Sunday, 6 May 2012

Entertainer as Hero—Part III

The Stars: an Account of the Star-System in Motion Pictures by Edgar Morin
The Entertainer, a play by John Osborne

One of the most significant developments for the teacher of adolescents is the apotheosis of the entertainer as hero in American life. As the teen-ager has become the beneficiary of American abundance—to the staggering sum of $9 billion per annum—a whole new industry has grown up to cater to the concept that nothing his little teen-age heart desires can be wrong. Magazines, TV programs, movies, fashions—all insist with adult demagoguery that whatever Lolita wants, Lolita gets, no questions asked. 

The prefabricated teen-age singer who literally can’t carry a tune achieves stardom through the genius of sound engineers (and the persistence of publicity men). What matters is that teenagers can identify with the star’s mediocrity. About all such a teen-age idol can “teach” his followers is that success is based on breaks, life is a ball when you’ve got it made, and don’t let the squares (parents and teachers) con you out of having a good time. “Your Happiest Years” (to quote the revealing title of Dick Clark’s teen-age Dale Carnegie manual) assumes that happiness is identical with the adolescent’s relative freedom from responsibility. In such a world view, maturity is by definition an anticlimax.

Because such notions are subversive of the standard purposes of education, it is important for teachers to gain as much perspective on the pathologies of popular culture as possible. Two such viewpoints are provided by a French critic’s analysis of the movies’ star system and by an English play about the decline of vaudeville, which is really a parable about the emptiness of a life based on sensation and escape. Mr. Morin’s book, although largely based on very old studies—the Payne Fund books of the 1930’s, and Leo Rosten—is still a valid analysis of the psychological, sociological, economic, and esthetic conditions of the star system. Included in this study of how “industrial Pygmalionism” satisfies deeply felt needs in a superficial way at the same time that it moves merchandise is a chapter on the James Dean craze that presents a plausible hypothesis about his posthumous popularity.

John Osborne’s play about a down-at-the-heels and foul-mouthed vaudeville hoofer examines the crisis in values in contemporary English society. Archie Rice kills his father by making him leave retirement to return to the stage to save his son from debtor’s prison; their family’s favorite has just been killed in a war; the intellectual daughter cannot choose the genteel evasion of a “happy and successful marriage” even though she despises the animality of her father Archie; her stepmother Phoebe betrays the moral bankruptcy of their ideals by remarking, “Still—it’s better to be a has-been than a never-was.” That is the entertainer’s ethic, and more than any other single principle, the schools ought to oppose it.

No comments: