Sunday, July 1, 2012

Damon the Dude

The Williamstown Theatre Festival opened last week with The Importance of Being Earnest, done in a Damon Runyon-esque Guys and Dolls aesthetic. I was assigned to do a piece about Runyon that ended up not being needed (and would have needed to be drastically cut anyway). I present it with little alteration.

Damon Runyon was a journalist and sports writer, who became best known for his short stories, which detailed the colorful lives of petty thugs, bookies, chorus girls, and other endearingly disreputable persons that populated the Broadway of Depression-era New York. His influence is tremendous, being as he was one of the first people to write at length about the criminal underclass.

More significant than just his subject matter was his portrayal of it. His Broadway stories were written in a dry and comically non-judgmental first-person voice marked by the absence of contractions and a near-total reliance on the present tense, with sentences generously sprinkled with elaborate half-authentic, half-invented street slang. Here is a representative sample, an excerpt from “Breach of Promise:”

Of course Judge Goldfobber is not a judge, and never is a judge, and he is 100 to 1 in my line against ever being a judge, but he is called Judge because it pleases him, and everybody always wishes to please Judge Goldfobber, as he is one of the surest-footed lawyers in this town, and beats more tough beefs for different citizens than seems possible. He is a wonderful hand for keeping citizens from getting into the sneezer, and better than Houdini when it comes to getting them out of the sneezer after they are in.

Personally, I never have any use for the professional services of Judge Goldfobber, as I am a law-abiding citizen at all times, and am greatly opposed to guys who violate the law, but I know the Judge from around and about for many years.

This comic voice--so distinctive that he is today remembered for the ‘Runyonesque,’ stage musical Guys and Dolls, though not a word of it is his--he used to deal extensively with gangster culture in his fiction.

Runyon was one of the first authors to do so. Among his peers were Strange Fugitive by Morley Callaghan and WJ Burnett’s Little Caesar. Both novels shone a light—harsh, to be sure, but a light all the same—on the shadowy world of mobsters, to an unprecedented degree. But where theirs was a gritty, realistic style, Runyon’s was a deadpan wit.

Runyon’s innovation was to make criminal life not merely comprehensible to Americans, but also entertaining. The setup for a story like “A Very Honorable Guy”a man sells his body to an unscrupulous doctor in order to pay off his debts because he would rather lose his life than his good name—would normally be cast as weighty moral dilemma. In Runyon’s telling, it’s a farce. The pact with the doctor is not an act of desperation, but sensibility, until it isn’t: after paying off his debts and winning the affections of his doll, the man, Feet Samuels, decides he doesn’t want to die after all and has to fend off the knife-wielding Doc Bodeeker.

The humor, a product of both the mundane take on its exotic subject matter as well as Runyon’s unusually and overly precise language, makes the rakes and harlots of Broadway recognizably and relatably human in ways that would be elaborated in pop culture in subsequent decades. Short is the distance between “Dave the Dude is certainly not a man to have sored up at you” and “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

Just as significantly, by taking the criminal making it both comical and commonplace, Runyon implicitly elevated it while taking polite society down a peg. Much of the organized crime of the 1920s existed not in spite, but because of Prohibition’s preening, society-wide moralism. Runyon expressed this in his nonfiction as well, in his non-fiction. Runyon covered the investigations into both J.P. Morgan’s as well as Al Capone’s business dealings, and in the end found Capone the more sympathetic character. One may argue this goes too far, but the question remains: if mobsters were to be considered shadowy figures, it was only logical to ask, ‘whose shadow?’

Audiences responded tremendously to Runyon’s streetwise yarns. His newspaper readership resided north of ten million, making him one of the most popular writers in the nation, and his stories were adapted into more than twenty films. Such was his popularity that an appeal by friend Walter Winchell for money to research and treat the cancer that killed Runyon in 1946 resulted in the creation of a foundation that remains a leader in cancer research decades later. Though largely forgotten today, Runyon’s influence on the culture remains considerable, with a legacy that includes both crime dramas like Goodfellas and The Sopranos, and the afterlife of terms he invented and popularized, including ‘shiv,’ ‘noggin,’ and, naturally, ‘guys and dolls.’ He remains like the unnamed narrator of his short stories: rarely active, but ever present.

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