Maxwell Anderson was one among several playwrights, including Eugene O’Neill, Elmer Rice, Sidney Howard, Robert E. Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, and Paul Green, who changed perceptions of American drama. Before World War I, American drama was purely of local interest, and no great playwrights had appeared in the United States. By the end of the 1920’s, however, New York City ranked as one of the most vital theater centers in the world, and American dramatists were enjoying a period of extraordinary creative flowering.
Although American playwrights of that period presented diverse views, many reflected the disillusionment that followed World War I. Anderson was among these; the basic philosophy of life that informs his drama is typical of the 1920’s. In this view, the modern individual is deprived of religious faith or the opportunity for meaningful social action. Love, although fleeting, is the only thing that gives life meaning.
Throughout his dramatic works, Anderson adhered to the Aristotelian principles of unity and the tragic hero as he explored the myths of his times. Producing the most important body of his work during the Great Depression years of the 1930’s, he addressed social issues and injustices, though his primary purpose seems to have been to place them in their historical, literary, and mythological contexts rather than to raise the audience’s awareness of such problems. Clearly, Anderson was interested in dramatic theory and history, and his plays exemplify his concerns with form as well as with theme.
What Price Glory?
Anderson’s first successful play, What Price Glory?, on which he collaborated with Stallings, has affinities with many works of the 1920’s. Its critical look at the myths surrounding war brings to mind Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms (1929). The play centers on a squad of U.S. marines in the midst of some of the heaviest fighting in World War I.
The play’s disillusioned attitude and profane dialogue may seem mild to modern readers accustomed to stronger stuff, but to audiences of the 1920’s, the play was shocking. Its soldiers talked like real soldiers, and their profanity (toned down after objections from various groups, including the Marine Corps) epitomized a thoroughgoing irreverence among the characters toward matters...
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