Four Seasons: Variations in American Vitalist Film Comedy
by Paul H. Grawe and Robin Jaeckle Grawe
© Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies 2018
Fall Vitalism: Life with Father (with Allusions to Forrest Gump)
Clarence Day’s Life with Father seems at a far extreme from Rocky. Rocky comes out of a North Philadelphia ghetto. Clarence Day comes from New York’s Madison Avenue. Rocky is in two loser rackets: professional boxing and loan-shark enforcement; Clarence is a Manhattan stock broker in the 1880’s Golden Age of entrepreneurial America. Clarence Day is the center of an adoring family. Rocky at thirty is still trying to get Adrian’s attention.
In fact, the superficial plot distinctions between Rocky and Life with Father are as glaring as those for any of the other films considered in this study. Student Prince and Roman Holiday are by far the most closely matched works in plot and theme that we will consider. Yet Student Prince represents Spring Vitalism and Roman Holiday represents Summer. Closeness of plot content then does not insure seasonal consistency. And vast difference in plot content does not imply obvious difference in seasonal variant.
Before the end of this chapter, we will have reason to allude as well to Forrest Gump as also sharing the technical elements of Fall variant. Gump is, of course, even more intellectually challenged than Rocky. He is simultaneously an even bigger success, having won the nation’s highest award for military heroism (the Medal of Honor), having been a star running back for the Crimson Tide of Alabama (at least when he ran toward the right goal post), and having represented the United States in China as an international ping-pong champion. Ironically—and Forrest Gump is easily analyzed as one of the most ironic comedies of the modern period (CTCV, Chapter 12) Rocky and Gump are both very great and objective winners, while Clarence Day is a consistent, if prosperous, loser to the wife he loves.
From the perspective of this book’s thesis, all these and many other diametric oppositions of plot illustrate a crucial aspect about dramatic genre. Genre is a mold into which the content of plot is poured. Aristotle notwithstanding, there is no law restricting the types of material that can be used for plot. And the fact that comedic plot can find its materials anywhere in the real world and pretty much anywhere in imaginary universes provides infinite potential variety in comedy’s range of plot interest.
But behind that infinite range of interesting subject lies comedic form and with it comedic technique. Form and technique work toward great commonalities, the commonalities of genre, notably commonalities of the genre’s power over us as willing subjects. And it is those commonalities of power and that dynamic in the restricted range of vitalist comedies that we study here.
So we would argue that Rocky and Life with Father do indeed share not only the general commonalities of vitalist comedic dynamis but also the more specific commonalities of Fall-variant Vitalist Comedy. What disguises this essential commonality best is the darkening proclivities of Rocky and the essentially light comedic techniques of Life with Father. Forrest Gump modulates so well between dark and farcically light elements as to seem in a world of its own. Yet it also shares the Fall-variant dynamis.
What most suggests the generic relationship between Rocky and Life with Father is their shared power over audiences. Rocky, as we have already seen, propelled Sylvester Stallone to a highly successful and lucrative career, to a cycle of six films, all of which had continued appeal to a wide American audience. Rocky also won an Oscar for best film. It is hard to suggest a higher level of success in an American theatre context.
Unless, of course, we consider the successes of other films discussed in this book and particularly the success of Clarence Day, Jr. in writing Life with Father. Clarence Day originally didn’t write a film script or even a novel. Instead he wrote stories about his father which first appeared in the New Yorker magazine. As such, the stories have that peculiar New York City provincialism which so easily claims to be all of America. By 1936, Clarence Day, Jr. had died. His stories, however, hadn’t; instead they took on a new life as a book.
The success of the book attracted Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse to want to write a play. This turned out to be a touchy business because the members of the Day family were not anxious to be commercialized if this meant demeaning the family. The play as a result was written under the stern censorship of Clarence, Jr.’s widow.
The result in 1939 was perhaps all the more true to the original. And it was something about the original that people wanted very much to hear. So much so that Life with Father, the play, ran for seven years on Broadway, its 3,224 performances in three different theatres remaining the all-time record for longest-running non-musical play in Broadway history. (By 2013, Life with Father had fallen (!) to18th longest run of all Broadway shows, musicals included, behind Fiddler on the Roof at 17, Phantom of the Opera at 1 and Cats at 2. But it remained ahead of My Fair Lady at 21, Mary Poppins at 23, Annie at 26, Oklahoma! at 30, South Pacific at 33, and The Sound of Music at 60.) If such figures were adjusted for American population at the time, Life with Father’s 3,000+ performances for an American population of perhaps 100 million would eclipse Phantom of the Opera and Cats with their American population closing in on 300 million.)
The Broadway run closed at the Alvin Theatre on July 12, 1947. In the same year the play became a Hollywood film directed by Michael Curtiz. And if that weren’t enough, for two years in the early fifties the play-movie was the model for a CBS television series, a series which held another record as the first Hollywood live color program for network television.
The main plot line of Life with Father is quite simple. Clarence Day is a highly successful, well-known stock broker. About a third of the way into the film, it comes out, to the great consternation of all, that while he claims to be a Christian going to the Episcopal Church, as the son of free thinkers, he was never baptized. From there his wife Vinnie determines to use all powers available to her to get her husband baptized. Clare resists with all of his manly authority. At the end, Clare is baptized.
Around this power struggle, Clare must deal with common family challenges: his oldest son falls in love and wants a new suit because he has outgrown his old, his second son becomes a peddler for a tonic which turns out to be poisonous, his wife can never manage to understand money, and her relatives descend upon him unexpectedly. And because the Day family is so alive, all these events take on huge and humorous proportions, eliciting from Clare fervent outbursts, tirades, and lectures. And through it all, Clare is deeply in love with his wife.
The unprecedented stage success of Life with Father, the success of Rocky and its sequels, and the iconographic success of Forrest Gump for the sons and daughters of the Vietnam generation are so staggering as to suggest that if the three, in fact, have any underlying structural similarity, that similarity in technique itself must have been in strident demand in American theatre for well over half a century.
Let us move, then, to establish that Life with Father does indeed draw on the same types of vitalist technique as Rocky, heavily disguised as these similarities may be.
At the outset, we must recognize that Clarence Day can easily be seen as a Bergsonian butt, eliciting considerable laughter for his outrageous attitudes, values, and behavior. Certainly he is outrageous in all of these. But if that had been the import of the play written for Broadway, it would never have been produced because the Day family would never have allowed its production. The Days didn’t want to be commercialized. Nor did they want the family name besmirched.
And the fact is that Clarence, Sr. is much too loveable a character to be merely laughed at. Yes, we do laugh at him, but much more important, we laugh with his trials, and we are sure that Clarence Day, Jr., reminiscing about his father for the original New Yorker stories, was reminiscing with love and laughing not only with his father but with his whole family who had learned that it was all quite wonderful.
As we have repeatedly argued, criticism that focuses on a single character, even one so indomitable as Clarence Day, Sr., is poor criticism. We are not critiquing a character; we are critiquing a work of art. And in Life with Father’s case, that’s the story of a whole family of very strong personalities tenaciously holding on. At the momentary level of perceived humor, the level of gag or laugh, Life with Father depends heavily on vitalist (Langerian) Tenacity.
Take Clarence, Sr., but only as a first example. Clarence is nothing if lacking Tenacity. It is the parlor maids of the Day household who don’t have the gumption to see it through. Like Annie, they may be poor, they may be in desperate need of a job, but they can’t control their flinches under Clarence’s tirades which he can’t recognize as even mild rebukes. Yes, Clarence is laughable in this incredible lack of self-perception. Yes, Vinnie herself repeatedly reproves him for his boorish outbursts and asks him to behave himself. But if that were what Life with Father was about, it wouldn’t have its enduring place in American theatre.
Clarence persists in much else. He persists, for example, in political interests and particularly in a political idealism which has been out of fashion in the workings of New York City politics at least since the Revolution if not much earlier. He’s not only a political idealist; he is thoroughly prepared to read the mayor the Riot Act, prepared precisely because he most single-mindedly and absorbedly practices before a potted plant—or before a vase, an empty chair, or any other convenient focus of his study—what he intends to say. It would be entirely uncharacteristic of the man if he didn’t start into exactly that speech when and wherever he next encountered his honor the mayor.
Clarence’s Tenacity has won his family special distinction—the cleanest front stoop on Madison Avenue. It has won them special treatment as consumers—the only customized milk pail recipients on Madison Avenue. It has won him his family’s sure sense of where he will stand on the issues of the day—he will take any train wreck on the New Haven line not only as a personal insult but as a direct threat to American capitalism. And his Tenacity ensures that if he wants a new parlor maid, he will get one almost instantaneously, avoiding every piece of red tape in between (but, of course, losing said parlor maid almost as fast).
So Clarence Sr. is a continual joke, but a very complex joke. He is simultaneously a paragon of Bergsonian Tenacity, Tenacity in clearly wrong causes, attitudes, and values, while at the very same moment he is a giant of Langerian Tenacity, a man totally alive to himself, to his attitudes, to his values, to his goals, with the Tenacity to make a very substantial part of them into realities for his family and even for that extraordinary employee, like his cook, who sticks it out and takes it all with several tons of grains of salt. And somehow what he is able to make in cooperation with Vinnie turns out to be something mystically and irresistibly wonderful. If so much of what has been said about Life with Father is simply focused on Clarence Sr., at least we can say that he is a comic and comedic figure immensely worth our attention.
But if this is at least a beginning of vitalist response to Clarence, Sr., what then must we also say of Vinnie? Is she somehow to be left in the shadowy background, the woman outside the Victorian limelight and thus inconsequential?
It would be hard to be more diametrically obtuse to the realities of Life with Father. It is perfectly obvious to everyone in the Day family, including any servants with tenure longer than a day, that Vinnie is the heart of the Day establishment, the soother of every ruffle, the imperturbable calm at the eye of Clarence’s hurricane. In this, she must strike almost anyone as one of the Wonders of the Modern World, and central to that wonder a paragon of Tenacity to surpass even Clarence himself. For it is patently obvious that time after time, it is Vinnie with quiet charm, dignity, love—and infinite quiet Tenacity—who turns Clarence back from what he fully intends to do.
And this is one of the things that makes Life with Father so irresistibly interesting as theatre. How can it be that Clarence, Sr. is so obviously the pig-headed, unreconstructed, virulent, and colossal statue of Tenacity while it is still so absolutely provable that he never gets his way with Vinnie—not over budgets, not over house guests, not over the children’s needs, spiritual or material? Admittedly, he does occasionally get something—he does get the ideal if not the reality of a maid serving breakfast, the return of an admittedly atrocious pug-dog figurine that attracted Vinnie’s passing fancy, his son’s acquiescence in buying back poison he has been selling all over affluent New York. Yet, one of Life with Father’s greatest traits is a seamless quality, a seamlessness that allows Vinnie to be certainly the compliant Victorian wife at the same time that she is undeniably the invincibly conquering heroine over all her husband’s interpersonal disabilities, generally accomplishing all this and more with a tenacious ease that seldom invites comment.
Lavinia and Clarence would make a comedy tenacious in character all by themselves. In Life with Father, of course, they are duplicated in some degree in Clarence, Jr. and Mary. Clarence, Jr. has been instructed by his father, instruction perfectly amicable to his son, that all a man must do is to be firm (read “tenacious”). What worries Clarence fils is only what to do in case of tears. It clearly worries Clarence, Sr. as well.
And, of course, it turns out neither father nor son stands a firm chance.
Life with Father is, of course, notable in American theatre for the centrally important position of religious issues in the entire texture of the play. Taking sides in these religious issues is one of the ways to take the play seriously, but judging the play in light of our own religious answers is not a way of elucidating how the play works.
We will be much more centrally concerned with the religious issues as pointing to Re-presentation as the primary Regain form throughout Life with Father. But here, considering Tenacity, let us content ourselves with observing that virtually all the characters in Life with Father intend to be entirely serious and tenacious about their religious convictions, much to our humorous delight. Even Clare’s parents, who do not appear in the play, are characterized simply as “free thinkers” with the tenacity to hold to their free thinking even at the risk of being charged, as Vinnie essentially charges them, with being so inhuman as to deny a little child baptism. If Vinnie is willing to so accuse her parents-in-law, it goes without saying, even though much is said throughout the play, that she intends tenaciously to hold to her catechismal understanding of baptism. Claire intends tenaciously to hold to his free-thinking idea of baptism for an adult who has already consistently accepted being a Christian himself. And even Claire and Vinnie’s youngest son is willing to hold tenaciously to a catechismal understanding of the necessity of baptism and thus to be heart-brokenly in tears about his father’s ultimate destiny.
The men of the cloth in Life with Father can’t outdo the principled tenacity of their parishioners, but neither are they the least inclined to compromise on the basic principle. They may bend with personal wishes enough to seriously inconvenience themselves for a private rather than a public baptism, but they will not break, even in the face of Clare’s withering scorn.
Again, one of the things that is so delightfully rare in Life with Father is that all this is so clear without it ever being rancorous, argumentative, or ideologically didactic. It is all treated with a light comic touch, a comic grounded in Langerian Tenacity, which has the breath of social truth about it while never breaking the on-rushing flow of events in the Day household.
In some ways, the epitome of the religious tenacity so pervasive throughout Life with Father, precisely because it is so light and so comic and so seamlessly woven into the flow of the whole, is Mary’s admission that, far from being an Episcopalian, she is, in fact, a Methodist. Elizabeth Taylor plays the line beautifully in the movie, and it would be seriously detracting to play it for almost anything else. Mary meekly accepts that to be a Methodist is to be a pariah in sophisticated Episcopal New York. Yet there is absolutely nothing in the script or in the delivery that indicates that she intends to do anything other than to go right on being a Methodist. Thus religious Tenacity creates both tension and momentum in Life with Father.
Tenacity humor is at the heart of Forrest Gump, our third Fall-variant Vitalist Comedy. We see Tenacity notably in Forrest running: running from child persecutors, running for the Crimson Tide, running to carry his comrade Bubba out of the line of fire, running across the country. His running becomes surrealistic, yet nevertheless vital, inviting deep smiles. His tenacity is enhanced by a simple mind that clings to a few good principles—like life being a box of chocolates—that obeys orders, and that keeps promises. His performance wins him honors, but it is his tenacity, particularly his tenacious love of Jenny, that keeps him alive and evokes a deep Tenacity vitalism humorous response in us as audience.
Returning to Life with Father, as already indicated, the most important uses of religious opinion in Life with Father for our purposes are not to exemplify Tenacity itself but to dramatize the humor of Re-presentation. One of the great characteristics of Life with Father is that these Re-presentational uses of religion are often brought down to the level of simple, one-liner jokes that everyone in a normal audience will recognize immediately as laughable. In other chapters, we have been at pains to admit that very often vitalist humor does not produce outright laughter so much as an inward smile or even a warm inner feeling. This is the normal fact in vitalist American theatre. But in this regard, Life with Father as vitalist theatre is totally abnormal; it careens forward often approaching being uproariously funny, all the more uproarious because the subject matter is of more than secular importance and the characters individual responses are so varied and yet so Tenaciously, Re-presentationally, and even Awesomely elucidated.
Re-presentational humor most obviously focuses on Clare. He is first presented to us as a middle-aged pater familias, Madison Avenue stock and bond broker with enormously eccentric but tenaciously held opinions, attitudes, and values. That so much is presented so quickly in opening scenes is another of Life with Father’s stellar qualities.
But that pales in comparison to the religious Re-presentations of Clare. These make their delayed entrance with Mary’s naively deferential question whether Mr. Day was, no doubt, baptized as an Episcopalian. Clare’s initial response, “I go to the Episcopal Church” is enough to send a Re-presentational quiver through any denominationally sensitive audience.
Right there, in one sentence, Clare is Re-presented, and the denominational cognoscenti may already be starting to titter. He merely goes to the Episcopal Church! Can you imagine! No doubt Mary’s hopes here rise that she may escape the inferior, almost bunga status she has so quietly accepted. If he only goes to the Episcopal Church, maybe he was at least baptized as a Methodist or something!
This, of course, is only an overture. In fact, Clare says he can’t remember being baptized. (Well, who can remember their infant baptism anyway? Or did he actually say, he didn’t remember that he was baptized?) Re-presentation here may be approaching the speed of a heart-beat and admittedly isn’t necessarily funny. And that is Vinnie’s immediate response: Clare is being facetious on a subject that all good taste, especially the good taste of Episcopalians dining in an up-scale French restaurant in Manhattan, cannot afford to desert.
At this point in Re-presentation, humor has definitely entered. And the dramatic focus has narrowed to a face-off between Vinnie and Clare in which the other diners virtually disappear. Tenaciously, Clare sticks to his guns. The guns are the same, but the man behind the guns has already been re-presented to us several times over and amidst growingly audible laughter.
Without blow-by-blow descriptions, Clare is subsequently re-presented to us as the son of free thinkers; a young man who was told he ought to consider baptism but somehow in the heady pace of his life never really got around to it; a man who has married his wife without informing her that he wasn’t a baptized Christian and thus, at least by himself desperately as being an adult and thus somehow exempt from what everyone else had taken care of for them as a baby.
What all of these Re-presentations in a sip from a wine glass have in common, of course, is that they are all so definitely and humorously at odds with the man we were originally introduced to, the Episcopalian family man and stock broker from Manhattan. That, plus of course, Vinnie’s unshakeable resolution to get everything back in order by getting Clare baptized.
It is instructive here to compare the Re-presentations of Clare to the Re-presentations of Rocky beginning in Round 3. Going into Round 3, Rocky is still the bum, the loser from the neighborhood, but with the great Re-presentation that he has also floored Apollo Creed. Nobody in their wildest dreams expected that, especially not Creed and his trainers, especially not with the incredibly awkward left-hand round house that accomplished the deed. But then Round 3 ends. And Rocky, rather than senseless on the floor, is ready to start Round 4.
In stark contrast to the Re-presentational humor of Clare the Unbaptized, the rapid Re-presentations of Rocky did not leave audiences rolling in the aisle and probably few could be seen as smiling as Round 3 ends. There may have been a few inaudible whispers, probably by people who had been in the ring themselves, “Yeah!”
Humor forces our reaction. It causes the spontaneous release of cognitive, visceral, emotional, and psychic energy. Stereotypically that reaction is laughter. But tearful humor is not unknown. Affirmational humor, humor that causes a quiet “yeah,” a loud chant or shout, an ear-splitting cheer or whistle, is, in fact, commonplace especially in the theatre of sports but not unknown in concert halls. And that inaudible “Yeah” is just as much a humor reaction, may even be a more gut-wrenching reaction than any other response to the humor as Re-presentationally Rocky survives Round 4, and thus is re-presented to us as no longer a bum, as he survives Round 5 and starts to take on martyr-heroic stature, and so forth. Eventually, a greatly increased fraction of Rocky audiences were, no doubt, actually smiling, and by the end many were actually cheering in their other reactions to the Re-presentations.
Vitalist humor can be like that, overpowering but not particularly laughing.
In contrast to Rocky and in contrast to the vast majority of vitalist humor presentations, Life with Father clearly moves toward open, audible laughter in its Re-presentational flourishes. But is it vitalist as well as humor?
In Rocky, going into Round 4, the answer is obvious. This is humor directly triggered by life at its grittiest. In the French restaurant in Life with Father, the answer is equally obvious. This is humor directly triggered by Reputable Man, helplessly suspended between the here and hereafter, between social conformity and personal integrity, between wife and self, between affable host and unredeemed cad, life at its sophisticatedly and rationally least solvable. Vitalism in its Langerian guise considers life extraordinarily alive. Rocky going into Round 4 and Clare maintaining himself amidst the slings and arrows of outrageous French-restaurant fortune, are exactly life living extraordinarily.
The Re-presentations of Clare will continue at a hectic pace until the final scene as the Days drive away to the baptism. The neighborhood policeman greets them and asks if they are out for a drive, suggesting yet one final way of looking at Clare. But it is not in Clare to dissemble. In a line from the Broadway play that wasn’t allowed to go unaltered in the Hollywood version, Clare’s final statement is, “No damn it, I’m going to be baptized!” With or without the “damn it,” he goes in one sentence from being Re-presented as the unregenerate because unbaptized to the man who not only accepts baptism but professes to the world. Leave it to the essential Clare, creatively quoting “Solomon,” in whatever he does “to do his darnedest.”
But Life with Father is also Vinnie’s play. She is re-presented from the ideal matron navigating around an impossible husband to the willfully nonsensical home economist who leaves her husband stunned by insanity at every turn.
It is also Clarence, Jr.’s play. He early on presents himself as not liking girls and girls not liking him. Yet in rapid succession, he becomes the graduate of St. Paul’s, the man of Yale where he hasn’t as yet attended, the infatuated gallant, the firm prospective pater familias, the ignored and abhorred rejected suitor, and the abject, first-to-write, committed suitor. It is even the play of second son, John, who is re-presented as budding scientist, journalistically-educated entrepreneur, painful tag-along to a romantically engaged older brother, potential poisoner of the entire upper-class of New York, and useful factotum for Mary to notice when her romantic interests hit a rock.
Re-presentations are running riot throughout Life with Father. Sometimes, these Re-presentations are new hypotheses to be tried on and tested, as John tries on being the entrepreneurial salesman. Sometimes they are serious outside misunderstandings, as the policeman’s false understanding in the final scene.
And sometimes they are phantoms distinct from the person thus re-presented. Thus in the movie version, the first presentation of Vinnie is not herself but rather her image in a mirror. The first presentation of Clarence is not himself but a shadow on the staircase wall, and the second presentation of Clare is trousered legs and fashionable business shoes of the 1880’s.
Most of all, the Re-presentations are indeed Re-presentations. They are Re-presentations from the outside, not Re-creations or Re-constructions of the inner self, as characterized Spring and Summer variants of Vitalist Comedy. Clare may be re-presented as the man with no name in the eyes of the Church, the man who perhaps was never married in the eyes of his wife. It is even possible to imagine the bank not respecting his signature on a check. But underneath Clare is tenaciously Clare.
In fact, precisely in giving in to his wife and in going to be baptized, Clare finally is his most tenacious self. That self has always been centered on Vinnie, has always sought restoration, a return to the love song he sings and plays on the piano, a return to a most tenacious, independent, man of affairs doing what he doesn’t want to do because ultimately he is in love with Vinnie.
And so too Clare, Vinnie, Clarence, Jr. John are all tenaciously themselves, careening though they are through repeated Re-presentations of themselves.
Re-presentations also run rampant through Forrest Gump. Forrest has been presented and represented as mental incompetent, cripple, runner, football star, son, soldier, Medal of Honor Recipient, ping-pong champion, millionaire, philanthropist, cross-country jogger, even husband and father. And yet at the end, he is still the same Forrest Gump, the boy utterly in love with and dependent on an extraordinary mother, already indelibly marked by Jenny, and living out the complexities of life with the philosophy of a box of chocolates. Jenny has been friend, coed, night club singer, sleep-around, hippie, war protester, and AIDS victim. But ultimately she is still the girl throwing rocks at her father’s house and sitting in a special tree with Forrest. Neither has been re-created or re-constructed.
We come then to Awe, which we have already seen in many guises. We have considered the Awe of monumentality and the Awe of majestic scenery in Sound of Music. In Rocky we considered the Awe of a street-wise gritty community at the base of American society and its ability, epitomized in Rocky, to go the distance and take the punishment. This tough tenacity isn’t the American Dream, but it is a repeatedly witnessed and highly commendable American reality exemplified from Saratoga and Valley Forge through Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness to Corregidor, Anzio, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Pusan, Inchon, Ia Drang and beyond, all of which lurks in the shadows of Bicentennial celebration of the American nation.
In contrast, there is homeliness about Life with Father that at first glance precludes Awe—except that one parlormaid after another is too awed by Clare to stay into the second day. But it is one of the most enchanting features of Life with Father that Clarence Day, Jr. makes us feel so much in his stories and Russel and Crouse manage to hold us to that same feeling so much in the play, the Awe and wonder of the love Vinnie and Clare share and which turns the unending tumult of 420 Madison Avenue into an idyllically remembered adventure in real living.
It is hard to say which inspires more Awe, Vinnie’s ability to truthfully say that she can’t imagine being in heaven without Clare or Clare giving up his faith in climbing over heaven’s wall to be with Vinnie in order to do it her way and be baptized. The Awesome Vinnie, of course, is the other great Awe of Life with Father, and at the center of the Awesome Vinnie is her unshakable faith that the tumult, adventure, romance, and New York Victorian local color of 420 Madison Avenue exist entirely within the perspective of eternity, man’s and woman’s proper relationship to God.
In short, Life with Father is consistently, incessantly, filled-with-awe insistent on considering what it means to be human and finding all the answers far away from the mundane realities of delivered milk, horse-drawn cabs, wrecks on the New Haven, church assessments, news from back home in Ohio, and selling stocks and bonds.
It is the Spirit of Awe, that Gladness Impulse, not just Awe itself, that is finally in question. Spirit itself cannot be directly depicted literarily. But the spirit of a work makes enormous differences in its potential dynamis. Perhaps it is easiest to understand the Spirit of Awe in its absence, as for example in Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit. Blythe Spirit can easily be shown to emphasize Tenacity momentary humor, Re-presentation in wonderfully humorous forms (e.g. Madame Acardy as quack re-presented as metaphysical genius), and an equally humorous presentation of awesome metaphysics. But the spirit of the work has nothing in common with a Spirit of Awe. Blythe Spirit exudes not Awe but instead a spirit of wit and satire, of poking hypothetical fun at a passing fad. While Blythe Spirit is delightful theatre and even in more than one sense delightfully alive and vital theatre, it does not create the dynamis of any of the seasonal variants we are discussing in this study.
But Rocky, Life with Father, and Forrest Gump all possess the Spirit of Awe as a dominant spirit of the whole work. Considering them together helps us recognize at least four aspects of the Spirit of Awe.
First the Spirit of Awe depends on immensity of some sort. Second, that immensity must be perceived and perceptively responded to. Third that perception must be something of a matter of faith, a going beyond simply what is seen to something that is held and believed. And fourth that perceived and believed-in immensity must find acceptance.
There are many people who never look up into the heavens and feel the awe thereof. The immensity is there, but the perception is withheld along with the faith in a significance to such obvious largeness.
Such people oblivious to awe are not unusual because awe, fully perceived, has almost irresistible tendencies to leave us debilitated, lost in wonder, blinded by light, dumb in the face of the unutterable. Practical life demands our putting limits on awe, which most of us adeptly do most of the time. Dramatic art normally moderates its presentations of awe in line with these proclivities of the audience.
But even after admitting the moderation, we have to notice that Rocky is set in Philadelphia in the year of the second centennial. There is an immensity in all that, an immensity which could easily debilitate all of Philadelphia if Philadelphians didn’t generally go about their pedestrian lives without looking up. There is the immensity of the arena and the media event, an immensity which Rocky at least dimly senses and responds to. There is the immensity of the punishment dealt out by a world champion heavy weight which Rocky endures and accepts. And there is the immensity of the importance of Adrian which finally overwhelms all that Rocky might otherwise perceive and experience and which is the direct antecedent of our own, audience dynamis based in Awe.
In Life with Father, we focus inevitably on one of the most matter-of-fact of men. But the plot focuses almost immediately on the crucial issue of baptism and eternal redemption. In Vinnie’s own highly socialized, secularized, manipulative, and femininely wily way, she cuts through to this issue instinctively. That is, she perceives it in an instant, responds to that perception just as fast, holds to that perception with utter faith in its overriding significance, and accepts it as, if necessary, her life’s work.
In Vinnie, we have a wonderful example of what awed acceptance means. It means we are in the presence of something much beyond ourselves and that we choose to accept that assessment, thus displacing ourselves from the center of things which is our normal practical-living place. Vinnie so much displaces herself that she cannot imagine heaven as her home without Clare. It turns out that Clare too is a great exemplar of awed acceptance, the in-charge, practical man who finds throughout, and ultimately in baptism, that he is awesomely at sea whether in household accounts or in determining his eternal fate according to his free-thinking lights. Like Vinnie, Clare ends up, actually for the umpteenth time, accepting that all he knows and all he purposes count for virtually nothing compared to the demands of awesome love.
And most ironically, Forrest Gump has the easiest time throughout epitomizing an awed, box-of-chocolates approach to life. The great awesome events of his days—like the assassination of President Kennedy—pass by as background television noise while Forrest himself is lost in the wonder and awe of a life filled with giftiness and love, of which he is the greatest recipient, and thus also becomes a paragon of giftiness. And if the awesomeness of it all is consistently understated, that is because, dim bulb that he is, Forrest himself moderates the awe and the wonder down to a close-to- monotone narrative. But what remains is the narrative itself, a pure chronical of life as the marvelously improbable.
Contrary to a great deal of sentimental thinking, not all comedy is a love story. But as discussed here, the Spirit of Awe that dominates all three of our examples of Fall-variant Vitalist Comedy finds its ultimate object in love.
With three exorbitantly successful examples of Fall Vitalist Comedy, then, what can we say about its dynamis? Like all vitalist comedic dynamis it is more a feeling than a thought. It is a sense of being pulled out of our chair to do something, and thus it is a feeling of incipient action. Contemporary reviews of Forrest Gump, Rocky, and Life with Father all speak to an extraordinary audience reaction, an aliveness of response and an energizing sense that made Forrest Gump anything but the story of a lucky overachiever, Rocky anything but the story of an unlikely comeback of an ungainly but gutsy boxer, and Life with Father anything but the story of a family surviving the tyrannical dictatorship of a self-absorbed egomaniac.
There is, however, a great difference in the vitalist humor techniques of Fall compared to Summer and Spring. And finally there is a very different surge to incipient action. It is an urge in many ways quite clearly opposite Spring variant’s urge to spring up into a new creation. There is nothing new about the urge to incipient action of Fall.
Understanding this difference is perhaps easiest through yet another reversion to the agricultural season. Especially in economies living close to the possibility of “starving times” because of poor crops, Fall is the moment of decision, the time when all the hopes and fears end up in reality, the reality of just how much is in storage and available for the coming months until new agricultural production can be accessed.
It is, therefore, the time of getting to the bottom line, getting down to the reality of things. If all the dreams have been realized, then there is a bumper crop, storage facilities are brimming, and it is time to consider just what will be possible for the coming year. If it has been a time of dreams denied and fears endured, then the bottom line is perhaps a face of starvation and death, at best a time of stringency, constant hunger, weakness, and waiting. In such situations, both the extraordinarily fair and the depressingly bad are full of ironies, either of the rain that came at just the right time or of the rain that somehow always went elsewhere, of the minor irritant of little critters, bugs even, taking some small share of the bumper crop to the devastation of a locust storm that leaves nothing edible in its wake.
What such extremes have in common is what they do to human psychology. With such possibilities, thinking comes to a quick halt until the final accounting has been made. And once that accounting is complete, then just as rapidly thought resumes to make the most out of what is now undeniable reality. But, despite the quickness of the final resolution, it is not a resolution back to simplicity. Typically, what needs to be done is simple, clear, cut-and-dried. But that simple need in moving forward is premised on all the imponderables and uncertainties that were involved in its calculation. Fall dynamis is an ironic dynamis of simple, clear decision based on the awesomely unfathomable variations of experience.
American Thanksgiving in New England has traditionally been associated with the grim harvest of Plymouth Colony’s second year in 1621. With additional, unexpected mouths to feed and a poor harvest, Governor Bradford records how the colony immediately went on short rations, rations remembered on Thanksgiving tables as three kernels of corn at a place setting. In Bradford’s record, it is one of the high moments of the community accepting the awe-inspiring scarcity and immediately moving on to appropriate response.
Thanksgiving, however, would not be an enduring American institution on that basis. It endures instead because of the vast, awesome, ironies involved, the irony that in such scarcity there was also the destiny of world history perceived if through a glass darkly by the bedraggled first celebrants, the irony that such scarcity was to be accepted with thanksgiving to a providential God, the irony that the celebrants’ winter ration of three kernels of corn would be centrally remembered in the richest society, especially in agricultural produce, in human history.
And that is what to expect from Fall-variant feeling of incipient action. It is a feeling of having the final accounting in hand, of having a certainty about the bottom line, and then moving on with what is obviously required or what is providentially allowed, but a determined, simple moving on with the full complexity of human experience as the basis for that moving on. Fall-variant Vitalist Comedy has to have a movement toward finality, toward a final resolution, a final accounting, a final summation. And, as we have previously noted for Rocky, the vitalist humors of Fall will tend to add to its dynamis determination, a sense of getting real, of girding up one’s loins. But what is extraordinary is that just at the moment of that finding rock bottom reality, Fall Vitalist Comedy moves out and moves on, creating a dynamis of pushing off from often piercingly ironic certainty into what then is possible in awed acceptance of all that has come before.
In Rocky, it is anti-climax that Rocky lost by a split decision. The decision itself is almost inaudible over the arena noise. But audible or not, it is irrelevant. Rocky has overachieved his highest goal, the final accounting is in, the final summation has been reached: he isn’t just a bum from the neighborhood. From that finality, he immediately pushes off from that bottom line, and we in the audience sympathetically experience the feeling of that pushing off into a new world that could only be contemplated with the final accounting on record and in the books. For Rocky, that new world focuses on Adrian.
And thus, an awed acceptance of all the pain and punishment has become foundational to the texture of that pushing off into a new chapter with Adrian at its center.
In Life with Father, after all the Victorian good manners, after all the irrationality first of Vinnie’s absurd home economics and then of Clare’s moralistic casuistry, things come down to a cab waiting at $2 an hour. All the clamor of Cousin Cora and Clarence Jr.’s encounter with male hormones counting for nothing at all in the main scheme of things, everything boils down to Clare recognizing yet again that Vinnie is everything to him, recognizing that a man in love often ends up doing what he would never choose to do for himself. And once the crisis has passed, once Clare has made the decision, pity the man who gets in the way or the policeman who innocently mistakes a baptismal ride to the suburbs for a ride to the office. The struggle has been titanic, and absolutely nothing is thinkable until that struggle is resolved. But the minute it is resolved, Clare pushes off into the future of free-thinking, baptized, tenacious self whose ultimate Tenacity is for the woman he loves.
And thus, an awed acceptance of experience is fundamentally imbedded in the texture of that new pushing off for another round in life.
And in Forrest Gump, we seem to have the quietest ending, the least active. Forrest ends waiting at the school bus stop, for a bright son to return from his first day of school, a feather ostentatiously blowing in the wind, a feather which symbolizes both Jenny’s and Forrest’s mother’s philosophy of working with the life you are given. Forrest has already done everything from inventing Elvis’ choreography to running across the United States from coast to coast to coast to coast.
Despite the quiet, however, the summation is still there. The grand summation of everything his mother gave him, everything Jenny gave him, everything from his military buddy Bubba and from his Lieutenant Dan. And in the quietness, which reflects the quietness of soul that has accompanied Forrest since he was a little boy who didn’t have the intelligence to be continually disturbed and misdirected by higher thought, there is no question that Forrest is pushing off into the future as the father of a normally bright son, in awed acceptance of the rock-bottom realities of all he has been given. And to the extent that we as audience have identified with Forrest in that quiet spirit, we are more than ready to push off and move forward in awed acceptance of experience reduced to a bottom line as well.
Forrest Gump is both a more centrally ironic comedy and a darker comedy than Life with Father or Rocky. And those differences do make real differences in ultimate dynamis which are beyond the scope of this work. But despite those variations, Gump recognizably shares the Fall feeling of incipient action deriving from awed experience. In fact, all three of the films we have considered to be Fall-variant can be argued to not only embody a final accounting but also an accepting awed spirit as prerequisite to moving on, in which sense Forrest Gump is, of course, without peers.