Dorothy Parker discusses her plays and the state of literature
BROADCAST: Feb. 6, 1959 | DURATION: 00:20:04
Dorothy Parker’s thoughts as a critic and writer on the state of American literature.
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Studs Terkel Across the microphone is a writer who might be described as a quintuple threat. Short stories, poetry, drama criticism, literary criticism, and certainly the most perceptive observer of the human comedy. It's unfortunate the name of Dorothy Parker has been tossed around so cavalierly down through the years that any house party you may attend some cutey pie male or female will come through with what might be considered a pungent comment and few words immediately hailed as, "Hey, a regular Dorothy Parker!" Yet Dorothy Parker is a writer of profound compassion and tenderness and understanding as is evident from a great many of her short stories. It was Franklin P. Adams and I paraphrase him now, who introducing her collected short stories said, Dorothy Parker is the enemy of the stupid, the pretentious, and the cruel and I believe he said. And he said, And yet because she is the enemy of these, she has a deep feeling for injustice and aligns herself with the victims. And he, said F.P.A. if I remember correctly, since mathematics is not wrong, he doesn't think it's wrong, the victims outnumber the predatory ones, therefore she is on the side, she likes far more people than she dislikes. Now is that a pretty fair appraisal Mrs. Parker?
Studs Terkel I was thinking about your writings and that period you remember so well when your colleagues were and your friends Robert Benchley and James Thurber, Ring Lardner. And the question is rather sad one to open this conversation. What has happened? What's happened to American humor?
Dorothy Parker I think there's only one humorist left in America and that's [Perlman?]. I don't know why that is; I don't know why it should be. I'm sick of everything being blamed on the times and the unrest and all that. I think they're just, there just aren't born anymore. They've got to come along or else maybe we don't want humor. Maybe it isn't that, maybe it's no supply because of no demand. I don't know. I don't see why that whole fine breed should die out entirely.
Studs Terkel I'm just wondering you, I know in your interview as you were being interviewed by the young men of the "Paris Review," you spoke of satire and do you feel today there's a need for satire?
Dorothy Parker Well I think they're more accustomed to it. We find it pretty perilous, you know. People don't like it, or you have a chance that you're not going to sell, or all those things the British just go right ahead. I don't mean to be anti-American.
Studs Terkel [Unintelligible] at least I have found as a reader found your analyses very perceptive. I mean I was about to ask you about the writing today. What about seri-- aside from humor, what about the short story and the novel? How does it stack up in contrast to the writers of the twenties
Dorothy Parker Well it seems to me it isn't as good but that might be age creeping up on me. Certainly we have some fine ones. I think the women writers have come up magnificently, particularly this short story writers. Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. They're fine I think. About very new ones, I don't know.
Dorothy Parker I suppose so, I think it comes down possibly to lack of talent and that's, that's hard to say but it's true. And I don't think you can blame it on the general unrest of the world, there's been too much of that, don't you think so? People don't think about it every second because they can't. They couldn't exist.
Dorothy Parker Ooooh!
Studs Terkel Mrs. Parker, this is a personal observation on my part having read some of your short stories. As I read your stories [sometimes?] I'm so moved I begin to think of Ring Lardner and when I read Ring Lardner I think somewhat of Dorothy Parker. Now what's your feeling about that?
Studs Terkel I was thinking about something that F.P.A. said. Perhaps there may be some prospective writers listening, young writers, poets. He said something about your verse being so good, and he feels that your prose is so good, your short stories are so good because your verse is. And he feels the direct connection. He says, A good poet could be a good short story writer but unless he's a good poet he can't be a good short story writer. Do you feel there's a basis for that?
Studs Terkel Thinking, you've engaged in so many activities creative activities, I'm trying to see if we can just wander from one to the other. There's a short story , a trad-- What about drama? I was about to ask. When you--
Studs Terkel Now some critics might disagree with you. I know there were a number who were very much taken with "The Ladies of the Corridor," the play that you wrote in collaboration with Arnaud d'Usseau. That was about four or five years ago?
Dorothy Parker It was the women and their, there's a great colony of them in New York and therefore in every big city, who are either widowed or separated or divorced who live alone in hotels. They have plenty of money. They have plenty of health. They'd have 20 good years ahead of them a nd it's just absolute waste. They don't do anything. Their families have married and gone.
Studs Terkel But this theme, this theme of waste seems to appear, waste and the understanding of it that you have seems to appear in many of the short stories too, I notice this. They become lonely that loneliness is a theme.
Studs Terkel And some people I know listening to the station who admire and like very much the recording of "Candide." Hearing the music and the lyrics, I wonder, here was the Elmer Burns--Not Elmer Bernstein. Leonard Bernstein, the music. Lillian Hellman the book. You contributed the lyrics and Richard Wilbur.
Dorothy Parker Yeah.
Dorothy Parker Complete!
Dorothy Parker I think really it was the principals were not as magnetic as they should have been. And I don't think there was enough comedy and people do look for it in a, I don't know why I didn't call it a musical comedy. I guess that's what you would call it. But--
Studs Terkel Very much so. And , I was wondering, you have the ability it seems in your in some of your verse, what you call light verse, and do you feel, I think somewhere you wrote you feel your works are dated. Do you really feel
Dorothy Parker Oh yes. They were written a long time ago, I mean [the verses?], but there was a sort of fashion for those dashing females then. It wasn't true at all that they were but they wrote about themselves that way.
Studs Terkel And yet your short stories can, under no conditions, be considered dated because the other night, if you feel this way you've been disproved very eloquently because the other night at Mandel Hall young students jam packed the place. Loved your readings of three or four of your short stories.
Studs Terkel Your work is far from dated. On the contrary. Do you want to speak on a subject that has bothered you a great deal, perhaps just to add a little sauce here because you ' re so gentle. Hollywood. This is a trigger word isn't it? [laughter]
Dorothy Parker Mr. Terkel it isn't like that at all. It just plain isn't, right through. It's murder to work for them at least so I think, because everybody writes. There are too many people writing. Everybody in the studio writes.
Studs Terkel And I suppose since that day this applies to a new means of mass communication today that's the point I was about to raise. The effects perhaps you may want to talk the effects of television perhaps on literature today.
Dorothy Parker But--
Studs Terkel There's something else you said in the "Paris Review" that I found interesting. You were comparing a writer today and a writer of 20 years ago. The two men specifically were Paddy Chayefsky a top TV writer and Odets who in the '30s, and the milieu was the same, the people they wrote about. And yet the difference was one was a tape recorder and the other had a point of view. Would you mind talking about
Dorothy Parker Well I think that, I don't know about the later works of Odets, but certainly in the older, yes the early ones he had a point of view. I don't think Chayefsky has. I don't want to be mean but I think he doesn't write he takes down and he doesn't edit. You can't put down literally everything that everybody says, you'll be bored stiff as I am with him.
Studs Terkel [Unintelligible]
Studs Terkel Now you're hitting something. This phrase perhaps you think this might be at the root of some of the blandness [Dorothy?]? That people are not saying, it doesn't matter what, whether they agree or disagree. The matter of saying something with some passion perhaps, is that what's lacking today?
Dorothy Parker I think so. I think certainly there's some of it and very good too. But I think that's it. I think there's general apathy and as I think I said, general timidity. All this wouldn't go, you know. That's very bad. You got to take that chance and then get some other job.
Dorothy Parker I don't know what they're speaking out about. I know they're speaking, they're speaking all the time as we sit here. At least they're putting something down on paper. It isn't writing but it's something they're doing. But I don't know what they're so brave about. You read their books , the description their lives. It's so monotonous the things they do. And I don't know why they're so proud of themselves, why they're so revolutionary. That is all done a long time ago.
Dorothy Parker The Angry Young Men, I have great respect for them. The first place I think at least they're angry. They have something to be angry about and they have talent. I think John Osborne is a most gifted playwright.
Dorothy Parker I don't know much of the Angry Young Man novelists but I think they're all right. They're saying something. The Beat boys I don't think are saying anything on earth except look at us , aren't we great.
Dorothy Parker Yes I think Salinger. I think, I don't know the very very new ones because they don't seem to come along as the way they used to. I think in the theater, well I think Arthur Miller can certainly be considered a new one and Tennessee Williams don't you?
Studs Terkel Theater--Oh, that's the question I was going to ask you. Theater today, in contrast to the days when you were the controversial drama critic "Vanity Fair." What about, how would theater today stack up with theater of that time?
Dorothy Parker Well you see I was young at that time and so oh gee, going to theater was just wonderful. So I think liked most everything. Now I do not feel that way. I think that they're, we'll I think they're disgraceful. The so-called comedies. They're timid again, they're dingy, they have no originality. And I think they're hackwork I really do.
Dorothy Parker Well I wish the Beat boys would go someplace else. I don't know where. I think if I didn't have hope I just as soon be dead. But I think new ones have got to come along and new talents have got to come along because they always have. I don't know if that's a good reason or not for saying they always will. But I think and hope so. And I think they'll come in a bunch the way they always do.
Studs Terkel Just our times, Well this is the outlook then of Dorothy Parker the most respected writer of our time in our country, and I think Mrs. Parker I leave this open to you now the wind up of this conversation. Anything you feel like saying about any such--I know somebody will say, Why haven't you asked her did she really say all those things that people have quoted her saying?
Dorothy Parker Oh I would like to answer that. No ! No! And it was a curse on me, it was simply awful the things that were attributed to me. I wouldn't have minded if I'd been good, but I was in effect the shaggy dog of my time. The stories were all to me, you see. I'm glad that's over.
Studs Terkel [No?]
Dorothy Parker Yes.