Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

05 November 2005

Detective Story by Sidney Kingsley

Why aren't there any anthologies of the plays of Sidney Kingsley out there?

Someone needs to get on this A.S.A.P.--like, the Library of America or something. He would be perfect for the Library of America, actually. They could publish his complete works in one of their beautiful anthologies. I don't know why no one is doing this.
Anyway, I am excited about the playwright again, and I assume a lot of other people are as well, what with the revival of Kingsley's Dead End this year at the Ahmanson Theatre. I have a renewed interest because this morning I watched William Wyler's film of Kingsley's play Detective Story. It's a hard-nosed look at a day in the life of a detective who only sees things black and white. It's such an interesting portrait of a "good" man. Kirk Douglas plays the main detective, Jim McLeod and Eleanor Parker plays his wife. The whole thing takes place in the office of the 21st precinct in New York. It's all very familiar territory for Kingsley, it felt like to me. Kingsley's brushstroke is wide: he is concerned with people of all classes and all walks of life and so there are far more characters than there ever ought to be in a play and yet it works. There are also very small cameos by people who are really very influential characters. You know what I mean if you saw or if you've read Dead End. Characters who are all-important in the drama or the story appear on stage only for a single seven- or eight-minute scene. Other characters, often characters not totally essential to the story itself, remain on stage the entire length of the show: in Dead End it's the street boys, who act as makeshift narrators to the drama. Because of this, there are a lot of great roles in the show. Detective Story is the same, with the location remaining the same, but the people and stories moving in and out of the container with seamless fluidity.

The amazing thing about Kingsley, though, is his understanding of character. The Ahmanson revival of Dead End was all about production, so it does me no good to cite it as an example of Kingsley's understanding of human nature, but if you've ever seen the film with Humphrey Bogart and Joel McRea, you know that the play itself is all about character. Kingsley pushes his characters to the brink and then asks them to pick up and go on with their lives. His portrait of Detective McLeod is masterful and tragic and Kirk Douglas's portrayal so intense that I find it simply unbelievable that the Academy didn't nominate him in 1952. He would get nominated in 1953 for The Bad and the Beautiful, but these folks should have been paying better attention to Detective Story. What Kingsley does here with character is simply astounding. He takes a man and builds him up before our eyes: makes us respect him, like him a great deal, and show us all the great noble things about him. Then he turns on his character ever so slightly and turns on us as well: slowly we realize, not that our hero doesn't belong on a pedestal, but that we've put him there because of our own rigidity. It is we, the audience, who is prejudiced, and we never knew it. But Mr. Kingsley isn't done. After our hero falls and we know it, he mercifully lets McLeod realize his own folly and the floodgates open. McLeod has failed and after we've judged him and ourselves, Kingsley asks us to pity him, as we ought to have done all along.
It is a beautiful, clever American play that has a profound understanding of human nature.

*

Oh yeah, and I saw Chicken Little last night. It's fucking horrible. I put it at the bottom of my list for '05: barely above Revenge of the Sith. Spare yourselves and avoid this Disney piece of shit.