Sidney Kingsley: Father of Three Genres

The name of New York born playwright Sidney Kingsley (Sidney Kirschner, 1902-1995) is no longer a household word, if it ever was one, bit it ought to be. Kingsley invented not one but at least three entire genres that transcended the stage and established themselves in movies, television and radio drama. Kingsley’s forte was to take some fascinating American subculture, obsessively research it, and then depict it on stage. He also had a tendency to put real racy stuff onstage – grown up stuff (sex and language) which you’d think they wouldn’t have allowed in the thirties and the forties…but I guess that’s the difference between the stage and the screen (at least back then).  While Kingsley has a real knack for detail, however, he tends to fall back on surprisingly crude melodramatic devices for his plot points. He’s not a subtle dramatist. In retrospect his plays are important for historical reasons then, not for literary ones. He is the dramatic equivalent of an explorer. His major works are these:

Men in White (1933)

I first learned about this play while reading Harold Clurman’s The Fervent Years in my twenties. It was not only Kingsley’s first success, but also the Group Theatre’s first hit. By putting real behind-the-scenes action in a hospital onstage, Kingsley inadvertently invented the medical drama…making possible everything from soap operas to M*A*S*H…to Men in Black, that Three Stooges episode where the comedians play doctors (“For duty and humanity!”) (Also E.R., Scrubs, etc etc etc). Unfortunately it also set the precedent for alternating super-realistic medical scenes and dialogue…with crummy melodrama. In this play, a young intern is being forced to choose between being a great doctor…and the woman he loves. A monkey wrench is thrown in the works when, through an amazing series of coincidences, his fiancé observes him treating a nurse whom he had impregnated (nine months after a SINGLE sexual encounter) as she dies from a botched abortion! It was also made into a 1934 movie with Clark Gable, much sanitized, of course.

Dead End (1935)

Here Kingsley invented not so much a genre as a successful movie franchise. In this play, Kingsley created the group that came to be known (through their later success in movies) as the Dead End Kids. Kingsley personally cast Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall (one of my father’s favorite comedians). While enjoyable and fascinating in its realistic detail, the premise of the play is a tough one for me to abide. Maybe the kids were more sympathetic onstage than it reads on the page, but I have a hard time seeing a gang of street punks as anything but a gang of street punks—at least as he depicts them here. Perhaps, coming from the streets of New York himself, Kingsley assumed the greater level of sympathy he himself no doubt feels for these characters. I just see a bunch of bullies, cavemen and thugs. I know this is NOT what street kids are. They are human beings with feelings and vulnerabilities and motivations. It’s up to the playwright to show me that. Kingsley doesn’t. All I see is a lot of people living the laws of the jungle. Again…if it’s your point that “society” has “made” them this way, then the play must demonstrate that thesis. But it doesn’t. It assumes or hopes that we will have some understanding if a gang of kids beats up a rich boy and steals his watch and then stabs his father. We may or we may not; the script ought to facilitate the sympathy. More on the popular movie franchise is here. 

The Patriots (1943)

In general, heretofore most American playwrights have done a disappointing job of dramatizing our own history and here Kingsley is no exception. He commits all the traditional sins…placing ridiculous expository dialogue in the mouth of characters (the technique I call “How’s my favorite district attorney doing today?”); having the iconic characters utter their most famous quotes in the course of dialogue, which has a jarring, corny, Hallmark card-like effect; and writing in the bland, plodding realistic dialogue was the bane of most 20th century American theater and is pathetically inadequate for a play set in the 17th, 18th or 19th century, when language was much richer. It’s like doing a line drawing of the Mona Lisa. Nonetheless, the play would be worthwhile tool to teach school kids. It dramatizes the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton during the Washington administration. It is an extremely worthy subject for a play (or an essay or a book or an argument)…how much freedom should “the People” be given without creating anarchy? The question seems more appropriate to our own time, or to the 1960s, than Kingsley’s own. Certain Kingsley touches (little historical details) are nice. But in general (like most of his plays) it feels like a cut and paste…the dialogue doesn’t feel organic from the characters, but inserted like pieces of a puzzle. In a word…it’s no Hamilton!

Detective Story (1949)

Here Kingsley invented the “police procedural” drama. Of course, cop and detectives stories flourished for at least three quarters of a century before this play. The difference here, is the level of realism and detail, the inclusion of the humdrum and the mundane and the silly, in addition to the inevitable excitement. Thus it is the parent of everything from Dragnet to Adam-12, to Hill Street Blues, to NYPD Blue and Law and Order. It’s a liberal play…the play’s main character is an inflexible by-the-book cop who roughs up suspects and can’t tell the difference between a criminal and somebody who has simply made a mistake. Again, Kingsley relies on a melodramatic device reminiscent of the one in Men in White, when the main character discovers that before they were married his wife once had an affair with a criminal, got pregnant by him, and had an abortion. In 1951, William Wyler made it into a film with Kirk Douglas and William Bendix.

Darkness at Noon (1951)

An adaptation of Arthur Koestler’s novel about an old guard Bolshevik who finds himself in the gulag at the hands of a new generation of zealots and gets a taste of his own medicine.


In 1939, Kingsley married Hollywood actress Madge Evans. The couple remained together until her passing in 1981. They spent their last decades in retirement on their large estate in New Jersey.