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With the birth of television in the late 1940s came a new medium through which writers could reach varied audiences. Recognizing its potential, Paddy Chayefsky produced many remarkable television plays, including Marty and Middle of the Night (1959). His experience in television led to several motion-picture opportunities, in which his active involvement as a producer and writer was also notable. In addition, Chayefsky’s expertise touched the theater; the themes in his works ranged from spiritual concerns to man’s obsession with materialism. Few artists have enjoyed success in three different media, but due to his flexibility and talent, Chayefsky excelled on the stage, in television, and in film.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Influenced by Yiddish Theater
Born in 1923 to Russian immigrants, Sidney Chayefsky was raised in a traditional Jewish home in the Bronx. Early on, his father exposed him to the Yiddish theater and cultivated in him a respect for education and a love for performing arts. The Yiddish theater would later play an especially large role in Chayefsky’s scripts for television, stage, and movies.
The Birth of Paddy
Chayefsky graduated from New York’s City College with a BS in social science in 1943 and enlisted in the Army that same year. During his two-year stint as a machine gunner, Chayefsky was nick named “Paddy” because, although he was Jewish, he opted to attend Catholic mass rather than serve kitchen duty. (“Paddy” is a somewhat offensive slang term used to referred to people of Irish descent in the United States, most of whom are Catholic.) Believing it distinctive, he kept the name professionally. Injured when he stepped on a German landmine, Chayefsky received a Purple Heart and was sent to London. During his recovery there, he penned his first musical, No T.O. for Love (1945), in which he performed the starring role during a Special Services tour.
After the war, Chayefsky became an apprentice in his uncle’s New York print shop, at the same time pursuing his writing for the stage. He was paid five hundred dollars for a full-length play that was never produced; however, the work did attract the attention of two Hollywood producers who gave Chayefsky a junior writer’s contract in Hollywood. Although he found the woman he would marry while in Hollywood, Chayefsky was not able to find permanent employment, so he returned to New York, where he wrote jokes for a come dian while seeking backers for the plays he was also writing.
Marty and an Academy Award
In the early 1950s, Chayefsky began adapting scripts for radio shows, documentary dramas, and television shows. Such work led to his producing original pieces for weekly broadcasts on the Philco-Goodyear Playhouse television program. The peak of Chayefsky’s television career came in 1953 when Marty, one of the most acclaimed of all live television dramas, first aired. Two years later, the television play was developed into a full-length film and took the nation by storm, not only becoming a box office hit, but also earning Academy Awards for best picture, best director, and best actor. Chayefsky won an Academy Award for best screenplay for the movie.
Burnout and Broadway
Several more television-to-movie projects followed Marty, each one expanding popular drama beyond the restrictive time and set constraints of television, thereby allowing Chayefsky’s characters and their conflicts to be more deeply explored. However, Chayefsky’s films after Marty were not commercially successful. In response, Chayefsky moved on to new territory and larger themes on the Broadway stage with satirical plays that included The Tenth Man which draws upon his traditional Jewish background.
When Chayefsky returned to writing screenplays, he enjoyed renewed financial and critical success with the satire genre as he attacked the military, health care, and television networks. He won his second screenwriting Academy Award for 1971’s The Hospital. In 1976, Chayefsky unleashed his most furious satire, Net work, for which he won his third Academy Award for screenwriting.
Based on the only novel he ever wrote, Chayefsky’s last film was Altered States, a satire of the scientific research community, in which a scientist seeks to discover the secrets of the inner self and human evolution through experiments with drug-induced states of sensory deprivation. Production disagreements drove Chayefsky to withdraw his name from the movie’s credits in protest. Instead of being a satire as Chayefsky intended, the film version became, in many ways, a straightforward horror movie. Chayefsky was disappointed in the final result. Altered States was Chayefsky’s last work. He died of cancer in 1981.
Works in Literary Context
Though Chayefsky’s output was not prolific, he influenced every medium of entertainment he touched. One of only a handful of American screenwriters who first achieved fame during the golden age of television, he has inspired many in the screenwriting industry. Mostly set in post-war urban society, Chayefsky’s early works take a positive approach to the internal turmoil of the ordinary man. In later plays and screenplays, however, his characters express their anger and disillusionment with a society that impersonally over whelms their attempts to bring meaning into their lives.
Typically middle-class men, Chayefsky’s characters embody common human struggles with both real and spiritual existence. Based on people in his New York surroundings, the characters in his plays are not unrealistic and larger-than-life; rather, they are peo ple whose problems are universal. In Marty, for example, the homely, lonesome protagonist finds meaning in his life by pursuing a relationship with another solitary soul, despite the objections of his mother and friends. Amidst an intensely emotional world of relationships, economics, and love, Marty, as do Chayefsky’s other characters, seeks self-preservation as he tries to survive the frenetic pace of contemporary society. Because Marty’s plight is familiar to everyone, the play resounds with intimacy and human truth for audiences.
Chayefsky is a master of satire (writing that exposes human or institutional vices with the purpose of effecting a change) and the whole of his work is character-ized by his concern with the dehumanizing effects of modern civilization. Chayefsky has been compared to English satirist Jonathan Swift, who, responding to the belief of Whig economists that people are the real wealth of a nation, shocked readers with A Modest Proposal (1729), a bitter and ironical pamphlet suggesting that the poor in Ireland should raise children to be sold for food. Though not so extreme as A Modest Proposal, Network is Chayefsky’s most furious satire. A stinging indictment of a powerful element in American society, Network won Chayefsky an Academy Award for its portrayal of television executives who will stop at nothing—including murder—to ensure high ratings for their shows. In Network, Chayefsky launches an all-out assault on the single-minded quest for high ratings and bigger corporate dividends that sacrifices people’s humanity. Chayefsky targets the most common subjects of satire—hypocrisy, ambition, greed, pride, materialism, and pretension—by satirizing the television industry.
Works in Critical Context
Critics readily agree that Chayefsky brought a sense of contemporary realism to much of his work, reflecting changing society through satire. He has been compared to Clifford Odets, who revolutionized the theater with his satiric, politically heightened sensibilities a generation before Chayefsky. Critics also concur that Chayefsky’s strength as a dramatist and screenwriter revolves around his ability to recreate believable and revealing dialogue, which in turn makes his characters more believable.
Perhaps the most representative of Chayefsky’s early work is also one of his most popular and critically acclaimed. According to scholar John M. Clum, Marty is ”one of the classics of both television and the American film because it captures vividly and touchingly a number of aspects of the American experience.”
While praise for Marty was widespread, it was not unanimous. One detractor is Edouard L. de Laurot, who writes that Marty:
betrays reality rather than reveals it. … [The hero] discovers no new values and remains essentially an apology for the status quo. His falling in love cannot be considered a dramatic change—it brings him no fresh insights, he is merely carried away passively from his bachelor loneliness to the marital felicity he has always sought. There is no sign that he has found a way to combat the essential desolation of his life.
To Clum, however, the success of Marty is ”attributable to Chayefsky’s fortunate reluctance to resolve all the conflicts he has developed at the end of the play.” Clum continues that the play and film are not ”not the first … to treat urban life in a vivid, realistic fashion . . . but [Marty]. . . managed to celebrate the possibility of beauty in even the homeliest circumstances. The Bronx shown in Marty is a neighborhood of lonely, unhappy people; but the love we see develop during the weekend that the film shows us negates any sense of inevitable entrapment.” Clum’s conclusion is that ”the unique formula that made Marty such an important cinematic event was an effective blend of a romance with a happy ending that was presented within the framework of a naturalistically conceived setting and characters.”
- Brady, John. The Craft of the Screenwriter. New York: Touchstone Press, 1981.
- Clum, John M. Paddy Chayefsky. Boston: Twayne, 1976.
- Considine, Shaun. Mad as Hell: the Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky. New York: Random House, 1994.
- Vinson, James, ed. Contemporary Dramatists. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.
- de Laurot, Edouard L. ”All About ‘Marty.”’ Film Culture (Summer 1955): vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 6-9.
- American Theater Guide. [Sidney] Paddy Chayefsky. Retrieved September 3, 2008, from http:// www.answers.com/topic/paddy-chayefsky.
- Paddy Chayefsky Quotes. Retrieved September 3, 2008, from http://www.brainy quote.com/quotes/authors/p/paddy_chayef sky.html.
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