by Barry Germansky


Paddy Chayefsky is tied with Tennessee Williams as my candidate for the most original dramatist of all time, that most elusive of organizational variables. These writers may appear to be an outrageous dual selection for such a lofty title, but consider that we must all make personal selections throughout our lives in order to know (or think we know) what we like and dislike (and, for each classification, why and to what degree). We can then use this information to help us make subsequent decisions about a wide range of other matters. Consider also that subjectivity is what allows for both the possibility and impossibility of communication; we must embrace it as our sometimes benign, sometimes treacherous (but always loyal!) cerebral companion.

I will continue lauding Williams on another occasion, but for now my primary focus is Chayefsky. The Bard of the Bronx earns some of my highest affections for imagining a new kind of speech, merging the overt didacticism of, say, George Bernard Shaw with the overt subconscious ambiguity of, say, Franz Kafka. He is overtly himself before he is anyone else, and that makes him more original than most of the traditional contenders for literary greatness (what spirited, maddening, important, inconsequential games we play!), including the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon. In the history of human communication, you will find no shortage of Shakespeares before or after the Bard’s living tenure, but you will not find a second Chayefsky.

In The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976), Chayefsky presents a unique formula involving a protagonist of integrity who is thrown into an institutional madhouse. The hero is full of passionate, substantive ideas, whereas the bureaucratic gargoyles are full of vagueness. Conrad and Kafka prefer sleepwalking protagonists, but Chayefsky recognizes an individual’s responsibility to stand up to the arbitrary and illogical (but not necessarily “absurd”) injustices of the human experience, and he renders this sense of duty on his own terms: humans are obligated to enlighten the humanoids. He creates a heightened reality that comments on ordinary reality in order to expose the artifice of all planes of existence, but he does so without consulting the dogmas or philosophies of others and without resorting to the default beautification of anything and everything. One of my favorite lines by Shakespeare is “More matter, with less art.” Chayefsky ingeniously provides more of both.