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Jules Feiffer

By Fred Gardner

There was a time when it looked like criticism was done for in this country. Now, thanks to the Administration's wonderful technique of assimilating its potential and real critics, opposition is merely impossible to distinguish.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. reviewed Feiffer's latest collection, Boy Girl, Boy Girl in the New York Times, and good-naturedly alluded to his "impartial anarchism." This came, ironically, in reference to a strip treating popular attitudes toward Cuba: two men are shown agreeing on the need for a restricted press and political persecution when a nation is fighting for its life. One finally says, "so our criticism of Cuba is unfair," and the other is shocked: "Cuba? I thought we were talking about the United States." It's funny, but it isn't quite impartial anarchism. And shouldn't it worry Feiffer that of all people, the author of the State Department's white paper should find his commentary so palatable?

It does, slightly, "I don't know," Feiffer insists when asked why he is so respectable. But he points out that his work differs fundamentally from editorial cartooning, which, by its concise nature, must deal with names, events, and formalized political positions. In his extended dialogues, Feiffer can instead explore social attitudes and reactions without relying on names and ready-made categories to summarize an issue. The Globe reader who glances at Feiffer's strip before moving on to Terry and the Pirates, can't mutter, "He's against Dodd, the son-of-a-bitch."

Needless to say, the Times reviewer might have reacted differently if Feiffer had chosen to depict, instead of the popular misbeliefs that went into the acceptance of the Cuban Invasion, a rather small, bow-tied official who helped plan it. Schlesinger, incidentally, added insult to irony by concluding with a perceptive quote from Feiffer: "if suppression cannot disarm criticism, amiable acceptance can." Too bad prose doesn't blush.

The satirist will probably discuss his striking respectability in a speech this Sunday, accompanying the Poets Theatre production of his one act play, Crawling Arnold, and their dramatization of his sketches. The apparent ease with which these cartoon strips can be translated into dramatic skits does not offend Feiffer the artist. Although his subtle, deceptively fine drawings will not come into play, his terse dialogue can well stand alone. And neither writer nor artist begrudge the other any success.

Comparing the white pages of Sick, Sick, Sick, his first cartoon collection, to the later strips darkened by heavy dialogue, one finds Feiffer edging toward literary satire. Why didn't he begin as a writer? The question applies equally well to Mort Sahl, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, all of whom started out in fields close to writing, and who now seem to be entering the field itself: Sahl is working on a book, Nichols just published a story in the New Yorker, and May's one act play opens off-Broadway this week.

"All of us began," Feiffer explains, "as frustrated writers." In the early fifties his material was being rejected as universally as it is now sought. Similarly, Nichols and May found their only outlet for critical humor in Chicago's Second City Theatre, and Sahl attracted attention at the Hungry i. "The mass circulation magazines of that period were too rich or satisfied or afraid to start fooling around with strong, radical satire. They turned us down, and so we found other places where we could really swing out."

Feiffer found the Village Voice, and then they found that he could sell. "Once they see you can sell," he says matter of faculty, "they don't care what you're saying." the cartoonist recognizes, thankfully, that he is less endangered by success in his medium than a night club comedian such as Sahl A live performer works with an audience immediately before him; he needs that laugh, he must have their direct approval and satisfaction. But Feiffer works for himself, alone with his materials, and must meet his own approval.

Much has been made of the man's shyness, and the temptation to turn him into Bernard Mergendeiler, his own soft-spoken hero, has been over-indulged. A tall, thin New Yorker, Jules Feiffer is both handsome and owlish; in his self-sketches he gives himself credit for more hair than he has. In Bernard, he allows himself more naivete; he is, after all, a satirist. His ear is sensitive to cliches and synopsized attitudes, which he manages to avoid successfully.

Like his strip then, Feiffer avoids sloganeering; but sometimes he can't help rephrasing a familiar homily. Once, after making a too-transparent reference to Operation Abolition he received a record quantity of adverse mail. To one woman, who had written "I can't decide whether you're a pinko or a yellowo," Feiffer replied, "Better yellow than Jello."

But while a real, live critic with a political resilience is to be celebrated as such, his success rests on the funny universality of his hip urban characters. Surely they seem a trifle more familiar if you come from New York City, but no-one can miss the essence of humor and truth in Bernard's monologue:

"Sometimes I wish I were a dictator ... A ruler, a strong man, a titan ... With a ruthless grasp on power and an iron grip on the helm of government ... But loved ... The law is my law the people are my people, whomever I conquer remains conquered. Premier Bernard, King Bernard, Czar Bernard ... Boy ... Then Could I meet girls!"

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