TWENTY-FIVE years ago this month, while John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were ``eyeball to eyeball'' (as the phrase then had it) over Soviet missiles in Cuba, four young Englishmen - Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Alan Bennett - opened on Broadway in a satirical revue titled ``Beyond the Fringe.'' The juxtaposition is not random. Some people remember the historical events that occur within their lifetime by free-floating association with a popular song or a movie - as evocative as a pressed flower in a wedding scrapbook. A few of us recall history, even the grim events, by what could make us laugh at the time - somehow proving that we had managed to survive, intact and sane.
Perhaps it was not strictly true, but the Cuban missile crisis still feels as close as the world has come to World War III. October is always a strange month in New York. With no foliage for reference to give color and tang to the air, the month comes upon one as an unmotivated nip, an early grayness - a sort of curfew.
In October 1962, as the headlines threatening war obsessed the city, New York seemed as sobered-up, as slowed-down - as quiet - as it ever gets. In this frenetic, diffused metropolis there was, for once, a communal sense of everybody waiting together for something to happen, or not happen.
It was the last moment anybody would have selected for four rather intellectual and quirky young Englishmen to make an unfamiliar American audience laugh. Yet everything ``worked.'' It was not a question of escapism by means of a slippery banana peel. This was clever, heady, alerting comedy. Included in the group's repertoire were a parody of Shakespeare, an impersonation of Bertrand Russell, and subtle caricatures of an Anglican clergyman and a Fleet Street journalist.
Also, a skit titled ``Aftermyth of War,'' satirizing what the quartet took to be the English penchant for sentimentalizing their stiff upper lips when looking back to World War II. The minidrama was full of Little Common Men puttering in their gardens as the bombs fell and plucky Cockneys calling out for another cuppa tea. One memorable passage documented the recollections of a dowager: ``The weekend war broke out, I was at a house party.... That fateful September Sunday I turned to my husband, as he then was, and said, `Squiffy, this is the end of an era.'''
The wicked little attack on war-nostalgia ended with the line: ``Unavoidably came peace.''
Far from being escapism, the best comedy looks down all the gun barrels of life.
For the backside of tragedy as well as comedy, watch Charlie Chaplin duckwalk down the road, and off the screen, as the tramp.
To get comic is to ``get real.''
``Beyond the Fringe'' did not make a New York audience in October '62 forget the Cuban missile crisis - nothing could have done that. But by treating the subject of war - along with all the other subjects of life - it relaxed the obsession. And in the end, it brought a kind of oblique wisdom to a topic characterized by head-on madness.
Transcripts of White House discussions just released indicate how close the world came to war over the Cuban missiles. Apparently just about all the members of the White House inner circle except the President believed the appropriate response was a military strike. Perhaps he alone felt the full responsibility. Perhaps he alone understood - as it turned out - that a diplomatic coup is incomparably more decisive than a military victory.
In any case, a war - possibly World War III - was averted, and in the wings, the young Broadway season had a hit, a very palpable hit.
For those who saw ``Beyond the Fringe'' on that somber and hilarious opening night, the two events go together, leading 25 years later to the conclusion that comedy not only gets you through a crisis with your eyes wide open but could prevent other crises by keeping everybody's eyes wide open - if one accepts the premise that a sense of humor is central to a sense of perspective.
Rock groups that nobody calls for, except maybe their agent or the Internal Revenue Service, reassemble anyway in middle age. Meantime, there are more wars and rumors of wars. ``Beyond the Fringe,'' where are you now when - as usual - we need you?
A Wednesday and Friday column