On Maxwell Anderson

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Today is the birthday of Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959), one of the most successful playwrights this nation ever produced. While I bet you know his name, the odds are pretty good (I bet) that you can’t name any of his plays. Usually you’ll find me bemoaning such a state of affairs, but strangely in this case it seems reasonable.

Who are America’s best known playwrights today? If forced to draw up a very short list, I would venture to say Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, George S. Kaufman. (I’m drawing from Anderson’s own time. Time will tell if more recent playwrights will join their ranks). What do these playwrights have in common? For one thing, a clear voice, a clear point of view. There are certain elements that you might claim are characteristic of their work. Though Anderson was just about as successful as it is possible for an American playwright to get, the same couldn’t be said of him. I’ve managed to familiarize myself with over half of his four dozen or so plays and screenplays, including naturally all his best known and most successful works. It’s not just that his subject matter is eclectic and that he experiments with style. The same can be said of O’Neill. Yet in O’Neill, no matter where it’s set, or what dialect the characters are speaking, you know to expect certain things (for example, you know that there’s going to be some sort of existential meltdown at the end, par for the course with O’Neill). O’Neill’s personality as an artist transcends the mere trappings that gild any particular play. The same can’t be said of Anderson. With over two dozen of his scripts under my belt, I still can’t tell you what his voice is, or speak to what makes him tick as a person. You can’t generalize about him. Some might counter, “Is it a good thing to be able generalize about an artist’s work?” I would say that it is a NECESSARY thing! Yes, you want variation, perhaps an endless amount of variation. But you also require a common thread, else you begin to wonder if the writer has any self at all.

The most well-known hook with Anderson is that he likes to write in blank verse. It would be an easier hook, though, if he ALWAYS wrote in blank verse. But he didn’t. Also, being a man of his times, he makes no effort at great poeticism to match the ambition of his meter. There is no great striving for allusion, metaphor or playful new coinages. It is generally straightforward 20th century style American English in iambic pentameter — a kind of half-measure, if you ask me.

Like Shakespeare and Shaw,  Anderson is frequently, but not exclusively, associated with historical topics: he wrote popular plays about Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Anne Boleyn, Joan of Arc, Jesus, Socrates, Peter Stuyvesant, and many more, as well as broader canvassed works that dealt with World War I, Valley Forge, Rome under the bloodthirsty Caesars, etc etc. And from time to time he would deal with these and more modern stories from a perspective of social justice, though his point of view overall seems a bit vague.

At any rate, Anderson is someone whose work you have probably encountered in bits and pieces over the years, without piecing them together into the amazingly prolific and creative person that he ultimately was. Somehow, though a great many of his works have gotten decent mileage, the guy responsible for them has somehow faded. But I think you’ll agree his resume is mighty impressive. In bullet point form, some of his notable triumphs:

* He first exploded onto the scene with his 1924 Broadway hit What Price Glory? , co-written with Laurence Stallings. The play was one of the first to deal with soldiers at the front in World War One, and it gained a wide notoriety for the roughness of its language, much of which was unprecedented on the stage at the time. The association with WWI also got Anderson a gig as one of the writers on the movie All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Interestingly, Anderson had not served in the war, but had run into a lot of trouble with his employers during his days as a journalist and a teacher because of his pacifism.

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* The next smash hit Anderson remains well known for was Elizabeth the Queen (1930), which began his so-called Tudor Cycle. This play became the basis for the 1939 film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex with Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. Then there was Mary Queen of Scotland (1933), which became a movie with Katharine Hepburn. And also Anne of the Thousand Days (1947), made into a movie two decades later with Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold. 

* In 1932 he wrote Night Over Taos for the Group Theatre. It was one of their first productions and only ran for 13 performances. The play was set against the backdrop of the Mexican-American war. His association with the Group and its members was an uneasy one, but he maintained it over the years. He also penned Truckline Cafe (1946), directed by Harold Clurman, produced by Elia Kazan and starring (in his Broadway debut) Marlon Brando. This play only remained open for ten days. When this bunch had hits, it would be with the playwrights who would eclipse Anderson in the public’s memory: Williams and Miller.

* A couple of notable screenplay adaptations in the 30s: Rain (1932) and Death Takes a Holiday (1934)

* He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for Both Your Houses, a rather lacklustre, dated satire that was revived by the Metropolitan Playhouse a couple of years ago.

* In 1935 he wrote what I think is his best play Winterset, a play in blank verse inspired by the railroading of Sacco and Vanzetti. It made a star of Burgess Meredith, who also starred in the film version.

* He worked on two serious but still popular musicals with Kurt Weill, Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) and Lost in the Stars (1949), both of which have socio-political themes.

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* He wrote the thriller Key Largo (1939), which became the basis of the John Huston film with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Claire Trevor, Edward G. Robinson and Lionel Barrymore about a bunch of gangsters who take thye occupants of a hotel hostage during a hurricane in the Florida keys.

* Late in his career he had an association with thrillers: he wrote the 1954 stage hit The Bad Seed, which became the basis of the film, and then, in his last years he worked with Hitchcock, writing the screenplay to The Wrong Man (1956) and an early (rejected) draft of Vertigo. 

There are dozens more than this, as I said, but this is some of his best known work.

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