J.P. Donleavy from The Ginger Man
Kenneth Rexroth
"Tom Jones" and "The Ginger Man"

San Francisco Examiner, March 8, 1964 - by Kenneth Rexroth

If you want to learn easily and objectively, while being entertained, what has happened to the human race in 200 years, go and see the movie Tom Jones at the United Artists, and next evening, the live play, The Ginger Man at the Encore.

By and large, pictures that move don't move me, but Tom Jones is close to the best that the industry can do. It is a landmark in the history of cinema, as they say in the highbrow reviews, which means that it does not insult the intelligence of an adult.

Fielding's novel Tom Jones has been called one of the three greatest tales in the history of literature. It set the basic type for the plot of the novel of self realization. Tom discovers himself. He finds out, in the course of a series of remarkable adventures, who he is. It is not just that he learns his true parentage and realizes his potentialities; he discovers what he really is, himself for himself alone. . . his ego center, as our 20th-century headshrinkers put it.

This is the plot of James Joyce's Ulysses and his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: it is also the plot of the best novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of dozens of other famous works before and since.

In addition, Tom Jones is the greatest of the English picaresque novels, the classic type of the kaleidoscopic adventures of a lovable rascal. Once in a while the picture gets a little flashy, but by and large it is honest and clear. Clear is the word for Fielding, his characters have an uncanny clarity, as though we were watchiug real people from behind an invisible sheet of glass.

The Ginger Man is also an adaptation of a novel. It has enjoyed a limited reputation amongst the most judicious critics ever since it appeared, as the best of the novels of the English Angry Young Men.

Possibly this is because the author, J. P. Donleavy, is neither English nor angry. He is an Irish American and as full of fun as an old time professional bar fly from Paddy McGinty's Beer Parlor. His association with the AYM is due to the fact that he was abroad and part of their circle when the novel was published. Comic he may be, but it is with a gallows humor.

If Tom Jones is the type English picaresque novel, The Ginger Man is the anti-type. Its thesis might be described as a demonstration of the utter impossibility of being Tom Jones in a contemporary city. Its hero, Sebastian Dangerfield, is a rascal, true enough, but he is an empty rascal, and he gets progressively emptier, until he becomes just a sort of hole in the story.

Tom Jones is an entrepreneur, Sebastian Dangerfield is a delinquent. Fielding wrote a mocking story of 18th-century man on the way up, the type of the emerging capitalist class, as the Marxists would call him. Before he got far with his tale, he was overcome with admiration for his own invented hero. Donleavy wrote of the adventures of the same kind of youth, in a time when history has made him redundant, and so Sebastian Dangerfield is just a sociopath. It is not that he goes down hill morally, it is that he gets in the literal sense of the catch phrase - "absolutely nowhere." Imagine, if you can, a funny Journey to the End of the Night.

And yet Sebastian is lovable, as so many characters on Death Row are. He rouses every motherly instinct, and all our philosophical pity for the senseless waste of existence. He is just another of the billions of codfish eggs that never hatched in the bosom of the sea. But more than that, drunken, crooked and slyly effeminate, he clings to the masculine clarity of vision that made the author if not the hero of Tom Jones great. He steadfastly refuses to call things what they are not. Far more than Henry Miller's heroes, his honesty is shameless and stark, and so his lack of sham judges all the sham with which we garb our own actions.

Bawdy as it is, there is something very evangelical about The Ginger Man. It is a retelling of the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. The Emperor in this case is that figure St. Paul used to call "the ruler of this world," where "this world" is that immense category that St. Paul used to link with the flesh and the devil.

I've been so busy talking about what these two tales mean that I have said nothing about The Ginger Man as a play. It was dramatized by Donleavy himself, and he missed none of the salient points of the novel. The play, in fact, more compact, has more impact. Tom Rosqui, Erica Rosqui and Robert Benson have a great good time. They are lucid, forceful and enthusiastic. Priscilla Pointer, who seldom gets a chance to do broad character roles, is hilarious and must be seen to be believed.


Copyright 1964. Reprinted by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust

Many thanks to Ken Knabb for contributing this review by Rexroth and obtaining permission for it to be posted here. Visit Ken's excellent Rexroth Archive page for in-depth information on Kenneth Rexroth.
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