A writer and former teacher of English, WILLIAM L. COPITHORNE is now a businessman in New York.
Businessmen are at last coming into their own. Long neglected as subjects for fiction in favor of men with more titillating occupations — brain surgeons and nuclear physicists, for example — they now bob up regularly in best-selling novels and prize-winning television plays. That the average businessman is hard put to recognize himself in these works is to be expected. Doctors and scientists have experienced the same bewilderment for years.
Actually, though, the businessman is getting a rough deal. Whereas professional people are most often portrayed as essentially noble souls — devoted to humanity if not to their wives and children — the businessman is granted few of the higher qualities. No dedicated Dr. Arrowsmith, he. No doted-upon Mr. Chips. He is never a man called Peter. At best he is an individual of limited vision, so obsessed with the notion that the business he is running should pay dividends to stockholders, that he has no time for his family and friends or for great literature and fine music.
Often he is a self-serving schemer, intent on discrediting those who stand between him and the presidency of the great corporation. Business, it is clear, instills false values in a man, dulls his moral sense, and makes him insensitive to those things of the spirit which his brothers in the professions have both the time and the inclination to embrace.
In general, the businessman fares better in the television play than in the novel. This is doubtless because the theme of redemption lends itself so well to hour-length dramatic treatment. Here the businessman most usually appears as a powerful but seriously misguided person. In the course of the play he unconsciously, perhaps, hurts someone he loves. He is thereby made to suffer, and is thus awakened to the error of his ways. For years this formula has proved successful on both radio and television in stories about murderers, thieves, and dissolute sons of loving families. Now it appears that it can apply equally well to the American businessman.
Henry Stickney, for example, has singlehandedly built the Turfside Glue Works into a 27-million-dollara-year enterprise, and we see him in the opening scene surrounded by deferential employees, admiring the rising curve on the sales chart. He has made a lot of money and given steady employment to hundreds of people in the community, but all is not well. “Your business has swallowed you, Henry,” his wife says, as he arrives home late in the evening after having forgotten for the fifth time that month his promise to take her to the Art Theater. “Your business has swallowed you, and it is now in the process of digesting you.” (Dialogue of this kind — repetitive, broken by pregnant pauses, and accompanied by meaningful glances — is peculiar to plays which run for sixty or ninety minutes on the television screen.)
Henry refuses to change his ways, however, and he keeps on working late at night, improving productivity at the glue works, until suddenly the means of redemption are given him. His son is badly hurt in a drunken brawl on the same evening that his daughter runs off with a man twice her age — both tragedies the result, it is made clear, of Henry’s absorption in the glue works. Earlier that same evening his wife has left him, after penning a note to the effect that money is not all. Henry returns to an empty house and, in a scene that may last from one to three minutes, wanders miserably through the rooms that are filled with the symbols of his material success, while appropriately somber music is heard in the background. (A matinee idol of a generation ago usually takes the part of Henry, and this scene gives him an opportunity to exercise certain of his histrionic talents that have long been decently at rest.)
Suddenly Henry grabs a silverhandled cane, takes a wild swing, and sends a huge vase crashing to the marble floor, and we realize that understanding has come to him. He is redeemed. His wife, apparently having thought better of what she said about money, comes rushing in at that moment all forgiveness. The glue factory, she can see, has disgorged Henry. The son, we know, will not die; the daughter’s marriage can be annulled; and perhaps even the vase can be stuck back together again with some of Henry’s glue. We can stay tuned for the eleven o’clock news with good heart.
Why the makers of processed cheese, electrical appliances, aluminum, and wax go on year after year footing the bills for plays that picture them and their brothers in trade as in need of redemption is a mystery that, for the peace of mind of all concerned, is perhaps better left unexplored.
With a recent notable exception or two, the novel presents a far bleaker picture of businessmen than does the television play. This is liecause the novelist not only knows that the businessman is beyond redemption, but has the space and time to show why. With 300 pages or more to spread out in, he can illustrate in full detail the dread effects that a competitive economy has on one of its practitioners. Furthermore, unlike the television dramatist, who has an audience that he knows is more than half tempted to turn to Red Skelton, he is under no compulsion to have his characters break vases or indulge in scenes of noisy hysteria which must, of course, mean a change of heart.
Henry Stickney, in the hands of a novelist, always ends up a lonely figure behind a great walnut desk, son dead and daughter and wife lost to him forever. And we are shown why he had such a fate coming to him. We learn how ambition corroded him early — how, while an apprentice in the horse-slaughtering yard of the glue works, he suffered a brief, unrequited love for the daughter of the Chairman of the Board, and then how he quite cynically married the daughter of the Works Manager; and how he gained the presidency of the company at the age of thirtytwo by stepping on kindly men all up the line who had innocently helped him rise. And we almost certainly learn of an affair that he had with a girl of foreign extraction on the night shift in the bottling plant — a further indication of his moral degradation.
Passion for Money and Power and indifference to Art and Love mark the businessmen we read about in novels, and for such mistaken passion and such callous indifference they pay heavily. If they do not die early of ulcers, they live to be lonely, frustrated, bewildered men. The villain, of course, is our American economic structure, which inevitably maims those who strive to climb to a high place in it.
It is good to be reminded in the novel and television play of the existence of the businessman in our society, even though he may bear little resemblance to any human being we have ever known. It would be nice, though, just for once to be presented with a fictional businessman who spent a fair amount of time pleasantly with his wife and children, who read a book now and again, and who even went unprotestingly to an occasional concert — just as it would be nice to be told about a nuclear physicist who was tortured more by some foolish investments he had made than by his role in determining the fate of humanity in the age of the atom.