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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?

Dorothy Parker Oh, it's much too fair. I thought you were talking about somebody else.

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 Something you say here, you feel that people don't wa-- You feel there's no demand? You think on the part of audiences and readers?

Dorothy Parker I don't, I can only think that there isn't because nobody has come up.

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 I do. I feel there always has been and always will be. That is lacking too. I'm afraid the English are better at it than we are.

Studs Terkel I wonder why the English are better than the Americans at that

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 Do you feel perhaps we've lost the ability to laugh at ourselves, is that

Dorothy Parker it I think we're timid and I think that's a grave grave fault. In particularly in any of the creative arts.

Studs Terkel It sounds strange that this known, not too long ago as a pioneer country , so many frontiers, has become timid in this particular respect. W ould you ascribe any reason to this?

Dorothy Parker I don't know. I don't know what the general insecurity or what it is. Alth-- maybe just, they come in broods you know, maybe a new brood hasn't been born and it will come along.

Studs Terkel The matter of new broods because the question comes up you are the literary critic of "Esquire" magazine--

Dorothy Parker O h, I can't call myself a critic. Honestly I can only put down what I think and pray there's no libel suit, that's all.

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.

Studs Terkel Here again you think the same malaise might apply to serious writing as to humor here, this lack?

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.

Studs Terkel We each have our troubles. Each one I suppose.

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?

Dorothy Parker I think that's much too high praise for me or for anybody.

Studs Terkel Well what's your feeling about Ring Lardner?

Dorothy Parker I think he's great. I think lastingly great.

Studs Terkel W ell suppose someone said that you were? Are?

Dorothy Parker I'd be embarrassed and frightened, I think.

Studs Terkel Isn't this strange? If you don't mind my saying this, I think, Mrs. Parker, you are low rating yourself, if I may say this. It's my feeling, as a reader. You have your right.

Dorothy Parker I'm afraid you're wrong.

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?

Dorothy Parker I think it does teach you a great deal about words and about the rhythm that must be in prose too. I'm not a poet you know I just write verse. I don't do that anymore.

Studs Terkel Would you feel it helped?

Dorothy Parker I think immeasurably. And I owe that all to Mr. Adams who was the sharpest critic verse, of it's technical aspect I mean.

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--

Dorothy Parker O h that's what I'd love to do. But I think it's perfectly idle to say I haven't had much luck with it. The things just weren't good enough.

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 [About?] five years ago, yes.

Studs Terkel Five years ago. Do you, may I ask you what the theme of that was?

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 [You feel?] basically that they could be creative people, but as if--

Dorothy Parker Well I think if not creative they could be of assistance.

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.

Dorothy Parker Yes, and they're so afraid of that. They're afraid of becoming it once they've achieved it, it isn't bad. Honestly it isn't.

Dorothy Parker [You mean that?] this is a matter of adjustment, they become adjusted to it? Or just--

Dorothy Parker Well yes I suppose so, but they don't adjust. They go right on their very small path and stay in it.

Studs Terkel This is the play that, on which you worked a few years ago but then of some years before that I think you had considerable success didn't you with "Close Harmony"? With Elmer Rice?

Dorothy Parker With Elmer Rice. No not in New York. Apparently you were kind to it out here. It had a different name here I think.

Studs Terkel I didn't see it but I think the reviews here were most favorable Ashton Stephens and the others here at the time. I think in Chicago. [It did?] play in Chicago?

Dorothy Parker Yes, it did. I

Studs Terkel Ashton Stephens who at the time was the--

Dorothy Parker I always liked him anyhow.

Studs Terkel A question comes up concerning drama [today?]. You are interested in plays today , aren't you?

Dorothy Parker Oh yes.

Studs Terkel You were involved, you wrote some of the lyrics for "Candide"?

Dorothy Parker Oh very few. They all got mixed up in together you know.

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.

Studs Terkel I believe John Latouche to some extent.

Dorothy Parker Yes he did.

Studs Terkel And Tyrone Guthrie the director.

Dorothy Parker Complete!

Studs Terkel Now how could this miss?

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 Here we come again to the crying need for laughter.

Dorothy Parker Yes. I don't think that means we're a particularly sad nation. I think it's very healthy to crave laughter don't you?

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.

Dorothy Parker I think that was mainly kindness.

Studs Terkel I know [Miss DuSable?] seated here and friends of mine who were there will disagree with you all the way.

Dorothy Parker Well that's lovely.

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 Would you mind if I leave the room when you speak that word?

Studs Terkel Is it a--We of course who live here simply know all that we know is what glamour and slick magazines tell us and [we just wondered?]--

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 Well I think the point

Dorothy Parker And it runs into thousands.

Studs Terkel Well on this point coming back I suppose to the individual.

Dorothy Parker You can't do that in Hollywood.

Studs Terkel A creative artist can't work on his own.

Dorothy Parker Oh no everybody has to have a hand in it.

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 I don't know. It's perfectly wrong for me to give any opinion because I can't stand the thing. I never look at it.

Studs Terkel I ' m sure a great many of the listeners of this station--

Dorothy Parker But--

Studs Terkel would say they have a kindred spirit here. Please.

Dorothy Parker But I do think it has had an enormous effect, certainly it has on movies. People can stay home. They [mayn't?] want to but they can.

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]

Dorothy Parker But Clifford Odets had something to say and he said it and said it with courage and without compromise.

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.

Studs Terkel Yet Chicago was invaded. I hate to dwell on the subject. I've been accused of being cruel. Chicago was invaded last week by three Beat Generation poets.

Dorothy Parker Ah yes.

Studs Terkel And would you mind since you read a great many books, this is part of your job for "Esquire," your feeling about the seemingly outspoken poets or writers who represent this.

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.

Studs Terkel So you feel there's nothing new really that they're saying.

Dorothy Parker Nothing at all. And in fact nothing.

Studs Terkel How do you feel about the writers who might be called their prototypes who went out across the water? [Those we?], It's a cliche by now the angry

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.

Studs Terkel Y ou feel "Look Back in Anger"

Dorothy Parker Oh yes. And "Epitaph for George Dillon" and "The Entertainer."

Studs Terkel The latter two haven't come to Chicago.

Dorothy Parker I hope they will.

Dorothy Parker But "Look Back" though has been very well received here. I'm just trying to--

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.

Studs Terkel So there we come back to your point. One group has a point of view the other doesn't seem to have any.

Dorothy Parker And I think that , I don't think the Beat Generation is worth much worrying about. I should say oh very soon, the very near future will be forgotten as [mah-jong?].

Studs Terkel Can you think of some young American writers today who you think, as a critic, who you think have possibilities?

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 You feel theater then?

Dorothy Parker I think yes.

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.

Studs Terkel Y ou feel this ailment has affected drama with exception of men like say Miller or Williams?

Dorothy Parker Yes. But when they're good they're awfully good, like Miller.

Studs Terkel Course this leads us to a, perhaps a wind-up question. Your feelings, any, I know you don't pretend to be a prophet but is there any particular prognosis that you might shoot out with?

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 Do you feel any way that the technological advances we've made the machine, age of automation we live in have had some effect on this. We haven't

Dorothy Parker I think probably. But I again I'm I'm tired of the school that blames everything on that. You know.

Studs Terkel We come back to this again. You feel there's a deeper reason, there's something

Dorothy Parker I think so.

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 But there were some, I think there were some witty comments that you did make that are in print.

Dorothy Parker Oh then I think that somebody else still did them.

Studs Terkel Now the final final question or the one, anything you want to say.

Dorothy Parker I want to say thank you for listening and you are very kind and I'm not scared now.

Studs Terkel [No?]

Dorothy Parker That's fine at the end. I'm not scared.

Studs Terkel Well, not being being scared anymore then you want to add a sort of postscript.

Dorothy Parker I think things are going to get better.

Studs Terkel Before they get worse, or despite that?

Dorothy Parker I--Well they're pretty low now. No, I think they're going to get better and in all branches not just in writing, don't you?

Studs Terkel In human relationships.

Dorothy Parker Yes.

Studs Terkel I hope you're right. I feel perhaps you are.

Dorothy Parker Well if you cant' feel that way I don't know what you'd do.

Studs Terkel We'll just live and hope and work together I suppose. That's just the best we can.

Dorothy Parker That's it.

Studs Terkel Thank you very much Dorothy Parker for being our gracious guest.