A FINE MADNESS is about a creative spirit’s struggle for survival in an analytical society. Samson Shillitoe, is (according to Shelly’s definition) one of “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” But poetry does not rule our world and his obsession with completing his epic poem leads to his violating most accepted standards of behavior and into conflicts, both comic and deadly, with adversaries intent on making him “normal.”
Since A FINE MADNESS was published in 1964 it has achieved the status of a modern comedy classic. This new edition contains a preface by the author which will add to the reader’s enjoyment.
“I cannot imagine anyone reading A FINE MADNESS without his vision being sharpened and dignified.”
– New York Times Book Review
Of the two hundred or so reviews, many “literary”, of the first edition of A FINE MADNESS, none mentioned that I’d stolen the main story line. Of course, such thefts aren’t rare enough to be newsworthy. Writers invariably steal in the guise of influence. The trick is to steal from the best, but not from the best known work of the best for fear of it being to obvious.
My theft qualified. Even allowing for The DOCTOR’S DILEMMA, like some of Bernard Shaw’s other brilliant plays, being overshadowed by its Preface, it is not one of his most frequently revived. But it wasn’t until I saw instead of read it that I found reason to quibble. The dilemma in the play belongs to a newly knighted Harley Street specialist. He is forced to decide which of two dying men will receive the last remaining dose of his cure for a rare strain of tuberculosis. One is a fellow physician, poor himself while admirably devoted to treating the impoverished. The other, a brilliant painter, is an irredeemable scoundrel and sociopath. Shaw supposedly modeled the character on one Edward Aveling, an unsuccessful contemporary playwright, whose chief claim to fame was having driven hi devoted mistress Elinor Marx (Karl’s daughter) to an early suicide. Shaw gave his artist, George Dubedat, a charm and attraction that Aveling apparently never approached, Dubedat’s chief villainies being a knack for conning small amounts of money and writing checks that bounce. Shaw also substituted a beautiful wife for, judging by a daguerreotype, a far from dazzling Elinor to plead with the knighted doctor to save the artist’s life for the sake of posterity and The Louvre. Other prominent physicians and surgeons get into the quandary, each a fool and quack in a different way. Naturally, the deciding vote goes to the poor, humble doctor and the great painter has a fine deathbed scene. Proclaiming his belief in Michael Angelo, Velasquez and Rembrandt.
Leaving the theatre, I remarked to my companion that the old boy cheated on this one. During the play we see the backside of the painter’s canvasses and have to take the opinions of the actors up stage orgasmicly staring at them that they are masterpieces. That was the cheat. I claimed that since Shaw’s life’s blood was words and human idiocies he should have made the artist a poet, and the doctors instead of being assorted nincompoops would have served his Shavian philosophy better as psychiatrists. I should add that this was during the early days of our current era of unmitigated self-centeredness when anyone who could afford psychoanalysis and spurned it had the status of a draft dodger.
“So why don’t you write your version,” was the snotty reply from the companion currently in his third year of group therapy.
Which I did, my outright and obvious theft being of the sequence just described, but in fictional form instead of as a comedy-drama. New York City replaced London. A pre-frontal lobotomy was substituted for the deathbed scene. But I also dared some character changes within the larceny. Shaw, slightly tainted by Victorian ethics, was must more romantic than I. Not his heroine’s words to her husband:
“You are the light and the blessing of my life.
I never lived until I knew you.”
In contrast, my poet’s mistress (portrayed on screen by Joanne Woodward) displays a different domestic relationship:
“We have a perfect sadist-masochist relationship,”
she says. “I’m the masochist.”
The novel was completed in 1959, taken on promptly and confidently by the most prestigious literary agent in America and, after being rejected by forty-two publishers, was mailed back to me as unsaleable. One editor’s comment has stayed with me. “No one in his right mind would want to read this book.” It was published five years later due to an unlikely chain of misunderstandings and coincidences and, as is sometimes the case, there then happened to be millions of people who read books who apparently weren’t in their right minds.
I heartily recommend success. I savored strolling down Fifth Avenue and seeing my novel prominently displayed in every bookstore window. I was thrice asked for my autograph in restaurants. I was invited to celebrity parties. Women who’d never acknowledged my existence beyond a cool nod suddenly found me irresistible. My phone, previously stubbornly silent rang constantly. And finally the big call came from Hollywood.
The producer loved my “great” book. So did his wife and one of his two ex-wives. (He couldn’t vouch for the other one because they weren’t on speaking terms.) The clincher was that his Mexican gardener couldn’t wait for the Spanish edition to come out. And so I was soon on a first class TWA seat to the entertainme
Elliott Baker was born in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1922, graduated from Indiana University and was an infantry rifleman in World War II.
Since A FINE MADNESS, he has published fourteen more books, including ten novels, written numerous theatrical and television films and had one play produced on Broadway.
In 1997, Indiana University honored him with the President’s Medal for Excellence “for making a positive and profound impact in the literary field.”