Even the stage sets of the famous ‘50s Lone Ranger TV series were primitive. The Lone Ranger and Tonto always seemed to arrive at the same mountain pass, with the same pair of boulders that looked a little worse for the wear. In essence, neither the Lone Ranger nor Tonto were going anywhere. They were not what today would be called socially mobile, either as fictional characters or as beneficiaries of the myth of the Wild West.
Let’s turn to another classic, The Life of Riley, with the all-but-forgotten William Bendix in the title role. The protagonist works in an aeronautics factory and carries one of those lunch boxes that look like a miniature airplane hanger. Looming in the background is the post-war prosperity of Imperial America. Riley works on an assembly line, but lives in a cheery split-level house with flower boxes on the window-sills. There is something value-free about his occupation. Though the series was made in the post-war period, plants that made aircraft consumed the war economy of the previous decade. The Life of Riley is the lighter side of the project. Riley bears no responsibility for the finished product or the murder that his productivity wreaks. He is merely a cog, taking orders from his superiors. He exemplifies the early Marx papers of 1848, with their emphasis on the alienation of the worker caused by two premises of capitalist production—division of labor and economies of scale. Yet he is as happy as a bird.
Exhibit three: The Honeymooners. Ralph Kramden is a New York City bus driver who lives in a tenement where the fire escape is as constant a part of the set as the boulders in The Lone Ranger. He has argumentative relationships with his wife Alice, his best friend Norton, and Norton’s wife Trixy. In the lingo of our current culture, Ralph and Alice would be described as a dysfunctional family, in which the wife parries an ever-increasing crescendo of insults from her sadistic husband. If Ralph’s rage were to cross the line from verbal to physical, he could easily be placed in the Joel Steinberg category, as his insults and character assassination are remorseless, unrelenting, and fundamentally aimed at extinguishing the will and identities of those closest to him.
The Golden Age of Television unwittingly echoed the Theater of the Absurd—epitomized by Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter—and it’s not hard to imagine scripts for The Lone Ranger, The Life of Riley, or The Honeymooners being performed in the tiny Théâtre de la Huchette, where Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and The Lesson have played in repertory since 1957. The spare, unchanging sets, the opaque humor of the dialogue, with its barely repressed violence, and the droning sense of time could easily turn the scripts for these popular ‘50s television series into the basis for a new avant-garde theater movement, which could be named after Buñuel’s famed surrealist masterpiece, L’Age d’Or.
[This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.]