For Norman Plotkin (1943-2010)
Our old classmate, and my good friend, Norman Plotkin died the other evening. For those of you who may wonder what his life was like, I can say that he was an impressive figure in the world. He lived on West 11th St in the Village, known by all on the block, loved and hated and feared too by all on the block for his caustic wit and his righteous combativeness; his lascivious flirtations and his hugely funny eccentricities, and certainly for his striking appearance. He was indeed the Mayor of West 11th St.
He was also my unequivocal friend for over fifty years. Amazingly, for one so invested in his own intellectual and moral attributes, he was a sympathetic listener and a stalwart comrade. His qualities were many and legion: a great writer, a champion raconteur, a passionate activist, a coruscating critic and thoroughgoing scholar and—really, above all—a world-class humorist, part Yiddish-shtick, part G. K. Chesterton!
Norman devoted most of his adult life to writing plays. He wasn’t a successful playwright. His plays were brilliant and witty, and in a fairer world would have rated many productions; and in a fairer world he would have been handsomely recompensed, and his friends and critics might have sparred as to the exact merits of his plays. But—in the words of Ezra Pound—he was “wrong, wrong from the start,” insofar as he insisted on mixing up the highest standard of literary endeavor with political radicalism as opposed to mere political correctness. Malcolm X and the Wobblies were examples. But his most personal play was his best play, Jackson Blume, about a failed but charismatic literary figure (guess who) who was larger than life and offensively crazy, and doomed because, in the words of his working-class mistress, he lacked the capacity to “make anyone happy”. Poor Norman, beautiful and damned, lovable and exasperating!
One play did make it to a small theater on Perry (!) Street and played to enthusiastic full-house audiences for nearly a month, till it attracted the attention of the Times, whose critic panned it. But he counted many substantive people among his fans, including the dean of drama critics, Eric Bentley, who was overheard by me to say that the play was “brilliant”. His other plays received numerous readings, including one by Kathleen Chalfont and another by Steven Lang.
The night Norman died, a few of us got together and had our own, informal, Irish Wake, swapping Norman stories all evening and toasting his memory: His neighbor and old friend Josh e-mailed a characterization of it this morning, which I think well worth quoting:
…in honor of our beloved genius friend tormentor ally source of inspiration & agitation fun spirited hackles raising consciousness expanding never boring norman plotkin.