Study Guide

Jean Kerr

Jean Kerr Essay - Critical Essays

Kerr, Jean

Introduction

Jean Kerr 1923–

American novelist and playwright.

Kerr's writing reflects a humorous outlook on life's commonplace frustrations. Many of her plays have been produced on Broadway, some in collaboration with her husband, theater critic Walter Kerr. Her best-selling novel, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, details the zany catastrophes which beset a "typical" suburban housewife and mother; it has been filmed and also adapted as a television series.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Brooks Atkinson

By throwing a few brains around where they are not too conspicuous, Jean and Walter Kerr have written a capital light revue, "Touch and Go."… Being literate people who can read as well as sit down in the theatre, the Kerrs know what is going on in the manners of our time, and they say so with charm and impishness in the best stage comment on current foibles since "Lend an Ear."…

A bilious theatregoer might take exception to having a blues song sung in a 1949 revue. Blues songs are most effective in eras that do not need them. And the caricature of the flashback technique in story-telling is a trifle complicated.

But the objections from this column are going to be especially mild this morning. For the Kerrs have accomplished that almost impossible feat of bringing good minds into the squalid mart of Broadway and satirizing intelligent topics with swift dexterity and without feeling condescending about it. In speed, looks and style, "Touch and Go" is in the best professional taste, and mighty pleasant company for a friendly evening in the theatre.

Brooks Atkinson, "At the Theatre," in The New York Times (© 1949 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 14, 1949 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. X, No. 22, October 17, 1949, p. 251).

Harold Clurman

[If "King of Hearts," a] comedy by Jean Kerr and Eleanor Brooke …, achieves success, it will be because it contains some of the funniest lines to be heard on any New York stage today. If it should fail, it will be because of something discomfiting in it.

I was almost constantly amused by it. But toward the end of the first act I began to be reminded of an experience I had long ago on reading a play by the English humorist Saki. The Saki play was hilarious from first to last, with an incessant drive to mirth which became wearisome. One had the feeling that it could go on forever. There was no reason for it to end, and because of this one suspected there had been no reason for it to begin. But in watching the second act of "King of Hearts" I discovered that it was not like Saki's play at all: there is a point—even an edge—to the Kerr-Brooke comedy. I was not weary with the exhaustion of laughter; I was being made nervous by a strange element in the source of that laughter….

The play concerns Larry Larkin, an obnoxiously, almost maniacally narcissistic and egotistic success-boy who happens to be a comic-strip artist. He is a snob and he is heartless. He is as indefatigably energetic as a trip-hammer besides being as prolix as an unattended radio. He is publicity-crazy, all-devouringly selfish, obtuse, and, worst of all, a phony "humanitarian."…

Contrasted to their horrid "hero" is a...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Elizabeth Janeway

You know the conformity of life in the suburbs that we keep hearing about all the time? I have a suggestion. The Kerr family (who have so far confined themselves to the outskirts of Washington and the inskirts of Westchester) should be stationed for a certain period in whatever other suburban area has been adjudged temporarily the stuffiest. On the basis of their normal activities, as set down [in "Please Don't Eat the Daisies"] by Jean, devoted wife of Walter and wary mother of Christopher, Colin, Johnny, and Gilbert, a short stay should prove a universal Kerrective….

Holed up in the quiet comfort of the Chevrolet, Mrs. Kerr has produced some of the most knowledgeable essays on the Boy Mind ever to see the light of day. Any parent who has fought through the Great Sweater Issue ("Do I have to wear it? It's not cold.") on a brisk November morning will appreciate her grasp of child-semantics. But there are tidbits here for others, too: that famous Pseudo-Sagan, for instance, whose heroine combs her curls with a nail file and deserts her lover, Banal, for his grandfather; and a lesser known but just as funny reproduction of a dramatic reading from the works of Mickey Spillance.

In fact, quite simply (as Miss Sagan might say), this is a very funny book by a woman with a wonderful eye and ear for those moments of lunacy in which every normal life abounds. If we can't persuade her to shuffle off to Darien, Montclair or Valley Stream, at least the citizens of those unblessed towns can read the book.

Elizabeth Janeway, "A Family Has Fun," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 24, 1957, p. 26.

Helen Beal Woodward

[Suburban] housewifery is the stock in trade of a dozen lesser writers, but Jean Kerr gives it a wry, stylish touch of her own [in "Please Don't Eat The Daisies"]….

The attitude of prosperous young parents toward their progeny seems to be to some extent a matter of fashion…. Maybe our general insecurity as parents is the nervous reflex that explodes into laughter at Jean Kerr's tough comment: "We are being very careful with our children. They'll never have to pay a psychiatrist twenty-five dollars an hour to find out why we rejected them. We'll tell them why we rejected them. Because they're impossible, that's why."

Toughness, in short, is back in fashion, but it is a fake toughness with a butterscotch center and we have no doubt that when Johnny plays the character lead in the nursery school production of "Frosty, the Snowman," wearing a costume his mother made from a sheet ("by giving up lunch, I whipped the whole thing up in less than a month"), the Kerrs will be there, two on the aisle, leading the applause.

Helen Beal Woodward, "At Home in Westchester," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1957 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XL, No. 48, November 30, 1957, p. 25.

Brooks Atkinson

Everything basic in "Goldilocks" is on a small scale—the sardonic story of the double-dealing director of silent movies, the diamond-hard wit of the dialogue, the dexterity of the lyrics, the well-bred charm of Leroy Anderson's music.

But Walter Kerr, director and co-author with his wife, Jean, has conceived of "Goldilocks" as a full sized Broadway musical….

Even if the production were leaner, it is possible that the book is not sufficiently well-knit to make a clear statement in the theatre. It leaves the chief characters at loose ends as people. But the contrast between the grandeur of the physical production and the meticulous style of the material leaves "Goldilocks" neither one thing nor the other. The production gets little support from the story and the dialogue, which, in turn, are muffled by the production.

Brooks Atkinson, "Mixed Company," in The New York Times, Section II (© 1958 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 19, 1958, p. 1.∗

JOHN McCLAIN

I was just plain disappointed [with Jean and Walter Kerr's "Goldilocks"]. It is lavish and pretentious and good looking; it is occasionally extremely funny, with Jean Kerr lines, and much of it is melodious. But the story is woefully slight and unresolved and the general production lacks ingenuity. Probably like everyone else, I expected too much….

It struck me that [the] … rather wispy plot was soon lost in the weight of the production. There was no concentration on a cheering interest in either the girl, the movie man, or the intended groom….

I saw no reason, frankly, why the heroine should have become so fascinated by the director, or he by her, and I thought the...

(The entire section is 157 words.)

Elizabeth Janeway

[Jean Kerr is] not writing about anything new or unusual. In fact, some of the pieces that go to make up [The Snake Has All the Lines] have a definite air of being written to order on a preselected subject. Another casual on being frightened of flying, one thinks, more than fifty years after the Wright brothers' adventure at Kitty Hawk? The heart sinks, the mind boggles. Then Mrs. Kerr remarks, "I feel about airplanes the way I feel about diets," and I defy you to stop reading.

Are you convinced that you've read all you ever want to read about try-outs of a new play in Philadelphia? So was I. And double it for a piece on getting the children off to school, the mere thought of which has a...

(The entire section is 351 words.)

Jean Holzhauer

Jean Kerr, who is in the process of becoming one of the country's foremost humorists, would no doubt stand up and scream bloody murder at any implication that her work is sociological source material.

Well, scream away, dear Mrs. Kerr. Because it is. (p. 393)

Mrs. Kerr and her ilk exemplify a kind of contemporary egalitarianism that permits, indeed encourages, a cheerful, wisecracking relationship between parents and children. Contrary to the dim forebodings of some sociologists, there is little to indicate that such parents have lost the whip hand. Their egalitarianism is of the current and usual variety: everybody's equal, but in the family structure parents are more equal than...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

JOHN McCARTEN

Jean Kerr is a witty woman, and the dialogue she has invented for "Mary, Mary" … is frequently fresh and funny. Admittedly, her jests are aimed at familiar targets—alimony, income taxes, food fads, Hollywood, sex, and beauty salons, for example—but she has a neat way with a phrase and her observations are usually astute. She also has the happy faculty of being able to turn off the drumfire of gags and let her characters display, without mawkishness, some very tender emotions. For all her skill, however, she has not been able to disguise entirely the fact that the central theme of her play is rather banal. (p. 124)

John McCarten, "Fine Feathers on an Old Hat," in The...

(The entire section is 131 words.)

Judith Crist

["Poor Richard"] is not only marked by the slick style and literate wit to which the playwright has accustomed us. It also boasts, advertently or not, a cogent bit of near-self-criticism, plunk in the second of its three acts.

"Will you stop being so bloody charming?" our impassioned and impatient ingenue finally demands. And poor Richard, in one of several anguished moments of self-revelation, explains away his slick style and literate wit with "It's a noise I make to keep people from noticing I have nothing whatever to say."

It's only "near" self-criticism, because in this play Mrs. Kerr does have something to say—but every time anyone gets ready to say it for her everyone gets...

(The entire section is 371 words.)

Henry Hewes

The difference between style and front turns out to be precisely the problem that plagues Mrs. Kerr's title character [in Poor Richard], a poet with a vague resemblance to the late Dylan Thomas and the late Brendan Behan. This poet, named Richard Ford, is in a fallow period of his creativity following an unexpected best-seller, and he is acutely aware that much of what he says and does is front. As he puts it, "Talking is a noise I make to stop people from noticing that I have nothing whatsoever to say." But like anyone who tries to write, Richard would like to believe that he once had style and that he might regain it.

Now, in the Broadway theater front is more important than style,...

(The entire section is 383 words.)

Richard Watts

Jean Kerr is a skillful playwright, a brilliant wit and one of the most charming and delightful women in the world. All of those qualities have gone into her new comedy, "Finishing Touches,"… and I think it is almost certain to be the latest Broadway success. But, as much as I enjoyed it …, I had a few reservations about its effectiveness.

It is funny, it is wise and it is believable in characterizations and story. It also has the virtue of getting better as it goes along, and it is making one of those comparisons that Constable Dogberry found "odorous" to say that I felt it was less satisfactory than Mrs. Kerr's wonderful previous comedy, "Poor Richard."…

The story isn't the...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Martin Gottfried

"Finishing Touches" is the ghost of Broadway past and, honestly, one of the strangest sights I've ever seen on a stage. In this play, Jean Kerr (its author) has confronted the modern sexual revolution and decided that it never happened. Her story is about a well-established marriage that approaches crisis when the husband, an associate professor and presumably a grown man, admits that he is falling in love with one of his students even though (as we later see) the student knows nothing about it, physically or otherwise. To further aggravate his wife, who seems to believe in God and nonsexuality as equal partners, her oldest son (22) brings home his girlfriend for the weekend, and they are revealed as lovers…....

(The entire section is 180 words.)

Gary Jay Williams

It is Jean Kerr's special mode to create domestic episodes out of the mock-heroic survival of the quiet daily desperations and for this there is an enormous appreciation, even thirst, in her audiences. Her characters are honest and unpretentious about their own confusions, and have no illusions about their cosmic size, often affecting laconic self-mockery to adjust their eyes after some blur of shifting values or double standards. Some homey sensibility, we are given to believe, remains in focus as long as we don't take ourselves too seriously. The wayward husband returns twenty minutes into his tryst, having glimpsed his folly in the moment he stopped en route to buy antacid tablets. Damned precarious—St. Rolaids,...

(The entire section is 343 words.)

Phyllis Theroux

Jean Kerr is one of the first women to hitch herself up to a typewriter and spin the straw of her not completely suburban existence into publishing gold. She is now as she was back when her children were eating the daisies, an intelligent, irreverent, articulate writer, and ["How I Got to Be Perfect"] is exactly what the public has come to expect of her. Exactly!

Here is a sample of her chapter headings: "Partying Is Such Sweet Sorrow," "My Marshmallow Fudge Wonder Diet," "The Child as Houseguest." As I read the essays, admiring her cleverness, appreciating her eye for the absurd and remembering once again why this self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek lady is so popular, I nevertheless became...

(The entire section is 587 words.)

Frank Rich

Jean Kerr's, "Lunch Hour," takes place in the present and is set in the hip and swinging Hamptons—but don't give such outward signs of trendiness another thought. Mrs. Kerr has written just the sort of old-fashioned comedy that one expects from the author of "Mary, Mary": a romantic entertainment in which the characters are as civilized and charming as the stylish couples who populated Broadway drawing rooms a generation ago. And why not? There's nothing wrong with the old forms when they're in loving hands. As written by Mrs. Kerr,… "Lunch Hour" is a very slight, very warm and most amusing diversion….

[The main characters are] Carrie Sachs and Oliver DeVreck, summer people who meet as they...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Brendan Gill

[In "Lunch Hour"] the playwright has slightly but crucially misjudged the time and the place and the people that her comedy purports to be concerned with. The slighter the content of a comedy—and the content of "Lunch Hour" is very slight indeed—the stronger and more accurate its particularities must be….

Adultery is evidently a topic no more sympathetic to Mrs. Kerr than it would be to the Bobbsey Twins, and she approaches it in a fashion so gingerly that we find it hard to believe that Nora and Peter have ever been to bed together; our incredulity is heightened when, in order to teach their errant spouses a lesson, Oliver and Carrie undertake a mock affair, in the course of which they explore...

(The entire section is 198 words.)

John Simon

The wives of New York Times drama critics should not write plays—at least not such feeble ones as Lunch Hour….

The plot concerns Oliver, a psychiatrist who for obscure reasons prefers to call himself a marriage counselor and whose wife, Nora, is betraying him with a millionaire who does nothing and calls it so. This handsome fellow, Peter, has married for obscure reasons a dopey, homely, neurotic child-wife, Carrie, and is now about to elope, for no less obscure reasons, with the seemingly icy Nora. When Carrie bursts in on Oliver, revealing the cockeyed cuckolding, she and Oliver fall in love and contemplate running off to Paris together. Given the circumstances, their...

(The entire section is 345 words.)