The Mandelbaum Controversy

The "Mandelbaum Controversy," as it came to be called, surfaced only after its namesakes disappearance and presumed death.  Not that that presumption--what with Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley--lacked controversy of its own.

In all his public appearances, on stage, on screens large and small, even, in the early days on street corners and subways, Mandelbaum had never uttered a single word, not a syllable, not a sound was not a matter of dispute. About that there was general agreement. The director of his first film, a man with some claim to have discovered the actor, and who indeed had applied to him the epithet with which he was so often identified, "the massive mute," insisted that he had never heard the voice of the actor either in public or in private. The producer of the off off Broadway revival of Arsenic and Old Lace, in which Mandelbaum starred as Spinalzo, in a letter to the Village Voice asserted unequivocally that, to his knowledge, the actor had never spoken, neither within the theatre, nor without. Of course, there was the testimony of Mandelbaums Boswell, Ehrlichman, that in all his years at the great mans side, there was never so much as a grunt or snort let alone a verbal communication from the great man.

No, the question was never whether the actor had ever spoken--even in his home of Kittaning there was no one who ever claimed to have heard his voice; no, the question was whether he didnt speak because he wouldnt speak, which made of his silence a conscious intention worthy of analysis and explication, or whether he didnt speak because he couldnt speak, which made of that silence a physical necessity worthy of note as an example of mans ability to transcend a handicap, but hardly an act of the creative will to be seen in the same category as the former. The distinction was paramount. It was the difference between art and accident.

Why it had always been assumed that Mandelbaum could have spoken had Mandelbaum wished to speak is not clear. Still, from the very beginning, his silence had been perceived as a choice. Mandelbaum had chosen silence as a poet chooses metaphor. As a painter chooses to work in watercolor, Mandelbaum had chosen to work in silence. That his particular field of endeavor was one usually associated with the sound of the voice (had his talent been for the dance for example, his silence would most likely have gone unnoticed) transformed that choice from a banal question of metier to one of revolution: Andy Warhols soup cans, Wordsworth and Coleridges Lyrical Ballads, Beethovens Ninth Symphony.

It was, of course, in the unauthorized biography, The Vocal Mute, that Wells Seligman, the same Seligman who had penned lives of Leonardo De Caprio, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Rodney Dangerfield, that the earliest of the claims that Mandelbaum spoke not, because Mandelbaum lacked the ability to do so emerged. A failure which he attributed to a botched tonsillectomy at the age of seven, records of which from the archives of the Kittaning General Hospital, he reproduced as Appendix B of his book.

Spokespersons from the hospital of course denied the charges and claimed the so-called records were nothing but forgeries, but a dam had been breached and the flow followed.

The psychobiographer Adler J. Ung, rejecting Seligmans spurious shenanigans, led the charge of the analyst brigade, attributing what he called Mandelbaums "hysterical muteness" to the accidental entrance into the primal bedroom during the height of the boys belated Oedipal development, in his seminal article in Chicken Soup for the Psyche. Havelock OFreud, in a letter to People magazine, agreed but reminded Ung that accidents were never accidental.

Ehrlichman, of course, railed eloquently against such revisionist thinking, but with a finger much too small to stem the flow.

There was the interview with Stanley Myzwyky, a Mandelbaum classmate from the third grade until he was expelled from the Kittaning public schools (Myzwyky that is, certainly not Mandelbaum) at age fifteen for bringing a gun, a gun Myzwyky to this day claims was a plastic water pistol. Myzwyky asserted that Mandelbaum had always spoken "just fine" until the day on the school playground during recess when Myzwyky had accidentally hit him in the neck with one of those aluminum Little League bats. "I never knew he was behind me. Never heard him speak again."

While there were those that questioned Myzwykys credibility, that there had been some sort of incident on the playground was undeniable, whether or nor Mandelbaum had spoken either before that incident or after was the question still open to debate and debate raged.

Esther Rifkin, whose claims of psychic appearances by the great actor had been tabloid fodder for years, declared that the miniature Mandelbaum had once again appeared and that in the same place--the so-called Shrine Rifkin--and that indeed he had spoken loudly and clearly, railing unequivocally against these Myzwykys and Ungs. She even purported to have a recording of that appearance which could be accessed at he website with the purchase of an annual membership.

Those popular culture critics in the academy who had long made a profession of explicating, analyzing and philosophizing about the man and his work, although not quite comfortable with Rifkin as an ally, joined in the combat. Paul DHomme, often called the father of Mandelbaum studies, and Jacques Derriere launched the academic offensive in their article "Defining Choice: (Un)speech" in the Journal of Performance Studies, where they argued that whether or not Mandelbaum could have spoken or not was irrelevant. Since could he or could he not, the important aesthetic choice was the choice to work with silence, and that was the choice that Mandelbaum had indeed made.

Southey Broile maintained that if in fact Mandelbaum could not speak, and he was certainly not persuaded by the evidence so far presented that this was the case, it merely emphasized once again the mythic quality of his work: the obvious analogues--the seeing blind man and the wise fool. This thesis he developed at length in a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Western Arkansas Librarians Association.

These positions were staunchly ridiculed by both Alan Bud Bennet in his book Silent Nonsense and Cornelia East in her The (Wo)mandelbaum Plot. Bennet pointed to the whole Mandelbaum phenomenon as another example of liberal bias against the traditional values; East pointed to the whole Mandelbaum phenomenon as another example of the power structures privileging of male honkies over the "other." Cultural politics, as a commentator on the all news all the time channel, posited with a wink in his eye, makes strange bedfellows.

The controversy rages: art or nature, compulsion or choice, and perhaps somewhere where none but the trees can hear him, Mandelbaum laughs.