Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses is a political satire that is as relevant today as it was when it was first performed in 1933. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which Mercutio calls in his dying speech for ‘‘a plague on both your houses,’’ referring to two warring families, the Montagues and the Capulets. In Anderson’s play, the title refers to the two houses of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The play takes place during the Great Depression and concerns an idealistic young congressman who takes the surprising position of opposing a bill that provides money for a huge construction project in his district. Alan McClean has found out since his election that the price being charged to the taxpayers for construction of the dam in his state is much more than it needs to be; in addition, there are hundreds of other, unrelated expenditures that have been added to the dam project to buy the support of congressmen from other states. Though his fight will probably cost him future support from his peers, from his constituents, and from the woman in whom he is interested (the daughter of the Appropriations Committee chairman), McClean struggles to gather opposition to a bill he knows is wrong. Throughout the play, Anderson keeps audiences balanced between the young man’s idealism and the accepted way of doing business. He questions the assumption that bribes and compromise are the only way to get anything achieved in the political arena.
Act I Both Your Houses takes place in the House Office Building in Washington, D.C. The first scene is set in the office of the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Marjorie Gray, the daughter of the chairman and also his secretary, is talking on the phone to Alan McClean, a young congressman from Nevada. She is joined by an older secretary known as Bus. Bus announces that she has been fired by her boss, Eddie Wister, who has hired a pretty, inexperienced secretary provided for him by a steel company.
Throughout the scene, various persons pass through the office discussing the upcoming vote on H. R. 2007, an appropriations bill that designates millions of dollars for a new dam in Nevada. Many congressmen have been trying to get their special interests attached to the project, either to support their own investments or to appease their voters. Marjorie’s father, Simeon Gray, is struggling to keep the size of the bill reasonable without losing the votes that he will need to pass it.
Alan McClean arrives too late for an appointment with Gray. He explains that he wanted to tell Gray that he opposes the bill, even though his district would benefit from it; the contractors’ estimates for building the dam are much too high, and all of the other expenditures that have been added to it make it a huge, unnecessary cost to the taxpayers.
In the second scene, in the room where the committee is meeting, Simeon Gray is rejecting one amendment to H. R. 2007 after another. His colleagues are disappointed when their pet projects are cut from the package, but they are willing to go along with their leader. One measure is explained to be necessary to keep the support of the Non-Partisan League and the Farmer-Labor contingent, but Gray strikes it from the bill as being too costly. Alan enters and explains his opposition to the bill, adding that he has found out through private investigators that some of the politicians will benefit personally from these appropriations, a statement that causes general amusement. After the meeting breaks up, Alan tells Gray that he found out from some papers mistakenly given to him by his investigators that a penitentiary to be paid for by the bill is in Gray’s district. Even though Gray says he was not aware of this, he admits that his support of the bill would look like graft.
Alan explains his frustration with the committee to Bus. She tells him that his own secretary has been spying on him for other politicians, so he fires his secretary and hires her.
Scene i of the second act takes place three days later. Sol Fitzmaurice enters and tells Marjorie that, with Alan’s leadership, the independent factions that had their projects removed from H. R. 2007 are close to having enough votes to stop the bill. Congressmen Eddie Wister, Levering, and Wingblatt enter, discussing their efforts to gather support for the bill and Alan’s successes with the Non-Partisan League. They ask Gray to add more money to the bill for special projects that will make the dissenters happy, but he tells them that that will...