Thursday, Sep 21st 2023

Madness And Sanity On Broadway

Encountering America's State of Mind in the Mid-1960s

The event of 32 years ago that gave me the first clue or sign of what America was all about remains vivid in my mind today. It was a first encounter that prepared me for America's state of mind then as well as now. I came to understand through great effort the meaning of this event only after much struggle.

I remembered a few years earlier in Paris, watching the assassination of JFK on French television. With the astonishment of that momentary emotion I wondered, why would a great and rich country kill its president? I developed a keen sense of observation while living in America during the turbulent 60s.

I arrived in New York City via Montréal from Paris in June of 1964, as a visitor of my friends Moni & Mina Yakim, with whom I resided until I found my own apartment.

As an innocent immigrant, not yet knowing English, American history or culture, I just dived in. New York was a jungle of confusion for me. I focused on learning the language fast so I could catch up with my self-education and face the realities of my new adventure: the discovery of my America.

In 1965 I have my first American performance at the theatre of La Mama. etc. downtown in the neighborhood of Second Ave. I offered classes in different schools, spoke enough English to get by, and read a lot.

Some of my performances depicted in silence and movement those personal observations, made through the artist's eyes. These were my own efforts to "understand" the western culture in which I chose to learn and develop my artistic career.

Then one day a street encounter gave me a real clue of the diseased symptoms and the way of thinking of America in its ununited "state".

I was walking on Broadway between 82nd and 84th streets, happy but contemplative about the strangeness of being here. I considered myself to be a physically, mentally, fit and healthy individual, and I was simply glad to be in this country.

I met a friend, actually an acquaintance whom I had known some time ago, and as we greeted each other, I asked him where he was going. He said, "I am going to see my psychiatrist." I thought to myself that to see a psychiatrist one must be mentally unbalanced or unable to cope with reality. So, I said with honesty, "Is something wrong? he then reacted very defensively, "No." he shouted, "If you don't have a psychiatrist then something is wrong with you," he said and disappeared into the crowd.

I was transfixed, planted firm on the ground, as dumbfounded as if I had just been struck by lightning on that beautiful and sunny day. My mind went blank. Shocked to the core, I thought about the irrationality of this person's behavior, his twisted logic, and his distorted perception of reality.

I couldn't understand then, that such a mentally disturbed individual, jump to a false conclusion about me and dare to judge me as abnormal because I did not have a psychiatrist. I found it to be utterly outrageous and insulting to my intelligence.

My thoughts raced for a conclusion or resolution as I woke up out of my stupor. Smiling to myself, I processed and absorbed this event. I identified and analyzed what had just occurred with my natural sense of objectivity, in order to make sense of it without being mentally injured by the distortion I had just witnessed. I found myself greatly amused with a deeper smile.

I realized and told myself, "my dear Samuel, you have just witnessed a glimpse of insanity and twisted reality. Now, you know that your have come to an immense insane asylum. This asylum is caught in a trap of false identities, distorted realities that have become a norm that relies on psychiatrists and external authorities, using them as an escape form facing the truth as it is."

This innocent nouveau immigrant suddenly understood the scope of his survival: that one has to be mentally strong and healthy to face the irrationalities of the majority - irrationalities which are considered a norm in this society.

I developed a safety valve called



This valve of thinking objectively with common sense kept the flame of sanity alive in me, in spite of the imbalances that I had to deal with. I sharpened more my intellect to carry my artistic work creatively.

I developed a keen sense of observation, an ability to identify irrationalities and reject them in order to keep my sanity alive. I used my objectivity to stay logical and practice honesty in spite of the popular belief that it does not pay.

I identified reality as it was in regard to my emotions, the cheating and lying that were common place, and the "mystical" ideas that creates problems where none exists. My experiences and involvement in my newly adopted and discovered country, made it possible for me to practice freedom of thought and action.

So my motto was and is to actively say to myself


to stay alert and consciously awake to any winds of change, and be armed with a healthy sense of life and determination to be creatively happy, and above all, increasing kindness to all.

That event -- an immigrant's encounter with madness and sanity on Broadway, New York City of 1965 , gave me a shining glimpse of what was going to be my American Experience and a great lesson in my life.

From Le Centre du Silence Newsletter "The MovingEdge" Vol. 1. No.1. Fall 1991 Copyright © 1991, 2002 Samuel Avital


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