The Re-Making of Lenny Bruce
BACK IN 1731 Jonathan Swift wrote a poem about two starstuck undergraduate lovers. The poem explored how stripping down the trappings of civility shatters all convenient illusions, including college romance. Swift's young man gets shaken to the core by a shocking realization:
Nor wonder how I lost my Wits; Oh! Caelia, Caelia Caelia shits.
Ten years later Swift died in a wretched lunatic asylum, and, down to the present, scholars and critics have exploited the fact as an excuse for lobotomizing the dead Dean's insights. His scatological writing is simply "perverse," "diseased" and best ignored or glossed over.
No matter. The deadliest, most brilliant satire still works by desecration and flourishes in filth. Someone eventually rears up to illuminate the dark underside, reminding us, like Swift, that sham, corruption and violence lurk beneath the surface of our beliefs and institutions and, of course, that Caelia shits. For America in the late fifties and very early sixties there was Lenny Bruce.
Bruce was a stand-up comic, a hipster, born in Long Island but nourished on the street culture of the lumpen bourgeois urban Jewish ghetto. He played the low-life joints and jazz clubs of L.A. and, later, the nightclubs and concert halls of New York, Chicago and San Francisco. For a few years Bruce enjoyed something approaching a mass following among college students and "sophisticated" urban audiences and earned two and three grand a week. He became a liberal and cultural cause cetebre as city police and D.A.s began to dog him and his performances across the country with obscenity busts and costly trials. But Lenny bad-mouthed and alienated the heavies like Allen Ginsberg and Lionel Trilling who had enlisted in his defense. He got obsessed with the dream of self-vindication and as he struggled from court to court he began ranting about things like due process and the First Amendment. It was not so much that his last performances were charged with an almost unbearably maddened bitterness but that these legal raps were boring. The pressures of official harassment, massive quantities of speed and junk, and his own psychoses and self-absorption squeezed the living juices out of Lenny Bruce. He lost his audience and most of his friends. Then the madman died.
And now he has been resurrected, an enlarged version of the myth he'd been caught up in and was obliquely courting for those few years: martyred underground hero, burning star across the long American night, harbinger of the "New Morality," the Counter Culture's John the Baptist. And he's a million dollar property. A paperback primer entitled The Essential Lenny Bruce sells all over the country. In it his routines and schticks are broken down into handy categories, Lenny on "Politics," "Blacks," "Jews," etc. He's been packaged into a trivial musical comedy that aims to sell a ridiculously romanticized "Lenny." And in the works is a Columbia picture, a $3 million Lenny Bruce Story to star Dustin Hoffman.
Among the few truthful and valuable items so far forged in the heat of the current revival are a one man play, The World of Lenny Bruce starring Frank Speiser, and a ranging and masterful critical biography, Ladies and Gentlemen--LENNY BRUCE!!, written by Albert Goldman employing the journalism of Lawrence Schiller.
SPEISER'S play has two scenes; the first, a recreation of a Bruce nightclub performance in the late fifties when his imaginative and expressive powers were at a peak; the second a finely imagined dramatization of Lenny's "performance" in court at his last obscenity trial.
Speiser opens with a version of Bruce's fantasy on "pissing-in-the-sink" (a single fused word for the common yet forbidden or once-forbidden act). Lenny actually only created this routine in the sixties when he'd lost the easy-going winsome style and had become a wired and often menacing showbiz kamikaze. But the piece is great, and, as Speiser runs it down, what's immediately thrust on you besides the pleasure of belly laughter is the recognition that no matter how good an actor he is, you can't naturally play a fifties audience. Since Bruce's whole schtick hinged on his ability to engage and provoke his audience, the whole recreation is inevitably skewed.
For instance, Speiser struts out and the first thing he says is, "O.K., I'm doing a survey. How many people here have ever pissed-in-the-sink?" And virtually everyone in this off-Broadway theater raises his or her hand! These days, at least in this circle, it's right-on to piss-in-the-sink. More likely you'd be ashamed to own up to the up-tightness signaled by a negative reply. The sense of shocked relief and release that the real Lenny's audiences felt as he ventured like a holy fool over still almost inviolable taboos and came back intact is replaced by affable self-congratulations. We're all one big hip and happy family.
Even Speiser's hilarious Brucean renderings of a man waking up with an erection and spraying the bathroom walls as he relieves himself and of a groom overwhelmed and reeling at the left-over odor of his own Caelia don't jolt the way they used to. In Bruce's mind the fear of arrest and exposure had mingled with excretory fantasies and the irrational guilt of old-fashioned Jewish toilet training with its terrifying threats--"He made kaka? All right, we'll get a policeman!" So you have to alert your "liberated" psyche against this sense of easy enjoyment to make meaningful your own participation in the play.
Speiser's portrayal of Lenny at his last obscenity trial in New York in '65 is devastating. Haggard, hounded and profoundly paranoid, he speaks first to an imaginary listener outside the courtroom and then to the judge. Speiser has gleaned and woven together from Bruce's last performances an account in Bruce's own words of his 19 busts. In Chicago a foolish bigoted judge puts on a show for the electorate. It's Ash Wednesday and the jurors he addresses all sport ashened foreheads. "It was like the goddammed Spanish Inquisition." The plain clothesmen who are sent out to gather evidence against him misinterpret Yiddish phrases. Gestures of benediction are mistaken for gestures of masturbation. Meanwhile his earnings have gone down from $350,000 to $6,000 and he shuttles in and out of hospitals, claiming to his listener (and implicitly through Speiser to us) that his drug habit involves merely prescribed psychiatric medicine.
Speiser is far more convincing at recreating Lenny than he is at eulogizing him. In one of his three narrative interludes Speiser re-iterates Bruce's own false account of his drug habit. The strangely obsequious, incoherent and law-obsessed Lenny Speiser portrays before the judge is gripping and accurate. But the New Left hero and spokesman whom he eulogizes in closing never lived.
Lenny, like poor mad Swift, was a moralist and a conservative. He scourged human deceits and imperfections because he was inseparably attached to the hopeless absolutes they betrayed. His bottom most affinities lay not with his liberal and youthful supporters but with the judges and cops whom he enraged. He shared that rage in a sense and dreamed of vindication in their eyes and desperately believed that the Law would give him a fair shake.
With Lenny's expletives issuing from the Oval Office, and that late, great enemy of "permissiveness, R. Nixon, revealing how fatally regressive and permissive America has actually become, perhaps Lenny Bruce, the satirical moralist, may be mourned for what he really was.
(Forbath's review of the Goldman book will run in a later issue of The Crimson.)