History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/American Pre-WWII
In this period, innovations appeared in the manner of telling the dramatic story, as when Elmer Rice (1892-1967), innovator of the flashback technique, wrote “On trial” (1914) (Gould, 1966).
- 1 Eugene O'Neill
- 2 Thornton Wilder
- 3 Lillian Hellman
- 4 Louis Kaufman Anspacher
- 5 John Steinbeck
- 6 William Saroyan
- 7 Clifford Odets
- 8 Sidney Howard
- 9 Lula Vollmer
- 10 Owen Davis
- 11 Gilbert Emery
- 12 Augustus Thomas
- 13 Gertrude E Jennings
- 14 Joseph Kesselring
- 15 Mary Chase
Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) is the dominant figure of early to middle 20th century American drama for such plays as "Desire under the elms" (1924), "Ah, wilderness!" (1933), "The iceman cometh" (1940), and "A long day's journey into night" (1941).
von Szeliski (1971) criticized the ambitions and goals of modern attempts at tragedy as being too limited, taking as an example "A long day’s journey into night": "if anything, [the play's goal is] to clarify blame, or Edmund Tyrone simply wants to dissolve into a bank of fog" (p 119). “Here is a family living in close symbiotic relationship, a single organism with four branches, where a twitch in one creates a spasm in another. For example, Tyrone's miserliness and acting career contributed to his wife’s drug addiction, causing respectively access to a quack doctor and her sense of being abandoned at home. His miserliness is also the source of Edmund’s resentment at being sent into a second-class sanatarium for the treatment of tuberculosis (Brustein, 1964 pp ?). Parks (1966) pointed Edmund out as the only "fundamentally sound" character. "But the sickness in father, mother, and brother is essentially a moral sickness: in seeking to escape from the world they have grown eccentric, cold; their flashes of warmth are sporadic and to a degree irrational; they have lost the capacity to love and the will to act...[Their] hopeless escapist fantasies lead them inevitably into the past, away from the present, and ahead of them is only the darkly symbolic night" (pp 101-102). "Alienation, loneliness and the specter of death stalk the Tyrone house day and night; this morbid, depressing 'anschauung' [view] is the light and shadow of the human condition. The final view of Mary, almost lunatic in the throes of her addiction, closes the play in one of the most poignant mad scene of all drama, recalling Lady Macbeth's sonambulist madness" (Featherstone, 2008, p 13). "As the play advances, it is as if the fog and darkness take over: Jamie and Edmund bump into objects in the dark, James' need for economy makes him turn off the light bulb, Mary's memories of the past overtake her judgment in the bridal wear, morphine being liable to cause a foggy state of mind, the dialogue becomes diffuse, as if the environment determines character" (Fleche, 1997 p 26). "Although the characters reveal their deepest feelings about themselves and one another, and although Edmund achieves some mutual understanding with his father and brother, there is no suggestion that the cycle of their behavior will change, or that the family's dynamics of conflict will undergo any transformation" (Murphy, 1987 p 192). "Long day's journey into night" “is perhaps the modern theatre’s outstanding dramatization of the ambivalences omnipresent in the human species. This alone would have given authenticity and depth to the play, which O’Neill managed to convey with much dramatic skill in a crescendo of revelations and even with some delightful humor, as in the scene in which the father tries to contradict the charge of miserliness by turning on all the lights in the parlor and then cautiously turning them out again” (Gassner, 1968 pp 278-279).
In “Desire under the elms”, "the trees' shadow hang oppressively over the house. Also oppressive is the terrain filled with stones. The three main characters are very large and direct products of their environment...unsophisticated, unlettered, and ignorant, driven by their passionate...desires and isolated from normal social intercourse” (Miller and Frazer (1991, p 70). “The theme of the play is variations on the word 'desire'. "Abbie desires a home, security, Simeon and Peter desire freedom from the hard labor of a rock-bound New England farm, Eben desires to possess what was his mother’s, a Freudian implication, and Old Ephraim desires to escape from his sense of aloneness by possessing the farm he has made out of impossible land, since human love fails him in each of his wives and in each of his sons” (Downer, 1951 p 69). The play "created a realistic whole charged with symbolism and...opened a new level of meaning and a new way of meaning to the local-color realism traditionally associated with rural simplicity" (Murphy, 1987, p 129). Many early critics found the play lacking in tragic depth, or even consisting of a “study in perversion” (Flexner, 1938 p 159). Gassner (1954) disagreed in that "powerful characterization and dialogue are combined here with a stark elemental theme and a sultry kind of nature poetry. Eben's Oedipus complex, the effects of farm life, and an inhibitive religion are fused into a tragic unit...'Desire under the elms' is consequently the most consistently wrought of O’Neill’s plays and marks the peak of his relatively naturalistic period. Moreover, this is true tragedy; the power of the passions, the impressiveness of the characters, and the timelessness of the inner struggle between a son and a father ensure tragic elevation" (p 651). "The struggle of the son against the father, the son's resentment of the intruding woman, canonical incest itself, are part of the story whose interest is deeper than any local creed or any temporary society, whether of our own time or of another. It is one of the great achievements of the play that it makes us feel them not merely as violent events but as mysteriously fundamental in the human story and hence raises the actors in them somehow above the level of mere characters in a single play, giving them something which suggests the kind of undefined meaning which we feel in an Oedipus or a Hamlet" (Krutch, 1939 p 97). At the end, Eben and Abbie express their love of each other instead of frustration over losing the farm (Sauer, 2011, p 201). Eben need not follow her to prison, but seems unwilling to defend himself before authorities when often a woman’s crime drags the man along with her.
"Ah, wilderness!" is O'Neil's "truest comedy. Significant for the psychoanalytically minded, and possibly also for others, is the fact that its leading adult character, the small-town editor Nat Miller, was the most generous portrait of a father to appear in O’Neill’s work. And O’Neill being no piddling painter executed the picture with a notable warmth of color and emotion. Moreover, 'Ah, wilderness!' was the dramatist’s most idyllic picture of youth and its environment. Young Richard Miller’s restiveness is set down genially as a transitory state of adolescence instead of being inflated into a cosmic philosophy or darkened into a neurosis and the merciful early nineteenth-century background bears no resemblance to the infernos O’Neill had previously favored. Even Main Street had lost its sting once regression to childhood bore no terrors for O’Neill. Consequently, 'Ah, wilderness!' was nothing more- and nothing less- than a sunny and uncomplicated comedy of adolescence and peaceful middle age. It is marred only by an occasional lapse into sentimentality, and it is limited only by that reduction of emotional power that occurs when one writes about sentiment rather than passion" (Gassner, 1954a p 660).
In “The iceman cometh”, “Iceman” may refer to the professional in a position to cuckold an absent husband or the personification of death. In the bar, “each has in his past a cankerous secret that has so corrupted him that he has lost the will to act and the power to make decisions; each has taken refuge in a deadening alcoholic daze” (Parks, 1966 p 103). “The play holds kinship with Ibsen’s 'The wild duck' (1884), Hickman resembling Gregers Werle, as well as Gorky’s 'The lower depths' (1903), Hickman resembling Luka in a room filled with 'abandoned creatures'” (Lamm, 1952 p 330). Brustein (1964) enumerated the men’s illusions, namely political: Hugo’s love of the proletariat, racial: Joe’s demands of equality, domestic: Chuck and Cora’s fantasy of farm life, status-related: the whores’ difference between whores and tarts, psychological: Don’s false motives in betraying his mother, intellectual: Willie Oban’s excuse for abandoning law school, philosophical: Larry’s pretense of disillusionment and detachment, religious: Hickey’s false motives in betraying his wife (p ?). "It is easy to miss the vitality and camaraderie of the first act because the sordid and debased quality of the drunks' lives dominate our impressions. We notice it most when Hickey's campaign puts a damper on the party atmosphere, turning the friends against each other, driving them away from company to hide in solitude, and even depriving them of the solace of drunkenness" (Berkowitz, 1992 p 107). The play discounts "positive models of history and the possibility of social action" (Fleche, 1997 p 58). "In the fourth act of The Iceman Cometh, O'Neill combines visual and auditory scenic means to communicate the tension between comedy and tragedy. Sitting apart from the group of celebrants after the departure of Hickey and the death of Don Parritt, Larry Slade admits that 'there's no hope'. Harry Hope then invites him to rejoin the group...Then as Larry doesn't reply he immediately forgets him and turns to the party. Larry is aware that his interaction with Don Parritt has contradicted his traditional claim of existential neutrality. In truth, Slade seeks and shuns emotional and intellectual involvement with others. Ironically, once his pipedream of philosophical detachment from life has been destroyed, he is separated from his former friends. Because he rejects the false hope that Harry offers him, he is really alone for the first time in the play. Slade's emotional and intellectual ambivalence precipitates his experience of absurdity. However, unlike characters in absurdist plays, he clearly articulates his existential dilemma in rational speech. His agonizing insights into his life, and life in general, are presented against a background of frenzied celebration. In the last scenic image of the play, his silence contrasts with the group's attempt to sing. The characters' songs typify their pipedreams; singing their individual tunes simultaneously results in cacophony" (Como, 1989 p 66). Despite the play's dramatic power, critics complain of its lack of eloquence, citing instead O’Neill’s “incessant sullenness...Does the play “manifest a transfiguring nobility? How can it?...His strength was neither in stance nor style, but in the dramatic representation of illusions and despairs, in the persuasive imitation of human personality, particularly in its self-destructive weaknesses” (Bloom, 2005 pp 209-213). The value of the play “lies in the very varied characters of these down-and-outs, in their attitudes to one another and to the outside world, in their quarrels, their hopes and their fears” (Gascoigne, 1970 p 116). “Rich in detail, complex in contrivance yet seemingly natural, naturalistic in speech and situation yet also somewhat symbolic and grotesque, The Iceman Cometh looms large in the O’Neill canon” (Gassner, 1968 p 277).
“The all-consuming weakness of the characters in ‘Long day’s journey into night’ and ‘The iceman cometh’, probably his two best plays, is organic to the nature of the conflicts. Watching them, one experiences the sensation of being inundated in a sea of ineffectuality, swelled with each torturous monologue, fed by the tears of self-pity” (Gardner, 1965 p 103). “O’Neill reflects...all that has been modern...in his restless experimentation, his avid cultivation of new ideas, his assertive individualism, and his intense unease...The defect of his talent may be summed out as a case of nearly continual straining for a negativeness or sense of desolation not always well founded and more conducive to darkness than to light, liberation, and final purgation...But even if we agree with critics who believe his work, in lacking poetry and elevation, falls short of tragedy, we cannot legitimately deny his work tragic ambience” (Gassner, 1960 pp 67-69). “It is only the second-rater who makes you feel that he rather enjoys the sorrow and terror of the figures he has created. Perhaps that is why the work of the great tragic poets is always tempered with compassion, and why O’Neill himself in certain of his later plays, seemingly impatient with the accidental, or incidental, elements in man’s character that too often precipitate tragic conflict and defeat, has dehumanized his dramatis personae and permitted himself to drive them to extraordinary deeds of violence, without our feeling that his victims are too close to us, too much like the common run of men...Time and again his characters stop to tell us what they are doing and why, instead of going ahead and doing it” (Clark, 1947 pp 62-74).
"A long day's journey into night"
Time: 1910s. Place: New England, USA.
In their summer house, James Tyrone is glad that his wife, Mary, has been looking better lately. Nevertheless, their son, Edmund, sometimes hears her moving about at night, especially on entering the spare bedroom. She reassures him by saying she goes there only to get away from her husband's snoring. The family is worried about Edmund's coughing, perhaps a sign of consumption, though he seems more worried about his mother than about himself. Edmund and his brother, Jamie, taunt each other about taking some of their father's alcoholic beverage and watering it down to avoid detection. More seriously, Jamie accuses Edmund of leaving their mother unsupervised. Though worried, Edmund considers his brother overly suspicious. When Mary appears after lying down for a long time, Jamie becomes suspicious again and she irritated at his cynicism. She is also frustrated at the shabbiness of the house, blaming it on her husband's reluctance to spend money, a bitter joke in the family. When Jamie stares at her and she asks why, he angrily replies she should look at her glazed eyes in the mirror. The following day, Mary and their servant, Cathleen, return from the drugstore. Mary expresses more feelings of frustration at her present condition, how once she had shown promise as a pianist but abandoned it for the sake of her husband's career as an actor. She says it is because of her arthritic hands that she needs to take her medication, purchased through Cathleen. She is about to go upstairs for more as James and Edmund arrive drunk. They miserably notice she has gone back to her drug addiction. She diverts attention by blaming her husband for Jamie's drunken habits. Edmund confirms her worst fears by saying he has been diagnosed with consumption, which she refuses to believe, blaming the doctor's incompetence. In frustration, he exlaims how difficult it is to have "a dope fiend for a mother". When James returns at dinner time, his wife goes upstairs, he too depressed to prevent her. At midnight, Edmund joins his father for more drinking. Despite financial success, James considers his career ruined because he had repeatedly played the same acting part, which dissipated his talent. When Jamie arrives drunk, his father leaves to avoid a quarrel. Jamie admits that despite his love of Edmund, his sense of failure forbids him to wish for his brother's success. Jamie dozes offs but is awaken by his father's belligerence. All three gaze in misery as Mary enters wearing her wedding gown, reminiscing about her happy girlhood.
"Desire under the elms"
Time: 1850. Place: New England, USA.
Considering the farm as his own since his mother's death, a subject of dispute between her family and his father, Eben wakes up his two half-brothers with the news that their father, Ephraim, has married a second time. He offers them $300 for their share of the farm. The half-brothers accept to go to California to hunt for gold. His stepmother, Abbie, disapproves of his visiting a local whore, but he says she herself is a whore for selling herself to obtain a farm rightly his. To avenge herself for these harsh words, she lies to Ephraim by saying benthat E attempted to seduce her. When Ephraim threatens to kill him, a frightened Abbie tries to mitigate her lie. When Ephraim threatens to force him out, she insists that the farm needs another hand. To win her husband over, she suggests that they try to beget a son, but with the large difference in age, the husband being much older, this proves difficult. As a result, Abbie herself tries to seduce Eben for this purpose. She opens the main parlor, closed since his mother's death. After much effort, Abbie succeeds, Eben being convinced that this forms part of his mother's revenge against her husband. "I'm the prize rooster o' this roost," Eben boasts to his unsuspecting father. Two weeks after the son's birth, Ephraim taunts Eben by revealing that the farm will belong to his newborn and also that he knows about his attempt at seducing his wife. Choking in rage, Eben feels he was manipulated by Abbie. He fights with his father. Ephraim starts to choke Eben until Abbie steps in. Eben wants to follow his half-brothers to California, but Abbie, loving him all the more, tries to prevent it. He does not heed her. To prove her love towards him, she smothers the newborn with a pillow. When Ephraim discovers the baby's death, his wife admits the deed and specifies that the father is Eben, at which he is suddenly glad the baby died. When Eben discovers the baby's death, he is aghast and leaves her to alert the sheriff. When he returns, Ephraim orders him out. Even angrier, Ephraim turns the livestock loose and intends to burn the farm and go to California with the money he has saved, but the money was stolen by Eben to pay off his half-brothers. Ephraim can only remain alone at the farm, more lonely than ever, submitting his will to a God who is "not easy" while the sheriff arrests Abbie along with Eben, who, despite her denial, confesses to being auxiliary to the crime.
Time: 1906. Place: Connecticut, USA.
The Miller family breakfast is interrupted by McComber, their next-door neighbor, who accuses Nat's son, Richard, for attempting to corrupt his daughter, Muriel, and presents a letter on her behalf, ending their amorous relationship. Nat superficially defends his son, but is hesitant to challenge one of the most important advertisers in his local newspaper. He is all the more worried that his wife, Essie, had anxiously mentioned Richard's taste for subversive poetry, as found in Swinburne, Wilde, and Khayyam. When Richard learns of the letter, he is devastated. The unhappy development of young love is in contrast to the non-development of old love between Nat's sister, Lily, and Essie's brother, Sid. For many years, despite their love of each other, Lily has put off marrying Sid because of his drunken habits. Disillusioned, Richard goes with his brother's university friend, Wint, ostensibly for a double date with two women, but, in actual fact, a visit to the local whorehouse. While Wint indulges his cravings upstairs, Richard sits very uncomfortably downstairs with Belle, contenting himself merely with talk. When a brash salesman insults her, he defends her by striking him. Late at night, to his parents' consternation, Richard arrives drunk and disheveled. They decide to punish him, Nat still hesitant on how to proceed and especially worried about what he should say. When Richard wakes up the following morning, he receives a welcoming letter from Muriel stating that her father forced her to write the letter. She promises undying love and suggests that they meet secretly that night on a beach, where they discuss their future and kiss for the first time. Nat is then relieved to learn that Muriel's father has changed his mind about his son. Still hesitant, Nat speaks to Richard about the temptations of youth, especially drinking and illicit love relations, whose dangers Richard agrees to avoid and to abide from this moment on to his father's advice.
"The iceman cometh"
Time: 1912. New York, USA.
In Harry Hope's rundown rooming house and bar, alcoholics await the arrival of a popular salesman known as Hickey, to plan Harry's surprise birthday party the next day. The regulars live on drunken hopes. Harry has not left the bar once since his wife's death 20 years ago, but says he intends to on his birthday. Joe, former owner of a casino, intends to re-open another one. He and his friend, Captain Lewis, former infantryman in the Boer War, expect to return home. Pat McGloin, a former policeman convicted and fired from his job, intends to appeal the decision when the right moment comes up. Ed, Harry's brother-in-law, a former circus box-office man, was fired for cheating, but hopes one day to get his job back. Jimmy Tomorrow, former British newspaperman, procrastinates about getting another job. Chuck, the day bartender, plans to marry Cora, a whore, the next day. The regulars are stunned to find Hickey so changed, no longer joking but sober. He wants them to quit their "pipe dreams" and, to obtain peace, embrace instead their hopeless condition. They are reluctant to do so. The next day, Harry goes out, but, soon aware of his great fears, is forced back to the comfort of his bar. One by one, the customers resent Hickey's interference, except Larry Slade and Don Parritt, friends who have known each other for a long time, as Larry's former girlfriend is Don's mother. Larry learns that Don was the informant responsible for her arrest. In anguish at losing his friendship, Don runs up to his room to jump off the fire escape. Larry guesses at his intention but does nothing to prevent it and only wishes for his own death. Though Hickey had first told the regulars his wife had died by accident, he admits to murder. Police officers arrive, perhaps called by Hickey himself, who justifies the murder on the basis of his love towards her, a woman living a hopeless life, always ready to forgive his whore-mongering and alcoholism. The regulars are relieved on seeing Hickey show signs of insanity, for now they can return to their pipe dreams. They decide to testify in favor of Hickey's insanity at his trial, despite his wish to incur a death sentence.
Also notable in the period of the 30s and 40s is Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) for "Our town" (1938) and "The skin of our teeth" (1942).
The characters of "Our town" “do not look beyond this bounded township at the nation, the world-at-large, nor at the universal scheme in which they figure. [They] are brought to a condition of emotional gentleness” (Bogard, 1965 p 363). “Grover’s Corners look like the New England village of our dreams; it has clean air, fresh-faced children, no violence, no crime, no slums; there is neither excessive wealth nor hopeless poverty...Grover’s Corners, in fact, would seem to be the fulfillment of the American Dream, the apogee of Puritan aspiration, the utmost achievement of a democratic society. But Our Town is interesting to us, not because of what it leaves out, but the extraordinary rich comprehensiveness and inclusiveness...We come to realize, moreover, that even in so idyllic a setting, existence leaves a great deal to be desired...For we see that the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, who had so much going for them, were blind to the possibilities, the variations, the adventures that life can bring” (Goldstone, 1969 pp 13-14). Castronovo (1986) emphasized the affinities of "Our town" to folk art, simple people being simply presented (pp 86-88). But Bogard (1966) felt that unlike "the bulk of folk drama", Wilder does not attempt to present reality: "if the story had been developed realistically, carefully plotted, decorated so as to attempt to convince the audience that it was seeing living human beings, much of its truth would have been drained from the play, and all of it would have seemed sentimental and unconvincing" (p 59). However, other critics believe in its reality despite such theatrics as the presence of the stage manager. For Krasner (2012), “the first act is described, proceeds through the poignancy of the commonplace” (p 212). For Gassner (1954a), "Thornton Wilder graced the American theatre with an engaging reminiscence of the idyllic side of small-town life in the first two acts of 'Our town', which affirmed the decency of common people while life is not too harassed. A third act in which some of the characters lead a ghostly existence took the play, at the price of some inconsistency, out of the category of genre painting and turned it into a classically poetic expression of the cycle of human existence from birth to death, even if the genre picture was more memorable" (p 686). "The first day emphasizes the routine aspect of town-life, the second day the special if not unique aspect: a person’s wedding, and the third day the routine aspect of death and Emily’s desire to re-live both the routine aspect of her past life and the special occasion of her birthday" (Porter, 1969, p 215). Some critics favor O'Neill's “Ah, wilderness!” over an “Our town” judged to be “hackneyed, sentimental, indifferent to frustration and sadness” (Freedman, 1971 p 20). But others consider the Wilder refined in delineating the unrefined. The play "is a picture of the priceless value of even the most common and routine events in life and of the waste of life through failure to realize the value of every moment...By relating the ordinary events in the lives of these ordinary people to a metaphysical framework that broadens with each act, [Wilder] is able to portray life as being at once significant and trivial, noble and absurd, miraculous and humdrum...When the dead Emily returns...she becomes aware that the daily life of the town was humdrum and commonplace because taken for granted and not fully appreciated...In contrast to Emily, the dead are indifferent to life on earth...all the problems and joys, the grief and happiness...are dissolved in the transcendent whole” (Burbank, 1978 pp 77-81). Castronovo (1986) saw no "transcendent whole", but only “hokum about stars and human aspirations” (p 90). In any event, how striking that “the dead are shown as indifferent to human affairs!" (Gagey, 1947 p 108). Berkowitz (1992) emphasized that "the play's central message is that we require no tragic heroes or allegorical interpretations to make ordinary life significant, because the simple and mundane facts are themselves almost too precious and extraordinary for us to absorb and appreciate" (pp 61-62). Despite the characters’ appeal, Miller and Frazer (1991) were bothered by their limitations. On one hand, Wilder makes the town a “microcosm of all existence”, on the other it is “painfully misleading in its avoidance of certain realities...a provincial, inbred town concerned with very little beyond its borders” (pp 239-240). True, it is an "anti-elitist vision of human existence" (Castronovo, 1986 p 93), a picture of small-town mentalities projected on a universal stage, and so likely to bother large-town mentalities.
An irate Agate (1946) fumed that "the skin of their teeth, says Mr Thornton Wilder, is that by which the Antrobus family has survived ice, flood, pestilence, wars, depressions, and all the natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Studying this play’s text one imagines the author’s notions concerning it to have run something as follows: Have I anything new to say about life, death, predestination and free-will, evolution and the life-force, romantic passion and family ties? Perhaps not very much. But why not present the old stuff in a new dress? Abolish Time. Pretend the ice-age is coeval with co-eds. Have a mammoth and a dinosaur on the stage together with a telegraph boy. Bring Adam and Eve up to date. Show Cain as Henry Antrobus, a High Schoolboy with football jersey and catapult. Give the old story a modern twist. Henry, with a stone in his hand, can hit anything from a bird to an elder brother. A most unfortunate accident, and quite a job getting the police out of the house. Have this said by the hired help— Helen, Circe, Cleopatra (must be careful about the order) in the guise of an Atlantic City trollop. Have the alphabet, simple arithmetic, and the wheel all in the making. Have Homer and Moses (must find out which came first) put in an appearance. Have scenery that moves of its own accord. Peer-Gyntism plus Back-to-Methuselahism. Hotch-potch of Pirandello, Obey, Kaiser, O’Neill. Touches of Walt Disney, the Marx Brothers, and Olsen and Johnson. Will this make a good play? It may or it mayn’t, but it’ll win the Pulitzer. Will the folks walk out? Possibly. But they’ll talk, which is better than staying and not talking. Actually this play did win the Pulitzer, and on the first night, according to Mr Burns Mantle, 'the sight of bewildered and discouraged patrons walking out at the first intermission and not returning to their seats was not uncommon'" (pp 184-185). The play's theme shows that "self-interest, complacency, despair, and violence coexist with intellectual aspirations and energies to begin again" (Castronovo, 1986 p 103). The play has affinities with Joyce's "Finnegans wake" (1939) in its "conflation of time, mixing of images, cyclic patterning, and finding correspondences between the life of ancient and modern man" (p 21). “Even in so distinguished a play as The Skin of our Teeth, the intrusion of self-conscious theatricality somewhat blunts the edge of comedy and causes the essential action to mark time. Now and then the play’s playfulness becomes altogether too much. But one can go further in criticizing Wilder’s theatricality and maintain the intrusion of theatre weakens the power of he play, especially in the last act, which occurs immediately after a world-devastating war. If the human race has survived only by the skin of its teeth, one is tempted to ask what is the author so cheerful about?...The theatricalism is not only inappropriate because it is played in the wrong key and is perhaps insufficiently climactic for a dramatic masterpiece but it is evasive as well” (Gassner, 1956 pp 142-143). The Skin of our Teeth, “which generalizes man’s continual struggle with natural and man-made disaster, is a genuine heroic drama. In no current play does the spirit burn so brightly as in the scene in which Mr Antrobus, the eternal Adam or man of good will, resolves to weather the Ice Age and succors the first masters of song, law, and healing science- despite the behavior of Cain, who drives him to desperation” (Gassner, 1968 p 303). “The three acts of ‘The skin of our teeth’ involve the struggles of mankind to survive the periodic disasters that threaten it with extinction: glacial invasion, flood, and war. The first act pits man against nature, the second man against the moral order, and the third man against himself“ (Burbank, 1978 pp 89-95). This critic complained of the incompatibility between “religious humanism and burlesque”. Other critics savor the comedy of the contrast. The play shows “the precarious nature of mankind, demonstrating that human resilience has kept things going and probably always will...Also, funny observations on mankind’s inability to learn anything from the past keep the play moving at a fast clip, forcing audiences to abandon any rational analysis of it but to recognize the appalling reality on which it is based” (Miller and Frazer, 1991 p 241). The play is “whimsical, capricious, and cruel, the playwright transforming trivia into historical moment and vice versa...most intensely philosophical and spiritual when he seems most antic...Without disillusionment or panic, Wilder views death...with stoic fortitude, reason, and pragmatism as simply a part of the continuum, the next phase in the natural order” (Featherstone, 2008 p 288).
Time: 1901-1913. Place: Fictional town of Grover's Corners, USA.
The stage manager explains that Mrs Gibbs has told Mrs Webb that she has been wishing for several years to take an overseas holiday with her husband, but he does not care to go. Emily, daughter to Mr and Wrs Webb and a brilliant student, helps the more dull-minded George, son to Dr and Mrs Gibbs, with problems in arithmetic. But she has trouble concentrating. "I can't work at all. The moonlight's so terrible," she tells George who lives across the street. Yet before going to bed, she also has difficulty sleeping because after speaking with him, the moonlight then becomes "wonderful". Dr Gibbs speaks to George about his intention to become a farmer. Does he really think he can get up early, milk, feed the stock? "Well, George, while I was in my office today I heard a funny sound," Dr Gibbs says, "and what do you think it was? It was your mother chopping wood." This reproof shames George, so that he promises to do his chores with greater diligence. Simon Stinson is rolling drunk on the streets again, but because Constable Warren sees his wife looking for him, he looks the other way. On George and Emily's wedding day, Mr Webb reminisces before the groom on the advice his father once gave him: "Best thing to do is to give an order, even if it don't make sense; just so she'll learn to obey...And, oh yes, he said never, never, let her know how much money you have, never...So I took the opposite of my father's advice and have been happy ever since." George and Emily knew they were meant for each other when she criticized him for being too conceited, not perfect as other men are, such as her and his father, women being less liable to be perfect, because they are inherently "more nervous". Over strawberry ice-cream sodas, both realize they have been noticing each other nearly all the time. However, Mrs Webb finds it "downright cruel about sending our girls out into marriage that way". "I hope some of her girl friends have told her a thing or two," she adds. The couple are married, but Emily soon dies in childbirth. At the funeral, the dead come back to talk, including Emily with her mother, Stimson, and others. When allowed to live a day in her life over again, she chooses one from fourteen years ago on her twelfth birthday, but cannot bear to look long. "That's what it was to be alive," Stimson concludes, "to move about in a cloud of ignorance-". When George enters the cemetery and sinks in sorrow over Emily's grave, she concludes with the others: "They don't understand, do they?"
"The skin of our teeth"
Time: Fictional past, 1940s, the future. Place: New Jersey, USA.
The climate is very cold: dogs stick on sidewalks, animals of all kinds are kept inside houses, dinosaur heads peep in to say they are cold. George Antrobus, inventor of the wheel and the alphabet, argues with his wife, Maggie, on the feasibility of keeping refugees such as Homer and Moses from the cold. To maintain a sufficient amount of fire, George orders the breaking down of fences, chairs, and beds. He is dispirited over his young son, Henry, in the habit of throwing stones at neighboring children. Maggie defends her son by saying he is only four thousand years old. George is encouraged by the fine recitation of a Longfellow poem on the part of his young daughter, Gladys, and by his son's knowledge of the multiplication table. But in frustration, George hits him when his son when he becomes too sleepy to recite more. As the newly named president of the order of mammals, George pronounces a speech in Atlantic City, New Jersey, whereby he prophesies "with complete lack of confidence that a new day of security is about to dawn". The winner of the 1942 beauty context, their old housekeeper, Sabina, wishes to wrest George away from his wife and marry him, feeling that "everybody in the world, except for a few people like you and me, are people of straw". A broadcast official is frantic to organize George's speech over the radio, all the more so as there appears to be advance warnings of a mighty storm. When learning of his intention to leave her, Maggie is quite cool. "I married you because you gave me a promise," she declares. "That promise made up for your faults...and it was the promise that made the marriage." As the storm begins to grow violent, George ignores Sabina and calls to his wife to see the whales far off in the ocean. The family escapes as the pier is about to break, Sabina begging to obtain her old position back as housekeeper. Many years later, a terrible war has been waged with George and Henry in conflict on opposite sides. Gladys has survived with her baby. Sabrina is glad to acknowledge her continued admiration for her employer, who has not lost his power of inventiveness, having developed "a grass soup that doesn't give you the diarrhea". Henry is still angry at his father, kicking his old books about. Maggie tells Sabina she is determined to put their old house to rights. George angrily confronts his son and will fight him "as long as you mix up your idea of liberty with your idea of hogging everything to yourself," he says, in contrast to "something that everyone has a right to." Because of the immense suffering as the result of the war, George feels he has lost "the desire to begin again". Yet despite her angry feelings and poverty, Sabina wishes to cooperate, if only to distribute beef-cubes. Suddenly, George remembers three things that always helped him see clearer: the people's needs, the family, and his books. "I used to give names to the hours of the night," he reminisces. "Nine o'clock is represented by Spinoza, the philosopher, when "all the objects of my desire and fear are...nothing save insofar as the mind was affected by them," ten o'clock by Plato when it is decided that a ruler is one who has "established order in himself," eleven o'clock by Aristotle when "this good estate of the mind possessing its object in energy we call divine," and midnight by a passage from Genesis in the Bible when emerging from the darkness "there was light."
Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) contributed importantly to dramatic lore with "The children's hour" (1934) and "The little foxes" (1939).
The play's title of "The children's hour" derives from a poem of the same name by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), starting with “Between the dark and the daylight,/When the night is beginning to lower,/Comes a pause in the day's occupations,/That is known as the children's hour." The name of the play is ironically chosen because the poem emphasizes children’s goodness so that the parent gently responds with: “I have you fast in my fortress,/And will not let you depart,/But put you down into the dungeon/In the round-tower of my heart." The plot is taken from a criminal case which occurred in 19th century Scotland, "The great Drumsheugh case", a section of “Bad companions” (1931) written by William Roughead, a Scottish law historian. In “The children’s hour”, the accusation of homosexuality is all the more worrisome in a school environment. Although the accusation of lovemaking is false, there is some inkling of future danger in that Martha admits after the suicide to having had such secret feelings towards her mate. In such a charged atmosphere, “for the mere accusation that a person is something or believes in something by even an irresponsible source does as much damage as the proof or even the revelation that the charge is true” (Reynolds, 1986, p 134). Bentley (1956) complained that “the material...suggests two stories. The first is a story of heterosexual teachers accused of lesbianism; the enemy is a society which punishes the innocent. The second is a story of lesbian teachers accused of lesbianism; the enemy is a society which punishes lesbians. Now, since either one of these stories could make an acceptable indignant play, one could scarcely be surprised if a playwright tried to tell them both at once. This is not quite what Miss Hellman does. She spends the greater part of the evening on the first story. In fact the indignation she arouses in us has but one source: our impression that the charge of lesbianism is unfounded, an impression reinforced by everyone's holy horror whenever the subject comes up. Then, in the last few minutes, we learn that one of the teachers is lesbian. But it is too late for Miss Hellman to tell Story Two and spell out its moral. The 'guilty' teacher kills herself, and the curtain comes down" (pp 74-75). This criticism is countered by Sauer (2011). "Bentley complained that the play contains two improperly meshed stories: society pursuing the innocent, society pursuing homosexuality after Martha admits her feelings to Karen. 'I love you that way,' she admits, 'maybe the way they said I loved you, I don’t know.' She may not know her own feelings, or she knows her feelings but is uncertain of her friend’s reaction, or both. In any case, she wants to know more and to stay with her, so that one can argue there is only one story: society pursuing the innocent who may yet be guilty in the future, a preemptive strike to prevent a crime in a situation all the more charged with two adults in the constant presence of children" (pp 142-154). Although Miller and Frazer (1991) criticized that Martha’s admission “undercuts the whole thesis that a malicious child can wreck innocent lives” (p 200), the play’s value thereby increases because now we have two interactions instead of one: the impact of a girl on society and the impact of society on a woman. One can also argue that the main story is female jealousy. “This almost entirely female society is full of jealousy and manipulation; the characters compete for love and find accusations of excessive attachment easy to make and easy to believe. Mary's claim that the teachers have a lesbian relationship names and heightens what is already in the air. Mrs Mortar, for example (there is no Mr Mortar, as far as the play is concerned), feels in competition with Karen Wright for the attentions of her niece, Martha. Jealous of the affectionate friendship between the two teachers, Mrs Mortar accuses her niece of resenting Karen's upcoming marriage with Joe Cardin. It is this accusation, overheard, that provides Mary with the seed of her slanderous attack on Karen and Martha. Although Mrs Mortar calls Martha's affection for Karen "unnatural, just as unnatural as it can be," her own past seems somewhat ambiguous. Shortly after we learn of Karen and Martha's revised vacation plans. To Martha's disappointment the two women will now be accompanied by the young doctor. Mrs Mortar recalls her own vacation to England with Delia Lampert, a beloved friend, and the disruption of that friendship by Delia’s unhappy marriage. Mrs Mortar is, in addition, easily seduced by Mary Tilford's wilted bouquets and flattery; her fatuousness is surpassed only by Mrs Tilford's. Like the aunt, the grandmother seems overly attached to her younger relation. In her conversation with Mrs Tilford, Mary repeatedly speaks of this affection and uses physical caresses to secure confirmations of love. Like Mrs Mortar, Mrs Tilford finds the idea of Martha and Karen making love easy to believe. Mary's uncertain descriptions of 'funny noises' and 'funny things', communicated to her grandmother in 'fast, excited' whispers, seem to confirm something perhaps unacknowledged, but already present in the older woman's mind. Mrs Tilford only hesitates a moment before picking up the phone and spreading the news. Suggestions of lesbian desire are diffused throughout the text, touching every character except Karen Wright. Early in the play, Hellman presents the students simultaneously discussing changes in sleeping arrangements and passing a forbidden copy of 'Mademoiselle de Maupin' from bedroom to bedroom. This is the text whose 'one part' all the girls want to read...The play covertly suggests that desire for each other is the common if unacknowledged possession of the majority of women, but it overtly represents lesbianism as so fearful that the teachers are viewed as monsters and shunned in the street, so potentially infectious that even Karen's sensible, stalwart fiancé hesitates to kiss and hold her, fearing contamination” (Titus, 1991 pp 220-222). In the characterization of Mary, “she is established as a liar and a bully by concrete dialogue about a missing bracelet and allowance money and a broken vase and wilted flowers and a specific book read furtively. The concrete dialogue is reinforced by concrete actions: arm-twisting, a fake heart attack” (Lederer, 1979 pp 29-30). "Mary's lie succeeds because adults' inner community find it inconceivable that she should know about a lesbian relationship unless she had actual evidence of it and Mary is clever enough to disguise how much she has learned from reading illicit French novels" (Griffin and Thorsten, 1999 pp 29-30). Moody (1972) complained that the play loses its edge once Mary, "the most compelling character", disappears from the action, especially after the suicide in the final scene between Karen and Amelia (p 55). One can dispute to what extent Mary is the most compelling character and how the relation between Karen and Amelia is more vital if we consider female envy as the main theme.
In "The little foxes", Hellman "drew an unmerciful picture of the rise of an American fortune, of the predatory nature of entrepreneurs who profited from industrial expansion in the nation, and of the warping of human nature produced by unlimited greed. Presented in terms of character rather than exhortation or diffuse exposition, this analysis was a notable encaustic" (Gassner, 1954a p 688). In Regina and her two brothers, we have the mentality of “the family and me before everything”. “They are guilty of abusing their position, their power, and they fail to recognize evil either in others or themselves” (Reynolds, 1986 p 141). Regina is "a magnificent embodiment of evil: cold, hard, determined, and beautiful, larger than life, yet grounded to the life that made her" (Moody, 1972 p 104). Lederer (1979) emphasized the use of irony in plot structure and characterization. For example, "Horace's effort to outwit Regina boomerangs: his threat to make a new will leaving only the bonds to Regina causes his death...The stolen bonds which temporarily free Ben and Oscar from Regina put them in her control when Horace dies" (pp 45-46). Regina and Ben enjoy each other's ironies, especially when they mock Oscar out of his share of the money.
"The children's hour"
Time: 1930s. Place: USA.
Karen and Martha own a girls' boarding school and are helped by Martha's aunt, Lily. To rid herself of her troublesome aunt, Martha suggests that she should travel for a while. Lily refuses, angrily accusing her niece of jealousy towards anyone around Joe. To avoid working, one of their pupils, Mary, pretends to be sick and is examined by Dr Joe Cardin, her cousin and engaged to be married to Karen. Judged to be healthy, Mary asks her grandmother, Amelia, to allow her to leave the establishment, but she refuses. Knowing little of such matters but helped by a book kept well hidden, Mary accuses Karen and Martha of engaging in an illicit love-affair with each other. This time Amelia accedes to her request and contacts the students' parents, so that by word of mouth Karen and Martha lose most of their pupils, except a girl named Rosalie. In an attempt to halt this emerging disaster, Karen and Martha confront Amelia with her granddaughter's lie. Though Mary's story is plainly inconsistent, Rosalie reluctantly corroborates it in fear of being accused of lesbianism herself. Under these disagreeable conditions, Aunt Lily finally decides to go away. Karen and Martha accuse Amelia of libel in court, but lose their case. When Lily returns, both women accuse her of disloyalty. Although Joe remains loyal, the scandal forces him to move to a distant town. He proposes that the women should move along with him. Unsure on whether he believes their innocence, Karen proposes that she separate from Joe despite his unwillingness to do so. When Martha learns of this, she is consumed with guilt, feeling that the accusation of lesbianism, though not based in fact, might be true within. Karen dismisses the thought, but Martha cannot. Sitting alone, Karen hears a pistol shot in Martha's room. In the aftermath of Martha's suicide, Amelia begs Karen's forgiveness for having uncovered Mary's lies too late, but is not forgiven.
"The little foxes"
Time: 1900s. Place: USA.
A businessman from Chicago agrees with his two brothers, Ben and Oscar, on opening a cotton mill, but they need money from a third brother, Horace, who has not as yet agreed on it. Horace's wife, Regina, says that, though he offers to pay one third, he should have twice that amount in return. While the two brothers mutter in discontent at that offer, Oscar discovers that Horace's son, Leo, has looked inside his father's safety deposit box at the bank and found valuable bonds, enough to close the deal. "If he doesn't look at them until autumn, he wouldn't even miss them out of the box," Oscar suggests. Horace arrives after being five months away to treat a heart condition. Regina suggests that the disease might be due to his "fancy women", which he considers unlikely. She explains the mill business, specifying he will get a larger share at Oscar's expense, but Horace responds with little interest. "We'll sit by and watch the boys grow rich," he says laconically. Meanwhile, Oscar informs Ben of Leo's discovery. In turn, Ben informs a stunned Regina that Oscar intends to go to Chicago with the money. Growing desperate, Regina exclaims against her husband. "You hate to see anybody live now, don't you?" she states sarcastically. After he still refuses to change his mind, her hate wells up. "I hope you die," she says. "I hope you die soon." A few days later, Horace discovers Leo's theft and reveals it to his wife, but he plans to do nothing about it. In the midst of an argument, he suffers a heart attack while his wife does nothing to help him. Eventually, Leo discovers that his uncle knows about the theft. Regina tells her brothers that if Horace dies, she will either get 75% of the business in exchange for the bonds or report them to the police. When they discover he is indeed dead, they are forced to accept her conditions. Suspecting her mother of treachery, Alexandra refuses to follow Regina to a life of pleasure in Chicago.
Louis Kaufman Anspacher
Louis Kaufman Anspacher (1878-1947) merits praise for two comedy-dramas: "The unchastened woman" (1916) and "Our children" (1913).
Eaton (1916) praised "The unchastened woman" for the contrast shown between characters, especially the pro-worker, Hildegarde, and the woman of the world, Caroline. "Lawrence's wife is one of those strong, energetic, idealistic, radical young women who just now are so numerous in New York (and elsewhere) and are often actually accomplishing so much in organization of the garment workers, in industrial reform, in charities and even in literature. To throw into strong contrast such a woman as this and such a product of the parasitic rich as Caroline Knollys is to create instantly a living, vital dramatic situation" (pp 119-120). "The dramatist accomplished a distinct feat; he created a character-study in his heroine worthy of Mrs Humphry Ward or Mrs Edith Wharton, and he developed that character with unerring understanding of her essential weakness, keeping her development consistent to the end. But the defect of the play, seen as much in the printed script as in the acting, was to be found in the incomplete social fervor injected into it, the bad taste of socialized preachment. These side-issues distracted the attention of the audience away from the real concern of the play" (Moses, 1917 pp 299-300).
"The unchastened woman"
Time: 1910s. Place: USA.
Hubert learns that his wife, Caroline, was caught at customs making false declarations along with her friend, Susan. "Two women without even the wretched excuse of poverty attempting to defraud the government!" he exclaims. Caroline explains that she made a settlement with the authorities, in contrast to Susan who declared everything. Despite their marriage troubles, Hubert and Caroline have resigned themselves to an amiable arrangement by which, according to Hubert, she has broken all her vows except one, marital fidelity, while he has kept all of his except that one. More precisely, she is aware of her husband's relations with Emily, but does not suffer from it, revealing to Susan that at any moment she can name that woman as a co-respondent to divorce proceedings that would be favorable to her. She wishes to continue her platonic friendship with Lawrence, a needy architect, by giving him a commission to remodel their house. Out of curiosity, she gauges Lawrence's relation with his wife, Hildegarde, who organizes an employment bureau in connection with a cooperation of tenements for poor people, their only source of revenue. Hubert discovers that Hildegarde is the one who wrote a newspaper article against the abuses, notably in child labor practices, of the Homestead Mills factory manufacturing wool products, of which he owns the majority stock. However, Hildegarde reassures him on one point. "Tomorrow we begin on your competitors," she announces. Alone with Hildegarde, Caroline points out that this type of work might constitute a hindrance to her husband's ambitions. To prove her power over him, Caroline proposes that Lawrence take up the fourth floor of their house as a studio, which he gladly accepts, both out of friendship towards her and his need to distance himself from squalid surroundings. Meanwhile, Emily informs Hubert that it was through her means as an employee at customs that his wife got off so easily, though she must pay a large fine to avoid being arrested. She also informs him of her intention to abandon their adulterous relation to marry Michael, a Russian immigrant working as a newspaper reporter. When Hubert angrily confronts his wife because of the fine, she haughtily refuses to pay. "It would really be indelicate of you to insist that I should pay your mistress," she affirms, at which Hubert chokes with fury. At the tenements, Lawrence worries that his wife has invited Caroline and Susan over for supper, angrily fussing about. Hildegarde admonishes him. "They are your friends, and you know I never miss a chance of interesting rich people in this philanthropy," she affirms. Alone with Lawrence, Caroline offers to help his career. "Oh, I want to see you free- free from all the petty scruples that would hinder you," she says. "That's my work now, for while you're building houses, I shall be building your career." The party is interrupted by the arrival of Michael, who happens also to be the friend of Lawrence and Hildegarde. He is overjoyed at the settlement by arbitration with Homestead Mills, largely in favor of the workers. Yet Lawrence is nervous over the consequences of these news on Caroline, who attempts to twit Michael about his pro-labor views. He challenges back. "You see, I know you," he says. "You're a spoiled American woman, which means you take neither our government nor yourself seriously. I don't blame you; neither do I. In other words, we have a sense of humor." He casually mentions he knows about her difficulties at customs, but was forced to abandon the thought of publishing the story through the intercession of a friend. "Well, to resume: strange to say, I wrote that the people whose fortunes have been made in industries protected by the government are always the very ones most eager to evade the customs imposed by that government to protect their industries," he declares. Aghast at this left-wing talk, Susan wishes to leave at once, but Caroline becomes bolder when Emily arrives. She accuses Emily of being her husband's mistress. Michael refuses to believe it and proposes to speak to her husband about this. For good measure, after hearing Hildegarde defend Emily and insisting on a retraction, Caroline insinuates that she herself is enjoying an ongoing amorous relation with her husband. Later, worried about his wife's whereabouts, Lawrence lies to Caroline over the telephone by saying he has hurt his ankle and cannot join her with an acquaintance that might have yielded him a second commission. When Hildegarde joins her husband, she tells him that it might be best that they separate for awhile, but he does not want to. The couple is surprised by the arrival of Hubert. Hildegarde still insists on the necessity of his wife's retraction, with which Hubert agrees. He pretends to be surprised after hearing about Caroline's innuendo concerning her own marriage. Lawrence becomes even more frightened during this encounter, but is forced to challenge his boss by stating that his wife's accusation is a lie. Hubert coolly insists that unless she retracts, Hildegarde will be named co-respondent to divorce proceedings, news which now frighten her as well. All three are surprised by Caroline's arrival, who expected to see Lawrence alone. Aware that she is losing her power over him, Caroline angrily confronts Lawrence about his lie. She is even angrier on learning from Hildegarde that she informed her husband about her insinuation. When Hubert speaks to her about the necessity of retracting, she at first refuses, but, confronted with the ambiguities underlying her relation with Lawrence, she is forced to sign a statement of retraction written by Michael. Before leaving, she insinuates as a parting shot in her husband's absence about Emily's infidelity. Breaking down, Emily confesses the truth. Now recognizing she ignored some matters concerning Caroline's relation with her husband, Hildegarde admits defeat and prepares for divorce, but on seeing her husband crumple at these news, she takes him in her arms.
Time: 1910s. Place: Lynn, Massachusetts, USA.
Willy Engel has bought his son, Theodore, a partnership in a brokerage business. Although Theodore has been going out with Rosie, niece to Willy’s best friend, Stasi, his new position prompts him to start courting Harriet Hutton, daughter of a rich bank president. For three years, Willy has been holding the mortgage on the neighboring house to Richard Hellman, employee and inventor at his shoe factory, but now he wants to foreclose and leave it to Theodore. For his daughter, Hertha, he has opened a $10,000 bank account. Unaware of Willy’s plans on his house, Richard asks Hertha to marry him. She accepts, but when she informs her father of the marriage proposal, he refuses his consent because the man’s social rank is too low for her. Nonplussed, Richard takes her away. Angry yet worried, Willy asks Theodore to give Hertha the booklet of her bank account. Over a two year period, Willy’s financial situation worsens because of a strike at his factory and his son’s extravagance in speculating and spending on himself. He is warned by Stasi about the rash speculations of his son’s partner, Vaughan Leland. “Willy, I know that he’s a crook,” Stasi declares. “He took your Theodore for a partner just to get credit with your money. Stop him now before he goes too far.” But Willy’s confidence in his son remains unshaken. To Stasi’s astonishment who expected to witness his Theodore’s marriage with Rosie, Willy announces that he is engaged to marry Harriet. Despite his difficulties, Hutton agrees to renew Willy’s mortgages and accepts his son’s marriage to his daughter provided the latter cut himself away from Leland’s dishonest dealings. Theodore assures Harriet her that if she gives him more money to invest in stocks, her previous investments should be safe. She gives him $3,000 but specifies that she never intended to marry him. A shaken Theodore calls Boston only to learn that Leland’s affairs are even worse than he thought. “Sheriffs?” he asks astonished. “Receiver sealed, the books pending investigation? But where’s Leland? Gone? Gone where?” Afraid of being arrested, he takes off with Harriet’s money as Hertha returns. Knowing of her father’s troubles, Hertha offers him the $10,000 back and proposes that Richard, who has made good on his inventions, help him out, but he refuses both offers. Unexpectedly, Richard shows up as his wife runs to hide. He gives Willy money as the first installment of the neighboring property on which he wishes to build a house, acquired without Willy knowing who the buyer was. But Richard is astonished on learning that Hertha has divulged he is also involved in acquiring her father’s factory. “You must see that I have duties to my firm to the people that put bread in our mouths,” he says to her. “You’ve betrayed them.” However, they are interrupted by Hutton, who offers Richard the following: “An hour ago I refused to foreclose and sell your firm, the Engel factory. But if your offer still holds good, I’ll take it. The factory goes to you.” When Willy asks why he has changed his mind, Hutton replies: “Your son took $3,000 of my daughter’s money tonight after he knew the police had closed up his office.” A crushed Willy gives him Richard’s $3,000, pretending that it is Theodore’s money, but is then relieved to find $3,000 enclosed in a letter left by his son. Theodore finds work in a tannery and sends back money to pay his debts, while Willy returns to work as a plain shoemaker. But Richard accelerates the process of reconciliation with Willy by purchasing the tannery, paying the remaining $12,000 in debts, and sending his son back home to him.
Although mostly a novelist, John Steinbeck (1902-1968) contributed to the drama with "Of mice and men" (1937), an adaptation of the novella of the same name whose title is derived from Robert Burns' poem, "To a mouse" (1785): "The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley,/An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain/For promis’d joy!" "The best-laid schemes of mice and men/Often go astray/And leave us nothing but grief and pain/For promised joy." "The mouse cannot enjoy his hoped-for nest; Lennie and George will never own their own ranch” (Reinking, 2013 p 22).
von Szeliski (1971) criticized the meager ambitions and goals in modern attempts at tragedy in general. “In Steinbeck’s 'Of mice and men', ambition is to be left alone and enact the tiny dream of safety" (p 119). But in O’Hara’s (1939) view, “the play does achieve the dimensions of tragedy by sketching behind the individual characters the vast number of other homeless drifters who work for a toe hold in a society which really has no place for them” (p 181). Likewise, Cardullo (2011) specified that "once he shoots Lennie...George can still get the farm with Candy if he wants to...But he declines, which proves that being in one safe place with Lennie was more important to him than simply being in one safe place. He elects to continue living the hard life of a ranch hand rather than settle down to life on a small farm with Candy. George can have a better life, yet he turns it down. Unquestionably, he will suffer more on the road, without Lennie, than on the farm, without Lennie. He never gives himself a chance to, in his words, 'get used to' Candy" (p 260). Doyle (2006) also emphasized the symbiotic relation between the two migrant workers, each equally needing the other" (pp 82-83). "Candy laments the lost dream and blames the woman Lennie killed for ruining [it]” (Reinking, 2013 p 22). Puritan-minded Krutch (1939) presented an unduly harsh picture of Curley's wife as a "pathetic little nymphomaniac" (p 129). Likewise, Agate (1944): “Is this an appalling tragedy? Yes. But it is not the girl’s, since we are no more concerned for her than we are for that mouse and that puppy. The tragedy is that of Lennie the husky, and even more of his friend George, who has nursed and fenced in Lennie throughout his horribly precarious existence, and must now shoot him to avoid his inevitable lynching at the hands of the cutie’s husband and the other ranchers” (369-170).
"Of mice and men"
Time: 1930s. Place: California, USA.
Text at ?
Two migrant field workers, George and Lennie, look for work on a ranch. They were forced out of their previous occupation after Lennie was falsely accused of attempted rape, merely for touching a woman's dress, due to his penchant of stroking soft objects. Because of Lennie's mental deficiencies, George advises him to speak as little as possible to their potential employer, a ploy which succeeds. At work, the two are confronted with Curley, the boss' son, who overly compensates for his small size with aggressive talk. His wife has an openly flirtatious personality, in George's view a figure of danger in their hope of making important money. A field hand, Slim, offers Lennie a puppy, joyfully accepted as something he can fondle. Another farmhand, Candy, offers to advance some money to George in support for their dream of owning land, provided he is allowed to live with them. Their agreement is threatened when Curley capriciously attacks Lennie, who, encouraged to defend himself by George, breaks the aggressor's hand. Yet, supported by the other farmhands, George and Lennie remain on the farm. Despite his cynical outlook in general, Crooks, a stable buck, hears of Lennie's dream of owning land and asks to contribute to it. Their talk is interrupted by Curley's wife, as flirtatious as ever towards Lennie. Later, Lennie grieves on discovering he has accidentally killed his puppy through over-fondling. He meets Curley's wife a second time. She expresses her own dream of one day becoming a star of the cinema. When Lennie mentions his penchant to touch, she flirtatiously allows him to stroke her hair, but then becomes very worried about his manner and his strength. In a panic she cries out. Aware of the danger of the situation, Lennie seeks to calm her down, but is unable to, until in frustration he accidentally breaks her neck. After learning of this disaster, George joins Lennie as a fugitive. They hide in the bushes as a lynch mob is formed. In despair and out of compassion of his friend, George shoots Lennie and is soon discovered by Curley and the farmhands.
William Saroyan (1908-1981) is especially known for "The time of your life" (1939), like O'Neill's “The iceman cometh”, a bar-room drama.
Freedman (1971) favored “The iceman cometh” over “The time of your life”, because less sentimental (p 20). “The time of your life” “is a reflection of the years of the Depression, dramatizing the establishment and its laws and enforcers as oppressively fascistic and anti-labor, hostile to the ‘little man’. The playwright strives to prove that truth and beauty are to be found in society’s underdogs and pariahs...and the child-like adult. [The saloon seems like a] melting pot of ethnicities, where there is kindliness, security, and generosity of spirit, living and letting live as each person follows his own destiny in contrast to the outside world where none of this occurs. The saloon is the site of Joe’s wish fulfillment; prostitutes are ladies, wind-up toys are stronger than machines, love occurs in an instant, the potentially threatening Arab is gentle and plays beautiful music on a harmonica (Featherstone, 2008 pp 94-109). In particular, Joe uses money to offer hope in his fantasy world of wish fulfillment” (Miller and Frazer, 1991 p 241).
“The mystery of Saroyan’s success...was the result of an instinctively arrived at accommodation between two schools of theatre that had been at war with each other during the Depression-harassed thirties: the school that made social awareness the primary test of playwriting and the school that would have preferred to sublimate the times in poetry, fantasy, and abstraction” (Gassner, 1954b p 297). “No play demonstrates the potential vitality of our stage at the end of the 1930s more convincingly than William Saroyan’s fugue, The Time of your Life...the people...are, superficially considered, hopelessly miscellaneous. But they have one thing in common...who are they but waifs of the world, impressing upon us the fact that we rare all waifs of one kind or another!...Those who want more cohesion in the drama will find it, if they have unimpaired eyes, in the presence of Joe, a shiftless young man with money at his disposal. Everything, every event or presence in the play impinges upon him, so that he becomes the sensitive film and focus of the episodes..This man who acquired money and sickened of it, who is alone and inscrutably so...has developed a pity for all mankind...and...has made himself a paraclete or comforter of his fellow creatures...The fantastic relic of the frontier, Kit Carson, who claims the honor of having killed the vigilante, is received with approval by Joe...Nothing is basically vague, although everything is fugitive in the play...All its separate points are vividly realized. Only a certain sentimentality attenuates them, particularly in a bedroom scene...The assumption that anything not completely integrated constitutes fantasy is an illusion of reason-inebriated members of the intelligentsia; to them we recommend the platitude that a good deal of private and social life is unintegrated and illogical” (Gassner, 1968 pp 407-410).
"The time of your life"
Time: 1939. Place: San Francisco, USA.
In a saloon, as he often does, an habitual loafer, Joe, asks his friend, Tom, to run an errand for him, in this case buying a load of mechanical toys. When Tom returns with them, he asks Kitty, a whore with whom he is in love, to go out with him. She asks him whether he has money. When he says yes, they go out together. A woman asks Joe whether he really likes to drink so much. "As much as I like to breathe," he answers. When Tom returns to Joe, he reports that Kitty is crying. Joe requests him to buy an European map, a gun, and bullets. When he returns, they console Kitty, who is in the habit of daydreaming that she is an actress and her man a doctor. "Be the wonderful doctor she dreams about and never had," Joe recommends to Tom. "Go ahead. Correct the errors of the world." When a sailor arrives to sleep with her, Tom threatens to kill him. Another customer arrives, Krupp, a dockside policeman considering quitting his job. "We've got everything, but we always feel lousy and dissatisfied just the same," he comments. Practical for the benefit of others but not towards himself, Joe buys Kitty new clothes and the rent needed to live in a more comfortable hotel. Yet another barroom customer, Kit Carson, shows up and demonstrates to Joe how to use the gun. To help Tom get Kitty, Joe arranges for him to obtain a job as a truck-driver. Kitty is still depressed, feeling that her gifts have arrived too late in life. Meanwhile, a member of the vice squad, Blick, checks on the premises and interrogates Kitty aggressively. When Kit objects to his tone, Blick takes him out in the street and beats him up. On further interrogation, Kitty confesses that she dances burlesque, at which Blick challenges her to show him how she dances. As she starts to take off her clothes, Joe and Tom intervene. Sensing danger, Joe pushes his friend away and gives him money, so that he and Kitty can escape safely. Joe aims his gun at Blick, but it is defective, so that he wanders to his table confused, in a daze. Soon, the owner of the bar tells him Blick has been shot, after which Kit enters with the news that he once killed a man in San Francisco in 1939.
Clifford Odets (1906-1963) penned a social drama of importance in "Paradise lost" (1935).
The importance of “Paradise lost” is sometimes misunderstood, the downfall of the family dismissed as “confusing”, the characters as “never coming to life” (Gagey, 1947 p 171). Critics such as Krutch (1939), resenting the picture of America presented in the play, criticized the author as having "lost his grip on reality" and exaggerating the "decadence of a family" (p 271). “Is an economic system to be judged by its successes or by its failures? I suggest that both tests are wrong, and that the test of a civilization is not its tyrants or its slaves, but the general run of happiness among its wage-earners. The cross-section of society which Mr Odets has chosen to show us is a miasmatic welter of failure, decay, and death. Mr Odets, an American, tells me that the home of the Gordons is what you may expect under a capitalist regime. I, as an Englishman whose acquaintance with America is limited to a three weeks’ visit to New York, tell Mr Odets (a) that he cannot produce such a home, and b) that if he can, the life contained therein would be equally catastrophic under socialism, communism, or any other ‘ism’. These people are without virtue, and their faults cry to heaven. What’s the good of blaming capitalism?...Leo Gordon is a spineless, nostalgic, vapourizing manufacturer who would lose money in a tobacco kiosk. He has been for some years in partnership with a Mr Katz without discovering that his partner has the soul of a thug and the mind of a fire-raiser. Katz would also be a hundred per cent sadist if he were not also a hundred per cent coward, and, moreover, the victim of some obscure disease. Gordon has three children. Ben is an amateur sprinter with the mind of a professional gigolo; he marries a wanton and joins in partnership with his wife’s lover, who is a taxi-driver turned gangster. The second son is dying of sleeping sickness, and there is a sleepy daughter who, by giving music lessons, appears to earn the only money coming into the house. Her heart is broken because some down-at-heel young man, who ought to be behind a counter selling gloves, wants to be an orchestral conductor, but, finding competition with the Toscaninis and the Barbirollis too keen, mooches off to Chicago. Lastly, Gordon has a wife, a self-complacent, detached creature who wears delightful silk stockings and goes out to play bridge. I do not believe that any American middle-class family as unpretty as this one owes its unprettiness to capitalism, communism, or any other ‘ism’...The English playgoer is necessarily a little at sea when into this magnificent apartment, alleged to be the living-room of the Gordons, irrupt without waiting to be announced a boiler-stoker and a queer little piano-tuner who seems to be a mixture of Quilp and Little Nell’s grandfather. The latter character, who has the biggest part in the play, is always cropping up in American comedy, one of the variants being Grandpa in You Can't Take It With You. He is a master of foolish saws and antique instances, all of them disconnected. When, then, the stage is cleared for this odd creature who has spent all night in gaol, a stoker in dungarees, and the dying boy who has now exchanged a dinner-jacket for a silk dressing-gown, the English playgoer may be excused if he finds that his finger is not, so to speak, on the American social pulse...In the end the ruined manufacturer, whose furniture has been piled on the sidewalk, has a lyrical passage in which he expresses his conviction that in the failure of the individual is to be read hope for the nation as a whole which, of course, is bunk, and pretentious bunk” (Agate, 1944 pp 366-368). Likewise, Gassner (1954b) balked at the large number of unfortunate outcomes suffered by a single family. The play “was acceptable drama...only when taken as a poetic parable whose large assortment of catastrophes and blunderings serve an allegorical purpose and represent the social chaos that Odets felt” (p 308). Yet Gassner (1954a) admitted that "the well-intentioned, humane father meets the catastrophe with a high-hearted faith in a new unmercenary world that will release the joy and greatness latent in men’s hearts" (p 690). In the social context, the well-intentioned fail, as evidenced by Leo's confrontation with the delegation of workers and Gus' selling of his stamp collection, supporting Pike's view that a major social upheaval is necessary, that a piece-meal approach will not cut it. In short, "there is nothing to counteract the declension" (Weales, 1971, p 100), because such is tragedy.
"Sam asks them for longer hours and signs pay vouchers for more money than they are paid for, to keep the business going. Leo mortgages house and furniture. In the midst of the family downfall, Leo affirms the validity of the struggle of an individual or a family against overwhelming forces. His result, however, is optimistic and positive; the alternative to destruction is social realization” (Reynolds, 1986, p 109). Some critics complain that the realization is not dramatically realized, but merely forms Leo’s intent. Leo’s uplifting speech to Clara in the final scene (“the world is in its morning...”) has been misinterpreted. Miller and Frazer (1991) commented that “intended to be stirring and inspirational, the speech instead throws sand in the cogs and the gears don’t mesh” (p 181). It can rather be construed as defiance before calamity or a pathetic response to a pathetic situation, not necessarily intended to be stirring. For Berkowitz (1992), "Leo's salvation comes from his regaining the ability to dream any dream" (p 48). “The disparity described here between inner vision and external reality lies at the center of Odets' perception of the world. In America, even the America of the 1930s, men and women have the capacity for personal fulfillment, but are thwarted by political and social forces that leave few, if any, options for those without money or power” (Groman, 1986 p 80).
“’This is not reality, one says, 'too many catastrophes in one family, too much trouble in one package!’ Such an approach to Paradise Lost is the method of obdurate philistinism...The dramatic complications...represent the quintessence of a social tragedy, that of the disintegration of the middle class in our self-confessedly stalled social order. This stalemate is indicated in the play on two intimately connected levels: a general economic plane, the living presence of the Depression with its accompaniment of financial pressure, foreclosure, evictions, homelessness, and artificial demagogic reassurances (‘prosperity block-parties’), and a private, personal plane...Marcus Katz...may intimidate and exploit his handful of employees, but he is himself a pawn in the larger game which he does not run...The handsome Olympic runner lives on the thin air of promises and goes downgrade in a society which he helped to ‘glorify’. His friend, Kewpie, is a pathetic caricature of the tough-minded individualist who run the world and are aped on a slightly higher scale by the petty owning class of which Katz is a member. Only the radical furnace man and the shop delegates possess some real positiveness insofar as they are floating or being driven down to the clear and bracing sea of social responsibility instead of stagnating in a private puddle like the Gordon family...Leo Gordon...is left only with his least material possession, his spirit that tells him that there must be something beyond the impasse he has reached, that the spirit of man must leap over it, for a fruit tree does not wear a lock and chain...Paradise Lost is not only a notable advance in Odets' craftsmanship but one of the most thoughtful and moving plays of the American theatre” (Gassner, 1968, pp 399-401).
“In the 1930s, the vogue of so-called social significance was resisted by few novelists and playwrights. Zeal for social protest seized even those writers who had no talent for protest and did not know what to protest against except their own futility. In the 30s, scores of playwrights endeavored to write like Clifford Odets. Toward the end of the decade, it became distressingly evident that even Odets was trying to write like Odets; his manner, having lost a clear objective, was becoming a mannerism” (Gassner, 1968 p 187).
Time: 1930s. Place: USA.
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Foley canvasses votes for himself for a political position in the city, but finds only indifference in the Gordon house. The family furnace man, Pike, is very critical about the current state of society. "A person starves to death in it every day," he avers. "Looks like we walked in on a nest of Reds," an offended Foley retorts. To everyone' surprise, Leo Gordon's son, Ben, has just married Libby, daughter to Gus, a long-time family friend. Leo's daughter, Pearl, considers this an impractical move, ironically referring to her brother as "the great genius who never earned a nickel in his life". When left alone with Libby, Ben's friend, Kewpie, reminds her of the good times they once spent together. "Did I say I was ice, with Ben running races the whole summer in Europe?" she retorts. The two quarrel in front of Ben till Kewpie slaps her face. When Ben defends her, Kewpie knocks him down. Meanwhile, Pearl's boy-friend, Felix, informs her he has given up trying to find a job as a violinist. "Listen, I'm a worm in the ground, and you're a worm in the ground," he avers. As a result, he abandons her to try his luck in another city. Leo and his friend and co-owner Sam receive a delegation of workers complaining about their low salaries and bad working conditions, at the end of which Sam criticizes Leo for being too sympathetic to their cause. Pike loses no time in arguing with Gus about politics. "Our country's the biggest and best pig-sty in the world", Pike comments, to which the latter retorts: "I know no better place, Mr P" "I do, all picked out for me, the bottom of the ocean," he counters. Later, Gus is arrested on a false charge of harassing a woman in the subway, but is then released. Ben does not succeed in making good money, but instead is reduced to selling mechanical toys in the streets. To his shame, he discovers Libby did not receive rent-money from Gus but from Kewpie. When Ben confronts Kewpie, the latter offers him a chance to earn quick money, showing his gun. They leave together. Sam introduces Leo to Mr May, who advises them to buy an insurance policy on their business and then set fire to the premises. Leo is offended and orders him out, to Sam's despair. "Don't insult humanity with your ignorance," Sam cries out. Soon after, Leo receives a partially understood phone call from Kewpie, whereby Julie, Ben's dying brother, guesses correctly its meaning: Ben has been shot to death during a botched robbery attempt. There is no better hope in the family's future than voluntary bankruptcy. Since Leo cannot obtain a loan, he sells Pearl's piano while Gus sells his precious stamp collection. They are told by the police to put their furniture lying on the sidewalk back inside the house because Foley and his contributors are having a block party. Feeling guilty about Ben's death, Kewpie offers money as compensation to the family, but he is coldly received. He throws the money on the floor and leaves. In Leo's view, all this trouble is a mystery.
The principal claim to fame of Sidney Howard (1891-1939) is "They knew what they wanted" (1924).
Flexner (1938) found that the beginning of "They knew what they wanted" has “tension and pace. Thereafter the play sags...and the playwright is forced to draw heavily on the color and life of the 'festa'...[It is late] that we learn the fact towards which the play has built, that Amy is going to have Joe’s child” (p 33). "The situation here presented is one which could obviously be developed either as comedy or as tragedy. As tragedy it might end either in suicide or death, or in some other less definitive calamity. As it is, the triumph of common sense brings it closer to comedy. But it is not quite either. The mood of the conclusion suggests rather a sober, slightly wistful, acquiescence in the fact that life, even when it spares us fundamental catastrophe, often disappoints our rosier expectations...'They knew what they wanted' is in no sense a thesis play though it involves moral assumptions which might well have been argued in a thesis play only a decade before. What an opportunity is here presented- and neglected by Mr Howard- to expound a paradoxical morality, to define love, to explain The Case for the Unmarried Mother, and in general to 'épater les bourgeois!' Mr Howard, however, does nothing of the sort. He is not consciously engaged in forwarding a revolution either for its own sake or because he feels that the meaning of his play can be comprehensible only in so far as he is able to produce a revolution in the attitudes of his auditors. But he does assume that such a revolution has already taken place" (Krutch, 1939 pp 46-50). The same critic also remarked that the play runs counter to Bronson Howard's axioms of expected responses from the audience (p 51). In "Anatomy of a play" (1886), Bronson described axiom 1 thus: "three hearts cannot beat as one. The world is not large enough, from an artistic point of view, for three good human hearts to continue to exist, if two of them love a third. If one of the two hearts is a bad one, art assigns it to the hell on earth of disappointed love, but if it is good and tender and gentle, art is merciful to it, and puts it out of its misery by death." For axiom 2, "the wife who has once taken the step from purity to impurity can never reinstate herself in the world of art this side of the grave." When Tony accepts his friend’s child, everyone’s wish is partially fulfilled: Tony has a wife and child (though not his own), Amy a home (though not her love), and Joe may wander (though without his love), and so convention is shown to be wrong (Gagey, 1947 p 124). The escape of the predicament of the three main characters is accomplished by “practical reasoning and common sense” in a manner that the mores of the previous generation would have found intolerable (Miller and Frazer, 1991 pp 134-135).
"It is quite understandable, that, for dramatic effect, Mr Howard should have Amy commit her one transgression on the wedding night itself. Yet I can not but feel that this weakens the characterization greatly. In every other respect, Amy is essentially a strong character- in her decision to go ahead with her bargain in spite of the deception, in her refusal to practise any subterfuge about her child, or to do away with it, in the fine contempt she discovers for Joe the moment her confused resentment has passed, in the flinty courage with which she makes her confession, expecting it to mean the wrecking of her life and her chance for a home, and feeling deeply the tragedy it holds for Tony. It seems hardly credible that a woman of this type would succumb so rapidly and with such trivial cause to the dark persuasions of Joe. This creates a serious weakness in a play that is otherwise a powerful crescendo in the character development of two people whose lives, for a time, seem headed toward disaster and tragedy. The other weakness lies in the character of the priest, Father McKee, to whose kindly philosophy Tony and Amy owe much of their essential strength. First of all and as a trivial detail of observation a rough and ready parish priest of Father McKee’s type is not apt to worry about 'not having written his sermon' by a Thursday evening! The other point is more important. Mr Howard makes Father McKee warn Tony in the first act that marriage with a non-Catholic is 'practically the same as living in sin', even when the marriage ceremony is performed by a Catholic priest. This is so grotesque a misrepresentation of the well-known Catholic position that it smacks of the desire to write an amusing line rather than of honest character study. In all its main outlines, however, this play must remain one of the memorable contributions to that theatre in which strong characters battle through to important human victories" (Skinner, 1931 pp 142-143).
“In keeping with the theme of nature’s fertility, the comedy begins in the early spring of the year, when the grapes in Tony’s vineyard are small and green. And the last act, months later, the grapes are large and purple. Like the grapes, the characters’ dreams grow to a ripe sweetness” (Firestone, 2008 p 45).
"They knew what they wanted"
Time: 1920s. Place: California, USA.
Having amassed a fortune for illegally selling alcoholic products during prohibition as a 60-year-old illiterate wine farmer and immigrant from Italy, Tony wishes to marry. Via a matrimonial agency, he sets up a date at a restaurant with Amy, a 20-year-old waitress, but at the last minute, too shy to speak with her, he backs down. Instead, he asks his friend and employee, Joe, to write and send a marriage proposal on his behalf. She accepts his marriage proposal. On the wedding day, bride qn bridegroom not having met, Tony is very nervous about the impression he will make. He drinks too much wine, takes his car on his way to pick her up at the train station, and topples over a bridge, breaking both legs. When Amy reaches the farm, Joe is there to welcome her. He is stunned on discovering that Tony, afraid of rejection because of his physical appearance, sent her a photograph of himself. When Tony is carried in from the ambulance, he cries out Amy's name but is swiftly carried off to his bedroom for further medical treatment. In terrible surmise, Amy asks Joe: "Who- who is that old guy?" Joe is forced to admit that the old guy is her future husband. Her first thought is to run away, but, after further consideration and liking the looks of the place, she decides to stay and marry him. Later that evening, with Tony ailing in bed and facing a 6-month period of convalescence, Joe mentions his desire to return to his former life as a migrant worker. Tony begs him to remain, mostly to manage the vineyard in his place. Amy pretends to be indifferent, but breaks down and rushes out when Joe prepares to leave. He follows her and they make love on Tony's wedding night. Three months later, Tony is well on his way to recovery, so that Joe reiterates his desire to leave. However, his progress is stopped by the news that Amy is pregnant with his child. He proposes that they marry and abandon Joe. Unwillingly, she prepares to accompany him, but, before going, informs Tony that she is pregnant. Frightened by his anger, she moves back, but then he collapses at her feet and begs her to stay. She hesitates about what to do, disbelieving that he can ever love her again or the baby, but then accepts his offer as Joe picks up his knapsack to head elsewhere.
Lula Vollmer (1898-1955) wrote one play of importance in "Sun-up" (1923).
“Vollmer succeeds admirably in the characterization of each of her mountain figures, but none is better than the Widow Cagle. The wife of a murdered moonshiner, she cannot understand why the law, in the person of Sheriff Weeks, her good friend, has to be enforced to the detriment of her family, particularly when bending and breaking the law in feuding and making illicit whiskey have been natural parts of living” (Miller and Frazer, 1991 p 250). In a production, Manning (2001) pointed out that "Sun-up's simple, singular unit stage setting is complemented by the characters' comical misunderstanding of the world. Local color notions are stamped on character action and speech as well" (pp 303-304).
The ending of this play is misunderstood by too literal critics such as Gagey (1947) who consider the widow’s change of mind by hearing Rufe’s message in music as “melodramatic absurdity”. Likewise, Clark (1927) stated that "Miss Vollmer's 'Sun-up', despite the purposeful 'idea' of showing her mountaineers falling into line with the rest of the country during the war, is a genuine folk play up to the sentimentalized end. The play has to do with a woman who makes her stand against the law and the government, in accordance with her own notions of law and justice, only to be 'reformed' at last by the playwright's desire to prove her thesis. She preferred falsifying a character in order to help the cause of enlistment, to telling the truth as she doubtless knew it" (p 762). One may argue that the ending is truthful to the character's memory of her husband.
Time: 1917. Place: Near Asheville, North Carolina, USA.
A farmer, Rufe Cagle, wishes to marry Emmy Todd but she is undecided about whether to marry him or else the region's sheriff, Jim Weeks. When Rufe insists to have her answer because he must soon go away, she promises to do so after sun-down. Sheriff Weeks offers Rufe's mother $800 for her farm, but she refuses to sell. He announces that according to a government decree, Rufe and Emmy's brother, Bud, must register their name and address. Widow Cagle proposes that Bud should refuse. "Ye got a gun, ain't ye?" she asks her son rhetorically. "That's as much as the law's got." She specifies that they owe the governement nothing, all the more so since an agent, Zeb Turner, once shot her husband to death for resisting arrest after being caught for illegally making corn whiskey. Alone with Emmy and aware that his rival is likely to be called up, Jim asks her to marry him. Instead she declares to everyone that she accepts Rufe's offer. Thinking that outcome lets her son off being registered, Mrs Cagle is overjoyed, but then Rufe announces having registered that very morning. After Rufe receives the news he is drafted without Bud because of the latter's weak-mindedness, he tells his wife that he is going of his own free will. "Then it 'tain't fer me to say no more," Emmy answers. She is surprised about his attitude and declines to kiss him goodbye. "Whut's the use o' sech foolishness?" she says, but on following him out, she moves her hand lovingly over Rufe's hoe and the corn-cob pipe drops from her mouth. Several months later in a blizzard, an army deserter shows up at Mrs Cagle's house. Unknown to her, it is Zeb Turner's son, Zeb junior. Having followed his snow-tracks up to her house, Sheriff Weeks calls out to her, but, hating any form of law, she decides to hide the stranger, who succeeds in avoiding detection. Unable to read, Mrs Cagle asks Emmy to read a letter delivered to her from the government, informing them that Rufe died in action. "It means the law's got my boy same as his pap," Mrs Cagle declares. Seeing her bravely put up with grief when he thought his own mother would be unable to, the stranger abandons any thought of desertion, intending to return to his army post. But before he has a chance to, the sheriff returns with the news that the stranger's name is Zeb junior. Instead of delivering the son of her husband's killer to the law, she hides him a second time after seeming to hear her dead son's voice stating that as long as there is hate there will be feuds. Before the sheriff's very nose, Zeb leaves the house disguised in Bud's coat and cap. After the sheriff discovers the trick, he moves to arrest her, but, reminded of her grief, changes his mind. "I heared you, Rufe," Mrs Cagle calls aloud when everyone has gone. "I never knowed nothin' about lovin' anything but ye till ye showed me hit's lovin' them all that counts." The dawn's light pours in as she opens the door to look out.
Owen Davis (1874-1956) is another talented playwright, particularly illustrated with a play of broken dreams in "The detour" (1921). Davis also wrote "Icebound" (1923) about the Jordan family, consisting of two sons and two daughters, whose rich mother has just died. To the horror of the older brother and the two sisters, the mother leaves her money to a distant cousin of theirs, Jane, while the younger brother, Ben, is on the run trying to escape from an arson charge. Jane keeps the family farm in the hope of marrying Ben, who does not love her. As a result, she leaves all her money to him until he realizes that he needs her to keep the farm going.
"In 'The detour', Davis juxtaposes two structures of comedy, the normal plot of marriage between young lovers and the quixotic plot of escape from the oppressive old order. By emphasizing the action surrounding them, however, he suggests that these traditional rhythms of comedy are merely detours from the fundamental business of everyday life...Davis' point is that the fundamental need for a mate, the need to escape routine, and the conflicting need for security account for a good deal more of the action in life than the sensational moments of decision" (Murphy, 1987 p 183).
Time: 1920s. Place: Northport, New York, USA
Kate, a schoolteacher during the school year and a clerk at a store during summertime has been saving money for many years so that she can attend an art school in New York. "The thing I wanted to do you're going to do," her mother, Helen, says happily. However, the father, Steve, considers he needs more land to make truck farming profitable and intends to take away her summer-money. Their neighbor, Tom, has opened an oil station and garage, but learns too late a detour sign has been put up the road because of a need for repairs. Tom would like to marry Kate, but she does not encourage his advances. To get her faster on her way to New York, Helen sells the family bed. Steve is outraged and wants to block the sale until learning the generous amount it went for. In his own financial trouble, Tom is willing to sell his land to him. Steve wants to accept but has no money. He learns that the sale of the bed is sufficient to enable Kate to be on her way to art school. "That's nonsense," he declares. "I made my mind up to it, whether I think or I don't, over ten years ago," Helen counters. "It's just as much a part of my life- what I've planned she's goin' to do and be- as the work I do is, or this old dress that I've worn and worn and worn until I wouldn't know myself in any other. I couldn't any more live without the hope of what's coming to her than I could live without drink or food." Frustrated at unable to realize his own dream, Steve puts his hands on all their savings and offers them to Tom. "Fifteen hundred cash and a mortgage for the balance!" he cries exulting. But Helen refuses to let him take the money. "Take it, then," he counters. "But remember this: if you do take it, and if she goes against my will, you go with her." Seeing her in a red dress of his daughter's makes him reminisce of another red dress from long ago, so that he loses heart, though still angrily refusing to let Kate go. In anger, Helen throws in the stove-fire all of her cherished letters and photographs. Steve encounters a famous painter from New York, here to judge the value of Kate's art-work as his wife promised to Helen he would. He looks doubtfully at it, at which Kate cries out in anguish. Stunned at the sound of her cry, Steve quickly intervenes. "I was speakin' to this gentleman here about your picture," he assures. "He was sayin' it was pretty good, real good he seemed to think it was, for- for a girl that hadn't had much teachin'- I- I got to see if my stock's all fixed for the night. He liked that picture real well; he'11 tell you so himself, if you ask him." Despite this hopeful speech, the professional critic can only see "the conventional schoolgirl water color". After the road reopens following citizen complaints, Tom's garage is attached. Disillusioned about her prospects, Kate hands the money over to her father so that he can buy the land from Tom and re-obtain the garage. An even more disillusioned Helen hears Steve offer her egg-money so that she can start saving again for Kate's unborn daughter. His coarse laughter does not faze her as she looks again to the future, her heart still swelling with hope.
In another worthy drama of the period, ”The hero” (1921), written by Gilbert Emery (1875-1945), the frustrations and foibles of a WWI veteran are told in a domestic setting.
Time: 1920s. Place: New York, USA.
In his youth, Oswald stole money from a bank and went off as a soldier to WWI while his father had to pay the money back. He also abandoned a woman who counted on him to marry. He has been missing for several years but now returns to find his brother, Andrew, living with his wife, Hester, his son little Andy, along with their mother, Sarah. With the added expense of harboring his brother, Andrew thinks that they should get rid of their hired help, Mattie, but Hester refuses, the girl being still not ready to accept a job as a stenographer. When Oswald finds himself alone with Mattie, he immediately flirts with her. The attempt at seduction works all too well, as Mattie becomes pregnant. Oswald’s military service is the main point interest at a church service, which garnered more donation money than usual: $500 kept in Andrew’s keeping at his house in the drawer of a secretary. Andrew tells his wife that his boss has offered Oswald the same job he holds as an insurance salesman. She is glad, and, moreover, wants to prolong Oswald’s stay at the house, despite her husband’s worries over paying bills. Rather than lose Oswald, Hester changes her mind: Mattie must go. When told about the job offer and despite having nothing else in sight, Oswald immediately refuses. Hester is bored with married life. She loves Oswald, who repulses her longings, reminding her that she is a mother. “Stick to your kid. He’s hero enough for you,” he affirms. With Hester gone, Oswald walks over to the secretary to steal the church money. She, returning in her nightdress, sees him slip it into his coat-pocket. Soon, Mattie shows up. Muttering in rage, Oswald pushes himself between the two women on his way to his room while Mattie looks at Hester with anger and follows Oswald, Hester standing petrified with horror and anguish. The following morning, Hester and Mattie confront each other. “I love him, love him. You hear?” Mattie declares. “And he loves me, me, not you.” Hester guesses that Mattie is pregnant by him. “I want to know what you two intend doing with that money,” Hester says. A bewildered Mattie knows nothing about any money. On her way to a funeral, Sarah pleads with Oswald to marry a rich woman or take the job. Hester pleads with Oswald to hand the money back, but he refuses. “Andy’ll have to pay it’” he says. “Andy- pay it!” she exclaims. “Why- we haven’t got a penny and you know it.” “Oh- he can get it somehow. What’s he ever done, anyhow?” he asks rhetorically. “He didn’t go to war, did he?” “Why should he pay for you-and your horrid women?” she asks. “I’m going back to France, back to France, see? To my girl,” he retorts. “What’ll you do? Call the police? And disgrace the family? What about your nice, pious friends when they hear the police have arrested the church treasurer’s brother?” Oswald goes away. When Mattie demands to know where he is, Hester replies: “He’s left you to me.” Mattie dashes off as Andrew enters. There is a sign of fire outside as someone calls Andrew to say he is wanted as Mattie returns with a face ghastly and gray with horror. Fire broke out in the kindergarten where Oswald was able to save little Andy before being engulfed in smoke. To cover her brother-in-law’s crime, Hester says that she gave the money to him to put in the bank. Andrew is determined to pay it back. “You are a good man, Andrew,” Hester says. “Me? I’m just old Andy, I am,” Andy retorts. “But Os- Os was a hero.”
"The witching hour" (1917) is a mysterious play written by Augustus Thomas (1857-1934).
Clark (1915a) remarked that "The witching hour" "is thoroughly American in spirit: the good and bad qualities of American drama are easily distinguished from page to page. Greneralizations in matters theatrical nowadays are especially fallible, yet it will not be amiss to say that the drama in the United States is as a rule conventional, over-sentimental, puritanical in that it rarely dares go to the root of life and comments on it with fearless and outspoken sincerity; it is, on the other hand, live, moving, interesting as a transcript of the everyday externals of life. The dialogue is usually good, idiomatic, and clever, although it rarely reveals character. It is nearly always violent, extreme: melodrama and farce seem to be the favorite forms, and happy endings are practically indispensable. The American dramatist is a sentimentalist, although he seldom sentimentalizes over the deepest things in life- as a Frenchman does— love-scenes are usually short and snappy, an American dislikes showing his feelings- while little children, old mothers, and pals in crooked deals supply more sentimental material than half a dozen love-affairs to a Frenchman or a deserted mistress to Schnitzler. Notice the first love-scene in 'The witching hour': the actual proposal and its casual announcement" (pp 240-241).
"The witching hour"
Time: 1900s. Place: Louisville Kentucky and Washington DC, USA.
Text at https://archive.org/details/witchinghourdram00thomrich https://archive.org/details/witchinghour00thomgoog https://archive.org/details/witchinghour00thomiala https://archive.org/details/witchinghourillu00thomuoft https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.52009 https://archive.org/details/representativea00quingoog
When Alice learns that her daughter, Viola, is engaged to be married with Clay, she worries about its outcome because of the man's card-playing habits, although her present fortune is the result of the success enjoyed in such games by her brother, Jack, a professional gambler. Aware of Clay's love of Viola, Frank, assistant district attorney, asks Jack whether he agrees to his marrying her. He does not. Although favorable to his interests, Jack takes a moral stance in Frank's turning a blind eye on his illegal activity as well as his involvement in the unresolved murder of a recent governor-elect, Scovill. Before their poker-game, a drunken gambler, Tom, teases Clay when he turns away from his scarf-pin. As he continues to harass him, Clay takes up a paper-knife from a table and strikes wildly at him. The knife-thrust kills him. Clay is arrested, placed on trial, and condemned to die for murder. The defense attorney appeals to the supreme court to have the trial remanded due to a tactical error by the presiding judge. Viola and Clay's mother, Helen, make a personal appeal to one of the supreme court judges, Prentice. Their main defense is that Clay was the victim of an hereditary fear of a cat's-eye jewel contained in the scarf-pin, since she has the same fear as did her mother. Judge Prentice agrees that her mother's letter may constitute new evidence in the case, all the more so in that he once loved Clay's grandmother. The trial is remanded. While the jury deliberates, Jack, following Judge Prentice's advice, convinces a newspaper reporter to print an article suggesting the involvement of Frank, the prosecuting attorney in the Clay case, in Scovill's murder. Although the jury had no access to the newspaper article, Clay is acquitted as a result of telepathic communication, according to Jack and Judge Prentice. Incensed, Frank bursts in the room with a gun with the intent to kill Jack but then freezes when Jack and Judge Prentice mentally command him to do so. Frank flees to escape the murder charge, but his hiding place is discovered. Instead of turning him over to the police, Jack asks Clay to hand him a note in which he offers to help him. "Long before Scovill was killed, I thought he deserved killing," Jack explains, "and I thought it could be done just as it was done." When Frank comes over, Jack and Helen drive him across state-lines to facilitate his escape.
Gertrude E Jennings
Canteen comedy is turned into a fine play in "Poached eggs and pearls" (1916) by Gertrude E Jennings (1857-1958), born in the USA and immigrating in England, also author of two interesting one-act social plays set in rest homes: "Acid drops" (1914) and "The rest cure" (1914).
"Poached eggs and pearls"
Time: 1910s. Place: London, England.
During World War I, Lady Clara and Lady Mabel have volunteered for canteen work under the supervision of the Duchess of Port Arthur. While serving tables and following rules limiting conversations with customers, Clara stands aloof towards Jimmie, a soldier mechanic who, just to be near her, orders more food than he can eat, often poached eggs because they take the longest to prepare. But to Mabel, she admits she likes him all the more. She is frightened when he announces he will soon go to the front lines, yet refuses to consider marrying him. As canteen orders multiply, a clumsy volunteer, Emily, confides to Clara a matter concerning her nephew's desire of marrying above his social station to a titled canteen volunteer whose name she does not know. Against the rules, Jimmie surreptiously enters the pantry where Clara works alone. He presses her even more ardently for her to marry him. If they are caught, she is worried that she will be sent to sew pyjamas, a type of work she particularly detests. Mabel warns her in time of the approach of Lady Violet, jealous of any woman who attracts the men. Anxious that the hidden Jimmie may be discovered, Clara resists going over to clear the tables, but is nevertheless forced to by the duchess. Re-entering, Jimmie sneaks up from behind, calls out Clara's name, and kisses Violet by mistake. An outraged Violet threatens to tell the duchess about this unseemly behavior. Jimmie begs her not to. They are interrupted by the arrival of Emily, surprised to find her nephew there, who assumes that he loves Violet and tries to convince him not to marry above his station. Violet convinces her otherwise. "I'm happy to say that this young man is absolutely nothing to do with me," she says. "I was amazed to find him in the pantry, and I do not come to the canteen to flirt with Tommies." Emily confronts her. "There's no reason to insult my dear boy because he doesn't care for you," she says. "After all, he's one of our gallant gentlemen. He's been out to the front and been wounded and risked his life for England with the rest of our men, and that's more than you have done. And I think you ought to respect them all, however humble, and not sneer at them, our dear brave gallant soldiers!" They are interrupted by the duchess, outraged after being told by Violet of the love-intrigue. Emily defends the two. "Oh, but, duchess, may I tell you?" she asks. "This is my nephew- the dearest boy. I do want him to be happy, and I like Lady Clara so much. She is so sweet and washes up so well. And I know I'm only a silly old thing, and I've dropped the china and spilt the tea and made the cocoa wrong, but I do want them to be happy, and I've got money, thanks to my dear father, and they shall have it now, and not wait till I'm gone, and, oh, duchess, do be kind to my dear Jimmie." Thanks to this appeal, the duchess at last relents.
Though at its darkest, a comedy of the French boulevard type, “Arsenic and old lace” (1941), comprises the summit in the achievements of Joseph Kesselring (1902-1967).
“Arsenic and old lace”
Time: 1940s. Place: Brooklyn, New York, USA.
Text at ?
Two sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster, have been taking care of their nephew, Teddy, as the man shows evident signs of insanity, namely believing himself to be President Theodore Roosevelt. The sisters have asked Reverend Dr Harper, their next-door neighbor, to prepare the legal papers necessary so that Teddy can be taken care of at Happy Vale after their deaths. Two police officers, Brophy and Klein, arrive to gather toys for a children’s Christmas fund. All three men agree that the Brewster sisters are among the most sympathetic women they have ever known. As Rev Harper leaves, his daughter, Elaine, steps in to wait for her boy-friend, another nephew of the Brewster sisters, Mortimer, who left the house to become a theatre critic. Mortimer is frustrated how Elaine has been holding out during the time they have known each other. “I can afford to be a good girl for quite a few years yet,” she coyly suggests, too long for the impatient Mortimer who, to her joy, asks her to marry him. While left alone to look around the room to find some literary papers, Mortimer lifts the window-seat and discovers a dead body in there. Aghast, he asks his aunts the meaning of this, who reveal that there are eleven more bodies buried in their cellar, all carried down by Teddy, the first man dying by chance of a heart attack, the latest, Hoskins, poisoned by Abby alone from a concoction of their own making that includes arsenic and strychnine dissolved in their home-made elderberry wine, the rest of the bodies being the work of both sisters working together, religiously taking pity on unfortunate lodgers who seem to have little to live for. In a panic about what to do next, he at least begs his aunts to avoid letting anyone inside the house. While Mortimer speaks to a newspaper colleague to replace him for a forthcoming play he is assigned to criticize, yet another potential lodger enters but is frightened away by a Mortimer anguished at the thought on how the man may become his aunts’ next victim. Unable to find a replacement, Mortimer heads for the theatre as his other brother, Jonathan, walks toward the house in the company of Dr Einstein, two criminals who have recently killed a man, Spenalzo, in their car and intend to use the house as a hide-out. Mindful of their promise to Mortimer to keep everyone out, the Brewster sisters ignore the knocking at their door, but the two men nevertheless enter. Neither of the sisters recognizes their nephew, since he is in the habit of changing his face to avoid imprisonment, this time using an actor's, Boris Karloff's, a task assured of by his surgeon friend. Having had great trouble in raising Jonathan as a youth, the Brewster sisters wish the two men would depart at once, but eventually back down and agree to serve them dinner. After the meal, Jonathan asks his aunts permission to sleep in their house. Once more, they back down and agree to let both men sleep in their house only for one night. The two men gather their luggage with the obvious intent of staying indefinitely. Thinking their lodgers asleep, the Brewster sisters order Teddy to remove the dead Hoskins from the window-seat and carry it down to the cellar while Jonathan and the doctor sneak their own victim inside the house, but their task is interrupted by a sudden knock on the door, so that Einstein hides the dead Spenalzo in the vacated window-seat. It is Elaine who suspects the existence of prowlers inside the Brewster house. Jonathan identifies himself and in talking to her becomes convinced she saw them carry the dead body, and so prepares to strangle her at the moment Teddy re-emerges from the cellar, but to Elaine’s despair, he is unaware of her danger and leaves the room. Nevertheless, the noise alerts the Brewster sisters dressed in mourning clothes to hold a funeral service for Hoskins so that Einstein carries Elaine down to the cellar while Jonathan assures his aunts that he has discovered a prowler but that everything is under control, only to face the additional difficulty of facing his other brother, Mortimer, back from the play while Elaine frees herself to join her fiancé. The two brothers argue about their sleeping arrangements for the night, each insisting on a bedroom until Mortimer, afraid that Jonathan will discover Hoskins and Jonathan, made aware by his accomplice of Spenalzo’s whereabouts, each prefer to sleep on the window-seat. Left alone with his aunts, Elaine tells Mortimer that Jonathan intended to kill her. He wants her out of the house, all the more so after discovering an unknown body, Spenalzo’s instead of Hoskins’, lying dead in the window-seat. After she leaves, Mortimer confronts Aunt Abby about the new corpse on the premises, but she has no idea who he is. A more than ever worried Mortimer next confronts Jonathan, each wanting the other out of the house. When Abby conducts Martha toward the window-seat to show her the strange corpse, both brothers jump up and run over to sit on the window-seat until Mortimer realizes that the body is probably the result of Jonathan’s handiwork. He invites his brother to show Martha the window-seat. Jonathan freezes in anger. Invited by his brother to leave the house with the corpse, Jonathan threatens to kill him until a police officer, O’Hara, peaks in, a familiar figure to the sisters and curious about their house-lights being on so late at night, whose sudden appearance finally convinces Jonathan that he should leave at once. In the kitchen, Mortimer distracts O’Hara, a budding playwright enthused about hearing the critic’s views on his first play, so that Jonathan and Einstein can take away the corpse. But Jonathan refuses to go, all the more after Einstein shows him Hoskins lying dead on the cellar floor, so that Mortimer leaves instead with an Officer O’Hara still waiting to reveal his plot. Jonathan confronts his aunts about his intention to stay and is stunned on hearing that they know about Hoskins already, having prepared twelve graves down there. Despite their protests, Jonathan and Einstein bury the two remaining corpses while Mortimer obtains commitment papers for Teddy, intending to blame the murders on him. But in talking to Einstein about the play he had just seen, Mortimer reveals the very way Jonathan uses to bind and gag him in preparation of torturing him to death. A shaken Einstein proposes a drink to steady his nerves. As the murderers lift their glasses of poisoned wine, Teddy blows his usual trumpet when performing an important piece of business, a noise that brings Officer O’Hara back to the house, who on seeing Mortimer tied and gagged, seizes the opportunity of explaining his play until morning when Brophy and Klein appear because of neighbors’ complaints concerning the bugle late at night and arrest Jonathan when the latter, certain that they have come to arrest him, groggily reveals himself as a fugitive and is knocked unconscious by Brophy after attempting to escape. Their superior officer, Lieutenant Rooney, discovers the identity of the unconscious man, an escapee from a prison for the criminally insane. Mortimer announces that the commitment papers have been signed to take Teddy away, since the man is responsible for the thirteen bodies buried in the cellar, but after Rooney heard about the thirteen bodies from Brophy’s report on Jonathan and Teddy’s own mouth, two obvious madmen, he disbelieves what Mortimer tells him. When the sisters learn about Mortimer’s plan for Teddy, they insist on going along with him, convincing Rooney and Witherspoon, the superintendent of Happy Vale, that they, too, are probably insane after admitting the existence of the thirteen graves. Their papers must be signed by a physician, and so when Dr Einstein re-appears, he is welcomed to sign them and is afterwards stunned on being able to escape when Rooney fails to recognize him as Jonathan’s accomplice. As the two sisters are lead away, they learn of Witherspoon’s lonely existence and offer him a glass of elderberry wine. He raises his glass to drink it.
Another comedy of the popular type, but more light-hearted, "Harvey" (1944), comprises the main achievement of Mary Chase (1906-1981).
“The innocent and oblivious Elwood gets the best of everyone else. And he does so while displaying more kindness, humanity, and even social graces than the lot of them” (Craig, 2004 p 106). The introduction of the pooka “is precisely the kind of thing most of us would relish doing, including bringing Miss Greenawalt’s quart of gin into the midst of these hypocritical, social-climbing, gossiping dowagers...The balance of the play is a clever satire on ‘normal’ life, with the totally unperturbed Elwood displaying more common sense and offering sounder psychiatric advice than any professional. Elwood has long practiced what few of us can ever do: he has overcome reality in order to make life bearable...The gentle Elwood and his long-eared friend have carried a plea for tolerance of human individuality, however eccentric, into the world’s major languages. Harvey’s message about deadening conformity and its spoof of scientific efforts to eliminate social deviation have won sympathetic understanding” (Miller and Frazer, 1991 pp 245-246). A case can be made against Elwood’s character as an all too misleadingly gentle picture of an alcoholic.
The play can also be seen as a man’s revolt against matriarchy, rejecting social responsibility and the institution of the family. The family and psychiatry are the butt of the playwright’s humor. Indeed, family members appear “inane, petty, and materialistic”, psychiatrists “inept, blindly treating the wrong persons, indifferent to the seriousness of their profession, confused in the ordering of their own private lives, and succumbing to the same psychotic hallucinations as the patients they are engaged to treat”. Instead of looking like “untroubled innocents”, Elwood and the pooka can appear “troubled and subversive” (Featherstone, 2008 pp 70-73).
Time: 1940s. Place: New York City, USA.
While Veta and her daughter, Myrtle, entertain at their home, Elwood P Dowd unexpectedly shows up and mingles among the guests. Veta quickly removes him, worried that her brother will once more introduce her guests to Harvey, a pooka or spirit in the shape of a human-sized rabbit. On the phone, Elwood accepts a subscription to a club for himself and Harvey. Tired of her brother's interference in her social life, a distraught Veta heads for Dr Chumley's sanitarium to have him committed. She explains to his assistant, Dr Lyman Sanderson, that her brother is in the habit of frequenting taverns and invites all sorts of strangers to their house. She is so harassed that she admits she once saw Harvey herself. Her excited state prompts the doctor to misinterpret what she is saying and to lock her up in the institution for her own good. He calls in Elwood and asks him to sign the commitment papers for his sister, but he suggests she should do that herself. Instead, he invites Lyman and the head nurse to a bar that very evening. When Dr William Chumley arrives, he is puzzled on discovering a coat and a hat with two holes cut in its crown and orders the items removed. As Elwood returns to retrieve Harvey's coat and hat, he encounters William's wife, who takes a message on his behalf for Harvey. When William returns and receives his wife's message, he recognizes Lyman's mistake and fires him. Confident that her uncle will be institutionalized, Myrtle begins planning to sell the house. Elwood returns home while no one is there and takes up a parcel containing an oil painting of himself and Harvey. He hangs it up on the wall and then leaves to look for Harvey. Though William shows up to explain his subordinate's mistake, Veta is determined to sue him. She shrieks on discovering the painting. When Elwood calls to ask whether Harvey has returned, Veta is able to guess which bar he is calling from and William goes off to bring him back to his institution. Elwood shows up at the sanitarium to pick up Lyman and the nurse for their evening drink. On being asked what happened to William, he says the doctor unexpectedly left him at the bar while ordering more drinks for the two of them and Harvey. Lyman decides to hold Elwood. A shaken William returns with the impression of being followed. On seeing Lyman, he re-hires him. After some pleasant chat, Elwood wants to leave, but Veta, Myrtle, and the family lawyer think it best he should stay. "An element of conflict in any discussion is a good thing," Elwood comments serenely. Alone with William, Elwood explains his tranquil life with Harvey, mostly consisting of meeting friends in bars. "Harvey can stop clocks," he points out. To a stressed-out doctor, the prospect seems appealing and so to keep the rabbit to himself, he decides to inject Elwood with a drug liable to shock him back to reality. At first Elwood refuses, but when Veta insists, he submits. While the doctor prepares the drug solution, a cab driver shows up to ask for his money, but neither Veta nor Myrtle find any on their person. They ask Elwood for it, who finds some and then invites the cab driver and his brother to dinner over at his house. The driver is impressed and suggests that the man might not be so pleasant after the injection. Feeling guilty at committing her brother, Veta changes her mind and interrupts the proposed injection to take Elwood home. She is puzzled on looking at her purse to find money there.