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                        THE TRIAL OF LENNY BRUCE


                            BY ALBERT GOLDMAN


             From `The New Republic'    September 12, 1964


Manhattan's Criminal Courts Building, a grim grey skyscraper dominating the

columns and porticos of the city's legal and administrative Acropolis, was

the scene in recent weeks of an eerie summer arts festival.  In it's cool,

religiously silent courtrooms, films were screened, and tapes played of

night-club shows, and a parade of critics, columnists, editors, professors

and clergymen pronounced on the merits of the works in question - becoming

players themselves in a strange Genet-like theater with a raised bench of

black-robed judges behind the actors, and row after row of absorbed

spectators in front.


   Billed in the press as trials of this or that artist for violations of

Section 1140-a of the Criminal Code (Immoral Shows and Exhibitions), these

legal dramas are the inevitable outcome of collision between America's

first permanently established avant garde and the old guard who are the

official protectors of public decency and morality.  As an ultimate stage,

the Criminal Court is better suited to the principal defendants - Village

film-maker and critic Jonas Mekas, and comedian Lenny Bruce, cultural

kamikazes eager to impale themselves on the spears of authority - than any

downtown movie house or cafe.


   Both the movie-man and the comic invited arrest in order to determine

the size of the area in which society will let them operate.  Jonas Mekas,

founder of FilmMakers' Cooperative and bellwether of the Village Voice,

has already been convicted for showing Jack Smith's "Flaming Creatures"

which displayed genitalia and other portions of the male and female anatomy,

and he is now awaiting trial for sponsoring Jean Genet's "Un Chant d'Amour",

a story involving homosexual love.


   The most notorious case in what is being called the "harassment of the

arts" in New York is that of Lenny Bruce.  His present trial for obscenity

climaxes a six-month lockout of Lower East Side art activities by the New

York City Department of Licenses, the New York State Division of Motion

Pictures, and the city's vice squad, fire and municipal building

authorities.  Theaters have been padlocked, coffee shops driven out of

business, summonses served, arrests made.  The storm center is the Bruce

trial, which began June 16 and swelled during the summer to Dickensian

proportions.  It concluded recently but no verdict is expected until late

this month.


   For this unprecedented crackdown, accusing fingers have been leveled at

Robert Moses, who is suspected of wanting to "clean up" the city for the

World's Fair; at Cardinal Spellman, who is leading a crusade against

pornography; and at the real estate interests, which wish to clear the

Village of beatniks.  But the provocations have more than kept pace with

the persecutions.


   In less than a decade, the avant garde has transformed itself from a

secret brotherhood of hipsters living dangerously in the deep shadows of

hatred and fear of authority, to a band of beat "saints" welcoming a

showdown in the courts - where they expect to triumph either legally or

morally through martyrdom.


   Lenny Bruce, who turned up in court looking like a bearded rabbi in the

garb of the concentration camp, was once an impeccably groomed, stylishly

accoutred Broadway entertainer who projected his satyric images of American

society with typical professional aplomb.  But when he found that his

audiences were kissing the rod with which he flailed them, he insisted on

drawing blood instead of pocketing his $5,000 a week and going on with the

show.  He demanded, "How many niggers we got here tonight?" or threatened

to urinate on the audience.  Eventually, he punched through the mask of the

funny man and the satirist and emerged as a furious and sometimes

frightening shaman, struggling with the aid of lights, drums, chants and

surreal fantasy, to exorcise the demons of the national conscience.

Obscene language was as necessary to his act as dynamite to a miner.

In the last year, however, he has suffered a loss of inspiration - partly

attributable to ill health and emotional distress - and his use of obscenity

has begun to resemble the twitching of a damaged muscle.


   A magnet for cops and cranks, Lenny Bruce has been arrested for obscenity

and possession of narcotics nine times in the past two years.  The mere

appearance of his name on a theater marquee last November provoked an

arsonist to mine the stage with bundles of gasoline-soaked rags.  In April

the announcement of a regular run in a Greenwich Village cafe was the signal

for Assistant District Attorney Richard M. Kuh to send in his plainclothesmen

with recording machines under their coats and microphones in their tie pins.

Bruce's New York arrest was no crude "bust."  A grand jury of 30-odd leading

citizens handed up an indictment and a three-judge panel was selected to try

the defendant, with Kuh (who has obtained 100 pornography convictions) as

procecutor.


   The forces for the defense were equally impressive.  They included Ephraim

London, who is the elder statesman of obscenity actions and a one-time

attorney for Alger Hiss, and London's junior partner, Marvin Garbus.  Poet

Allen Ginsberg, who has proved in this crisis to be the most resourceful

leader of the avant garde, circulated a pre-trial petition containing 100

signatures, including those of Reinhold Niebuhr, Lionel Trilling, James

Baldwin and Mr. and Mrs. Richard Burton.  A dozen expert witnesses from

journalism, publishing, the universities and the clergy testified on Bruce's

behalf, and five rebuttal witnesses with comparable credentials testified

against the comedian.  As the trial progressed, the Criminal Courts

Building, that had started out as a stage for Lenny Bruce, became a cultural

Palladium where highly articulate, intellectual witnesses took turns trying

to "put away" the impassive judges.  Bruce sat quietly by, writing reviews

of all his critics.


   The three judges - John M. Murtagh, a Roman Catholic;  Kenneth M. Phipps,

a negro;  and J. Randall Creel, a WASP - made it clear that they regarded

Bruce's work with profound personal distaste, but were willing to hear or

read anything that could be said in the comedian's defense.  To a man,

defense witnesses asserted that Bruce is a brilliant social satirist, and

then struggled to prove it from the crude and unfunny "bits" mercilessly

laid out in the transcript.  The inflation of values was bizarre: Bruce was

compared to Rabelais, Swift, Twain, Joyce, Henry Miller and Hosea.  All the

witnesses found the "dirty words" acceptable by "contemporary community

standards" (one clergyman remarked that the only bar to the use of Bruce's

language in the pulpit was custom).


                        "A Brilliant Moral Man"


Inevitably, the trial had its humorous aspect.  The tapes elicited strangled

laughter from the spectators, court officers, and even one of the judges -

until he was shushed.  Another judge wanted to know if "goy" was a dirty

word.  Lawyer London once referred absentmindedly to his client as "Mr.

Crotch."  Dorothy Kilgallen, who called Bruce "a brilliant moral man," on

cross-examination was confronted with a routine about a man who has been

caught by his wife having intercourse with a chicken.  Stopped for a moment,

she hesitated, then demurely asserted: "Well..he got into some other animals

too!"


   Though the trial was good theater, it was not an honest search for truth.

The defense witnesses evaded a direct confrontation with the facts.  Instead

of conceding Bruce's power to shock and infuriate by a public display of the

ugly, the twisted, the perverse, and justifying his use of such powers by

the remarkable cathartic effect he sometimes achieved, these liberal,

intellectual witnesses turned the case into the conventional issue of the

blameless artist versus the uncomprehending world.


   The perversion of the issues apparent in the Bruce trial illuminates

powerfully a cultural dilemma that is likely to become more serious in the

future.  Of the two obvious ways of dealing with a militant and

revolutionary avant garde, the one - repression - succeeds only in driving

it underground and thereby increasing its intensity.  The steady relaxation

of restraint exemplified by the Supreme Court liberalization of the

definition of "obscenity" has an equally frustrating effect on those whose

social contribution is relentless challenge to established values.  To meet

protest with ever-expanding permissiveness is to refuse to feel its bite,

to translate it into "art" or "satire" or other expressions that seem

comfortable, thus forcing the dissident into ever more extravagant gestures

of defiance.


   It is unlikely, however, that current trials in New York will establish

a new code for dissent.  The probable outcome is that Lenny Bruce will be

acquitted of "hard-core vulgarity" - as the judge put it - by a court

convinced that "it's a crime that he's getting away with it."  If this

happens - and any other verdict would be out of line with the rulings of

the Supreme Court - the judges will not be the only ones to compromise

themselves.  They will be joining hands with the liberal intellectual

witnesses - and even with the defendant.  For the one really saddening

thing in this trial was the spectacle of Lenny Bruce, the cause of all this

commotion and the recipient of much praise and assistance, offering himself

as a victim of the society he had once attacked so ruthlessly and so

daringly.  There in the tape recordings were the signs of unavailing

compromise: in the mumbled obscenities, the elaborate but incoherent self-

justifications, the obsessional narratives of persecution, and above all,

in the total absence of the nihilistic rage and savagery that had once left

his audiences shaken but grateful for a magical release - all gone - and

his primitive but priestly function forsaken.


   Perhaps the trials of Jonas Mekas and Lenny Bruce will convince the avant

garde that no genuine confrontation with society is possible in the

courtroom.  Substituting the judicial setting for the stage gives the artist

a momentary sense of engagement, and brings him a kind of attention he would

not otherwise receive; but ultimately it tempts him to abandon his role of

rebel for that of litigant, crusader or martyr.  The worst is that even

after the price has been paid, the legal encounter may nearly obscure an

already dark and difficult problem, leaving the real tension unexposed

and unresolved.