John Patrick Essay - Critical Essays


A versatile, prolific playwright, John Patrick was most successful as a writer of comedy. His comic plays, like the best of his serious ones, are, in the main, marked by cleverly conceived situations, well-drawn characters, effective dialogue, and an overall sense of solid craftsmanship. Patrick’s comedies are imbued with charm and humor, wit, a gentle satirizing of misguided conventional attitudes or behavior, and a compassionate view of the human species and its frailties. Implicit is a comic view of the world that sees the need for compromise and mutual understanding, however different from one another people may be.

While Patrick was not ostensibly a “theme” writer, his most effective plays reveal commonalities of theme. In these plays can often be found a sympathetic major character who, by virtue of culture, behavior, or association, is considered an outsider by members of an establishment presumably motivated by conventional and rational standards of judgment, and who meets with misunderstanding or a lack of compassion from that group. In some instances, the outsider’s nature makes group acceptance difficult. An encounter occurs between these disparate forces, resulting in a clash from which emerges the realization (on the part of some but seldom all of the characters concerned) of people’s need to accept and treat one another with understanding and kindness. Interwoven in such a situational pattern are several interrelated themes: people’s need to realize their interdependency with others, however great the differences; the urgency for compassionate understanding and truly rational judgment in human affairs despite pressures to the contrary; and the need to comprehend and value the person who marches to a different drummer. The subsequent examination of three of Patrick’s plays will discover, in varying degrees, these characteristic themes and patterns.

The Curious Savage

The Curious Savage, Patrick’s first comedy, tells a fanciful tale about a widow, left millions by her deceased husband, whose adult stepchildren have her committed to a private sanatorium because she insists on endowing a foundation that will enable people to finance their daydreams. The widow, Mrs. Savage, decides in her last years to indulge all the foolish whims she has suppressed in a lifetime of self-denial. In the sanatorium, the gently eccentric but sane Mrs. Savage is greeted by a compassionate staff and by pleasant inmates with such harmless idiosyncracies as fibbing about imagined careers and reading only month-old newspapers (vulnerable men and women who cannot cope with life and require the affectionate understanding that their new arrival can provide). As she comes to know her companions, Mrs. Savage finds them more attractive than her own sane but greedy family. When the latter learn that their stepmother has transformed the family’s financial assets into negotiable securities, which she has hidden, they take active steps to find and seize them. After the members of the Savage family have been sent by the wily Mrs. Savage on a wild-goose chase and have been humiliated by performing ridiculous acts in pursuit of the bonds, they angrily threaten to transfer their stepmother to a public mental institution and never release her. Forced to reveal the hiding place of the bonds, Mrs. Savage receives the united help of the institution’s kindly staff and fellow inmates in ultimately outwitting her family; she is free to use her money as she will. The institution’s doctor, realizing her sanity, tells her she is free to go. After the inmates throw a farewell party in which each demonstrates Mrs. Savage’s beneficial influence by acting out the fulfillment of a hopeless dream for something never realized, she reluctantly bids her friends good-bye and departs to the harshness of the world outside. The neglected virtues of kindness and affection have not been entirely lost in a world largely motivated by greed and callousness.

Reminiscent of Jean Giraudoux’s La Folle de Chaillot (pr., pb. 1945; The Madwoman of Chaillot, 1947), the comedy’s charmingly irrational characters, and its central figure in particular, are treated with affectionate humor and are solidly supported by a cleverly constructed plot. While the rational “villains,” Mrs. Savage’s stepchildren, are treated somewhat too stridently, they make excellent foils for the “irrational” characters and contribute effectively to the drama’s comic complications. The Curious Savage is a minor work in comparison with the two following plays to be discussed, yet it permits a fuller view of the scope of Patrick’s work while also reflecting characteristic themes and patterns.

The Hasty Heart

Patrick’s World War II experiences as an ambulance driver with the British Army in Southeast Asia furnished the background for The Hasty Heart, a serious comedy with none of the farcical characterizations and action of The Curious Savage. Prominent, however, is the figure of the outsider. The action is set in the convalescent ward of a British military hospital behind the...

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