Rod Serling on...
- Patterns
- Old MacDonald
had a Curve

- Requiem for a

The Rack

from the Bantam Paperback Patterns
by Rod Serling, 1957

Patterns CommentaryPatterns was written in the fall of 1954, shortly after I had taken my wife and family from Ohio to the East. It took me into television’s elite quickly and fabulously. But actually, as noted by Time Magazine in its review of the program, it was a soundly built play that derived even greater impetus by the most uniquely consistent acting and production ever accorded a television play. Fielder Cook’s direction was creatively and artistically a total triumph; the acting of Richard Kiley, Everett Sloane, Ed Begley, Elizabeth Wilson, and everyone else was almost unbelievably excellent.

As to the play—it was good, perhaps better than good. Quite mistakenly, people have attributed its quality to the author’s keen perception about big business and its ramifications. Actually Patterns was not at all conceived as a big-business opus. I had never occupied a position in the upper-executive echelons, nor had I even ever functioned in what could be legitimately called a big business. Patterns is a story of power. It is also parenthetically a conflict of youth versus age. It is set against a background of big business and it utilizes some of the inherent problems that arise in that kind of a situation, but it is not truly a big-business story. There is no single character within it who could be considered a prototype of an economic system, or at least any distinct level of that system. The same kind of conflict could arise if this had been a war story, a political story, or the story of a foreman on an assembly line. I couched it in terms of big business because there is an innate kind of romance in the big, the blustering, and the successful. But there is, in the final analysis, nothing Marxist in the message of this play. It is not an indictment of our capitalistic system nor an expose of the evils of big money. It is the story of ambition and the price tag that hangs on success. If it professes actually to have a message, it is simply that every human being has a minimum set of ethics from which he operates. This minimum set of ethics often injects itself into a man’s own journey upward against competition. When he refuses to compromise these ethics, his career must suffer; when he does compromise them, his conscience does the suffering. There are tragic overtones to this because our society is a competitive one. For every man who goes up, someone has to leave. And when the departure of the aged is neither philosophical nor graceful, there is a kind of aching poignance in this kind of changing of the guard.

The success of Patterns was uniquely due to a kind of team effort. I have already mentioned the fabulous direction and acting but the support came also on an editorial level. A totally new conception of the ending came from the editor, Arthur Singer, and it proved to be perhaps one of the most successful and lauded moments of the play. Most television productions are collaborative but Patterns evolved, I think, a little more collaboratively than most.

In analyzing the writing of Patterns, you will note that though the dialogue is literate—sometimes almost archaic—there is still an overall pattern of simplicity about it. There is a spare, concise measurement in the writing that gives it flow and legitimacy. You will note that in the final scene between Ramsey and Sloane the two forces clash head on, one with a violence and anger generated by disgust and the other with a zealous fanaticism that is neither blind nor illogical. When these two giants tangle, it is still a scene of comparative brevity. In fact, with the exception of the conference-room scenes, no individual section of the play seems prolonged or padded. Each has its place, its function, and its own particular meaning within the scheme of the story. It follows the classic lines of the tragedy in a way that could be plotted on a graph. There is the step-by-step culmination of all the ingredients. The arrival of Staples; the establishment of his talent and strengths; the subtle overtones of Andy Sloane’s worn-out usefulness; the duplication of the two men’s positions; the stalking specter of progress that pushes Staples and seeks to pull down Sloane; the agonizing inevitability of Sloane’s demise along with the jarring, wrenching ambivalence of Fred Staples’ hunger for success that is nonetheless not so bright as to blind his own awareness of another man’s agony—all this is the pattern of a handful of lives with the prime mover, Walter Ramsey, at the helm, pushing, prodding, squeezing, in the name of progress and profit.

Underlying all this is the subplot. There is the ambition of Fred Staples’ wife; there is the poignant sort of half-groping understanding of Andy Sloane’s young son; and there is the despairing dignity of Marge, now Staples’ secretary, who has come over to him from Andy Sloane—perhaps the only one who clearly sees that whatever Staples’ intentions, and no matter the depth of his sensitivities, he’s there as a spoiler and Andy Sloane is his victim.
As you read Patterns, you will note that there is little fuzz in the dialogue and in the characterizations. This is a well-defined story with well-delineated people. But the power that is derived from its very simplicity also helps to hide the fact that while there is a vast complexity and depth in its theme, this probing does not extend to its people. With the exception of Walter Ramsey, you’ll note a thinness to some of the others. For example, the part of Fran, Staples’ wife, is badly drawn. At no single point in her development do we get a reasonably accurate picture of this woman and her motivations. We know that she is ambitious and that her ambition is what prods her husband. We never discover, however, whether or not she shares her husband’s sensitivities. We don’t know whether she blithely and deliberately chooses to recognize what her husband must do to another fellow human being, or if she realizes this will be one of the byproducts of his success and she chooses to discount it in the name of her ambition. She is a charming, rather glib, but, in the final analysis, hard-to-understand young woman. The writing makes her hard to understand.

Staples, on the other hand, is much more a known quantity. He is written in such a way that we readily perceive the diverse pulls on his conscience. We know that he shares his wife’s ambition and that with it is a sensitivity. We know that he genuinely likes the man he’s been called upon to replace. But in the end of the play we are never given a really definitive explanation of what he feels the moment he walks away from his moment of truth. Or even if it is a moment of truth. He walks into Walter Ramsey’s office after Sloane’s heart attack to read a riot act in the name of simple, basic, decent justice. And when he walks out he has decided to stay and fight, supposedly on his own terms. There is clarity here in his actions, but not in his motives. Whether it stems from belief or rationalization I have not made clear. Actually, in my own mind I must excuse this lack of a clear-cut direction, because I feel that Fred Staples is himself unsure as to his reasons for staying. When he walks out of Walter Ramsey’s office his battered conscience has not been assuaged; but the tense and taut emotions of the past few hours, along with his fatigue, have taken away some of his own awareness. He is not certain at this given moment whether he has won or Ramsey has conned him into thinking he’s won!

In the motion-picture version of Patterns, this vague disquiet on the part of Fred Staples is more clearly shown. When he greets his wife waiting for him in the lobby he says something about it being easy enough to chuck something, suggesting that he is already rationalizing away a gnawing and persistent little doubt that his victory was nothing more than a sellout.

It is interesting, particularly in the case of Patterns, to review its transition into terms of motion picture from its original television form. There was no basic ingredient left out for want of time in its original television form. Consequently, when I translated it into terms of motion pictures, there was little in the way of expansion needed, except a more or less horizontal expansion. Many scenes could now be prefaced by a physical introduction—i.e., Wall Street before we enter the offices. Right now, my feelings (subject to change) are that this additional horizontal scope added nothing to the overall quality and effect of Patterns. If anything, some of its incisiveness, its sharpness and clarity and some of its taut kind of understatement seem to have been somewhat diffused. Only in the boardroom scenes did the story seem to gain in the movie. In television, because of its time limitations, there exists the necessity for showing a part to suggest the whole. In the case of a board meeting, which in the context of the story is of vital importance, we do not have time to show the entire board meeting. We can show ouly a few dibs and dabs of the proceedings, and then get right into the action that is important. Thus, though an audience knows that any board meeting must last at least an hour or so, in television it lasts but a few moments and, if successful, gives the illusion of lasting longer. This illusion was sustained somewhat in the television performance. There was a suggestion of things on the agenda that were properly vague and complex, but it wasn’t long before the conflict at hand was introduced with the colloquy between Ramsey and Sloane. But though few people were aware of the approximately six-minute board meetings, there was an overall effect of staccato and hurry-up that did not enhance the realism of the performance. In the movie this effect has been aided. Though the scenes are not in themselves much longer, the illusion of length and an agenda seems better drawn. It comes more from camera than from writing. The corridor, the room, and the visual play on the characters add a dimension that was lacking on television.

As of this writing Patterns has proven no boon to the motion-picture exhibitors. Rather, it has played to only sporadically good houses, with a record of financial return that has been sparse and disappointing. Its reviews as a motion picture matched their television counterparts. These have been with only one or two exceptions consistently fine. If we can utilize this as a measure we can make a further assumption that Patterns’ comparative failure is more economic than artistic. Perhaps an audience, however taken with the television show, is not so prone to spend money to see it again in another form. This suggests further that the relationship between motion pictures and television is so close in terms of technique that there is little to choose between the two. Basic in any play is its story, and this is the one area which will require the least change in taking one vehicle over from one medium to another.

From a writing viewpoint, time is the only big difference in creation. The movies permit more byplay, perhaps a bit more subtlety, and, as I indicated before, more horizontal freedom. Scenes can play longer, and characters can say and do more. But the story unfolds in much the same way. Its physical trappings are extended, colored and costumed, but it is questionable how this will implement a dramatic effect in a story, if the story itself has an innate power that has previously come through without those trappings.

But with all its faults and foibles, Patterns must have hit on a truth, and this truth had its roots in the behavior of men and women. Almost half of the several hundred letters I received after Patterns’ initial television performance pointedly asked if this wasn’t really the story of so-and-so company with Mr. A and Mr. B. This was, then, no indictment of big business. The characters in Patterns have their counterparts in real life on many levels. If, on the other hand, any indictment is suggested, it is simply an indictment of the imposed values of a society that places such stock in success and has so little preoccupation with morality when success has been attained. And this is not the morality of good and evil, not the black-and-white of what is fundamentally right and wrong. This is the morality of the fringes, the plowing under of human dignity in the name of progress, and the mass-production attitude toward the individual because his goods and services happen to be efficiently produced by mass-production methods. This is morality’s shady side of the street. The patterns of which this piece speaks are behavior patterns of little human beings in a big world—lost in it, intimidated by it, and whose biggest job is to survive in it.