Friday, August 06, 2010

“I Am Not An Exceptional Man."

Playwright Herb Garner introduced us to two brothers, Arnold and Murray Burns in his 1962 play, “A Thousand Clowns.” Arnold is a successful businessman who has “made his peace with the world” for the price of his annual income. Murray is basically a bum, who seems to be hiding from life while trying to get the most out of it. Their story centers around their 12-year old nephew their sister dropped off years ago with Murray, along with some luggage and other items (she later came back to claim the luggage and the items). Murray, an eccentric and a rebel against society, is faced with a decision: get a job or lose Nick to Social Services. This clip from the 1965 movie version gives a sense of Murray’s free spirit:

Why did their sister choose to drop her son off with the ne’er-do-well Murray and not well-to-do Arnold? Why doesn’t Arnold offer to take care of Nick? He drops off food every day at Murray’s apartment, but why will he not take care of Nick? One obviously cares for people while the other does not. Makes one wonder: “what kind of person am I?”

Murray tries to explain his perspective and why he cares for others so much, perhaps to his own hurt:

I was sitting in the express looking out the window same as every morning watching the local stops go by in the dark with an empty head and my arms folded, not feeling great and not feeling rotten, just not feeling, and for a minute I couldn’t remember, I didn’t know, unless I really concentrated, whether it was a Tuesday or a Thursday… or a … for a minute it could have been any day, Arnie… sitting in the train going through any day… in the dark through any year… Arnie, it scared the hell out of me.”

Perhaps the most well known portion of the play is Arnold’s reply:

I have long been aware, Murray . . . I have long been aware that you don’t respect me much. I suppose there are a lot of brothers you don’t get along . . . . But in reference to us, considering the factors . . . sounds like a contract, doesn’t it? Unfortunately for you Murray, you want to be a hero. Maybe if a fella falls into a lake, you can jump in and save him; there’s still that kind of stuff. But who gets opportunities like that in midtown Manhattan, with all that traffic. I am willing to deal with the available world and I do not choose to shake it up but to live with it. There’s the people who spill things, and the people who get spilled on; I do not choose to notice the stains, Murray.

I have a wife and I have children, and business, like they say, is business. I am not an exceptional man, so it is possible for me to stay with things the way they are. I’m lucky. I’m gifted. I have a talent for surrender. I’m at peace. But you are cursed; and I like you so it makes me sad, you don’t have the gift; and I see the torture of it. All I can do is worry for you. But I will not worry for myself; you cannot convince me that I am one of the Bad Guys. I get up, I go, I lie a little, I peddle a little, I watch the rules, I talk the talk. We fellas have those offices high up there so we can catch the wind and go with it, however it blows. But, and I will not apologize for it, I take pride; I am the best possible Arnold Burns

This is a stunning and revealing admission, demonstrating the destruction of narrow, prideful, backward thinking. As the Latin proverb goes, “Every man is eloquent in his own cause.”

Arnold implies there are two kinds of people: those who spill and those who get spilled upon—then he creates for himself a third category (population: 1): “I do not notice the stains, Murray.” Right now he is being a spiller, but cannot see it. For example, Arnold is an admitted liar, yet calls his brother “cursed.”

The role-reversal is not difficult to miss. Arnold states that taking care of people such as raising an abandoned nephew, (“being a hero”) is “unfortunate” and there are no opportunities to be a hero in midtown Manhattan. He completely ignores the absent sister, yet he unloads the wagon on Murray because he cares for 12-year old Nick. Perhaps Arnold is jealous that Nick looks up to Murray. Arnold is a bully and cannot stomach what is good—if he did, he would lose the “deal” he has made with the world, which is to be “the best possible Arnold Burns” for Arnold Burns. Arnold says he is married with children, but there is only room enough in the world for Arnold. How easy it is to think so selfishly that the world disappears.

Makes one think.

"For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it." (Mark 8:35).

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