Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin

“The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe”

Book Introduction by Marilyn French

In the fall of 1985, something new happened in the cultural life of America, something that should hearten and encourage every person who believes this nation needs humane redirection: a show opened on Broadway starring Lily Tomlin, written by Jane Wagner, and called The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe..

Lily Tomlin made her first reputation on television, the most far-reaching of all cultural media. Millions of people are familiar with the characters she created on the comedy series Laugh-In and followed her and her longtime collaborator Jane Wagner as they expanded Tomlin’s comic repertory in Emmy Award-winning television specials and an earlier Broadway show, Appearing Nitely, which won a Tony.

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe focuses on female; one might well say human; experience of society. It looks at a world that is pervaded by the drive to power, but it is also a hilarious running critique of our society, so accurate and humane that New York Times critic Frank Rich called it “the most genuinely subversive comedy to be produced on Broadway in years.” One man’s subversive is another’s (woman or man) truth: what is most extraordinary about the Tomlin/Wagner show is the degree of truth about American society that it dares to present on a public stage to an audience educated by the artificial sunshine and artificial violence of most television and movies; action without reverberationspeople without character, like Marisol cut-out figures.

The major narrator of the performance is Trudy, a bag lady who has been “certified” mad, but whose madness is really a perception of society from the underside, the kind of seeing that Socrates called “a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention.” Trudy is wise, acute, funny. Her voice and face appear, then vanish as other characters appear; Chrissy, a young woman who lacks direction and spends hours in a health club (sometimes she has a male counterpart); Kate, a wealthy woman suffering from “affluenza” (“a bored species cannot survive“); Agnus Angst, an unhappy punk adolescent who tries to use Gordon Liddy’s book Will as a guide to life; and an entire community of friends (Lyn, Edie and Marge) who have been together throughout the feminist movement (dated by the script from the Women’s Strike for Equality) and who are unsure of what to do now.

The point of view of the show is actually from the lowest social stratum in American society. This is intentional. Tomlin and Wagner both came from rural Southern families, although Tomlin was raised in Detroit, in a blue-collar neighborhood, among people who, she feels, did not recognize the degree to which their suffering was caused by a system rather than by each other, that “the system” was only a system, and not the very law of nature. But compassion is handled lightly in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe; Jane Wagner’s script is unsentimental. Nor does the show deal out blame for the social problems it addresses, instead it focuses on our anxiety and on our dangerous tendency to harden ourselves.

Underlying the gentle laughter that is a Tomlin/Wagner hallmark is the convention that we have some power to alter the course of our world as well as our own lives. And that message is received by the audience. The atmosphere of the theatre is intense, magnetized; the roar afterward conveys the feeling one had as one sat there, that people were starving for truth in art, and had finally been fed, and knew it.