An excerpt from
Revel with a Cause
Liberal Satire in Postwar America
Stephen E. Kercher
“Truth Grinning in a Solemn, Canting World”
Although improvisational satire became identified with the avant-garde cultural life of New York City and Greenwich Village during the early 1960s, it originated a decade earlier in Chicago. At first blush, Chicago during the early 1950s seemed an unlikely spawning ground for theatrical experimentation. As one local theater critic put it in 1953, Chicago during this period was “the theatrical equivalent of the place old elephants go to die.” Despite its dismal theatrical scene, however, Chicago enjoyed a reputation as a spawning ground for cultural experimentation and improvisational performance in particular. Postwar American blues and jazz thrived in the Windy City, and it was through Chicago television station WNBQ that the live and often unrehearsed programs Studs [Terkel’s] Place and Burr Tillstrom’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie were broadcast to NBC affiliates around the United States during the early 1950s. Chicago was also home to the University of Chicago, which under the leadership of Robert Hutchins, had become one of the most progressive academic communities in the United States.
It was in the liberal intellectual milieu of the University of Chicago that two young theater enthusiasts named David Shepherd and Paul Sills initiated the Compass Players, the first important improvisational theater troupe to emerge in the postwar years. Shepherd, the son of a wealthy New York architect and a distant relative of the Vanderbilt family, was a graduate of Harvard (where, as a student, he had worked on the Harvard Lampoon) and a self-proclaimed socialist. By the early fifties, he recalls, he had become “infuriated” and “disgusted” with the East Coast theater establishment’s “upper-class effetism [sic].” Having studied theater at Columbia University and the Sorbonne, he was anxious to transplant the traditions of Italian masked comedy (commedia dell’arte) and German cabaret onto American soil. His initial attempt at producing Molière comedies through a summer company failed. Finally, in 1952 he hitchhiked to the Midwest with his $10,000 inheritance and began making plans for a working-class, community theater in the stockyards of Gary, Indiana. After failing to ignite interest for such a theater among the proletariat of Gary, he moved to Hyde Park, the progressive neighborhood that was home to the University of Chicago’s student and faculty intellectuals.
In Hyde Park, Shepherd came into contact with a small, informal community of young theater enthusiasts interested in staging their own productions. In 1953, together with former University of Chicago students Paul Sills and Eugene Troobnick, Shepherd formed the Playwrights Theatre Club in a former Chinese laundry on North LaSalle Street. Over the next year and a half, Shepherd and his colleagues produced a body of highbrow classical and avant-garde plays at Playwrights, including works by Brecht, Chekov, and Büchner. Although Playwrights acquired a reputation as an innovative, avant-garde, left-leaning theater, Shepherd was not satisfied with its accomplishments. On May 25, 1954, he confessed to his journal that over the past year and a half he had “helped build a miserable self-centered arts club which talks over the heads of its bourgeois members at the same time it licks their feet for support.”
Based in part on what he had witnessed at Chicago’s College of the Complexes—an informal, irreverent theatrical enterprise headed by a former Wobbly named Slim Brundage—Shepherd proposed the creation of a new, thirties-style, Brechtian “people’s theater,” which he named “the Compass.” Such a theater, Shepherd hoped, would “remove the glass curtain that’s formed between the actors and the audience” and engage the “reality” of American life. In a January 1955 Chicago magazine interview, he harkened back to the days of the Popular Front by claiming that the Compass would appeal to the “man on the street.” With an “intensity the stage hasn’t known since Ibsen,” Shepherd boldly announced, the Compass would “take the audience on a trip thru [sic] society. Maybe we’ll show them what’s happening in Malaya or some place.” He pledged that his Compass theater would encourage audience members to “comment, applaud, hiss” and, significantly, “one night a week…tell the actors what story to play and how to play it.” In the hands of the right actors, Shepherd hoped, the Compass might revive the type of breezy, irreverent, political cabaret that had thrived in the 1930s and was once again cropping up in Düsseldorf, Berlin, and other European cities.
The most important stage technique Shepherd adapted for the new Compass was that of improvisation. Although he had become familiar with the concept and uses of improvisation through his studies of the commedia dell’arte tradition, it was not until he became acquainted with Paul Sills, his collaborator at Playwrights, that Shepherd grasped its true potential. Sills had first honed his interest in theater while a student at Chicago’s progressive Francis Parker School. He was also the son of Viola Spolin, a theatrical maverick who had begun to develop improvisational “games” during the 1930s while teaching drama (under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration) at Chicago’s Hull House Recreational Training School. Sills took the playful improvisational techniques developed by his mother and gave them a Brechtian twist. Like Shepherd, Sills agreed with Brecht’s emphasis on the nonsubjective theatrical experience and the creative interchange between audience and actors. Sills also shared Shepherd’s progressive social concerns. In his hands, improvisation was not merely an acting device, it was a tool that could assist in the process of raising awareness and of community building. Through the use of improvisation, Sills argued in a 1964 interview, actors could help build “communities that have real life.”
Sills’s approach to improvisation appealed to Shepherd since it promised to generate “reality” and authentic, spontaneous contact between actors and audiences. Rather than commit entirely to improvisation, however, Shepherd preferred that the Compass work from written scenarios, as European commedia dell’arte troupes had done centuries earlier. In magazines as far afield as Britain’s Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman and Nation, Shepherd began to solicit “Brechtian fables,” “political satires,” and “cabaret material” for his new theater. In a 1954 brochure for the Compass, Shepherd called for scripts “that would never be shown on Broadway, Hollywood or TV…stories that move outside the family circle to show America’s history and place in the world today.” “At The Compass,” Shepherd wrote, the playwright “won’t be required to copy the surface of life—a poor kind of realism—if he prefers to dig through to find the real core of a person, or a story, or a society…All we ask for is a form that can be recognized by the man-in-the-street, and that is strong enough to stand up in a cabaret.”
Several months before the Compass officially opened, Shepherd staged a performance titled “Enterprise” at the University of Chicago’s Reynolds Club. The performance was based on a scenario written by Roger Bowen, a young, liberal Ivy League graduate like Shepherd who was at the University of Chicago pursuing a graduate degree in English. Bowen’s scenario related the plight of four working-class teenage boys who are conned by a used car dealer named “Crazy Jake.” After wrecking the car that they had collectively purchased from Crazy Jake, the four innocents are forced to pay him off by selling junk jewelry to unsuspecting high school girls. Having learned the dubious ethics of American “enterprise” from Crazy Jake, the boys become successful and are eventually given a Junior Achievement Award. At the awards ceremony, the Junior Achievement president, Crazy Jake, pays homage to the automobile and America’s “spirit of hustle.” “America,” Crazy Jake proclaims at the scenario’s conclusion, “is a nation of hustlers.”
As Compass historian Janet Coleman has argued, “Enterprise,” with its condemnation of American business ethics, provided Shepherd and his colleagues with the “substantive prototype” for subsequent scenarios. Though critical of economic exploitation, however, neither the content nor the tone of this scenario took a truly “Marxist angle” as Coleman suggests. There was nothing particularly “Marxist” about Bowen’s portrayal of the avaricious used car dealer, the “typical do-gooder” Junior Achievement committeewomen, or the other Americans it caricatures. Moreover, when Bowen described the working-class teenagers as laggards who “regard going to work as the greatest danger in life” and as gullible consumers “hypnotized by automobiles,” he betrayed the snobbery and condescension that would later occasionally mar Compass scenarios. Despite its somewhat slipshod social analysis, “Enterprise” received a warm reception from the young, liberal University of Chicago students who had gathered to watch it. The laughter this thirty-five-minute production received, in fact, convinced Paul Sills that he ought to commit to Shepherd’s venture.
On July 5, 1955, after several weeks of intense improvisational training led by Viola Spolin, the Compass made its debut under Paul Sills’s direction. Joining Sills, Shepherd, and Bowen in the original Compass Players were an African American student, an industrial relations counselor, and a former Communist Party organizer. Also integral to the early Compass were a bright young woman named Barbara Harris and Andrew Duncan, a University of Chicago graduate student. Aside from Shepherd and Sills, perhaps the most important contributor to the early Compass was an intelligent and fiercely independent young woman named Elaine May. As the daughter of a Yiddish actor named Jack Berlin, May had grown up in the world of theater. Unlike her Compass colleagues, she had received little formal education. As a teenager she had married, had a child, and then divorced her husband. After briefly studying acting under Maria Ouspenkaya and then pursuing several occupations, she decided to lead the life of a bohemian rebel. She eventually hitchhiked to Hyde Park and then gravitated toward its amateur theater scene.
May and her young Compass Players colleagues first performed in a small nightclub connected to the Compass Tavern. The Compass Tavern was located in a vibrant, eclectic area within Hyde Park, just down the street from the well-known Bee Hive jazz club. Like nearby campus bars and hangouts, the Compass Tavern attracted what writer Isaac Rosenfeld in Commentary described as “an interracial clientele of mixed types.” Included within this diverse group were a few sober-minded business and engineering students (the “yaks”) but even larger numbers of young, jazz-crazed hipsters, alienated, middle-class bohemians, and what Rosenfeld sarcastically called “retired students.” Many of these young rebels were drawn to the Compass Tavern because talk of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche was thick in its air, a set of Encyclopedia Britannica lined its bookshelves, Beethoven and Vivaldi played on its sound system, and, not least, because Michelob flowed from its tap.
Soon after the Compass Players began performing in the summer of 1955, they began drawing a capacity crowd of ninety, six nights a week. On a small, rudimentary stage backed by several colored, moveable panels, they developed and performed material at a frenetic pace. Under the direction of Shepherd and Sills, in fact, the Compass Players managed to produce a new show nearly every week. Typically, each performance began with a short piece and then proceeded with a “Living Newspaper,” a segment clearly inspired by Federal Theater Project productions of the 1930s. With its “Living Newspaper” segment, Compass actors attempted to weave humorous dialogue and pantomime into newspaper articles they read onstage. David Shepherd recalls this popular portion of the Compass program: “It was about 'Hello. You’re reading this shit [newspapers and magazines] every day. We’re going to show you now what is behind this shit.’” Following this segment, the Compass Players usually performed a longer scenario play and then ended with a few scenes and blackouts based on audience suggestions.
Although the ephemeral nature of Compass’s improvised scenarios poses significant challenges of interpretation, it seems clear that those performed during the summer of 1955 developed comic themes along the lines of Bowen’s “Enterprise.” “The Drifters” and “The Fuller Brush Salesman” conveyed the message that, as Roger Bowen remembers it, “in this society, you either screw or be screwed…” Elaine May’s “The Real You” also attempted to demonstrate how popular, middle-class formulas for success—in this case, the “Human Potential” movement—ironically end up claiming innocent victims. In this scenario, May related a tale about five losers who are enticed to enroll in Joe Charm’s School of Success. Each character there learns the importance of exaggerated enthusiasm and self-promotion. As a result of their personality training, however, all five characters end up intimidating and alienating the people they hoped to impress. Drawing inspiration from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and William Whyte’s The Organization Man (two sociological critiques with which early Compass Players were well familiar) as well Arthur Miller’s dramatic play Death of a Salesman (1949), scenarios such as May’s satirized fifties consensus culture and Americans’ obsession with “fitting in.”
Perhaps the most poignant scenario the Compass Players produced during the summer of 1955 was May’s “Georgina’s First Date.” Unlike the great majority of scenarios and scenes that the Compass and its male-dominated successors performed in the 1950s and early 1960s, this piece focused solely on the experience of a female character. Its plot focused on an unattractive teenage girl named Georgina who is asked to the senior prom by Edward, one of her school’s most popular boys. Edward cares nothing for Georgina and only invited her in order to please the members of the club he wishes to join. With the coaching of her sister and the prodding of her ambitious mother, Georgina desperately attempts to live up to her date’s expectations. She becomes “so absorbed in her own effort to have 'personality,’” May’s scenario suggested, “that she is unaware of what she is being used for.” In the end, Georgina suffers through the prom and, in a tragic twist, is raped by Edward. Despite her trauma, she tells her mother when she returns home that she had a wonderful time.
To be sure, the sober, brutal realism behind “Georgina’s First Date” often mitigated the comic effect of Compass scenarios. It is likewise difficult to discern anything funny in Shepherd’s “Five Dreams for Five Actors” scenario—a Freudian nightmare involving a wedding between an elderly grandfather and his granddaughter, a young business executive who is fated to wear a paper bag over his head, and, finally, another middle-class business man who murders his “castrating” wife with a carving knife. Like other early Compass scenarios and scenes commenting on middle-class conformity and alienation, interpersonal and family conflict, marital discord, and emotional pain, “Georgina’s First Date” and “Five Dreams for Five Actors” were in fact tinged with a sense of despair. In significant respects, Compass scenarios reflected the sense of anxiety, restlessness, and bleak pessimism that many middle-class Americans shared in the early and mid-1950s. At the exact moment when Americans were celebrating their remarkable affluence, the “end of ideology,” and the triumph of the American Way, there remained strong undercurrents of dissent and dissatisfaction. Throughout the postwar period, this dissent was translated through a variety of subterranean cultural channels, from film noir and the “sick” satire of MAD to the work of Beat poets, absurdist playwrights, and the emerging school of “black humor” fiction writers. In keeping with this emerging counterculture of the 1950s, then, Compass Players spoke directly to the restlessness and nagging doubts of its young, educated middle-class patrons.
To many audience members, the idea of lampooning mothers and fathers, salesmen, hucksters, and professors freely onstage was liberating. The fact that Compass actors uttered obscenities and the undisguised names of national politicians confirmed that their enterprise was boldly out of step with the rest of 1950s cold war America. From the perspective of Compass performer, Andrew Duncan, to engage taboo subjects onstage with a type of humor that was direct, honest, and irreverent was an exhilarating experience—for both performers and audience members. Duncan remembers,
To suddenly find an applied form in which to get up and start expressing the things we were thinking about and feeling at that time, with all those repressed political, social, psychological feelings…I mean, the freedom!…A lot of what we did was very negative in that we were satirizing the establishment’s institutions. But a lot of it, too, was an expression of how we wanted to live, crude and pioneering as it was. And we struck a responsive chord in our audience.
The informality and comic spontaneity of Compass performances also contributed greatly to their appeal. For young, educated Chicagoans who had grown wary of the increasingly structured and bureaucratized patterns of postwar life and tired of the dull, formulaic nature of so much mainstream commercial culture, the Compass seemed an oasis of unpredictable, creative freedom. Nowhere else but the Compass, certainly, could Chicago audiences see male performers (often shirtless and smoking onstage) engaging in freeform comic antics onstage. People living in and around the liberal University of Chicago community were drawn to the Compass and its impudent, “reckless theatrics” for many of the same reasons that young, hip, alienated Americans throughout the United States were attracted to Jack Kerouac’s “spontaneous bop prosody” and the improvised performance of jazz musicians. The association between the Compass and African American jazz in particular was manifest in the style and mood of Compass performances. Like the “new wave” comedians simultaneously emerging in Chicago, New York and San Francisco nightclubs, young Compass performers exuded the same spontaneous edge and liberating spirit that made the jazz aesthetic so appealing to white, middle-class audiences in the fifties.
After its first several months of operation, the Compass altered its composition and its orientation significantly. During the fall of 1955, the Compass was forced to relocate off the University of Chicago campus. The Hyde Park amateurs who participated in performances during the Compass’s first summer returned to their regular jobs. At the same time, Paul Sills, his wife Barbara Harris, and Roger Bowen took leave. To replace them, Shepherd recruited five actors, all of whom had professional experience in the theater. One of them, Mark Gordon, had been blacklisted during the early 1950s because of his involvement in left-wing political activities. Gordon shared Shepherd’s interest in reviving thirties-style proletarian, community theater, and with Shepherd’s blessing he took his revenge on McCarthyism in a scenario titled “The Fifth Amendment.” But Gordon’s influence on the type of satiric material the Compass would create onstage was limited. More integral to the future trajectory of the Compass Players’ comic orientation were the addition of Severn Darden, Mike Nichols, and Shelley Berman. Shepherd later resented that these performers used his theater “as a training ground for 'The Steve Allen Show,’” but there is little doubt that these three performers, together with Elaine May, would help bring the Compass its greatest notoriety. Unlike the exceptionally WASPish Shepherd, these actors, along with Elaine May and most other Compass members, were informed to a large extent by their identities as Jews. Like the alienated, rebellious Compass goys (many of whom emulated and in some cases envied their Jewish colleagues), they were articulate outsiders well poised to observe the follies of America’s middle class and the shallow promises of the American Way.
With the addition of Berman, Darden and Nichols—none of whom shared Shepherd’s interest in didactic scenarios and “proletarian theater”—the Compass began to wean itself from Shepherd’s original formula for improvisational satire. In place of scenarios, Compass Players began to revise and perfect brief, snappy, well-polished comic scenes they had generated while improvising. This came as a relief to the educated, white-collar “upper Bohemians” who began infiltrating the audience when in mid-1956 the Compass relocated to the Argo Off-Beat Room, a chic 250-seat nightclub on Chicago’s near North Side. The Argo’s clientele clearly favored parodies and satires on subjects with which they were familiar—male-female relationships, middle-class family life, the suburbs, and popular culture—over “Brechtian fables.” Freed somewhat from Shepherd’s oversight, Darden, Nichols, May, and Berman indulged their audience’s requests for send-ups of television programs, famous authors, and other staples of middlebrow American culture. Two scenes, “Mountain Climbing” (spoofing a sport made famous by Sir Edmund Hillary) and “Football Comes to the University of Chicago” (poking fun at effete young “U of C” intellectuals and their brawny coach’s efforts to prepare them for the gridiron) became staples on the Compass stage and were later performed by the Second City. Parodies of intellectuals and high art continued to be quite common in Compass sketches and improvisations.
Before long, the adroit and talented Compass Players acquired reputations as sassy, irreverent clowns—satiric renegades who with their quick wit and native intelligence devastated the lifestyles, hypocrisies and mores of suburban WASPs. Night after night they thrilled the partially inebriated Argo clientele with their taboo-breaking, “sophisticated” humor, their knowing references to Tennessee Williams and Nietzsche, and, above all, their improvisational feats. By all accounts, Nichols, May, Darden, and Berman evolved into brilliant and often hilarious performers. The material they developed together (and often in competition with one another) impressed many, including show business insiders. “After a few stiff ones,” one impressed nightclub reviewer for Playboy magazine noted of the Argo Compass, “the new concept in theatre takes on a certain glow and the facile performers’ agility in out-thinking and upstaging each other seems downright supernatural.”
What might have impressed the readers of Playboy most about the routines Berman, Nichols, and May developed during late 1955 and 1956 was their humorous treatment of the frustrations and obsessions haunting modern, middle-class American males. Of course, according to Playboy, one of the male’s biggest threats came in the form of the domineering wife, the “man-eater” and “castrator.” Elaine May, a woman whose intelligence, self-confidence, and physical attractiveness reportedly intimidated many of her male Compass colleagues, played this part perfectly. With her overt sensuality and biting, aggressive wit, May confounded the feminine stereotypes that were dominant in the fifties. As John Limon has commented, May was a “laughing Medusa,” a comic heroine starkly at odds with domestic clowns such as Gracie Allen, Harriet Nelson, and Lucille Ball. In “The Lost Dime,” one of the popular scenes she originally improvised with Berman and later performed with Nichols, May played an uncaring, nasal-toned telephone operator. Berman here calls her in desperation after his car has become stranded in the middle of nowhere. He pleads with her to grant him another call, but she is unmoved. On one level, this scene commented on the rigid bureaucracy of the phone company, yet what really drove it was the way May’s character reduced her male customer into a pathetic, pouting child. Here as in several other popular Compass scenes, the male character became a victim, comically infantilized and “emasculated” by May.
In addition to material involving men and women, Berman, Nichols, and May continued to develop scenes that parodied the culture and institutions of Middle America. In “Fuller Brush Man,” for example, Berman demonstrated to Nichols how an enterprising young man ought to assert himself as a salesman. As with the earlier scenario “Enterprise,” the Compass Players here used comic exaggeration to illuminate the vulgar side of America’s business culture and success ethic. In another characteristic Compass scene, “PTA Open House and Fun Night,” May lampooned that matronly symbol of goyish rectitude, the suburban PTA chairwoman. After elucidating her obeisance to American values and middlebrow culture, she introduces the headliner for her “Evening of Art,” Mr. Alabama Glass, a homosexual playwright from the South—a cross between Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. Played in a high-pitched voice by Nichols, Glass reports on his next play Pork Makes Me Sick, a pretentious melodrama in which one character commits suicide because he is accused of not being a homosexual.
Other scenes Nichols, May, and Berman developed from Compass improvisations parodied, in a manner strikingly similar to MAD magazine, the clichés and the shallow formulas abundant in American mainstream culture. In one very popular routine they developed at the Compass, Mike Nichols played a slick disk jockey named Jack Ego. While interviewing a stupid young starlet named Barbara Musk (May), Ego engages in shameless name-dropping and self-promotion. Following his lead, the starlet eventually claims that she also knows “Al” Schweitzer, though she says, “I personally have not dated him…” By exaggerating the pretense behind the celebrity interview, Nichols and May attempted to highlight what many American highbrows considered one of the most cloying and superficial aspects of the modern entertainment industry.
Despite winning the attention and praise of Chicago’s smart set, the Compass struggled financially. In large part because of Shepherd’s poor business management, it was finally forced to suspend operation in January 1957. In an attempt to rescue his troupe from extinction, Shepherd entered into a partnership with a twenty-five-year-old theatrical entrepreneur named Theodore Flicker. With the exception of his Jewish background, Flicker resembled Shepherd in many ways. Like Shepherd, he was raised in a wealthy family and had received his education at a private school and college. He too had studied theater in Europe and, upon returning to the United States, attempted to create a traveling “people’s theater.” When Flicker and Shepherd met, they shared ideas on how to adapt the Compass for an off-Broadway audience. Flicker was particularly intrigued by the possibilities of improvisation. As he later remarked, improvisation appeared to be the way to “do theater: cut out all the shit, get rid of all the managers and the agents and the Shuberts and all the unions and everything, it was just actors in direct contact with the audience. It was the most exciting thing imaginable.”
While Shepherd attempted to find backers for their new venture, Flicker brought the Compass Players—who now consisted of Severn Darden (a friend of Flicker’s from Bard College) and three new recruits, Del Close, Nancy Ponder, and Jo Henderson—to St. Louis. St. Louis in 1957, Flicker remembers, was “one of the most exotic places I have ever been in my life.” It was there that the Compass Players were booked by the nightclub owners Fred and Jay Landesman to perform in their new Olive Street establishment, the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace (or “C.P.” as it was known by regulars) turned out to be the perfect venue for the reborn Compass. With its marble busts, brass monkeys, black brick walls, large crystal chandeliers, and other expensive bric-a-brac that the Landesmans supplied from their antiques gallery, the C.P. was St. Louis’s oasis for hip sophistication, a place where advertising executives, and aspiring hipsters from the middle and upper-middle classes as well as “real swells” from prominent local families congregated to imbibe a little sassy avant-garde entertainment along with their cocktails. “There was something about all the darkness mixed with gold, crystal, whiskey and the tinkling of the piano,” Jay Landesman remembered of the C.P., “that people found irresistible.”
Flicker, Close, and their colleagues in the new St. Louis Compass determined early on that they should concentrate their satiric attacks on male-female relationships, marriage and other middle-class American institutions. From the time they began performing together in April 1957 until they ceased seven months later, Flicker and his troupe created scenes onstage with such titles as “Magicless Marriage,” “Adultery,” and “For the Love of Sex.” On Tuesday evenings, the designated “Love and Passion Night,” Crystal Palace patrons were treated to Shepherd’s “Dream of the Young Executive,” “Blind Date,” “Last of the Centaurs,” and a number of Thurberesque scenes featuring, according to Close, a “poor picked-upon male, and a lot of misogyny.” In “The Schnook Strikes,” a scene in which a browbeaten husband bludgeons his wife with a kitchen knife, the Compass Players gave their Crystal Palace audience Walter Mitty with a sinister twist. When not propelled by masculine frustration and rage, Compass satires of marriage—informed, in some cases, by the troubled relationships of Compass Players’ parents—were heavily laden with pathos. In a mime titled “Two Loves,” for example, a male Compass actor courts and marries a woman and then falls in love with another. Despite motioning to each of his lovers to stay put while he runs back and forth between them, he is unable to prevent them from wilting and, ultimately, dying.
According to Compass Player Del Close, the laughs he and his “tragically hip” colleagues received in scenes like “Two Loves” were definitely of the schadenfreude variety. “There was a kind of darkness about it all…'well we’re all the organization man, we’re all trapped in this machine,’” Close recalls, “but it did get laughs.” This apparently was not always the case. After witnessing Close and his colleagues perform a characteristically bleak improvisation on marital failure, the St. Louis Post Dispatch critic Myles Standish wrote that he “hastily ordered another quinine water to recover from the shock.” When the Compass Players concluded their performance, Standish commented, he and his party “left groping a little in the mazes of our mind.” Standish’s review no doubt pleased Flicker and his Compass Players since their credo was to jolt the middle-class suburbanites who came to see them. For advertising copy Flicker once proposed, “
For the benefit of its paying customers, Flicker and his colleagues were careful to offset the existentialist gloom of its scenes with a raucous, carnival atmosphere. In Flicker’s hands, the Compass’s improvisational satire became polished entertainment, a high-wire act intended to thrill and surprise Crystal Palace patrons. Flicker had his actors stop smoking onstage and replace their street clothes with tights. More importantly, he encouraged them to create scenes that were short and snappy. As “onstage director,” Flicker assumed the role of ringmaster, introducing scenes, soliciting audience suggestions for improvised sets, and terminating action (through the all-important “blackout button”) at the appropriate time.
In the end, Flicker’s formula for poignant yet playful satire proved effective in St. Louis. After Mike Nichols and Elaine May rejoined the Compass in July 1957, its prospects only improved. Despite the fact that the Compass was finally making money, however, Shepherd had grown unhappy with his partner. In Shepherd’s opinion, the Compass had wandered far off course. Whereas Shepherd had coined the name Compass because he intended his troupe to point where American society was going, Flicker used it in reference to his troupe’s playful willingness to follow and improvise from the audience’s suggestions. In Shepherd’s mind, the Compass in Flicker’s hands had become little more than a parlor game for St. Louis’s municipal opera crowd. Worst of all, the Compass Players seemed less and less interested in political issues and “stories that move outside the family circle.” While Shepherd and Flicker argued over the Compass’s future direction, they lost the trust and confidence of their colleagues, most of whom were working in St. Louis with the hope that a new Compass would soon open in New York City. When plans for a New York Compass fell through in October 1957, Nichols, May, Flicker, Close, and Shepherd scrambled for rights over the material they developed. In a letter to Darden (perhaps the only Compass Player aloof from the acrimony and deception that tainted the late Compass), Flicker vowed to “take what I want from
By the time the St. Louis Compass was beginning to disintegrate, Shelley Berman had already begun to demonstrate how the type of social satire he and his Argo Compass colleagues pursued together onstage could be adapted into a successful solo nightclub act. Initially in appearances at two Chicago jazz and folk music nightclubs, Mr. Kelly’s and the Gate of Horn, Berman began modifying scenes he had developed in Compass improvisations into feigned phone conversations and various other monologues. With a stool, a couple of handkerchiefs, and a pack of cigarettes as his only props, Berman centered his audience’s attention on the frustrations endured by his neurotic characterizations. Although his occasional use of sexual double entendres and grotesqueries tempted observers to group him with the up-and-coming “sicknik” comics, Berman’s technique and subject matter clearly drew from his experience at the Compass. As would other former Compass Players, Berman parodied slick show business types, jibed intellectuals, highlighted the struggles and misunderstandings that take place between parents and their children, and portrayed the poor schlemiel’s humiliation at the hands of women.
What won Berman most acclaim were his comic depictions of the obsessions, frustrations, and tiny embarrassments endured by the midcentury, middle-class American male. Most typical of the type of material he and Mike Nichols performed with the Compass was “Franz Kafka on the Telephone,” a scene in which Berman is forced to confront a small contingent of “castrating” female telephone operators (including one named Miss Freud) in pursuit of a lost dime. In some of his most popular routines Berman spoke of his fear of flying and x-ray machines, and he revealed the angst that small irritations such as the “teeny black speck” that floats in a glass of milk provoke. As writer Max Lerner admiringly wrote in the liner notes of Berman’s The Sex Life of the Primate album, Berman left the “political satire…to others” and contented “himself with the revealing trivia that show up the absurd in the wrack of daily life.”
In popular routines such as “Complete Neuroses,” Berman used his vulnerable “everymanic-depressive” persona to lampoon the type of man “who is scared of fear itself.” In this way, Berman was gently critiquing the private obsessions nurtured by the 1950s vogue of Freudian psychology. In doing so, however, Berman reflected and in a sense ratified the same therapeutic culture he ostensibly ridiculed. In effect, Berman’s act itself mimicked a kind of therapy session. With his stool as his couch and his audience as his therapist, Berman wove his monologues with a pronounced confessional tone. To a reporter from Time magazine, he in fact admitted, “My whole act is confession. Every word I say, I’m admitting something.” “Shelley Berman may not consider himself a therapist,” the critic Louis Untermeyer wrote in the liner notes for Berman’s popular album A Personal Appearance, “but he has the paramount ability to evoke the healing power of laughter. He makes his audiences forget the cost and calamities of modern life by recognizing—and, what is more, responding to—its absurdities.
At a time when Freudian psychology, popular existentialist philosophies, and works of popular fiction directed middle-class Americans’ attention toward the interior obsessions and anxieties of the self, Shelley Berman’s inward comic explorations found considerable appeal. After a well-received appearance on The Jack Paar Show, Berman began playing clubs such as Max Gordon’s prestigious New York venue, the Blue Angel. He then became a regular guest on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1958, only a year after he began his solo act, Berman recorded Inside Shelley Berman for Verve Records. This album topped the American charts in 1959 and remained in the Billboard Top 40 for two and a half years. Together with his next two gold albums, Inside Shelley Berman helped spur a new wave of comedy LPs. By 1961, Berman was one of the most successful comedians in America and one of the most highly paid entertainers in the world, making $10,000 a week for appearances at the Empire Room in the Manhattan Waldorf Astoria.
After Shelley Berman demonstrated how Compass material could be modified into a popular solo act, his former Compass colleagues Mike Nichols and Elaine May decided that they too would strike out on their own. In late 1957 they determined to develop their tandem act and then moved to New York City, obtained Jack Rollins as their manager, and almost immediately began playing established clubs such as the Blue Angel and Village Vanguard. After appearing on The Jack Paar Show and The Steve Allen Show, Nichols and May were booked for a January 1958 episode of NBC’s Omnibus. During the course of this “Suburban Revue” hosted by Alistair Cooke, the pair performed “Dawn of Love,” a standard Compass scene in which a teenaged boy desperately attempts to make out with his date in the back seat of an automobile. The teenager begins by explaining his “urges” but eventually, after a protracted negotiation over intimacies, he squeals, “You can’t imagine how much I would respect you.” When she finally relents and begins reciprocating his affection, the boy turns scared and assumes his girlfriend’s former reticence.
The acclaim this televised scene brought Nichols and May, one of the first in American prime-time television to deal comically with teenagers’ sexual behavior, was considerable. Almost immediately, the pair became celebrities. During the next several years, they, along with Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart, became some of the most well-known and highly paid satirists in America. Relying almost exclusively on material they and their Compass colleagues developed in Chicago and St. Louis, Nichols and May played elegant, “sophisticated” nightclubs all across the country, from the Mocambo in Hollywood to the Down in the Depths in New York City’s Hotel Duane. In addition to making nightclub and television appearances, they released albums (Improvisations to Music  and Nichols and May Examine Doctors ), moved out to Hollywood where they briefly starred in an ill-conceived game show titled Laugh Line, and, beginning in 1960, recorded improvised scenes for the weekend NBC Monitor radio program. They reached the pinnacle of their success as a team in late 1960 when they brought An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May to Broadway’s Golden Theatre. Lavishly produced and promoted by Alexander Cohen and directed by Arthur Penn, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May was a smash hit. An album recorded from the show rose to number ten on the Billboard charts in 1961.
The arrival of Nichols and May on Broadway pleased no one more than those liberal critics who had earlier lamented the dearth of “sophisticated” comedy and satire in the American stage. The New Republic’s Robert Brustein, for example, marveled at the way “they employ[ed] extraordinary powers of observation to locate the clichés of conventional middle-class life.” Brustein continued,
Nichols and May, in short, are the voice of the outraged intelligence in a world given over to false piety, cloying sentiment, and institutionalized stupidity, and if this small voice can still be heard above the racket being produced all around us, then satire is still performing its traditional functions: to relieve that overwhelming sense of frustration, impotence, and isolation which afflicts the better spirits in our fatuous times.
Brustein’s remarks capture perfectly the sense of alienation and the spirit of conspiracy that liberal satire’s ardent supporters shared during the late 1950s and early 1960s. It also reflects the unconscious snobbery that was an ineluctable part of satire’s appeal to the “better spirits.” Of all the satiric performers who made it big during this period, Nichols and May possessed perhaps the greatest snob appeal. It was not incidental that producer Alexander Cohen chauffeured guests for the October premiere of An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May to the Golden Theater in Rolls-Royces. While on Broadway Nichols and May became the darlings of upper-middle-class, New York theater society. It was then that Nichols initiated friendships with Kenneth Tynan, Leonard Bernstein, Richard Avedon, and other luminaries in New York’s cultural scene. Outside of New York, Nichols and May found admirers among statesmen such as Adlai Stevenson and the Shah of Iran. John Crosby was one of the few critics to temporarily suspend the hype Nichols and May generated by wryly noting that the pair had “started out taking pot shots at the sacred cows and now, after five years of solid success, they are in terrible danger of becoming one.”
The reasons for Nichols and May’s popularity among well-educated, upper-middle-class urbanites are not difficult to discern. To begin with, their style was irresistibly “smart,” witty, and inside. Their comic portraits of neuroticism, their parodies of therapists, and their frequent allusion to psychoanalysis struck a chord with New York—and by all accounts, largely Jewish—audience members, many of whom were well versed in Freudian vocabulary. Many who saw them perform were also impressed (and in some ways flattered) by their improvised references to playwrights and authors, both famous and obscure. Finally, seasoned theatergoers were undoubtedly impressed by the uncanny rapport Nichols and May enjoyed onstage. With the exception of one audience-suggested improvisation, all of the scenes they performed were well rehearsed. Nevertheless, all of their collaborative dialogues maintained a skillful spontaneity and unpredictability. Like a pair of seasoned jazz musicians, Nichols and May appeared capable of following each other on any riff. In “Pirandello,” for example, they held the audience in suspense and disbelief as they transmogrified from two children pretending to fight like parents into a pair of feuding adults and, finally, just as the curtain for act 1 I was about to fall, back into Nichols and May.
Nichols and May’s smart style and satiric characterizations did not appeal only to an upper-middle-class, urban, theatergoing audience. They brought the type of social satire performed by the Compass—irreverent, spontaneous, and self-critical—to the masses. The fact that the pair made promotional appearances on the What’s My Line? and Person to Person television programs, that they were interviewed and profiled in major publications such as Time magazine, and, moreover, that their Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May album sold well across the country suggests that they also found (and targeted) a large mainstream and middlebrow audience. Indeed, as one writer suggested in a New York Times Magazine profile of the pair, Nichols and May enjoyed “both snob and mob appeal,” just as Charlie Chaplin, Fred Allen and the Marx Brothers had earlier. Critics from magazines and daily newspapers gave a good indication for Nichols and May’s widespread appeal and, more importantly, America’s receptivity to liberal satire by 1960. Many of these critics particularly enjoyed the way Nichols and May opened their program. From opposite sides offstage, a white-collar commuter (Nichols) returning home after a day at work perfunctorily exchanges greetings with his suburban wife (May) and then asks her to mix him a dry martini. Only after the two meet each other onstage do they realize that the husband has accidentally entered the wrong home. “There is embodied here,” the critic of the New York Journal-American marveled, “a commentary on the entire structure of suburbia.” Likewise, other critics praised the satirists for holding up “life-sized mirrors to [Americans’] foibles, frustrations…and foolishness…” The New York Morning Telegraph’s Whitney Bolton characteristically suggested that “[t]hey murder what is sacred, hallowed and beloved in our free land and make you like it.”
Particularly for young people who had learned about patterns of courtship through their parents, popular fiction, soap opera dramas, instructional films, and other sources, the comic portraits of male-female seduction offered by Nichols and May appeared bold and honest. In one characteristic seduction scene, for example, Nichols played the part of a suave advertising man from “G.A.A. & P.” who pulls out all the clichés and tricks of the modern-day playboy in order to get his secretary into bed. In this and many other comic scenes, Nichols and May refuted fifties’ stereotypes of marital bliss and domestic tranquility and portrayed through humor the way men and women attempt to con each other.
After seeing Nichols and May perform at Harvard Poet’s Theatre in 1960, a young woman commented to her escort that “the best thing about them is that they’re concerned with things that I didn’t think anybody ever noticed but me.” This earnest judgment accords with what many young American adults felt about satirists like Nichols and May during the 1950s and early 1960s. In short, Nichols and May laid bare the precarious position sensitive, intelligent individuals—particularly modern males—occupied in a world given to cant, hypocrisy, middle-class conformity, and other social maladies neither acknowledged nor discussed in public. For those young, liberal middle-class adults who were felt estranged from American society during the Eisenhower era, Nichols and May and their cohort represented a breath of fresh air and a hopeful signal that individualism and the spirit of irreverence had not been extinguished from the land.