The Unedited, All-American Unconscious
By Stephanie Harrington
They are taping an episode of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” Louise Lasser who is Mary Hartman who is Louise Lasser who is Mary Hartman is required in this scene to munch distractedly on an American cheese sandwich on white with mayo. Between takes she works the bread out from between her teeth, observing with the irrefutable and inconsequential logic we have come to expect and love from Mary Hartman that “they should have made these sandwiches on rolls because the white bread…really…does…stick…to your teeth.”
The cameras start rolling again. Police Sergeant Dennis Foley, who has been trying to make it with Mary ever since they were held hostage together by the mass murderer in the Chinese laundry, obeys Mary’s characteristically oblique request that he stop massaging her shoulders and upper arms. He stands back and, with liquid eyes brimming with the sheer pleasure of Mary’s presence, recites:
“My hands have touched you.
My heart is glad.
My eyes embrace
What my hands have had.”
And Mary says, very slowly, pulling the allusion out of Louise Lasser’s memory of fourth grade, “Did you write, ‘The Horse’?”
What Mary was supposed to say, according to the script, was “I think I read that on a condolence card.” But the line about “The Horse” came into Lasser’s head, and it seemed right. So she used it. In another episode Mary holds up a bar of soap, gazes into it and says, “I can’t see my reflection. I must be using the wrong dish soap.” The script had her holding up a dish, as in the familiar television commercial. But it just occurred to Lasser to substitute the soap for the dish and refine the symbolism down to the essential obsession.
And so it goes on “Mary Hartman” – the material is there, just as life is there; the writers respond to the absurdities they perceive around them; the actors either identify with the writers’ impulses or substitute their own. “If I died tomorrow on the way to work,” Lasser remarks, “the exact death could be used to explain why I’m gone.” In staging this interplay between life and satire, director Jim Drake seems to be responding to the actors’s responses.
And this is appropriate since, if “Mary Hartman” is about anything, it is about reactions. Specifically, it is about the way working-class people in a factory town of tract homes, who are intellectually, morally, and emotionally outfitted by soap operas, television commercials and the Reader’s Digest, respond to insecurity, disappointment, rejection, frustration, infirmity, and death. And I have it on the authority of an international representative of the United Auto Workers that at the time the show began its run, the hottest topics of conversation among the men on the assembly line were Daniel Patrick Moynihan and “Mary Hartman.” But the success of “Mary Hartman” – it has achieved the status of a media event – indicates that the show has also hooked subscribers of Psychology Today, who don’t worry about waxy yellow buildup because they have installed terra-cotta tile floors in their kitchens. Moreover, it has attracted equal numbers of men and women. (It demonstrates what we probably knew all along – that the suds syndrome is not peculiar to an innately feminine sentimentality, but that we all weren’t home at the right time for the daily sudsing.)
The premise for “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” was established in one paragraph. Three years ago, producer Norman (“All in the Family”) Lear, the David Merrick of the tell-it-like-it-is sitcom (he prefers to think of them as one-act plays), engaged Gail Parent, who had written parodies of soap operas for the “Carol Burnett Show,” to flesh out the skeleton of his idea for a blue-collar soap opera. Parent wrote 26 funny pages drawing on a Life magazine article on working-class life in Lordstown, Ohio. (The name of the town has been changed to the fictitious Fernwood, which is the name of the street behind the studio where the show is taped.) Into this treatment, which was presented to writers interviewed for jobs on the show, Lear inserted a paragraph stating that in the first week “Mary Hartman” would have “a grandfather who flashed and a family of five slaughtered with their two goats and eight chickens and a physical problem in the marriage.”
“I was not saying,” Lear, a nice, apparently easygoing man, explains, sitting in his modern office on Sunset Boulevard, “that there is anything funny about mass murder. But there is something strangely, darkly amusing about our attitude toward violence and slaughter and Biafra and Vietnam and all the holocausts of life…So we’re not going to pay attention to the murder, we’re going to pay attention to the reaction of the murder.”
And so we have watched Mary and her family and friends react (or be incapable of reacting) – to mass murder, to Grandpa’s arrest for indecent exposure, to Tom Hartman’s impotence with his wife and his affair with another woman to prove himself, to the fear that Tom (and thereby Mary) has contracted VD from that woman, to the crippling of Mary’s best friend in a collision with a car full of nuns while she driving to Nashville to become a Country-and-Western superstar, to Mary’s father being set up in a hotel room with a prostitute by a rival faction of young turks in his union, to the high school basketball coach’s death by drowning in a bowl of chicken soup, and to Mary’s guilt because she made him the soup. It is as if someone had slipped acid into all the pots in “Ma Perkins’s” kitchen and nudged everybody to “Eat, eat.” To watch – more important, to listen to – the folks in Fernwood respond to these calamities is to be plugged into a slapstick of free association orchestrated by Terry Southern and the Ladies’ Home Journal.
For them, there are no priorities. All levels of experience are equal. When a newspaper reporter comes to interview Mary about the mass murder of the five Lombardys and their goats and chickens, she follows up the conversation with: “Can I ask you a question? You’ve never been here before. Do you see any waxy yellow buildup on that floor?” When Sergeant Foley tells her that her grandfather, alias “The Fernwood Flasher,” exposed himself to the cleaning woman at the local elementary school, who was taking out the trash, Mary asks if she dropped the garbage. That night she lies in bed and says to her husband, “Fernwood Flasher, mass murder, goats, chickens. And my floor is yellow. I’m too keyed-up to sleep.”
And when Mary is held hostage by the mass murderer inside the Chinese laundry, her mother bakes a cake, and her best friend, Loretta, whose whole life is centered on becoming a Country-and-Western superstar, sings one of her songs into the camera set up by the television news crew covering Mary’s ordeal.
But worrying about the yellow on your floor doesn’t mean you aren’t upset about five people being murdered. And baking a cake doesn’t mean you aren’t worried about your daughter. And wanting to be a superstar doesn’t mean that you don’t care about your best friend. It’s just that all of this coexists in unlikely juxtaposition inside our heads. It is a mix on our psychic tapes. But in real life we edit our responses so people won’t misunderstand. We all worry about what to wear to a funeral and whether to try to do the laundry before we go. But we don’t tell anybody. On “Mary Hartman,” the tapes are not edited.
Just about everyone I talked to who is involved in the making of “Mary Hartman” professed mild, if pleased, amusement at the way the media mavens are intellectualizing about what is, after all, just a television show, and a parody of a soap opera at that. (John Leonard of the New York Times calls the dialogue “the American interior monologue.”) And then they themselves all begin talking about their product in the terms of socially oriented literary criticism.
Lear talks about the form of the soap opera: “There is no other form” in which you can “take a story until it decides to end, until the last drop of character has been realized.” And Lasser talks about the form: “To me the biggest opportunity in the show is the growing potential…Usually when I agree to do a project I know what the ending is. Here nothing is implied…“ Not knowing where it’s going makes it an actual life experience when it’s happening. Head writer Ann Marcus finds it liberating. When she was head writer for the daytime supersoap, “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” the sponsor wouldn’t let them even mention the war in Vietnam. But on “Mary Hartman,” she says, Lear encourages them to “reach for the outrageous,” to be “as honest as possible in dealing with controversial subjects,” and to try to be funny, “but only because life is funny.” Marcus draws on her own sense of the everyday absurd, based on years of housewifely domesticity.
But it is questions about the character of Mary Hartman that trigger analyses worthy of a seminar on Emma Bovary. Mary, says Marcus, is “a woman trapped in her environment,” but who is “striving for something. She does know that something is missing from her life.” Virginia Carter, physicist and former president of Los Angeles National Organization for Women, who resigned from the Aerospace Corporation for what she considered its sexist policies, and who is now Norman Lear’s chief aide-de-camp, looks at Mary and sees “the foibles and confusions of someone who bought the system…Mary is struggling against something, but she’s part of the fabric of what she’s struggling against.”
Joan Darling, an actress who runs what is considered by many to be one of the most exciting acting classes in Hollywood, was recruited by Lear to direct the first 20 episodes of “Mary Hartman,” and after Lasser, is the person most responsible for our heroine’s character. “Mary,” says Darling, “is under total bombardment by everything…She is a cartoon of everyone who bought the system hook, line, and sinker and has tried to live it…Mary is not a person…Louise has done a lot of creating of her character…And she is an extremely difficult character to work with because she’s a shell with ashes inside.”
But the heaviest insights come from Lasser, who is strangely hard on Mary. Leading up to her perception of Mary, she asks, “Do you like existential novels? Have you read The Stranger?” And connecting Mary Hartman with, of all things, what is probably Camus’s bleakest statement of life’s meaninglessness, Lasser condemns Mary as a person who “is not aware of herself in space and time.” And, as if Camus were not enough, she judges Mary lacking by Aristotelian standards, as a “survivor who misses being a tragic heroine because she is not aware of her plight.” (But Mary’s complexities are limitless; she seems to have something for everyone. An Evanston, Illinois, clergyman described her as a good Christian who believes in “the ultimate triumph of good over evil.” She comes off as “the wise fool” of Saint Paul the Apostle – “looking foolish for justice sake.”)
Existentialism, tragic heroine, “wise fool” – has the carbon monoxide blowing north from the Santa Monica Freeway propelled all the brains here in Learville into a self-deluding literary high? Has John Leonard succumbed to the occupational mental illness that sooner or later afflicts practitioners of that cottage industry known as television reviewing?
Or are we really ready for graduate courses on “Existentialism in the Media: The Presentiment of ‘Mary Hartman’ in the Work of Albert Camus”? Well, why not? The written word is passé, and the novel of experience, when last glimpsed, was embalmed and lying in state at the British Museum waiting for Stanley Kubrick to make another movie. And “Mary Hartman” may be as engaging a replacement for the socially conscious literary potboiler as this culture will come up with. The melodramatic pileup of calamities is outrageous, but the writers and actors maintain an impressive balance, never going over the edge of satire into camp. They are hilariously ruthless about impaling our public and private evasions and delusions for microscopic inspection without ever failing to make us care about the characters and what happens to them. Lasser’s intelligence and sense of timing render Mary a Candide in Barbie Doll clothing and at the same time a vulnerable, curious person who draws us into genuine concern about how she and life treat each other. And, to pick out the very good from a good lot, Greg Mullavey as Tom, Mary Kay Place and Graham Jarvis as Loretta and Charlie Haggers also achieve a wonderfully affecting blend of the human and the satirical elements in their characterizations.
As for Mary, as Lasser points out, she is still a little girl trying to grow up. There is a woman in there trying to get out, but the braids, the tight, puffy-sleeved little-girl dresses are holding her in. Lasser has said that Mary is trying to live properly. And to her, living properly is living by rules laid out by Family Circle and Dr. Joyce Brothers and the johnsonswaxtidybowllemonfreshjoy commercials. She tries to be a good mother, a loving wife, an interesting sex partner, and a thorough housewife. She waxes her floors relentlessly, sanitizes the toilet every Friday, borrows library books to solve her sexual problems, takes Geritol twice a day, and waits for happiness and fulfillment to find her.
And is this ambition – this concept of the passive little girl determined by an environment she seems unable to act on? I think not. The men in the show – particularly her husband Tom – are as trapped on the assembly line as Mary is in the kitchen, bound by rules and regulations that reduce them to the powerlessness of little boys. And they are, if anything, even more out of touch with themselves. Tom does not even try to find out why he isn’t happy. He doesn’t even admit his unhappiness to himself. Mary, at least, risks asking the questions.
But she is striving, says Lasser, “for something that can’t work out.” Lasser has said, in an interview with John Wilson in the New York Times, that Mary is a survivor in a world that may not be worth surviving in. We suffer occasionally. We learn something, have an insight, and we are slightly changed, but we go back and live the way we had been living. “I’m pretty pessimistic about life and about changing people,” Lasser concedes. “People don’t change unless they’re ready to. People can do what they can do.”
The tapings and rehearsals I saw in Hollywood of episodes that will air in a few weeks after this is written indicate that the sexual failure of her marriage, her feeling of inadequacy as a mother, her unformulated sense that something is missing from her life, will push Mary to a nervous breakdown. And transcriptions I’ve seen of story conferences include discussions of Mary’s starting to think about doing something more than housekeeping and mothering, about getting a job. (They play around with the idea of her momentarily considering a career as a mortician.)
But I would doubt that Mary will develop in opposition to Lasser’s sense of human limitations. For one thing, she is Lasser’s character. Moreover, although she certainly has moments when she seems strong enough to rebel, if she does, in fact, do so – if she develops attitudes of her own and chooses an alternative role for herself, she will be in danger of becoming a caricature of a point of view – perhaps even a feminist one.
As it is, we are confident that no matter what life does to her, Mary will survive. This may not be tragically heroic, but it is as heroic as most of us can get. And her successes and failures as a survivor give us insights, at least, into our own.
If Mary’s character becomes too assertive and she ceases to let life wash over her and, Candide-like, confront calamity with a cup of coffee and a non sequitur, if she ceases to expose the myths we live by religiously observing their rituals, we may have to invent Mary Hartman all over again.
After all, who else, if held hostage by a mass murderer who confides that when he gets a headache he wants to kill people, would explain to him that the headaches are probably caused by low blood sugar and he should eat an orange and find a good internist?