LIVE: The Golden Age of TV Drama (IV)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday and the continuation of our series on notable episodes from live anthology dramas of the ’50s. Over the course of these five weeks, we’ll be highlighting seven original teleplays written by some of the medium’s most talented writers. A handful of these are available on DVD, and some of them have even been adapted for feature films. Today we’re looking at two miraculous teleplays, both of which have been published but their productions NOT released on DVD (and I haven’t yet seen them). Thus, unlike the past works we’ve discussed here in this series, my analysis is to be based solely on the text and the strengths and weaknesses inherent in the author’s own words. The first piece at which we’re looking is Horton Foote’s The Dancers, which first aired on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse on March 07, 1954.

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Although several of the master playwright’s other works for television were received with more fanfare (The Trip To Bountiful, A Young Lady Of Property), this piece appealed to me due to its simplicity. Like Tad Mosel, Foote drew inspiration from his hometown and most of his plays are set in the representational Harrison, TX (that’s the title of his teleplay anthology). This ‘little slice of Americana’ theme is what makes his work so potent, and ultimately, perfect for the intimacy of the small screen. The story concerns a shy young man, Horace, who’s visiting the town and gets set up by his older sister to take the school’s prettiest girl, Emily (played by Joanne Woodward in the original production), to a dance. Naturally, Horace awkward around girls and bashful about his dancing ability. But when he goes to the house to take Emily, she refuses to go in an act of defiance to her mother, who arranged the date without her approval. Rejected, the young man strikes up a friendship with one of the girl’s other friends, Mary Catherine, a young woman with whom he seems to have more in common, and she gladly accepts his invitation to go to the next dance. Together, they give each other the confidence to go and have a good time.

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As always, the quietness of the characters and their tender dialogue makes for a hyperrealistic sense of humanity and the fragility of interpersonal understanding. In some ways, it’s overly poetic (although the dialogue itself purposely tries to remain within the realm of everyday speak), yet it may tap into higher truths than anything that would try to do so with less delicateness. Yet while the words written tell a beautiful story, the script’s biggest hinderance is the definition, or lack of definition, afforded to the characters, which all seem to be manifestations of individual archetypes. While it’s always possible that immense life could exist for the characters when actors come aboard to inhabit them, from the page, we’re left wanting. Horace is shy, nervous, and bookish. Okay. He feels certain ways — beautifully — given the things that happen in the story. That’s clear. But a real person there? Perhaps, but not certainly. To make this a great piece of television theatre, I would like to see more individual specificities to imply a person, and not a character. Otherwise, the play is feel-good and impactful.

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The other play I read for today’s entry, Robert Alan Aurthur’s Man On The Mountaintop, which aired October 17, 1954 on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, is equally as impactful, not as feel good, but better in its crafting of multi-dimensional characters. The story concerns a former child genius, Borden, who’s rejected his gift and retreated within himself. Gerta, a young woman who’s living next door with her brother and his wife begins to draw out “the prodigy” and becomes his intimate companion. However, things between the pair are jeopardized when she suggests that he reconcile with his estranged father and accept a position that he has secured for Borden as a professor. This brings up the young man’s loveless childhood, invoked by his mother’s death in childbirth and his father’s intense drive to pursue his son’s gifts (for the betterment of the world). As the genius slowly begins warming to his neighbors, he rejects the advances of his father. Yet Gerta begs him to come out of his shell and stop the self-destruction. As the play comes to a conclusion, Borden seems committed to being with Gerta, moving on, and making peace with his talents.

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The denial of an absolutely definite ending is a strength of Aurthur’s play, for in a work that doesn’t even last an hour, it would be unrealistic for the character to arc with such stridency; rather, this is the first step to change, and the text’s trajectory has been the build-up to this initial development. In that regard, the piece’s scope is appropriately handled, and with its aims managed realistically, we can turn our attention to the characters, all of whom (with the exception of Gerta’s sister-in-law, who was played by Anne Meara in the original production) come off the page as fully fleshed out individuals, imbued with nuances and quirks, presupposing many dimensions. Where the text loses some of its points, however, is the incorporation of Borden’s mother’s death and his father’s potential anger at his son, for it almost feels like a separate story worthy of its own play. Up until then, the piece has been about the self-doubt that’s plagued and crippled “the prodigy”; making his damaged existence a reaction to his childhood dilutes the power of all that had been spoken prior. And it’s not because this angle isn’t meaty in itself and ripe with potential drama, because it is. It just seems like an unnecessary detail thrown in to ramp up a conflict that didn’t need it. However, Aurthur, like Foote, has a knack for writing dialogue, and his words, with less simplicity and more of an eye for hard-hitting character revelations, are equally poetic. Thus, both pieces were a joy to read, and if my imagination serves me well, a joy to watch as well.

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Come back next Wednesday for more live TV drama! And tune in tomorrow for more Hercules on another Xena Thursday!

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