A Thousand Clowns

Citation metadata

Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2005
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 20. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 25
Content Level: (Level 4)

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A Thousand Clowns




A Thousand Clowns was first presented at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York City on April 5, 1962, with Jason Robards in the role of Murray Burns. Herb Gardner's first full-length play, it was nominated for the Tony Award for best play and was so successful commercially that Gardner, named the most promising playwright of 1961–62, was able to turn to playwriting full time. A few years later, Gardner wrote the prize-winning screenplay for a film adaptation of A Thousand Clowns, also starring Robards.

The play tells the story of Murray Burns, a cheerful eccentric raising his nephew, a twelve-year-old genius, in New York City. Murray believes in living life fully, even if that means going to the movies instead of looking for a job. When social workers from the Bureau of Child Welfare come to investigate, he must decide whether to accept some level of conformity in order to show himself a fit guardian. The play is episodic and funny, as Murray meets all challenges to his lifestyle with irreverent humor. The text is available in Herb Gardner: The Collected Plays, published in paperback in 2001 by Applause Books.


Herbert Gardner was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 28, 1934. His grandfather owned a neighborhood bar, the Silver Gate, in Manhattan'sPage 237  |  Top of Article Lower East Side. Gardner attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York City and then the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he studied sculpture and drama. Gardner's Jewish heritage and his experiences listening to conversations in his father's bar provided background for several of his plays and characters.

A man of many interests and abilities, Gardner wanted to be a sculptor but did not think he would be able to make a living at it. In the 1950s, he drew a comic strip called The Nebbishes for the Chicago Tribune. The strip became popular and was widely syndicated. The income from the strip and related merchandise made it possible for Gardner to act on his dissatisfaction, like Murray Burns, and end his career. Turning his attention to writing longer works, in 1958 he published his first and only novel, A Piece of the Action. This was followed by his first full-length play, A Thousand Clowns, which opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway on April 5, 1962. In recognition of the play, Gardner was named the "promising playwright of 1961–62" by the New York Drama Critics.

Over the next forty years, Gardner had a relatively small but significant output. He wrote one-act plays, and five more full-length plays, including I'm Not Rappaport, which won the 1986 Tony Award for best play. All of his longer plays were produced on Broadway. He wrote the screenplay for the film version of A Thousand Clowns (1965), and five more screenplays based on his work. He also wrote television plays, short stories, reviews and columns. He died of lung disease on September 24, 2003, in New York City.


Act 1

Before the lights come up on A Thousand Clowns, the voice of Chuckles the Chipmunk, an inane children's television host, can be heard in the darkness, carrying on a perky conversation about "Chuckle-Chip Dancing" with a screaming crowd of children. The curtain goes up to reveal the cluttered one-room apartment of Murray Burns, every surface covered with clocks, broken radios, hats and other items. Although it is 8:30 on a Monday morning, the only light in the apartment is

Herb Gardner Herb Gardner

the light from the television, as Nick, Murray's nephew, watches the Chuckles the Chipmunk show. Murray, who has just gotten out of bed, enters from the kitchen with a cup of coffee, and the two begin their day.

Murray is a free spirit with an offbeat sense of humor. He phones the weather service to get the day's forecast and carries on an extended conversation with the recorded message on the other end. He has been unemployed for several months, having quit his job as a writer for Chuckles the Chipmunk because he fears becoming trapped in normal middle-class life. Although he has been promising Nick that he will look for a new job, he has no intention of doing so today, because he is celebrating the birthday of Irving R. Feldman, the owner of his favorite delicatessen. Nick, who is twelve, has decided to skip school in honor of the occasion as well. Clearly, Murray and Nick are fond of each other, and just as clearly, Murray has unconventional ideas about raising children. Nick, in some ways the more mature of the two, warns Murray that they are about to be visited by a social worker from the Bureau of Child Welfare. Murray promises to behave himself and considers again the possibility of looking for a job, but the prospect depresses him. Instead, he suggests a trip to the Statue of Liberty.

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Before Murray and Nick can leave, they find at the door Albert Amundson, a social worker, and Sandra Markowitz, a psychologist, both from the Bureau of Child Welfare. Murray has been ignoring their phone calls and letters for eleven months, and they have come to see whether he is a fit guardian for Nick. Murray answers their serious questions with jokes and non sequiturs. Albert is earnest and stuffy, and he has no appreciation for Murray's whimsical sense of humor. Sandra, on the other hand, finds Murray and Nick charming.

Murray and Nick truly are charming. They show off by guessing where Albert and Sandra grew up, based on their accents. Nick can also do imitations of Peter Lorre and James Cagney, famous movie actors from the 1940s and 1950s. Sandra is impressed by Nick's intelligence, but Albert refuses to be distracted from his list of prepared questions. Sandra draws Nick aside to talk, and Nick does his best to tell her what he thinks she wants to hear about "educational-type magazines" and "wholesome and constructive-type games." When asked about his favorite toy, Nick produces an electric statue of a topless hula dancer whose breasts light up. Nick has an ironic appreciation for how tacky the statue is, but Albert and Sandra try to establish deep psychological meanings for it. Murray explains that Nick's mother, Murray's sister, abandoned Nick years before. She never even gave her son a name. "Nick" is just a name the boy is trying out; he is to choose a permanent name when he turns thirteen in a few weeks. Sandra can see the humor in the way Murray and Nick live and in the inadequacy of the investigators' probing, but Albert cannot. When Albert asks Sandra to be quiet and let him complete the investigation, the two quarrel, and Albert leaves, threatening to have Nick placed in foster care.

With Albert gone, Sandra begins to cry. She knows she is not well suited for her job, because she becomes too involved with the people she is studying. She is romantically involved with Albert, but she knows that the relationship is also hopeless. She is worried about Murray and Nick and their chances for staying together. Nick is disappointed, but not surprised, that Murray was unable to behave during the interview. To cheer everyone up, Murray picks up his ukulele and begins to sing an old song, "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby." Soon Nick picks up his own ukulele and joins in the rousing performance, complete with dance steps. Before the song is over, Nick looks thoughtfully at Murray and Sandra, sees that they are acting like a couple, and grabs his pajamas so he can spend the night with a neighbor.

Act 2

Act 2 opens in Murray's apartment the next morning, where Sandra has spent the night. While Sandra is getting dressed, Murray's brother Arnold stops by with his daily delivery of a bag of fruit. Arnold is also Murray's agent, and he tells Murray that he has two job prospects for him. Arnold knows that the Child Welfare Bureau is investigating Murray, and he wants to help him get a job so he will look more reliable. Murray refuses to discuss work, and Arnold leaves.

When Sandra emerges, they have a few moments of tension before they realize they are both happy about their night together. As Sandra delights in her new-found independence and spontaneity, Albert returns to the apartment. He informs Murray that a hearing will be held in two days to determine whether he may continue as Nick's guardian. When Albert leaves, Murray tries to convince Sandra that Nick would be better off in foster care. He is unable to convince Sandra—or himself—that he is indifferent to Nick. Instead, he heads off to buy a new suit and get a job.

The next scene takes place in Arnold's office, where Arnold is talking on a speakerphone with Leo Herman, also known as Chuckles the Chipmunk. They are negotiating a new offer for Murray, who is on an interview with another man named Sloan. Leo wants Murray back, but only if Murray can be more respectful. Murray comes into the office and reports that he has not taken the other job because "Sloan is an idiot." He has decided to work with Leo again. But while talking with Leo, Murray is unable to hide his dislike. He tosses the speaker phone in the wastebasket while Leo is talking and storms out.

The third scene is back in Murray's apartment, but it is an apartment transformed. Sandra has been tidying and redecorating, putting all of the broken clocks and radios in boxes, and adding new bedspreads and pillows. Nick arrives and is pleasantly surprised to see Sandra still there and to see the changes she has made. The two chat in a friendly way. Murray comes home in a cheerful mood, but Sandra slowly realizes that he has not gotten a job and that Nick will have to leave. Disappointed with Murray, she leaves, too.

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Act 3

About thirty minutes later, act 3 finds Murray alone in his apartment, which he has restored to its original chaotic condition. Arnold comes in and tries to have a serious conversation with Murray about the future. Murray accuses Arnold of having given up all of his youthful dreams, but Arnold insists that he is content with his job, his home, his wife, his children. He refuses to apologize for not living like Murray and proclaims "I am the best possible Arnold Burns."

Arnold leaves and Nick comes in. He proudly announces that since Murray has gone out and gotten a job, he has decided to complete his own unfinished business: he has decided to take "Murray Burns" as his permanent name. Murray is touched by this but tries to convince the boy to choose another name.

Leo arrives to try to talk Murray into coming back to work. Leo is a pathetic figure; he is neither warm nor particularly funny, and it bothers him that he cannot get Nick to like him. The more he tries to amuse Nick, the duller he appears. As Nick sees how empty a man Leo is, he understands why Murray does not want to work for him, and he tries to chase Leo away with another chorus of "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby." But Murray knows now that he loves Nick, and he will do what he has to do to keep Nick with him. He quiets Nick and accepts Leo's job offer. He will be back to work in the morning. Leo leaves, and Sandra returns. She hints at ideas for fixing up the apartment again, and Nick encourages her. For now, the three are a family, and Nick and Sandra will unite to keep Murray in line. Murray resignedly accepts his fate, and the curtain comes down.


Albert Amundson

Albert Amundson is a social case worker with the New York Bureau of Child Welfare, sent to investigate Murray's fitness as a guardian for Nick. Albert is a stuffy, no-nonsense man. He takes his job seriously and wants to do it well, but he has no affinity for children and makes no attempt to talk with Nick when he visits the apartment with his partner, Sandra Markowitz. In fact, he suggests repeatedly that Murray send Nick away while they discuss the "case." He is not impressed by Nick's ability to identify where Albert has lived by listening to his accent nor amused by Nick's impressions or his song-and-dance number. He scolds Sandra—who is also his fiancé—because she allows herself to become emotionally involved in cases. Albert intends to stay detached and scientific as he explores other people's lives. His conclusion, after meeting Nick and Murray, is that Nick must be moved to foster care for his own protection; he does not see any value in the way Murray is bringing him up. He quarrels with Sandra over this conclusion, but uses his seniority with the bureau to remove Sandra from the case.

In act 2, Albert returns to announce the board's findings: Nick will be removed in three days unless Murray can prove that he is reliable. Albert comes personally to deliver the news and explains that while he admires Murray's affection for Nick, he believes that Nick is not receiving the kind of emotional support he needs. He knows that Murray is incapable of understanding this decision, but he is confident in it, and he accepts his role in the drama: "Your villains and heroes are all so terribly clear to you, and I am obviously one of the villains."

Sidebar: HideShow


  • A Thousand Clowns was made into a feature film in 1965, with Gardner's screenplay receiving an Academy Award nomination. Directed by Fred Coe, it stars Jason Robards as Murray, reprising his Broadway role. It is available on video and DVD from MGM Home Entertainment.

Arnold Burns

Arnold Burns is Murray's brother and also his agent. He is the most successful and stable member of the family, working for a large company of theatrical agents in downtown Manhattan and living a normal home life with a wife and children. Arnold looks after Nick and Murray, bringing them a bag of fresh fruit every day and arranging job interviews for Murray. Twenty years earlier, Arnold sharedPage 240  |  Top of Article Murray's sense of humor, and he lost his job as a salesman for Harry the Fur King because he did not behave maturely enough. Now he has a large office with a spectacular view on the twenty-second floor. In Murray's eyes, Arnold has given up his personality and free spirit in pursuit of money and conformity. But Arnold feels at peace with his compromises. He refuses to apologize for the way he lives and tells Murray proudly "I am the best possible Arnold Burns."

Murray Burns

Murray Burns, the protagonist of the play, is an unemployed television writer and the uncle and unofficial guardian of Nick. He had a successful job as head writer for the Chuckles the Chipmunk show until five months before the play begins, but he quit suddenly without notice, as he had quit several other writing jobs before that. Murray is a free spirit, an independent thinker, and he cannot be tied down to a nine-to-five job, wearing a suit and answering to a boss. Instead, he has spent the last five months going to the movies, visiting the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, and practicing his ukulele. Murray is the sort of person who notices and takes great pleasure in simple things: the smell inside a movie house, good pastrami, his collection of hats and broken radios, and watching ocean liners set sail. He enjoys every minute of his life, as perhaps only a person with no responsibilities can.

As a substitute parent for Nick, Murray has strengths and weaknesses. Nick seems to have no doubt about Murray's love for him, and he has grown into an intelligent and independent boy. But Nick knows Murray is not reliable about practical things, and like an adult he does worry when the rent is not paid for months or when Murray risks having Nick put in foster care by refusing to look for a job or say the right things to the social workers. The problem with Murray is that he cannot keep his mouth shut. When Albert and Sandra, case workers from the New York Bureau of Child Welfare, come to investigate, Murray acts silly and insults Albert. When Arnold tries to help Murray find a job, Murray insults him and his family. When Leo tries to patch things up, Murray insults him, too. What Murray does not insult he ignores, including eleven months' worth of calls and letters from the bureau and the job offer from Sloan, another television host. There is no real meanness in Murray. Somehow, as irresponsible as he is, he is charming, and Sandra falls in love with him in less than twenty-four hours.

As the play progresses, Murray tries to maneuver a course between being carefree and being responsible. For him, there is no middle ground, no compromise, so every attempt to become just a little more conventional ends in failure when he abruptly changes course. In the end, Murray seems to accept having a regular job, a neat apartment and a steady relationship with a woman as the price he must pay to keep Nick in his life. The audience has to wonder, however, how long this apparent stability will last.

Nick Burns

Nicks Burns is Murray and Arnold's twelve-year-old nephew, the son of their sister Elaine and one of her long string of irresponsible men. When Nick was five, Elaine left him at Murray's apartment and took off, returning only once to pick up a suitcase; she showed so little concern for Nick from the beginning that she never even named him. Murray has had an agreement with the boy: he can try out any name he likes for as long as he wants to, and when he is thirteen he will choose a permanent name and have it approved by the courts. Nick is an unusually bright child, and he attends a special school for gifted children. He has blossomed under Murray's eccentric style of parenting. He is independent, caring, sociable, and funny—a likeable kid who charms Sandra right away. In many ways, he is more mature than Murray, and he understands, when Murray refuses to, the danger they will be in if Murray will not behave himself when the social workers come and if he will not get a job.

Nick thinks he can read people and that he is skilled at telling them what they want to hear, but he is probably better at conning other twelve-year-olds than adults. When he tells Sandra that he and Murray "play many wholesome and constructive-type games together," or thanks Leo for the cardboard Chuckles the Chipmunk with "imagine how pleased I am to receive it," they see through him. Nick loves Murray and wants to stay with him, and he tries desperately to convince the other adults to appreciate Murray the way he is. He is attracted to Sandra because he thinks she will be able to help him mold Murray just enough to get by in the real world. To show his affection for Murray, Nick brings home a library card filled out with what he has chosen for his permanent name: Murray Burns. This act so flatters and confuses Murray, who has almost convinced himself that he and Nick would be better off without each other, that Murray accepts Leo's job, assuring that he and Nick can stay together.

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Chuckles the Chipmunk

See Leo Herman

Leo Herman

Leo Herman, forty-one, is the star of the Chuckles the Chipmunk children's television show on NBC. While he is in character as Chuckles, Leo is wildly cheerful and saccharine, prone to saying things like the play's first sentence: "Goshes and gollygoods, kidderoonies; now what are all us Chippermunkies gonna play first this fine mornin?"' Off camera, he is insecure and depressed. He knows that children do not like him, and he suspects that he is not even funny. He tries too hard; he does not know how to reach people. As he says about himself, he is nothing but "the biggest phony you ever met."

When he visits Murray and Nick at their apartment, he brings Nick a gift of a life-sized cardboard cutout of himself, a Chuckles the Chipmunk hat, and a bag of Chuckles the Chipmunk potato chips. Although Nick accepts the gifts gracefully, Leo eventually realizes that they only demonstrate his own big ego. Until six months before the play opens, Murray was the head writer for the show. Since he quit abruptly, the quality of the show has slipped, and Leo would very much like to get Murray back. But as much as he respects Murray's talents as a writer, he cannot accept Murray's disrespect for Leo and for the show. Meeting Nick and seeing the apartment, Leo realizes the extent of Murray's quirkiness. He accuses Murray of ruining Nick's life and is about to walk out when Murray stops him. Over Nick's objections, Murray soothes Leo's hurt feelings, assures him that he is funny, and agrees to report back to the show in the morning.

Sandra Markowitz

Sandra Markowitz, just a few months out of graduate school, is a psychological social worker with the New York Bureau of Child Welfare. With her partner and intended husband Albert Amundson, she has been sent to investigate Murray's fitness as a guardian. Unlike Albert, Sandra is charmed by Murray and Nick's humor and intelligence, and she would like to find a way to keep them together in spite of what the regulations say. Sandra is ill-suited to her work for the bureau. Although she has a doctoral degree and Albert does not, her lack of confidence usually leads her to bow to his professional judgment. Worse, she cannot help but become emotionally involved in her cases, taking a dislike to one little boy and finding herself delighted by Nick and Murray. When she refuses to back down and follow Albert's lead in this case, he leaves the apartment angrily while Sandra stays behind, weeping. Murray tells her she is well rid of Albert and of her job—that this is her opportunity to look for real happiness.

As act 2 opens, it is clear that Sandra has continued her impetuous behavior and stayed the night with Murray. She is both happy and insecure about it, and when Albert returns to the apartment she hides in the closet so he will not find her there. Sandra is attracted to Murray's eccentricity, but she is not willing to give up conventional life to the degree he has. Knowing that the bureau really will have Nick removed from his home if Murray does not show some responsibility, she urges him to get a job. While Murray is out, she cleans up the apartment, getting rid of all the broken clocks and hats and buying new bedspreads and pillows. She imagines that she has reformed Murray overnight, that he will be willing to make changes for her sake or for Nick's. Crushed when he admits that he has turned down two jobs, she leaves, telling him, "Maybe you're wonderfully independent, Murray, or maybe, maybe you're the most extraordinarily selfish person I've ever met." In the end, Sandra comes back, and she and Nick team up to keep Murray somewhat under control.


Self-concept and Selfishness

When Sandra discovers that Murray has been offered two jobs but has not accepted either of them, she expresses her disappointment in a line that expresses the play's central question: "Maybe you're wonderfully independent, Murray, or maybe, maybe you're the most extraordinarily selfish person I've ever met." The line between self-awareness and self-centeredness is the line that Murray must establish as he moves through the play, and it is this line that determines whether other characters find Murray enchanting or exasperating.

Murray is not close to many people. He is not married and seems to have no friends. He dates many women, but none for long. His sister Elaine is in Europe. His brother Arnold is kind and loyal, but Arnold's relationship with Murray seems entirely one-sided. Nick is a twelve-year-old boy. In Murray's eyes, he is independent and free, with no onePage 242  |  Top of Article telling him what he should be or do. He forms no attachments; he is not in debt to anyone for anything, and he does not ask for anything from others except to be left alone. Only by living this way, he believes, can he maintain his self-image, because intimacy with another person would create demands that would change who he is. And to maintain his uniqueness, he believes, is a high and noble calling. It is all he wants for Nick: "I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is…. I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair." For Murray, it is more important to be true to oneself than to make compromises that please others.

To other people—those who love Murray and those who do not—Murray's striving to maintain his self-concept is mere selfishness. Arnold, who feels responsible for supporting his wife and children, challenges Murray's refusal to work. It is not a highly developed dislike of mediocrity that informs Murray's choices, Arnold claims, but simply "Other People; taking up space, bumping into you, asking for things, making lines to wait on, taking cabs away." Albert cannot understand why Murray is not "at all willing to answer some questions, to give some evidence" to support his case and ultimately finds him guilty of "libertine self-indulgence." Leo Herman, repeatedly humiliated by Murray, criticizes: "the way you brought this kid up, Murray, grotesque atmosphere, unhealthy, and you're not even guilty about it." These characters find Murray selfish, not a free spirit; they do not long for the unfettered life he leads. At the end of the play, Murray's choice is clear: If he loves Nick, he will hang on to his job with Leo Herman, whether he finds it personally satisfying or not. The question hanging in the air as the curtain goes down is: Will he do it?

Sidebar: HideShow


  • The job of the New York Bureau of Child Welfare in the play is to determine whether or not Murray and Nick function well as a family. They seem particularly interested in the fact that Nick's birth parents were not married to each other. What different kinds of families do the people you know live in today? What are the qualities that make up a good parent or a functioning family?
  • The Chuckles the Chipmunk television show seems to be about equal parts entertainment and advertisement for Chuckle-Chip potato chips. In that regard, do you think television aimed at children has improved or deteriorated since the 1960s? Are children's programs today intended more for providing entertainment or for selling products?
  • A director of a stage play or a film works with the script on the page, but can guide the way an audience interprets a character by choosing who will play the parts and how they will deliver the lines. How would you cast a stage or film production of A Thousand Clowns? Which actors working today capture the essential qualities of each character as you perceive them?
  • A few years after its Broadway opening, A Thousand Clowns was made into a film. Instead of confining the action to Murray's one-room apartment and Arnold's office, the film was able to move throughout the city of New York. If you were making a film version of the play, what scenes would you add or relocate to take advantage of this opportunity?

Middle-class Life

Large groups of people in a given class share values and beliefs as well as social and economic status. Sociologists describe, for example, a set of values and beliefs found in capitalist societies among the middle classes. The middle classes, they observe, are particularly driven by a work ethic, aPage 243  |  Top of Article belief that people's worth derives chiefly from the work they do. People meeting each other for the first time are apt to identify themselves by their jobs, rather than by other characteristics—it is normal and acceptable to ask a new acquaintance "What do you do?" For people who hold the work ethic, a person who does not work is strange, someone to be avoided or examined.

Other qualities embraced by the middle class grow out of the workplace and its need for structure and order. Middle-class values as they are commonly referred to include a preference for punctuality, an acceptance of hierarchy, including respect and submission to those higher up on the corporate ladder, and an acceptance that the schedules and demands of work will shape one's daily life. Accompanying these values are fear and suspicion of anyone who does not adhere to them.

Murray Burns's greatest fear is that he will join the middle class and lose himself. He loves Nick and wants to keep him, but not if it means, as he says, "being judged by people I don't know and who don't know me." He wants to live on his own schedule, create his own holidays, because "You have to own your days and name them, each one of them, every one of them, or else the years go right by and none of them belong to you." He worries that if Nick is placed with a normal family "He'll learn to know everything before it happens, he'll learn to plan, he'll learn how to be one of the nice dead people." The people who disapprove of Murray's way of life do not think he is evil or dangerous or unkind; they see that he is different, and they assume that different is bad. If he were independently wealthy or chronically impoverished, people around him might question less his decision not to work. In practical terms, Murray's struggle is not within himself but is rather a struggle to maintain his chosen way of life within and yet outside the middle class.



A Thousand Clowns is set in New York City, specifically in the borough of Manhattan, the cultural and economic center of the city. Gardner and his characters know the city well and use references to its boroughs and neighborhoods as a kind of shorthand. Murray and Nick, for example, live above an abandoned Chinese restaurant in a brown-stone on the lower West Side, an area that in the 1960s was home to struggling artists, writers, and other nonconformists who were attracted to its interesting nineteenth-century architecture and its low rents. Neighborhoods offered a blend of residential space and small businesses including shops and delicatessens, often combined in one building. Brownstones, deep and narrow apartment buildings made of brown sandstone, provided small and inexpensive living space.

Sandra has grown up in the Bronx, another of New York's five boroughs. Murray and Nick suspect from her accent she is from the Mosholu Parkway neighborhood, but she grew up in another neighborhood, Grand Concourse. Both were areas of relative wealth, with tree-lined streets offering shade to the middle-class residents who had earned and saved enough to escape Manhattan (and to send their daughters to graduate school). Albert's origins in New Jersey make him an outsider even before he begins to speak.

The play is sprinkled with other specific references to neighborhoods and streets. Arnold's office faces the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center, a center for television production in the heart of Manhattan. His office on the twenty-second floor of a building in this part of town demonstrates that Arnold is successful and important. Murray has lunch with Sloan on East Fifty-Third Street and takes Nick to the El Bambino Club on Fifty-Second. He also visits or mentions the Empire State Building, New York Harbor where he watches ocean liners arrive and depart, the Central Park zoo, the Statue of Liberty, Park Avenue, Macy's, and the Lincoln Tunnel. Gardner's original Broadway audiences would have recognized these references and made inferences about the events surrounding them based on their awareness that midtown Manhattan is the business center, Park Avenue is home to wealthy people, and so on. Gardner's challenge is to provide enough context so that non-New Yorkers can get a sense of what he is suggesting by each location, without providing so much exposition that the jokes are lost.


The traditional literary hero demonstrates particular virtues, such as courage, nobility, or integrity.Page 244  |  Top of Article The term "hero" is sometimes used simply to mean the central character of a work of fiction (also called the "protagonist"), whether or not this character is more worthy than other characters, but more commonly the term refers to a central character who displays or acquires these heroic qualities. When the protagonist of a modern work lacks heroic qualities, as Murray Burns does, he or she is referred to as an anti-hero.

Murray is not just a common man, no more or less noble than people usually are. He is extraordinarily lacking in certain qualities. For all his talk about wanting to be true to himself, he has little knowledge of his own impulses and desires; he believes, for example, that his attachment to Nick is weak and impermanent. He sleeps with a lot of women, but he is unable or unwilling to establish emotional intimacy. He is not brave enough to confront Sloan or Leo Herman directly but resorts to rudeness and jokes. He is not merely a little self-centered, but may be, as Sandra considers, a "most extraordinarily selfish person." Murray is not quite capable of living in the real world and facing its challenges, but he is charming and sensitive and generally likeable. Ultimately, whatever his faults, the audience is on his side.


Anti-Communism and the 1950s

During the 1950s, there was a widespread belief in the United States that members of the Communist Party posed a serious threat to national security. Although the American Communist Party had existed in the United States since the 1920s as a vocal but ineffectual political force, tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States led many to see communists as allies of the enemy. This in turn led to a restriction of civil rights for those who were members of the Communist Party and even for those who were only suspected of being communists. In the federal government, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the House Un-American Activities Committee worked in secrecy to identify suspected communists and pressured employers to dismiss them. Many people lost their jobs at universities, in labor unions, and in government offices, because of suspected communist activities. In Hollywood and New York, a list of writers who were suspected communists was circulated among the major studios; no one whose name appeared on the "blacklist" could be hired to work on any television show or Hollywood movie. This is what Arnold refers to when he chastises Murray for turning so many employers against him: "Why did you have to go and build your own personal blacklist; why couldn't you just be blacklisted as a Communist like everybody else?"

But the impact of anti-communism was felt far beyond a few industries. For most of the 1950s, average citizens felt unusually constrained, afraid to challenge or question the government, for fear that someone would suspect them of being unpatriotic. There were no outspoken mass movements critical of the president or of government actions. Popular media presented conventional happy families cheerfully engaged in working toward the American Dream. People internalized these images and became relatively passive and accepting; they believed in their government, in hard work, and in trying to get along.

In the last two or three years of the 1950s, the communist scare relaxed. President John Kennedy was inaugurated in 1960, ushering in a period of optimism, youth, and idealism. It was in this new climate that offbeat characters who challenged the status quo—characters like Murray Burns—seemed generally appealing and amusing to a mainstream audience. A Thousand Clowns was not the first work to feature an unconventional character; it is one play among many works that celebrated nonconformity during the early 1960s.

The 1960s and Ethnic Comedy

During the 1960s, many writers and executives in the stage, film, and television businesses were Jewish, but few central characters in the media were. It was thought—probably correctly—that the largely Christian middle-class white audiences for these productions would not be interested in Jewish or other "ethnic" characters. One of the most popular television shows of the decade, The Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran from 1961 to 1966, featured a main character who was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant writer for a television series. The creator of the program, Carl Reiner, was Jewish, and he had modeled the show after his own experiences as a television writer, but studio executives did not think viewers wanted to laugh week after week at the work and home life of a Jewish man, and the role was given to Van Dyke. (In 1968, the television show Julia became the first situationPage 245  |  Top of Article comedy starring an African American woman who did not play the role of a domestic servant. There were no major Latino, Asian, Muslim, or gay characters on any comedy show.)

In her essay "The Struggle to Affirm: The Image of Jewish-Americans on Stage" Glenda Frank explains:

Until the 1980s most prominent Jewish playwrights kept ethnic issues at arm's length. Their characters and themes were as American as blue jeans and apple pie. Their protagonists were Melting Pot Everymen, even when identified by ethnic surnames.

In A Thousand Clowns, the references to ethnicity are subtle but would have been noticed by Gardner's New York audiences. Murray and his family are Jewish, as are Sandra Markowitz, Leo Herman and the deli owner, Irving R. Feldman; the character who is not is the buttoned-down Albert Amundson. Murray's name, his love of pastrami and other delicatessen food, and his sense of humor, would have signaled his heritage to an attuned audience, but nothing about ethnicity is overtly mentioned in the play. Gardner's next successful play, I'm Not Rappaport, repeats the pattern of characters with Jewish names who never mention their Jewishness. Not until 1991, with Conversations with My Father, would Gardner write a play that dealt directly with the ethnic identities of his characters.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • 1960s: Children's television shows like Chuckles the Chipmunk are produced locally in most major cities. Broadcast live and staged in front of a live audience, they typically feature a male host who shows cartoons, reads the comics from the local newspaper, and does short comedy sketches.
    Today: With the exception of a few locally produced Public Television programs, nearly all children's programming is produced in New York or California and broadcast over the major networks or cable channels.
  • 1960s: Business offices use the latest communications technology. Arnold Burns's New York office has a "special speaker-phone" with a separate speaker attached so others in the room can hear a phone caller. Gardner needs three sentences to explain this technology in his stage directions.
    Today: Businesses still are the first market for new communication technologies, such as computer servers and routers, video conferencing, and satellite networking. Speaker phones are small, inexpensive, and found in many private homes.
  • 1960s: An administrative assistant in an office in a large city makes a starting salary of about ninety dollars a week, or less than $5,000 a year. It is enough to support a single person in a small apartment.
    Today: An administrative assistant in an office in a large city starts at about $20,000 to $25,000 dollars a year. Rents are so high that most single-income families at this income level cannot afford to live in Manhattan.
  • 1960s: To get relatively up-to-the-minute weather information, residents of cities can dial a local phone number twenty-four hours a day and listen to a recorded message. Another call to another number gives the accurate time of day.
    Today: Cable weather channels give frequently updated world, national, and local weather information, as do many Internet sites.


A Thousand Clowns was almost universally praised when it opened on Broadway in 1962. John McClainPage 246  |  Top of Article of Journal American called it "Merely the best comedy of this season," and Howard Taubman of the New York Times found the play "sunny and wistful, sensible and demented, and above all, unfailingly amusing." Some critics commented that the plot was a bit thin and predictable, but agreed that the play as whole was entertaining. John McCarten observed in the New Yorker that Gardner is

garrulous, repetitive, and undisciplined, but also pretty funny, and if you ignore the plot of his comedy, which never does resolve itself, and just watch his characters capering about, it should give you a pleasant enough evening.

A Thousand Clowns was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play in 1963, and Gardner was named "promising playwright for 1961–62" by the New York Drama Critics on the strength of this, his first full-length play.

When the play was revived in 1996 and again in 2001, reviews were less favorable. Although Murray Burns was played by popular actors Judd Hirsch (1996) and Tom Selleck (2001) who created engaging performances, the characters and jokes seemed dated to many reviewers. Thirty or forty years after the play's first opening, audiences were used to more outrageous behavior and language on stage, and it was much more difficult to delight them with mild wackiness. Of the 1996 production, Irene Backalenick commented in Back Stage that "What might once have been seen as zany, unconventional behavior now seems tame." Charles Isherwood, reviewing the 2001 production for Variety, echoed Backalenick's judgment, noting that "much of Gardner's once-disarming irreverence seems tame and contrived."

Only one serious critical article has examined A Thousand Clowns, Thomas J. Scorza's "On the Moral Character of the American Regime" (1978). Scorza, a political scientist, uses the play to examine how American culture "understands itself" and finds that the play "ultimately defends the moral character of conventional American life." The article echoes the sentiments of those drama critics who, even in 1962, interpreted Murray's behavior throughout the play and his decision to get a job at the end of the play as reinforcement of the conventionality Murray purports to argue against. Harold Clurman commented on this idea in the Nation when the play was new, observing that "Gardner's merits … are at the service of what they deride. The play's anti-conformity is but a reflex of conformity."


Cynthia Bily

Bily teaches literature and writing at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. In this essay, Bily examines Gardner's play as a lesson in integration and compromise.

In one of the most important speeches in A Thousand Clowns, Murray explains to Sandra Markowitz that it is a grand thing to not quite know who one is.

It's just that there's all these Sandras running around who you never met before, and it's confusing at first, fantastic, like a Chinese fire drill. But god damn, isn't it great to find out how many Sandras there are? Like those little cars in the circus, this tiny red car comes out and putters around, suddenly its doors open and out come a thousand clowns, whooping and hollering and raising hell.

What Murray wants Sandra to understand is that she does not have to limit herself to one image of herself, that she is richer and more interesting than she realizes. Ironically, this is a truth that Murray cannot accept about himself. He is locked into one way of thinking about who he is, and he feels that any attempt he might make to explore the other Murrays would be a threat to his selfhood.

For Murray, the world exists only in black and white. He is either free or trapped. His only choices are "life in the … job-hunting raw on the one hand, and eleven fifty-cent double features on the other." If "most things aren't funny" then life is just "one long dental appointment." He can be either the carefree nonconformist, or a dull business drone with no imagination and no personality. There is no middle ground. Any step toward what the rest of the world calls responsible or stable behavior will destroy him, turn him into "an ash tray, a bowl of corn flakes, I wouldn't know me on the street."

Murray also believes that other people are one way or another, good or bad. He is only half joking when he tells Sandra that "People fall into two distinct categories … people who like delicatessen, and people who don't like delicatessen." Albert tells Murray, "Your villains and heroes are all so terribly clear to you, and I am obviously one of the villains." And Murray refuses Sloan's job offer because "Sloan is an idiot." Murray makes quick judgments about people and does not change them.

Of course, Murray is right in what he tells Sandra about those clowns. People have many facetsPage 247  |  Top of Article to their personality and part of being mature and whole is balancing the competing demands that arise from this internal complexity and the complexity of the world. People learn as they grow up that they can and ought to behave differently in different situations and that managing varying expectations is necessary for thriving in the adult world. Through the course of the play, Murray has to learn to reject his all-or-nothing way of seeing himself. He has to learn to compromise. As he encounters the other adult characters in turn, he has the opportunity to see how degrees of this kind of integration lead people to succeed or fail in their lives.

The least compromising character is social worker Albert Amundson. When he is working, he is all business, and he will not be distracted from his prepared list of questions, even by the humor and charm of Nick and Murray. The people he meets in his work are not individuals, but cases, and he treats every family the same way. His greatest worry during his investigation of Murray is that he and Sandra have "lost all control," as of course they have. The humor in the exchanges between Murray and Albert in act 1 derives primarily from the conflict between two bull-headed people. Although viewers sympathies lie more with Murray than with Albert, they understand immediately that the two men do not speak the same language, and they find humor in their inability to understand each other. Murray and Albert are decent men, and both want what is best for Nick, but because neither man has the will at this moment to see the world through more than one lens, neither can reach a resolution. Because neither will take even one step toward the other, they will never meet in the middle.

As rigid as Albert is at work, Sandra admits that he does have a more flexible side and that "He's really a very nice person when he's not on cases." Albert has learned one thing that Murray has not: that it is possible to adopt a professional demeanor for work and relax into another personality the rest of the day. In Albert's line of work, it is often more appropriate to behave with some detachment, as experienced social workers know. And in act 2 Albert shows kindness and decency in coming in person to deliver the news that there is to be a hearing to determine Murray's fitness as a guardian. Albert comes back because he has done what Murray cannot do: he has reconsidered the conversation of the day before and thought about it from Murray's point of view. In this second visit, Albert knows that he will not be received cordially, he

Jason Robards in a scene from A Thousand Clowns Jason Robards in a scene from A Thousand Clowns

knows that he cannot hold his own in a conversation with Murray, but he tries anyway to see and articulate the complexity of Murray's situation, only to be met with more mockery. Albert says sadly, "You can't really listen to me."

Another character who tries to help Murray is Arnold, who used to be as carefree as his sister and brother. Twenty years earlier, he enjoyed startling people just for fun, and he once got himself fired from a salesman job by pulling a practical joke. But now Arnold has a wife and children, and he is responsible for supporting them. He has clients, including Murray, who depend on him and television executives who rely on him to deal with them honestly and fairly. Arnold has accepted his responsibilities. When Arnold says, "business, like they say, is business," he demonstrates his understanding that some things are not business. When he says, "I'm lucky. I'm gifted. I have a talent for surrender," he is not being ironic or self-pitying. Part of being a functioning adult is knowing when to give in. Arnold knows how to compartmentalize, to inhabit different worlds, to compromise. This does not make Arnold weak or confused; he has a strong sense of self and of self-worth. He is "the best possible Arnold Burns."

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Leo Herman, who makes his living playing a character, Chuckles the Chipmunk, demonstrates the multifaceted self at its least effective. Leo is a children's television host who does not really like children, a comedian who isn't funny. When Murray sees Leo, he sees a man who does not know who he is and does not like who he is. Murray has worried that if he goes back to work he will cease to be himself, and this does seem to have happened to Leo, who says, "I keep touching myself to make sure I'm still there. Murray, I get the feeling, maybe I vanished when I wasn't looking." Leo is what Murray is afraid of becoming: not a healthy multifaceted adult but "the biggest phony you ever met."

One character just outside the play stands as a cautionary example to Murray, showing him what he could become if he followed his dedication to nonconformity to its logical conclusion. Murray's sister Elaine is the extreme free spirit, the completely selfish person who allows nothing—not even the responsibility of being Nick's mother—get in the way of her own enjoyment. Her "wellpracticed theory on the meaning of life" falls, as Murray describes it, "somewhere to the left of Whoopie." Like her brother Murray, she moves from lover to lover and from interest to interest without committing to anyone or anything. Perhaps she is leading the life Murray would lead if it were not for Nick. But because of his love for Nick, Murray sees clearly that Elaine's selfishness is indefensible.

So what is Murray to do? He does not want to be as selfish as Elaine or as phony as Leo. He thinks he knows who he is: a fun-loving, enthusiastic free spirit. Are there more Murrays trapped inside his car, waiting to come out? Sandra has told him, "I think, Murray, that you live in a much, much larger closet than I do." What should he make of the examples of Arnold and Albert? Is their daily choice to take their jobs seriously a denial of a facet of their personality or an acceptance of another?

Sandra's challenge is the opposite of Murray's. Sandra begins the play with no sense of self; she allows herself to be manipulated and defined entirely by the world around her. Murray is right about her needing to "meet all these Sandras" to find out who she is. She has only recently finished graduate school and admits that "The minute I got out of school I wanted to go right back inside." Although she has a doctorate in psychology and Albert has only a bachelor's degree, she tends to defer to Albert, even when she disagrees with him. As a psychological case worker, she is called upon to be detached and disinterested about the cases she handles, but after making a few mistakes in her first three months on the job she concludes, "I am unsuited to my profession." Sandra still lives with her parents and allows her mother to pick out her clothes, "which are obviously more suited to a much older woman."

When Sandra quarrels with Albert and then decides to stay the night with Murray, she is taking a step toward independence. She is beginning to assert herself and to ask herself what she wants. (But it is only a small step: she does hide in the closet when Albert arrives.) Her taste still runs toward the conventional, and when she redecorates Murray's apartment she removes all traces of his unique personality to create something that reflects neither her own taste nor Murray's, but looks like a page from the Ladies' Home Journal. Presumably, as Sandra continues to develop, she will move past rejecting other people's ideas about her and strengthen her sense of when not to give in. She will face all those Sandras one by one and find a place for each one.

As the play ends, Murray has agreed to come back to work for Leo, and he stands helplessly as Nick and Sandra put away his clocks and radios. According to the stage directions, he knows he cannot stop their redecorating, so he "shrugs, defeated." Audiences find the ending of A Thousand Clowns to be mixed. Murray clearly makes the right decision in going back to the television show so he can keep his family together. Murray and Sandra will be good for each other. With his encouragement, she will explore more possibilities, and she will help Murray stay focused. Still, it is hard not to feel disappointed that Murray has to sacrifice himselfPage 249  |  Top of Article for the cause. Murray would feel better about his new life if he would embrace his own metaphor, if he would only believe that Murray the funny writer, Murray the respectful employee, Murray the responsible father, and Murray the carefree soul are just a few of his thousand clowns.

Source: Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on A Thousand Clowns, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Thomas J. Scorza

In the following essay, Scorza examines how A Thousand Clowns "may reveal those important popular views which 'great literature' either disdains or conceals."

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Source: Thomas J. Scorza, "On the Moral Character of the American Regime: A Thousand Clowns Revisited," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 77, Spring 1978, pp. 225–41.

Harold Clurman

In the following review of the initial staging of A Thousand Clowns, Clurman recognizes Gardner's talent but asserts that the play is overlong and that its "anti-conformity is but a reflex of conformity."

Herb Gardner who wrote A Thousand Clowns, his first play (Eugene O'Neill Theatre), has talent. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he is adept. He is astute and can write funny lines. One of the ads has it that the play provides "a thousand laughs." Half as many would have been more than enough.

The play might be described as a comic paean to nonconformity. Our audiences, being trapped in the contraptions of our civilization, seek escape: they find it in such plays as A Thousand Clowns. It reminds one of Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You. (The earlier play offered relief during the depression; A Thousand Clowns offers it in our prosperity.) But notice: the audience that suffers from its conformism cannot break with it, and the play which notes its dilemma ends not only by illustrating conformity but by defending it.

Murray Burns is a lively young freelance writer of television scripts. His last assignment was to an idiotic children's program performed by a dynamic oaf pathetically caught in the tic of commercial vitality. Murray cannot stand the gaff. He quits his job, figuratively thumbing his nose at his employer

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Barbara Harris and Jason Robards in the 1965 film adaptation of A Thousand Clowns Barbara Harris and Jason Robards in the 1965 film adaptation of A Thousand Clowns

and all that he represents. But Murray has a ward, his nephew, a precocious wonder boy of twelve. (Unwittingly the author has made him a true child of Madison Avenue.) Murray has taken care of the boy for five years but, being something of a playboy anarchist in retreat from employment, he rears his charge in a rather loose round of fun and games. The Child Welfare Board wants to remove the boy from Murray's haphazard guardianship. Since Murray loves his nephew and finds that there is no getting out of the rat race of the networks (television or whatever), he returns to his job of collaboration with the obnoxious comic of the children's program.

The play—very thin in plot—is built up in a series of improvisations or sketches—each of which is filled with surprise quips and cute gags. The play also gives evidence of a facility in quick characterization of recognizable contemporary types. One of the best is that of Leo Herman, Murray's television boss, who is a compound of monumental egotism. self-abasement, insecurity and hysterical energy. The scene in which Herman is heard in a harangue over an interoffice speaker is almost insufferably apt. (When Herman himself appears in the last act his presence is anti-climatic: we know all about him through that one long yelp over the intercom.)

I laughed with everyone else, though surely not as often. But as the play proceeded (it struck me as at least twenty minutes too long; the author is inexhaustibly clever), I grew uncomfortable amid the hilarity. Even Mr. Gardner's merits became a source of irritation, for they are at the service of what they deride. The play's anti-conformity is but a reflex of conformity.

Murray Burns has abandoned his job to avoid the irksome confinement of a meaningless trade. What does he do with his freedom? He visits the Statue of Liberty, the movies, he indulges in delicatessen delights, he plays around with girls; above all he shouts eccentrically amusing insults and charming inconsequentialities to all and sundry. He's full of beans and his credo is that everyone else ought to be. But this is nothing but freshman prankishness. It is high spirits in vacuo—entirely self-centered.

The nonconformist in a society such as ours has to be twenty times as disciplined as the man of ordinary occupation. To achieve freedom, the rebel must possess a steadiness of judgment, a strength of will, a clarity of purpose beyond anything the simple citizen can realize. To be a real person, and to enjoy life truly, are not a matter of "having a sense of humor" or giving off sparks like a fire-(or wise-)Page 258  |  Top of Article cracker, but of being committed to a deep impulse within oneself that is rationally objectified in some goal outside oneself—a goal set up on behalf of others with whom one feels indissolubly connected. Because its high pressure requires relief, a mechanized society adores its thousand clowns. The laugh-provoking bum is one of society's most useful safety gadgets. Mr. Gardner's play will please hordes and make a million.

Its production is expert. Fred Coe's direction is unrelentingly efficient. The casting and cast are first-rate. Jason Robards, Jr., though essentially a tragic actor, plays comedy with sure command. Barry Gordon, as the infant prodigy, is almost frighteningly proficient. William Daniels is just right as the Child Welfare investigator: sincere, obtuse, funny despite himself. Sandy Dennis has freshness, ease, an unconventional attractiveness—though she becomes vocally monotonous after the first act. Larry Haines is sympathetically direct and wholly plausible as Murray's brother, a contented mediocrity, and Gene Saks renders to perfection the exposed nerve of the terrible TV puppet.

Source: Harold Clurman, Review of A Thousand Clowns, in Nation, Vol. 194, No. 18, May 5, 1962, p. 408.

Herb Gardner

In the following introduction to A Thousand Clowns, Gardner expounds on the difficulty of writing this introduction and on what it means to him to be a playwright.

In this dream I always have I am sitting on the stage of the Morosco Theatre wearing a tuxedo, writing the third act of a play. Unfortunately, it is the opening night of the play I'm writing, and the opening night audience is filing into the theatre. They come down the aisles and take their seats; I hear the familiar and expectant buzz of well-wishers and killers. I scratch away with dried-out felt-tipped pen on loose-leaf paper on a trembling card table, around me the crisp opening night air of Bar Mitzvah and execution. I wave to them. I offer a comforting smile. I am cordial; they are restless. I keep writing. I hold my free hand up from time to time as though to say, "Please wait, I'll be ready soon." The stage is littered with props, parts of costumes, and pieces of sets. I look around for clues: there is a trampoline and a piece of a train, the outside motor of a forties icebox is strangely new and polished, a school desk and a U-boat periscope, an abandoned sneaker lies on a witness stand, a five-string banjo and a Dodgers' cap, a battered phone booth; twenty-two clocks, all of them with a different time and all of them wrong, a straw hat, a derby, a steel safe with a doily and a bowl of flowers on it, the cabin of a Ferris wheel, a rotting BLT and a rocking chair. The objects stand in some order, ready for use. As always, I'm sure there is a pattern to this debris, and as always I don't know what it is. In the wings an ancient stagehand sits with half a pastrami sandwich, dozing; he awakens briefly, smiles at me, offers a wink of recognition and whispers the word "Schmuck." He is my muse. He whispers the word again; I tell him that I am a playwright. There is always a confusion between us on this issue. Actors and actresses of various ages and in various shapes and sizes wait in positions around the stage, in doorways, at the top of stairways, one is behind the wheel of a taxi and another is mumbling under a trapdoor at my feet. "Please wait," I say, "I'll be ready soon." In the back of the theatre a white-haired man is speaking calmly into a walkie-talkie, arranging a lawsuit. He is the producer. "Please wait," I shout to him, "I'll be ready soon." I hold on to the card table and we shake together. I look down at the manuscript; it is entitled "Please Wait." I feel a strange mixture of terror and comfort, I am in that familiar anxious place: a theatre. I am where I have always wanted to be, wondering what I will do there. A barefoot tap dancer with marvelous plans, a hopeful amnesiac waiting to remember. The conspiracy is clear and the dream is complete; the players, the playgoers, and the playwright wait for the play.

The editor of this volume, a hopeful and kindly fellow, has been waiting for this introduction for two months. I have offered him a series of deadlines, lies, promises, and apologies which we have both decided to believe. How do I explain that I write plays, that I speak in the voices of other people because I don't know my own; that I write in the second person because I don't know the first; that I have been writing plays most of my adult life waiting to become both an adult and a playwright, and that it takes me so many years to write anything that I am forced to refer to myself during these periods as a playwrote? I have tried to write this introduction at desks, in taxis, on long plane rides; I have worked on it at thirty thousand feet and in bathtubs; I have spoken it into tape recorders and the ears of friends and loved ones. There are several problems: I can't seem to invent the character who says the lines; I am writing words that won't be spoken aloud and in a strange language, English—my first, last, and only language; and, most importantly,Page 259  |  Top of Article I cannot offer an explanation for why I wrote this play because there is none. Playwriting is an irrational act. It is the Las Vegas of art forms, and the odds are terrible. A curious trade in which optimism, like any three-year-old's, is based on a lack of information, and integrity is based on the fact that by the time you decide to sell your soul no devil is interested. Your days are spent making up things that no one ever said to be spoken by people who do not exist for an audience that may not come. The most personal thoughts, arrived at in terrible privacy, are interpreted by strangers for a group of other strangers. The fear that no one will put your plays on is quickly replaced by the fear that someone will. It's hard to live with yourself and even harder for people to live with you: How do you ask a kamikaze pilot if his work is going well? The word Playwright looks terrible on passports, leases, and credit applications; and even worse in newspaper articles alternately titled "Where Did These Playwrights Go?" and "Why Don't These Playwrights Go Away?," usually appearing in what The New York Times whimsically refers to as the Leisure Section. The most difficult problem, of course, is that I love it.

God help me, I love it. Because it's alive. And because the theatre is alive, exactly what is terrible is wonderful, the gamble, the odds. There is no ceiling on the night and no floor either; there is a chance each time the curtain goes up of glory and disaster, the actors and the audience will take each other somewhere, neither knows where for sure. Alive, one time only, that night. It's alive, has been alive for a few thousand years, and is alive tonight, this afternoon. An audience knows it's the last place they can still be heard, they know the actors can hear them, they make a difference; it's not a movie projector and they are not at home with talking furniture, it's custom work. Why do playwrights, why do we outsiders and oddballs who so fear misunderstanding, use a medium where we are most likely to be misunderstood? Because when this most private of enterprises goes public, and is responded to, we are not alone. Home is where you can tell your secrets. In a theatre, the ones in the dark and the ones under the lights need each other. For a few hours all of us, the audience, the actors, the writer—we are all a little more real together than we ever were apart. That's the ticket; and that's what the ticket's for.

Some words of advice about reading this play, or any play for that matter. Sometimes I'm out in the street and I think of a character or a scene; on the way upstairs to my desk I lose fifty percent. While translating these captionless pictures into intelligible language I lose another twenty-five. A good actor can put back the seventy-five percent I lost on the way to my desk. So I ask you, for whatever might be good in this play, read it like a good actor; because a play on paper is only a code book, signals, notes for emotions, vague road maps for countries in constant border dispute, and nothing without you. Also, of course, this play is not finished; but please wait, I'll be ready soon.

Source: Herb Gardner, "Introduction," in A Thousand Clowns, Penguin Books, 1961, pp. vii–x.


Backalenick, Irene, Review of A Thousand Clowns, in Back Stage, Vol. 37, No. 30, July 26, 1996, p. 44.

Clurman, Harold, Review of A Thousand Clowns, in the Nation, May 5, 1962, p. 408.

Frank, Glenda, "The Struggle to Affirm: The Image of Jewish-Americans on Stage," in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, Peter Lang, 1995, p. 245.

Gardner, Herb, A Thousand Clowns, in Herb Gardner: The Collected Plays, Applause Books, 2001.

Isherwood, Charles, Review of A Thousand Clowns, in Variety, Vol. 383, No. 8, July 16, 2001, p. 24.

McCarten, John, "Assorted Oddballs," in the New Yorker, April 14, 1962, p. 106.

McClain, John, "Best Comedy of the Season," in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, 1962, p. 303, originally published in Journal American, April 6, 1962.

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Scorza, Thomas J., "On the Moral Character of the American Regime: A Thousand Clowns Revisited," in the South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 77, Spring 1978, pp. 25–41.

Taubman, Howard, "Theatre: A Thousand Clowns Opens," in the New York Times, April 6, 1962, p. 31.


Greenfield, Thomas Allen, Work and the Work Ethic in American Drama 1920–1970, University of Missouri Press, 1982.

This book, as its title suggests, explores dramatic treatments of work life. A Thousand Clowns is mentioned only briefly, as an example of how work divides people, especially among the middle class. Greenfield places Gardner in this regard alongside Neil Simon and Edward Albee, who also dealt in the 1960s with issues of work.

Guernsey, Otis L., Jr., ed., "Humor," in Broadway Song and Story: Playwrights, Lyricists, Composers Discuss Their Hits, Dodd, Mead, 1985, pp. 371–83.

This chapter is a transcribed conversation between Gardner and Russell Baker, Jules Feiffer, Terrence McNally, and Joseph Stein, about how they write comedy for the theater and about the early radio comics who inspired their work.

Hollis, Tim, Hi There, Boys and Girls: America's Local Children's TV Programs, University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

This serious review of the history of children's programming is written with a great deal of humor. It covers the genre from its beginnings in the 1940s until the demise of local programming in the 1970s, describing shows and their hosts in every state.

Unger, Irwin, and Debi Unger, eds., The Times Were a Changin': The Sixties Reader, Three Rivers Press, 1998.

This anthology, compiled by a historian and a journalist, includes more than fifty essays, articles, and other documents that chronicle the major social, cultural, and political issues of the 1960s in the United States. The editors' commentary is balanced and provides necessary and insightful contextual information.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420400023