The Forgotten Fifties: Debut of a Guest Columnist

DO we misread our cultural past, especially the 1950s? Today marks the debut of CultureCrash guest columnist Lawrence Christon, a veteran arts and entertainment journalist in LA, author of a book about South Coast Repertory, and a longtime friend. Larry will be weighing in on various topics about the past, present and future of culture and society. While we agree on numerous subjects, we’re not the same person, and our thinking will differ in major and minor ways. This all said, very glad to offer CultureCrash’s first guest column today.

I’ll add that the 1950s — and the whole midcentury period — is an important theme in my upcoming book, Pepsi Cola Ads, 1950s (2).

“The Forgotten Fifties”

If it wasn’t punishing enough to hear yet another dim standup offer an absurdly uninformed summation of an experience he never had, it was even more galling to read, in Slate, Patton Oswalt’s crack about the “cultural neck brace” that was the 1950s. As that seems to be an impression widely shared by the ADD generation, consider this a public service announcement.

Most decades don’t begin to take shape until three or four years in. The ‘60s, for example, didn’t begin to erupt (or become unhinged, depending on your point-of-view), until the JFK assassination, the arrival of the Beatles, and the increasingly bad notice of the war in Vietnam. Let’s say ’63-‘64.
The ‘50s arguably began in the mid-to-late ‘40s, with the end of World War II and the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. As The New Yorker theater critic and biographer John Lahr notes in his upcoming biography of playwright Tennessee Williams, “Fueled by longing and loss, the republic, which had deferred its dreams through fifteen years of Depression and five years of war assumed, seemingly overnight, a new momentum, a glorious and guilt-ridden race for its own survival…In the next decade, American per-capita income would triple, the greatest growth in the history of Western civilization.”
 
Lahr also notes a mutation of American consciousness. “The axis of concentration,” he quotes playwright Arthur Miller, “turned violently and very quickly away from society to the self.” Social Realism to Abstract Expressionism, Marxism to Freudianism. These are among the cultural signposts of what Lahr calls “the journey to the interior.”
  
It was an eventful trip. Yes, there was the Legion of Decency, the House Un-American Activities Committee, The Cold War and the Red Scare, cookie-cutter suburbia, the rise of the corporate state and Big Business, and a general unease over sex, race, and nuclear annihilation sufficient to cloud the era under the term, the Age of Anxiety. Conformity was the word you heard back then. But it wasn’t quite the conformity of an anesthetized populace marching in lockstep to a Soviet style workday. It was the combination of world-weary survivors of the bloodiest century on record trying to make a safe new world for their kids; and teens—adolescence first came into the vernacular then—trying to come to terms with what Ezra Pound called “a botched civilization.”
So here’s a few of the things you had just about everywhere you looked in art and entertainment and the world of ideas:
   —In a scene that lasted all of ten seconds in 1950’s “The Men,” Marlon Brando trashed a veterans’ hospital day room with a stunning fury that changed American film acting forever, introducing a whole new Stanislavskian attitude and approach to performance. The ‘50s also brought us the films of DeSica, Visconti, Rossellini and Fellini, as well of La Nouvelle Vague of Trauffaut, Godard and Antonioni.
   —Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” mystified everyone until, in 1957, The Actors Workshop out of San Francisco staged it at San Quentin prison, where it made perfect sense, thereby introducing a powerful new canon author Martin Esslin called Theatre of the Absurd. The well-made play went the way of the well-made world.
   —Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Nichols & May and Chicago’s Second City brought a whole new level of satirical self-examination to American society and politics.
   –The Beat writers, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, along with Bellow, Mailer, Vidal, Salinger, Dorothy Parker, Baldwin and Barth, helped shape what was essentially a literary decade, as did sociologists C. Wright Mills and David Reisman, who articulated the powerful reaction to looming corporatocracy (“The shits are killing us,” Mailer said). Rheinhold Niebuhr was to 20th century religious philosophy what Soren Kierkegaard was to the 19th.
  –Live network TV brought us a primetime menu of symphonic music, TV drama that spawned Sidney Lumet, Paddy Chayefsky and John Frankenheimer, and on Saturday nights, convulsed the nation with The Jackie Gleason Show and the madcap Sid Caesar crew at “Your Show of Shows.”
   —And let’s not forget how Elvis Presley got us all shook up.
  
   This is just a pathetically small sampling. Where can I put Leonard Bernstein, Balanchine, Coltrane?
   For further contrast, we need go no further than the spectacular and elegant 1956 wedding between Grace Kelly and the Prince of Morocco, the closest thing we had to republican America’s nostalgia, if not for royalty, then a benign manifestation of class.
   Compare that with the nuptials of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, an estimated $3 million spectacle staged in a fake chateau adjoining a sewage treatment plant, whose noxious fumes they’ve hoped to dispel with generous gusts of perfume.  Is this perfect satire, or not? And why can’t we say so?
   Makes you wonder if the wingnuts of the right aren’t on to something in their refutation of the theory of evolution. Maybe they’re just using the wrong arguments.
– Lawrence Christon, Guest Columnist
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