The Books: “Middle of the Night” (Paddy Chayevsky)

Next in my Daily Book Excerpt:

191466.jpgNext play on the script shelf is from my collected stage plays of Paddy Chayefsky: Middle of the Night.

I touched on it a bit yesterday. Middle of the Night is a really simple play. No bells and whistles. But it somehow just works. There’s a young woman – she works as a secretary in a factory (her boss is “The Manufacturer” in the excerpt below). She’s a very beautiful girl (Gena Rowlands played her in the original production – and she was – and still is – a stunner), and she married a horn player. She basically married him for the sex (the play takes place in the 50s. That was the only legitimate way you could have sex, and so “the girl” married him because of they had that kind of chemistry – only to rue the day later). She and the horn player had a steamy sex life but not much else. They teeter on the edge of separation … she moves home with her parents … and she starts to suffer from insomnia (ahem – the title) – and general nervous problems. In comes her boss: “The Manufacturer”, a middle-aged married man. They are two lonely people, connecting in the middle of the night. It’s a rather bleak play, but damn good. As you will see in the excerpt below, the writing is nothing spectacular. By that I mean: it doesn’t call attention to itself. There’s no poetry in it – except for the everyday kind of poetry you sometimes hear when people are speaking from the heart. Paddy Chayefsky’s gift lies in his ability to capture moments of raw emotional truth.

This excerpt is all about that.

EXCERPT FROM Middle of the Night, by Paddy Chayefsky.

THE MANUFACTURER. (Smiling) You know what time it is?

THE GIRL. Boy, I�ve been talking your head off.

THE MANUFACTURER. It�s half-past six. Do you mind if I use your phone?

THE GIRL. Mr. Kingsley, I�m terribly sorry I used up your afternoon like this.

THE MANUFACTURER. Don�t be sorry. Do you feel better?

THE GIRL. Oh, I feel much better. (She stands) I really do, got this all off my chest. Gee, half-past six. I don�t know where my mother and my sister are. My mother�s on a new shift now. I don�t know what time she gets home. Would you like to stay for dinner, Mr. Kingsley?

THE MANUFACTURER. No, I don�t think so. I have to make a call though.

THE GIRL. The phone�s right there. (He reaches for the phone, but before he can pick up the receiver, THE GIRL is talking again.) So, what do you think I ought to do? I�ve been considering a divorce for a couple of months now, but it seems so complicated. I don�t know anybody who�s divorced, so I don�t know how you go about it. My mother, she won�t hear about divorce. My grandmother was Catholic. My mother�s a Lutheran, but even so. My husband, it would just kill him. His vanity would be so hurt. (She sits and stares at the middle-aged cigar-smoking man in the soft chair.)

THE MANUFACTURER. Betty, tell me something. How old are you?

THE GIRL. I�ll be twenty-four in March.

THE MANUFACTURER. Twenty-four years old. I have a daughter of my own, twenty-five years old, lives out in New Rochelle, she�s married now with two fine children, and you make me think of her when she was ten years old. So I�m going to talk to you like I was your father. About twenty times tonight, you�ve asked me, �What should I do about my husband?� Betty, this is a decision you have to make for yourself. Don�t expect your mother to make it for you, or your husband�s mother, and don�t worry so much about hurting your husband.

THE GIRL. Because I know this would hurt him.

THE MANUFACTURER. The only person you have to worry about hurting is yourself. You have to do what you want to do, not what other people want you to do; otherwise you and everyone else concerned will be miserable. You have to say to yourself, �Do I want to go back to him or do I think I can find something better for my life?�

THE GIRL. I don�t want to go back to him.

THE MANUFACTURER. All right, there�s your decision. (THE GIRL looks at him, a little confused at the sudden clarity of her situation.) If it means a divorce, then you go ahead and get one. You go to a lawyer, and he�ll tell you what you have to do. It may be a little complicated, but nothing is too complicated. Then you start going out on dates again, and take my word for it, you�ll run across some young fellow who will understand that you need a lot of kindness. There are plenty of nice young fellow around, believe me.

THE GIRL. You know something? I really feel much better now …

THE MANUFACTURER. Sure, you do …

THE GIRL. … talking it out like this.

THE MANUFACTURER. Well, you made a decision, and suddenly there�s not such big, black clouds in the sky, and it isn�t going to rain, and life isn�t so terrible. Life, believe me, can be a beautiful business. And you�re a young kid, and you got plenty of joy ahead of you. So go wash your face. I want to make a phone call.

THE GIRL. (stands) I want to thank you very much, Mr. Kingsley, for letting me pour my heart out.

THE MANUFACTURER. There�s nothing to thank, sweetheart. (THE MANUFACTURER reaches over for the phone and begins to dial.)

THE GIRL. Your wife must have had a wonderful life with you. (THE MANUFACTURER pauses in his dialing to look up at THE GIRL.)

THE MANUFACTURER. That�s a very sweet thing for you to say, my dear.

THE GIRL. Well, I�ll go wash my face. (She turns and goes out into the foyer, disappearing to her right. We see her passing the open doorway of her sister�s room. THE MANUFACTURER returns to his dialing. He waits, then gets an answer.)

THE MANUFACTURER. (on the phone) Hello, Evely, this is Jerry … No, I�ll tell you what happened. Is Lillian still there? … Well, I see it�s half-past six. I tell you, I�m very, very tired right now. Why don�t you drive out with Lillian, and I�ll catch a bite around the corner, and you can take the train in from New Rochelle tomorrow … Well, I�ll tell you. I never got out to Brooklyn. Remember I told you about this girl in the office who was sick? … I didn�t tell you? … No, Betty Preiss, the very pretty one. She sits by the reception window … You know her. The very pretty one. So I had to stop off at her house, pick up some papers she had, she didn�t come in today. So I come up here, I tell you, this girl was in an emotional state. So, to cut a long story short, I talked to her, it turns out, she�s leaving her husband, that�s why she couldn�t come in today, and it poured out of her, the whole story … No, no, no, the blond girl, the very pretty one. The fat one is Elaine … The exceptionally attractive one. I used to look at her, I used to think, �A beautiful girl like that, what problems could she have? The young men must fall all over themselves.� This girl is a real beauty. I�ve seen lots of girls on television who aren�t so beautiful. An intelligent girl, a good worker, but emotionally very immature … (Annoyed) Oh, don�t be foolish. What did you mean, I�m showing a marked interest in how beautiful she is? It happens that she�s a very pretty girl … All right, so you go out to New Rochelle if you want to and … I�ll tell you the truth, I think I�ll just come home and go to bed … (THE GIRL returns to the living room doorway, where she pauses. THE MANUFACTURER darts a look at her) No, I�ll be fine…Apologize to Lillian for me … Absolutely, why should you stay in the house? … Fine, give my regards to Jack and the kids … All right, I�ll see you. (He hangs up, stands, frowning for some unaccountable reason.)

THE GIRL. I don�t know what happened to my family. (THE MANUFACTURER has found his coat and is putting it on.)

THE MANUFACTURER. I�ll take the slips here with me.

THE GIRL. I hope I didn�t inconvenience you too much, Mr. Kingsley.

THE MANUFACTURER. It was no inconvenience. I was supposed to go out to the factory, but, I tell you, I was grateful to get out of it. I had the boy deliver the stuff. (He puts on his hat.) I have the feeling you didn�t eat anything at all today.

THE GIRL. You know, I really don�t think I did.

THE MANUFACTURER. Well, eat something now. (He starts for the door to the foyer, pauses on the threshold, looks at his watch) It�s almost seven o�clock. (He frowns) Listen, you want a bite to eat? Come on, I�ll buy you a little bite to eat. (THE GIRL considers this suggestion with no particular expression.)

THE GIRL. I�d like to very much, Mr. Kingsley. I have to put some makeup on.

THE MANUFACTURER. Hurry up, put some makeup on.

(THE GIRL smiles briefly, turns and heads for the foyer door.)

THE GIRL. (As she goes) I�ll just be a minute, Mr. Kingsley.

(She disappears into the foyer, carrying her purse, which she has picked up on her way out. THE MANUFACTURER moves slowly downstage into the living room. He puts his hands into his coat pockets and walks slowly around the room.)

THE MANUFACTURER. (suddenly calling out) You like Italian food? Very good restaurant here on Seventy-ninth Street. (Apparently THE GIRL doesn�t hear him, for there is no answer. He moves around the room aimlessly. He pauses by a wall, pokes it with his fist. Then he moves downstage again, almost up to the footlights. He punches his head lightly, self-admonishingly. He mutters.) Jerk. Jerk. What are you doing? Jerk. (He continues to move around the room.)


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One Response to The Books: “Middle of the Night” (Paddy Chayevsky)

  1. B says:

    You’re review does not seem to correlate at all to the actually play. Firstly, George is a pianist. Secondly, it is made blatantly clear that Betty’s father is not in the picture (I refer to you saying she moves back with her “parents”). On top of this, there is no evidence at all that she is suffering from insomnia or indeed any other nervous problems! I would hardly say that one day of being in a fluster, over the prospect of leaving your husband, indicates any psychological difficulty; indeed she shows great integrity and strength to stand up to every person in her life in order to be with Jerry. Their connection and start of their relationship also begins when he comes to collect the papers in the afternoon and when they go for a meal at 6:30, hardly “the middle of the night”. I would suggest that the title more refers to the fact that that is when she leaves george and also, when she goes to Jerry’s appartment and they make the final decision to be together no matter what. Furthermore, you come across as though the characters of Betty and Jerry are some to pitied, but they are written as a celebration of courage, that in the face of stigma and judgement, they still unite because they are in love and feel whole for the first time. Chayefsky’s plays celebrate the characters and their tenacity, determination and love and I find your review an insult to that.

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