John Cheever's first teleplay - a parody of sitcoms
New York — ''A celebration of the endurance of human relationships'' is the way John Cheever describes his fi2st original teleplay.
But what he calls ''the universal loneliness of mankind'' is a topic about he also writes about. ''Indeed, I am quite naked to loneliness,'' this vaguely saddened, sandy haired, thoughtful, distracted but qet intensely involved author says while lunching in the dining room of his charmingly decaying old hotel overlooking New York's exclusive Gramercy Park, removed from the chaoc f midtown New York City's pre-Christmas rush. The key to the locked, private park is available only to residents of the high-rent area.
We are talking about ''The Shady Hill Kidnapping'' (PBS, Tuesday, 9 p.m., check local listing the first in a weekly series of dramatic, comedy, and musical productions written or adapted for television by leading American writers. This ''American Playhouse'' series is a collaboration of four public TV stations - KCET/Los Angeles, WGBH/Boston, WNET/New York, and South Carolina ETV.
''Shady Hill'' is Mr. Cheever's first original teleplay - but there have been adaptations of his works on TV. Although Mr. Cheever insists that the play is a serious attempt to portray a true segment of our society, at the same time it is a literate, ironic, satiric parody of commercial television's stuation comedies, directed with loving derision by America's leading sitcom director, Paul Bogart of ''All in the Family'' fame.
Mr. Cheever feels that the closing narration in ''Shady Hill,'' which he reads himself is ''counterpoint.'' He lovingly quotes some of his own text: ''. . . the universal loneliness of mankind . . . our kind . . .'' and he describes the commuter's homecoming as having ''a feeling of achievement . . . nearly as old as the fall of darkness. . . .''
The family, in this case, is a suburban group. Instead of Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton, we have George Grizzard and Polly Holliday, both in a snit when their son wanders off and is taien under the wing of a neighbor selling the family sailboat off her front lawn. The child is presumed kidnapped and the basic story involves efforts of the family to explain it to the police (the station house is like a multiwindowed post office), to satisfy a phony kidnap note, to deal with a town celebration, to resolve temporarily their internecine bickering. As in some sitcoms, the plot is slight, devious, unsatisfying, but somehow inexplicably engrossing.
Between the acts there are satiric commercials, delivered just a bit heavy-handedly by Celeste Holm. The Cheever-written commercials hold their own progressive story line and are just as amusing as most of the commercials on network TV, but carried just a few steps farther.
''Shady Hill'' is an ''in'' joke which can be accepted totally on its surface. But Mr. Bogart missed a few tricks by cleaning up the sitcom format - instead of inserting the commercials i to the action with no interruption, he separates them by briefly going to black in between; he also eliminates the canned studio laughter which usually cues viewer reactigns.
But ''Shady Hill'' is a delightful experiment in tongue-in-cheek TV drama. It succeeds even as it fails - because after all it is mimicking a genre of questionable literacy. If viewers find themselves a bit ambivalent about the thought-provoking drama, it is only natural, because it must be judged not only for what it accomplishes but for what it attempts to do. It is a stimplating adventure in the new literature of television.
At the lunch table, Mr. Cheever is very eager to hear the interviewer's opinion, making it clear that he is just a bit insecure about his place in TV. Why did he write the commercials into the script?
''In the history of art patronage, I don't think the imbalance between the wealth of the patron and the contribution of the artist has ever been so unequal. It's important to establish the role commercials play on TV and-if I am going to write a TV drama, I'm also going to write the commercials, which have be'ome such an integral part of TV drama.''The relationship between the commercial and the narrative is just as important as anything that goes on among the characters in the narrative. I would very much like to write a new TV script in which the commercial is given an even greater importance.
''He looks around the dining room for a moment, pushes aside his sticky eggs Benedict and proceeds, with just a touch of embarrassed reluctance to discuss his own work. ''This was not meant to be satire. I'm genuinely concerned with these people. I was trying to write a television play attacking bureaucracy and celebrating the endurance of personal relatio ships. The only villain is bureaucracy, and there is a happy ending for the family. It's as simple as that.''The interviewer decides quickly to drop a planned line of questioning as to the satiric, parodic quality of the extraordinary work. What else does Mr. Cheever plan to do in TV?
Just a bit irritated, he explains that he has just mentioned one new project - the drama in which the characters in the commercials get mixed up with the characters of the narrative. It is apparent, however, that until this moment the project has been only vaguely considered. ''This will not be simply a display of originality - what I would like to do is contribute to the open-endedness of television.
''Young men and women are now being confronted with television as a means of communication as important as the novel. What possible way can they get into it other than to imitate the traditional cliches of a show like 'Dallas'? It's a closed medium. My idea is that my drama might perhaps contribute to opening up the medium to different forms.''
Does Mr. Cheever watch much TV?
''Now and then. I saw a 'Little House on the Prairie' recently that I thought was quite good. They got in one good line. Of course, sometimes they get in only one good line in a two-hour show, whereas in the field in which I Usually work, you're supposed to get one in at least every five minutes. I used to watch 'Dallas' but I got tired of the campiness.
''When I was working on the script for ''Shady Hill'' I did watch TV a great deal, principally to see how long the scenes run. I discovered they are much shorter than in a novel or play.''
Will television, perhaps, turn out to be Cheever's own medium?
He shakes his head vigorously. ''No. I'm very happy with the novel, and I think I'll stick with it. But the importance of TV in one's life is inestimable.
''We had people in for lunch last summer and the woman said: 'We have friends who own a lovely old house, furnished with marvelous antiques, but they can't live in it.' I said 'Why can't they live in it?' 'Only two channels,' she replied.'' Mr. Cheever shakes his head in exaggerated disbelief.
He wants to return to an earlier topic and simply picks up the conversation as if there had been no change of subject.
''As I say, all I would like to do really is to make some contribution to the possibility of television being a more open medium. When I wanted to be a writer at 17, if there had been television I wouldn't have known how to do it short of imitating successful shows already on. And that process doesn't respond to the instincts, the drives of a writer''
Is TV cutting into the market for books?
''I don't think so. The rapport between the reader and the man or woman who has written a book is extremely intimate. Television produces nothing of the sort. There is still a television discipline which nobody quite understands.''
Does he feel he has gotten the acceptance he deserves?
''It's not a question of acceptance. For me it's never been anything but a wish to communicate with sympathetic, presumably mature and intelligent men and women. I find that part of it thrilling. It dispels loneliness, it breaks the confinement that I feel is sometimes our lot. I can't think of anything more exciting than to feel you've reached out and touched someone. Sometimes I really feel I have succeeded at doing that with my books and short stories.''
With television, too? With ''The Shady Hill Kidnapping''?
He manages to shrug, sigh, and smile simultaneously: ''We'll find out soon, won't we?''