongly of all. What matters most in the English theater is style; in America, notable exceptions notwithstanding, the emphasis is on story; concurrent revivals of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers (a London hit in 1972; Broadway flop in 1974) and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (a Broadway hit in 1959) bear this out to striking effect. The plays couldn’t be more different: Jumpers is a philosophical farce, Raisin an often comic drama.

What matters most in Raisin, about the Youngers, an African-American working-class family in Chicago, is whether they will emerge from a ghetto existence, and if so, how. What matters most in Stoppard is ideas and the language for expressing them.

The chief difference between a story play and a style play is between characters in action and character of discourse. In Raisin, the Youngers; two black boyfriends of the daughter, Beneatha; and a white functionary who tries to bribe the family into not settling in a white neighborhood speak the same everyday language. You care about these people and what will become of them.

Not so in Jumpers, where the focus or hocus-pocus is on language: tropes and epigrams, paradoxes and puns. Characters behave quirkily and arbitrarily because they are only mouthpieces for the author’s clever conceits, chess pieces in a game he plays with himself. Black and white are not races in conflict but opposing colors on a chessboard whose manipulator plays mostly for display. The protagonist is an obscure middle-aged professor of moral philosophy named George Moore, a namesake of the distinguished philosopher George Moore, author of Principia Ethica, with whom he is sometimes humiliatingly confused. He is struggling with a lecture, and has an essay collection to be called Language, Truth and God, a quest for a deity and transcendent values. His antagonist is the university’s vice-chancellor, Sir Archibald “Archie” Jumper, who holds doctorates in medicine, philosophy, literature, and law, plus diplomas in psychiatry and gymnastics, and is a perfect cad. His initials yield a clue: A. J. Ayer (later Sir Alfred Ayer) was the famous philosopher of the logical-positivist school, which held that good and bad were relative terms, expressive only of our conventional notions. His magnum opus was Language, Truth and Logic.

George is married to the much younger Dotty, a musical-comedy star who retired prematurely because of a nervous breakdown. She used to sing romantic songs of the June-moon variety, but now, with men actually on the moon, the romance is kaput. Worse yet, the British astronauts she watches on TV are called Captain Scott and Oates, and Scott, to make his damaged craft lighter, has abandoned Oates to die on the moon. Their names allude to the doomed Antarctic expedition led by Captain Scott, where Oates nobly sacrificed his life in a vain attempt to save Scott and his team. Names become grist for the facile Stoppard’s pessimistically satanic mill.

“Even in its most heated passages, Raisin is about real characters in genuine conflict. We can empathize with these problems.”

Archie Jumper induces his faculty of logical-positivist philosophers to become gymnasts (i.e., jumpers) performing acrobatic feats such as a human pyramid at Dotty’s boisterous party, where George’s secretary does a striptease on a swing. An unknown hand shoots the center man of the pyramid, Duncan McFee, professor of logic and, apparently, errant lover of the secretary. Dotty is stuck with the corpse. Hysterical, she is treated by Archie as physician, therapist, and, very likely, lover.

Who murdered McFee? Comical Inspector Bones bumblingly investigates even while courting Dotty, whose ardent fan he is, though suspecting her of murder. Jumpers proceeds along three levels: First, a murder mystery, which is never solved (something that is, to say the least, problematic). Second, a parodistic philosophical debate between George, fumbling seeker of the absolute, and Archie, cynically amoral relativist. Philosophy as a joke: Striving to refute the paradoxes of Zeno, that an arrow can never reach its target and that a hare cannot overtake a tortoise when moving half the remaining distance with each stride, George ineptly practices archery and keeps a rabbit and turtle as pets but undoes both. Third, a George-Dotty-Archie love triangle, reduced to an unresolved farce.

The trouble is that this three-level prestidigitation never achieves the desired interrelation. We get instead more or less cleverly excogitated, linguistically acrobatic flippancy, along with characters who bypass the heart and end up not mattering.

Not so in Raisin, which, while hardly a comedy, contains much humor. The central problem involves genuine moral choices. Lena, the Younger matriarch, gets a $10,000 premium from her deceased husband’s life insurance. She wants to use it to move her family from their roach-infested dump into a nice house for all, with enough left over to send bright daughter Beneatha to medical school, as well as to create a nest egg for son Walter Lee and his wife, Ruth, a hard-working domestic. But Walter, a chauffeur with big-time capitalist dreams, wants to use the money to buy a liquor store with two questionable partners.


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