New Perspective’s first touring show of 2014, a heart-warming adaptation of Saul Bellow’s brilliant novella, Him with His Foot in His Mouth, is rich, intricate, and captivating. Described by Artistic Director, Jack McNamara, as a story teaming with ‘ideas and insights’, this one man show, wonderfully poignant and moving when engaged with on a ‘face-value’ level, yet proves utterly inexhaustible in its bounty, when examined in through the lens of its cultural, social and historical context – albeit with a little ‘intellectual unpicking’ – this new work has an awful lot to offer!
As a literature undergrad, this stuff gets me excited, and I wanted nothing more than to access it for you as the show gains momentum. Not an expert on Bellow, I needed somebody that was, and New Perspectives put me in touch with Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham, Judie Newman (OBE) – which could easily stand for Oracle on Bellow’s Everything – in order that you and I might get a little better acquainted with the ideas that inform the story of Him with His Foot in His Mouth.
Drawing from a plenitude of published works on the author, and armed with a single sheet of A4 paper, Judie was more prepared for my tentatively posed questions than I could have imagined – boy, does she know her Bellow! What follows this short intro from an inspired (and, slightly star-struck) English student is a brilliantly enlightening examination of the threads of thought that inform New Perspectives’ fantastic new show, Him with His Foot in His Mouth:
Q: Thanks for talking to us today Judie! What is it about Saul Bellow’s writing that makes it so accessible and enjoyable?
A: Well, it’s got everything really; unforgettable characters; comedy; a concern with ideas across a broad, intellectual range – Bellow trained as an anthropologist, and he was very interested in culture and how it works with people, or against people -; a strong sense of history; he [Bellow] often looks at quite wacky ideas – abstruse mystics or psychological theorists – when you’re reading him you are also taking a course in culture (sometimes with rather odd ingredients); there’s a lot of different hooks to catch on. For me, I’d probably say the most important thing is style; he can be very high-flow; populist; he has a tremendous range of plain old vocabulary – sometimes you think ‘this is very European, and doesn’t sound very American at all’, and at other points its very American, and draws on popular culture, and, of course, different languages; French, Yiddish, and Russian (Bellow was also fluent in Spanish); there’s a richness of language and an ability to play, which is very attractive.
Q: Thank you – We too love the language variety of the text. Could you tell us a little bit about the prominent cultural, social and historical contexts that inform the story of Him with His Foot in His Mouth?
A: Bellow began as a Trotskyist and he remained socially conscious and very anti-materialistic, [which] translates into his later novels. This [Him with His Foot in His Mouth] is Bellow moving into a darker period; unworldly, unrealistic – you’ve gotta be tough in America, you’ve gotta be mean – there’s a pit-bull breeder as one of the characters – that’s what life’s about for them; reality is mean, low and grasping. Bellow is very interested in attacking that cynicism, even nihilism, particularly, a loss of fellow feeling, social cohesion – love, basically. So there’s that social material. There’s also a very obvious connection to Freud (Bellow read the whole of Freud, he kept the book by his bedside), and that’s also connected with social criticism [see Freud’s essays on Civilisation and its Discontent and The Joke]. One of the questions that this story is asking is ‘Is Shawmut, when he makes these terrible jokes, unable to remain civilised? Is he unable to repress some basic, aggressive instinct?’ – That would be a Freudian reading of Shawmut. The other interest is the Swedish mystic, [Emanuel] Swedenborg (who he refers to several times) – ‘Is, actually, everything in this world really just an illusion?’ There’s a dynamic: ‘Is love just an instinct, like aggression, or is there some transcendent quality to the way we interact with each other? Does civilisation just repress us or can it [civilisation, society and culture] be formed in a way that liberates us into some sort of truer person?’
Q: Complex stuff! What about the relationship between the author and the narrator? Could you expand on the idea of the ‘unreliable’ narrator within Him with His Foot in His Mouth?
A: Ah yes, it’s an interesting one… I think it’s important to note that it’s ‘HIM’ with His Foot in His Mouth as the title, even though it’s a first person narrative. It’s also a letter – he’s writing to Miss Rose – so it’s not being framed just as an outpouring of inner-consciousness; it would be quite different if Shawmut simply told his story without that title and without that little frame of the letter. This gives us a performance (for Miss Rose in theory but also, of course, us), and it’s signalled at the start as a performance by a character who is drafting something and could correct along the way – so that means that we’ve got to be a little bit suspicious, because he is performing; when you write a letter, you perform a role – and there are points where Bellow reminds us about that; personal notes, for example: ‘Should I say this…?/I’ll correct this when I get to the draft…’; in fact the personal note seems more true, more sincere, and nicer, so there are points here when you are dealing with two people inside the narration.
The question of how uncontrolled the story is, is interesting. He [Shawmut] rambles, he digresses – but are the digressions really the story? Is that rambling crafted rather carefully to invoke our sympathy? There’s a point where Shawmut quotes King Lear, and we think ‘Aha, he’s trying to position himself as this aging figure, left behind, victimised’ and so on – there’s a bit of difference between Shawmut and King Lear! That’s the sort of thing that is interesting; we are on the alert for how true to events Shawmut is. He often evokes stereotypes – he very rarely sees a woman, except in stereotypical terms; there are gabby women there are dumb blondes; the only woman who is making a go of it in business is tremendously butch (and breeds pitbulls!). Now, you might say ‘That’s Bellow.’, but there’s a question mark here about a society that creates stereotypes and expects individuals to conform. If you don’t conform, as Shawmut doesn’t, because he keeps making these rude jokes, that may be a form of freedom from that sort of stereotyping.
Q: Do you think Shawmut is an emotional criminal or an emotional victim? Is he a victim of his own infliction, his rudeness?
A: This is kind of the question at the centre of the story – if there were an easy answer it wouldn’t be an interesting story. It’s interesting that at the end he [Shawmut] is waiting for the marshal that’s going to come and arrest him – we’ve got the power of the social world being asserted over him. I wondered how bad these jokes really were; he makes a terrible to-do about them, but only the one to Miss Rose really seems unprovoked, and some of the others seem eminently reasonable; legitimate criticism. The quip against Miss Rose is slightly more difficult to handle, although I could probably still justify that; Miss Rose comes out of the leafy green New England background, and she poses against the column of a Greek Revival library building, and Shawmut feels as out of place in this polite environment as ‘a camel on the village green’; he’s not ‘establishment’, in other words – he’s Jewish, he’s uneasy – and Miss Rose looks at his baseball cap, a very populist prop, and says ‘You look like an archaeologist’. No one thinks Miss Rose has been rude; why not? He overreacts, yes, but you can understand. So, in a way, I’m inclined to feel empathy for Shawmut, though not necessarily for the reasons that Shawmut gives us.
Q: What about the comedic intent of the story?
A: At the beginning he [Shawmut] evokes the leafiness, the greenness of Massachusetts, where he’s working. He talks about the Greek Revival; he’s full of joy at being liberated into this lovely environment – it has all the marks of what’s known as Green Comedy (as explored in Shakespeare’s As You Like it, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example); we go into a realm where the usual rules don’t work, the authority is in abeyance, people can somehow really be themselves, and make fools of themselves in all sorts of different ways. Shakespeare is, after all, quite cruel in these plays – think about the treatment of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – there’s often quite a savage, merciless quality to the comedy in Shakespeare, and there’s also a licensed fool, and that’s what Shawmut is; you can see that all these things are part of the mix. More specifically, I think the joke itself is tremendously interesting – Bellow had obviously read Freud’s The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious, which is all about comedy in relation to society. We’ll notice that Shawmut is a specialist in Pergolesi’s music – he wrote comic opera – and so little things like that, a tiny detail, alerts me that Bellow is thinking about comedy fairly consciously – he could, after all, has simply said Mozart. Bellow was very interested in jokes; he collected them, he was a very good raconteur, and was quite a specialist in the killer one-liner – there are many people who have been upset by Saul Bellow in the past. The story is interested in that idea of what happens when we tell a joke – ‘Is it actually just a form of aggression, with a target, or is there some realise of psychological tension because we’re letting it all ‘hang out’’? There’s always another person there for a joke, there’s an implied audience, and I think that’s quite interesting. We have Miss Rose, who’s the butt of the joke, but it wouldn’t work at all without the audience [both of Eddie Wallish, and us], and you can see that there is an aggressive quality to these jokes; in other ways, you might argue that they aren’t, and that there is a kind of super-conformist society that outlaws this form of expression.
Q: You mentioned in your editorial for our programme that Harry Shawmut could be perceived as the [embodiment] of the ‘relation between art and liberty’ – could you expand a little on this?
A: In a sense, a joke is a form of liberation of the self; you are letting your instincts come out for a moment, admittedly in a fairly safe way, shaped by art. If Shawmut had just said ‘Miss Rose, you’re plug ugly’ that would be just rude, uninteresting – it wouldn’t be socially allowed, and, somehow, that wouldn’t work for him either, I don’t think; he wouldn’t have the pleasure of this artistic release – there’s an artistic quality to these jokes. A society which can’t laugh at itself… there’s something wrong with that society, in my view. We like this – why do we have caricatures of our leaders? We like to see authority mocked, (The Ancient Romans kept professional mockers and Henry VIII employed a jester), so we expect there to be some form of artistic license, maybe as a safety valve in society
Q: Thanks Judie! One final (but important) question – do you think there are features of the narrative of Him with His Foot in His Mouth, and Bellow’s overall style, that aids its adaptation for a theatre audience?
A: Well, from the practical point of view, it doesn’t need a cast of thousands; it’s a stageable short story. The use of the one-liner is obviously interesting – there’s huge interest in stand-up comedy and alternative comedy. What makes it work for me is that mix of empathy and irony; because a joke is not for the self alone, but for somebody else, there’s got to be some sort of connection between us and the person who tells the joke. I was interested by the fact that this is a one man show and therefore we don’t have the person who listens to the joke so that means that we are the people who are listening; we’re fulfilling that role. That builds the audience in to the play in quite an organic manner, quite interestingly.
Him with His Foot in His Mouth is currently touring to village hall venues and arts centres across the UK – Visit our show page for more information and tour dates.