The James Purdy Society
Synopses of James Purdy's Works,
with Performance Notes
The Paradise Circus
In a small farming town shortly after the first great war a wicked old man is cajoled into selling his two sons, whom he never really cared for, to a dissolute mountebank and circus owner. The young boys who have achieved some little renown for their ability to paint and restore merry-go-round horses cannot measure up to their fatherís memory of their older brother who died a hero in the war. The eccentric circus owner pays a lump sum for the boys with the proviso that he will reclaim the money should they desert. The old miser hides the money away in a secure place.
Freed from their slave driver of a father the boys find themselves under the yoke of yet another wicked man, this one resembling more of a slave owner. Within a few years they are developed and exploited as horsemen in the circus show. Older now and with more developed bodies and mature good looks they become crowd pleasers and stars of the circus though they feel they are just toys the audience fauns over. They receive no financial payment for their labors and their hearts are beginning to turn to stone.
It has slowly begun to dawn on the father that the selling of his sons, as he now regards the transaction, was the worst mistake of his lifetime. In an attempt at reconciliation the doctor brings them to visit as the circus is in the neighboring town and the old man is too far gone to venture out. But time has so changed them both (he is more frail and they are beginning to be men) that they barely recognize one another and he is unable to express what he feels for them.
Finding the medicine and advice of the doctor to be of no avail he decides to visit the town witch and herbalist who is said to dabble in magic. She is shocked at his capitulation as she felt that he of all people would remain sealed in his contempt and defiance and stay unloved and unloving to the end. He has begun to pull in resolution as his body and strength are weakening He is heartbroken over how he preferred his eldest son to them, how he harassed them over not having the potential to make real money and how he eventually sold them to pay for his investment in them She tells him there is only one remedy and that is to fetch the blood money and burn it right in front of her. Only then will he ever see his two sons again. The thought of this coupled with the strong coffee she has been pouring down him almost finishes him off right then and there.. He also realizes that he canít jog his memory into recalling where he hid the money in the first place.
In the meantime the young men have decided to flee the circus and are on the run with no particular direction. The old man finally remembers the hiding place and fetches the money. It is in tact and even though rats had built a nest right next to it they did not touch the evil money.
He returns to the witch and she burns the ten thousand dollars right down to the last hundred. This completely turns the old mans brain as he crawls to the fireplace grate and tries in vain to salvage some of the burning money.
Almost at once the boys on the road decide to change direction and return home to claim the blood money.
The old man is broken beyond endurance at having committed yet another folly but his loyal housekeeper is convinced that the money was switched as no one would burn that much cash. She visits the witch but finds only the ashes and some charred remnants of the bills.
Several days later the boys finally arrive at their old home but their father has now slipped almost completely away. Where he once obsessed over his firstborn son, then his other two boys, he is now consumed with the burned money which should have been their inheritance.
The circus owner furious with their desertion has doubled back on his schedule and has changed the itinerary of the circus to either reclaim the boys or get back his money. The old man summons all his strength to ward him off and sends him to the house of the witch who burned the money. As these two forces and born adversaries try to out maneuver one another she shows him the burned money and sees into his own secret sexual impotency. Promising a cure she administers a potion, an herbal remedy laced with raw opium, and he begins to feel his old self again. He gives the boys a signed document relinquishing control and authority over them and telling them to be free and become men.
It has all unhinged the father and he has no more left in him. At his deathbed he tries again to make right what he has done but his love has come too late for their rock hard hearts and they can only achieve a kind of acceptance of what has come about.
The events have happened too fast and the young men canít take it all in. They are in a whirl. They have the farm and they have the housekeeper who has always been like someone ďrealĒ to them (both their father and the circus owner seemed much too much and behaved more like crazy people) and they have each other . It will be just enough to find themselves, to grow up all over again this time in a different way and to become men.
Setting: Rural America, 1920ís
Characters: Great vehicle role for older actor (Gene Hackman, Peter Finch, Paul Scoffield type)
Great role for middle age character actor (Anthony Hopkins type)
Great role for older actress (Elaine Stritch, Maggie Smith type)
Excellent roles for two young actors and middle age actress
This material is very easily adapted to film and is wildly entertaining. It is part fable, part fairy tale, part farce with a serious dramatic thrust. This is accomplished through the use of three outrageous and eccentric characters though they are people everyone recognizes. It is the kind of film a company like Disney but perhaps leaning towards a more sophisticated and stylish product would be interested in.