Maxwell Anderson 1888-1959
American playwright, essayist, and poet.
The following entry provides criticism on Anderson's works from 1970 through 1999. For criticism prior to 1970, see TCLC, Volume 2.
Anderson was a prolific and versatile playwright best known for his revival of verse drama and his application of the tenets of Aristotelian tragedy to the modern stage. Anderson's work ranged from historical drama to comedy, musicals to serious political pieces. Some plays were written simply to entertain, others to galvanize an audience into political action or to fight injustice. In addition to a substantial output of plays, Anderson published poetry, editorial commentary, and literary criticism. He also adapted a number of prose works for stage and screen. Of his generation of American playwrights, only Eugene O'Neill left a comparable artistic legacy.
Anderson was born on December 15, 1888, in Atlantic, Pennsylvania, to William Lincoln and Charlotta Perrimela Stephenson Anderson. Because his father was an itinerant Baptist preacher, Anderson's schooling was interrupted repeatedly by his father's work. In 1911 Anderson graduated from the University of North Dakota and married Margaret C. Haskett, a fellow student. He taught high school English for two years, periodically publishing poetry in the New Republic. After graduate study at Stanford University, where he wrote a master's thesis on William Shakespeare, Anderson returned to teaching English for three years before being appointed head of the English Department at Whittier College in Southern California. However, Anderson was discharged in his first year for his strong anti-war stance. He then joined the editorial staff of the New Republic, moving on to the New York Evening Globe and the New York World while continuing to write poetry. Anderson soon realized that poetry would not support him, so he turned to drama for its financial promise. After a series of apprentice pieces, Anderson collaborated with Laurence Stallings, a veteran of World War I, on his first major play, What Price Glory? (1924). The success of this shocking but realistic portrayal of war enabled Anderson to quit journalism and establish himself as a playwright. Anderson achieved great success as a playwright, collaborating with such notables of the American stage as Stallings, Harold Hickerson, and Kurt Weill. In 1931 his wife died, and two years later he married Gertrude Maynard. The same year, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Both Your Houses (1933), and he won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Winterset (1935) and High Tor (1937). Anderson also wrote screenplay adaptations for Hollywood films, including the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front, Death Takes a Holiday (1934), and Joan of Arc (1948), based on his own play Joan of Lorraine (1946). The last decade of Anderson's life was clouded by financial problems and Maynard's suicide. In 1954 he married actress Gilda Oakleaf. He died of a stroke at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, on February 28, 1959.
Anderson had little success with his early plays. But with Elizabeth the Queen (1930), Anderson defined for the first time his hallmark mode of poetic tragedy and his use of historical settings. Throughout the 1930s he continued his exploration of tragedy and combined historical and contemporary themes. Both Your Houses is a satirical portrait of the United States Congress. In Mary of Scotland (1933) he returned to poetic tragedy. In Winterset, considered one of his greatest achievements, Anderson used the Sacco-Vanzetti case to explore the moral questions of guilt and forgiveness. His next play, High Tor—also a critical and popular success—was a combination of tragedy and farce in which Anderson developed his capacity for fanciful stagings of moral issues. Key Largo (1939), which concerns the conscience-stricken aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, marks the beginning of Anderson's involvement in the Allied struggle against fascism. The start of World War II brought a new urgency to Anderson's moral vision, and he immediately put his art at the service of the war effort. The retrospective tone of Key Largo gave way in Candle in the Wind (1941) to alarm at the Nazi invasion of France and a call to action. The success of Anderson's most important play of the war, The Eve of St. Mark (1942), was due to his own experiences with troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His involvement in the Allied effort deepened when he traveled to North Africa to research Storm Operation (1944). With the war over, Anderson once more turned his attention to historical subject matter, but now with an increasing interest in formal dramatic problems rather than poetic tragedy, as in Joan of Lorraine, with its “play within a play” structure, and Anne of the Thousand Days (1948), with its flashbacks from Anne Boleyn's impending execution. With his humanist play Lost in the Stars (1949), an adaptation of Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country, Anderson returned to the theme of moral urgency that had characterized his best work.
Despite Anderson's huge canon and many successes, he has been relatively neglected by critics since his death. Nonetheless, in the body of criticism that is devoted to him, Anderson is highly admired for bringing verse drama onto the American stage, as well as for his use of historical settings to explore contemporary themes. He remains one of the most important representatives of twentieth-century American theater.
White Desert (play) 1923
What Price Glory? [with Laurence Stallings] (play) 1924
The Buccaneer [with Laurence Stallings] (play) 1925
First Flight [with Laurence Stallings] (play) 1925
Outside Looking In (play) 1925
You Who Have Dreams (poetry) 1925
Gypsy (play) 1927
Saturday's Children (play) 1927
Gods of the Lightning [with Harold Hickerson] (play) 1928
The Essence of Tragedy and Other Footnotes and Papers (essays) 1929
All Quiet on the Western Front (screenplay) 1930
Elizabeth the Queen (play) 1930
Night Over Taos (play) 1932
Rain (screenplay) 1932
Both Your Houses (play) 1933
Mary of Scotland (play) 1933
Death Takes a Holiday [with Gladys Lehman] (screenplay) 1934
Valley Forge (play) 1934
So Red the Rose [with Laurence Stallings and Edwin Justus Mayer] (screenplay) 1935
Winterset (play) 1935
The Wingless Victory (play) 1936
High Tor (play) 1937
The Masque of Kings (play) 1937
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SOURCE: Tees, Arthur T. “Legal and Poetic Justice in Maxwell Anderson's Plays.” North Dakota Quarterly 38, no. 1 (winter 1970): 25-31.
[In the following essay, Tees notes that although Anderson's characters rarely find justice within the American legal system, they do achieve poetic justice outside of it.]
Maxwell Anderson was frequently interested in the problem of justice in his plays. Eleven of his thirty-one Broadway productions were directly concerned with justice inside and outside the courtroom. In only one of these eleven, however, is there any optimism that legal procedures can bring justice; the characters in the remaining ten plays find justice outside but not inside the courtroom. Legal injustice and poetic justice are the rule in Anderson's plays.
Anderson's attitude toward the different kinds of justice—that dispensed by the courts and that found elsewhere in life—is summarized in a passage from Anne of the Thousand Days. The ill-fated Queen asks the Lord Chancellor, “Do you love justice, Sir Thomas?” To which More replies, “Now where would I have seen it? … Still, men do seem to get what they deserve—in a rough way—over a long period.”1 If England's leading jurist had not seen justice, it was not likely to be found in the courts. And through Sir Thomas More, Anderson was speaking not only of More's era but of the twentieth century...
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SOURCE: Buchanan, Randall J. “A Playwright's Progress.” North Dakota Quarterly 38, no. 1 (winter 1970): 60-73.
[In the following essay, Buchanan accounts for Anderson's success with the form of verse tragedy on the American stage.]
In the American theater in the first half of the twentieth century one playwright in the number of plays written and produced, stands out from the group. That man is Maxwell Anderson, who wrote approximately forty plays and radio scripts that include such varied forms as musical comedy, domestic comedy, historical drama, fantasy, and poetic tragedy. In volume of work alone Anderson stands above most of his contemporaries, and in variety both of subject matter and dramatic form he has few if any peers. Anderson was one of the most successful writers of tragedy that the American stage has produced thus far, and he was the first American playwright to make verse popular on the stage. More than thirty of his plays have been presented on Broadway. Many of the most successful, both with the public and with the critics, were verse tragedies. In light of the above it would be interesting to examine the apparent progress Anderson made with his chosen art.
Anderson, himself, felt that the success that attended his works during the early years of his playwrighting career was largely accidental. In 1941 he wrote concerning his entrance into the theatre:...
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SOURCE: Jackson, Esther M. “Maxwell Anderson: Poetry and Morality in the American Drama.” Educational Theatre Journal 25, no. 1 (March 1973): 15-33.
[In the following essay, Jackson discusses Anderson's role in the creation of an indigenous language for American drama.]
Poetry is … a way of using language … that impels the user … toward whatever vision he may be able to formulate of human destiny.1
One of the most widely discussed of the problems thought by many critics to have limited the maturation of American drama is that described as “language.” Critics such as Robert Brustein have suggested that the multiplex realities unfolding in the works of major American dramatists have not been translated effectively into an appropriate stage language. In his influential essay The Theatre of Revolt, Brustein has commented that even so powerful a dramatic vision as that which appears in the works of Eugene O'Neill is dimmed by an impoverished symbolism: that this foremost of American dramatists was unable to forge a language appropriate to the personalities, actions, themes, emotions, thoughts, and settings which characterized his consciousness of twentieth-century America.2
The problem of creating an indigenous language—of translating the complex, vital, and often random...
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SOURCE: Jones, John Bush. “Shakespeare as Myth and the Structure of Winterset.” Educational Theatre Journal 25, no. 1 (March 1973): 34-45.
[In the following essay, Jones examines Anderson's allusions to Shakespeare in light of his theory of drama as myth.]
“I speak from a high place, far off, long ago, looking down.”1 Spoken by Mio early in the third act of Winterset, these words could as easily be the personal voice of Maxwell Anderson attempting to define the function—even the mission—of the dramatist. The aspect of Anderson's dramatic theory which sees drama as myth and the dramatist as myth-maker or prophet has been occasionally observed but never discussed in detail. On the other hand, frequently discussed at length but never accounted for fully is the appearance of numerous but seemingly unrelated echoes of Shakespeare in Winterset.2 The individual allusions and parallels to Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and King Lear have been duly noted, and some attempts have been made to show how Anderson may have either derived his plot-lines from one or more of these plays or interjected the references in an effort to gain acceptance for modern tragedy; but there has been no agreement as to why the playwright chose specific Shakespearean situations and characters, and no satisfactory explanation of precisely...
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SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “And we're lost out here in the stars.” Southern Review 15, no. 2 (spring 1979): 513-18.
[In the following essay, Weales examines, through a review of Dramatist in America: Letters of Maxwell Anderson, 1912-1958, the theme of compromise both in Anderson's plays and in his life as he tried to balance his literary standards with his desire for critical and popular success.]
“It's true that she would compromise in little things—” says Mary Grey in Joan of Lorraine, finally agreeing with her director on how Joan of Arc should be played, “but it's also true that she would not compromise her belief—her own soul. She'd rather step into the fire—and she does.” Maxwell Anderson's plays are full of people who choose to step into the fire—Mio and Miriamne at the end of Winterset, Mary and Rudolph at the end of The Masque of Kings—but compromise, which was still a dirty word when Anderson wrote Both Your Houses in 1932, is a central concern—theme, if you like—of the playwright's life as well as his work. “I have a feeling that my own plays have suffered a great deal from being written to a demand,” Maxwell Anderson wrote to Gottfried Hult's wife in 1938, explaining why the plays of the professor of Greek he so admired would probably never be accepted for Broadway, “but that's the only way plays can be written profitably and I...
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SOURCE: Tees, Arthur T. “Maxwell Anderson's Changing Attitude toward War.” North Dakota Quarterly 48, no. 3 (summer 1980): 5-11.
[In the following essay, Tees finds evidence in Anderson's canon of his change from an anti-war stance to a less pacifist position later in his life.]
Maxwell Anderson, during his thirty-five year career as a playwright, was generally consistent in his treatment of themes. From first to last he was distrustful of government, although he was not, as a critic once characterized him, an anarchist.1 Anderson was ever concerned with individual freedom, from the ill-disciplined independent spirit of Flagg (What Price Glory?) to the concern of Emperor Augustus (The Golden Six) that his citizens had lost their desire for freedom. The playwright's agnosticism also persisted, from Kiper's complaint in What Price Glory? that God, if He existed, did not seem able to do anything about the war, to Stephen Kumalo's wail in Lost in the Stars that God, if He exists, had hid Himself and refused to speak to men.
However, on one issue, pacifism, Anderson changed his mind over the years. His first playwriting success was a collaboration with fellow newspaperman, Laurence Stallings, on the anti-war play What Price Glory?, which portrayed World War I as inglorious confusion, a terrible waste of men and material. Toward the end of his...
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SOURCE: Orlin, Lena Cowen. “Night over Taos: Maxwell Anderson's Sources and Artistry.” North Dakota Quarterly 48, no. 3 (summer 1980): 12-25.
[In the following essay, Orlin traces Anderson's source material for Night over Taos and defends the play against earlier criticism.]
The Group Theatre premiered Maxwell Anderson's Night Over Taos during its first season, in March of 1932. In his “Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties,” The Fervent Years, Group cofounder Harold Clurman remembered that his immediate impression of the script was “not a happy one. The play seemed bookish, contrived, uninspired. I was reluctant to have the Group do it.”1 Although he finally decided that it would suffice as a “playable stage piece,” his lack of enthusiasm for Night Over Taos proved characteristic of subsequent reactions to the play. The Group production closed after only two weeks. Its director, Lee Strasberg, admitted that the “contemplative, cloistral tone” he established “was not what the play demanded”;2 the cast was widely faulted, especially for its youth;3 but reviewers also blamed Anderson for a failure to bring his subject to life.4 Negative appraisals have dominated the critical tradition as well.5 Perhaps because the play has been consistently slighted or ignored in discussions of the...
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SOURCE: Mason, Jeffrey D. “Maxwell Anderson's Dramatic Theory and Key Largo.” North Dakota Quarterly 48, no. 3 (summer 1980): 38-52.
[In the following essay, Mason discusses the ways in which Anderson broke from his own dramatic theories in Key Largo.]
Much of the scholarship written on Maxwell Anderson's plays has concentrated on the fact that many of them were written in verse. This tendency is not surprising; Anderson produced the largest body of American verse drama in the twentieth century. It is surprising, however, that the scholars who write about Anderson's dramatic theory have veered away from the verse issue in favor of the structure and purpose of drama.
Arthur M. Sampley makes a short reference to “The Essence of Tragedy” and goes on to distill Anderson's theory from his plays, rather than from his essays. Randall J. Buchanan writes a clear explanation of Anderson's system, breaking it down into twenty-five rules, but touches on the verse issue only to explain Anderson's belief in the supremacy of poetic tragedy over other dramatic forms and its alienation from practical purpose. Mabel Driscoll Bailey goes a bit further and explains Anderson's preference for verse over prose. Allan G. Halline writes a very good synthesis of the essays that were later published as Off Broadway, but uses no other primary source material, none being readily...
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SOURCE: Jones, Jennifer. “A Fictitious Injustice: The Politics of Conversation in Maxwell Anderson's The Gods of Lightning.” American Drama 4, no. 2 (spring 1995): 81-96.
[In the following essay, Jones examines Anderson and Harold Hickerson's play The Gods of Lightning for its portrayal of the social and political climate of the era of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and questions the play's actual political viewpoint.]
Since I left the University, the practical side of my nature has won a complete victory over the academic, and I have become a Socialist. For some time I have been pondering over this complete change of front … at any rate I want to ask you whether or not my present position is sound from one who has spent a life-time on the subject of social life? Is there any other way out?
(Maxwell Anderson, letter to a former professor, 1912)
The Red movement is a distinctly criminal and dishonest movement in the desire to obtain possession of other people's property by violence and robbery … All their new words, Bolshevism, Syndicalism, Sabotage, etc. are only new names for old theories of vice and criminality … Each and every adherent of this movement is a potential murderer or a potential thief and deserves no consideration. The mopping up will continue.
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SOURCE: Speranza, Tony. “Renegotiating the Frontier of American Manhood: Maxwell Anderson's High Tor.” American Drama 5, no. 1 (fall 1995): 16-35.
[In the following essay, Speranza explores Anderson's depiction of changing ideals of American manhood in High Tor.]
“In these new times,” asks Lise, Maxwell Anderson's spectral ingenue in High Tor, “are all men shadow? / All men lost” (58)? Coming during the waning years of the Great Depression, these questions about the substance and location of American men resonated beyond the walls of the Martin Beck theatre. In January 1937, Anderson teamed with director Guthrie McClintic to bring together on stage frontiers past and present in an attempt to locate within the fractured corporate and industrial economy of the twentieth-century a substantive ideal of American manhood. Anderson used frontier imagery and revised American folklore to provide American men with a past and future that made sense amidst a depression.
Unlike Washington Irving's hero, Maxwell Anderson's Rip Van Winkle character runs toward domestic responsibility. By 1937, Rip's Catskill retreat no longer sustained the dreams of American manhood. The frontier individualist needed to make room in his life for a family. The hero came down the mountain to look for a new frontier with his bride. In High Tor, the playful hunter of the past became the...
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SOURCE: Horn, Barbara Lee. “Life and Career.” In Maxwell Anderson: A Research and Production Sourcebook, pp. 7-12. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Horn discusses Anderson's life and works, commenting on what contributions he made to the American theatre from 1920 through 1950.]
Maxwell Anderson was to the American theatre what Schiller was to the German or Rostand to the French theatres. If not their equals, he contributed to the American stage a romantic drama exalted in spirit and idealistic in aim. Although adept at writing the drama of realism, he held that nothing less than poetic tragedy would suffice great theatre. He brought to the theatre of the twentieth century an obsolete form of verse drama, and, more important, made it an artistic and commercial success on some half-dozen occasions between 1930-1950. Almost alone in the American theatre since Eugene O'Neill, he attempted to rise beyond pedestrian realistic drama, striving to make tragedy prevail despite “untragic psychological and photographic viewpoints of the age” (S51, 678). Anderson believed with Goethe that dramatic poetry was man's greatest achievement and with Shaw that the theatre was a cathedral of the spirit, devoted to the exaltation of man. By challenging the leftist stage of the 1930s by means of poetic treatment, he reemphasized the role of individual heroics in a world in which the...
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SOURCE: Hadari, Atar. “The Failed Verse Theatre of Maxwell Anderson.” American Drama 8, no. 2 (spring 1999): 83-98.
[In the following essay, Hadari explains why he considers Anderson's verse theater to be, ultimately, a failure.]
When Maxwell Anderson lived in upstate New York his nearest neighbor was John Howard Lawson, a playwright seven years his junior who'd managed with his first play to obtain a production from the Theatre Guild and a royalty advance of five hundred dollars. Five hundred dollars was the sum Anderson had had to borrow to make the down-payment on his new farm and the amount awed him. On being invited over one night to hear a reading of the play (Roger Boomer), Anderson concluded “If that's a play, I can certainly write a better one.” Nor was it the production, the genre or any love of footlights, players or papier maché that caught his fancy—his motives were pure: “I wanted to make money” (Shivers 79). While this is certainly as good a reason for writing a play as any (or was, at least, in 1920), Anderson's progress was impeded by an additional and totally contradictory set of aspirations for his theatre writing, a taste of which is given in this letter to the critic Heywood Broun: “[A great play] must rise above the usages of law, custom and religion into the elemental, spacious and timeless world, which we have all glimpsed but will never inhabit” (Shivers...
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Shivers, Alfred S. The Life of Maxwell Anderson. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein and Day, 1983, 397 p.
Biography that traces Anderson's life and career.
Avery, Laurence G. “Maxwell Anderson and Both Your Houses.” North Dakota Quarterly 38, no. 1 (winter 1970): 5-24.
Discusses Anderson's later revised version of his play Both Your Houses, which has never been available in print.
Gilbert, Robert L. “Mio Romagna: A New View of Maxwell Anderson's Winterset.” North Dakota Quarterly 38, no. 1 (winter 1970): 33-43.
Argues against prevailing critical assessment that Winterset is not a revenge play, and focuses on the character Mio's development throughout to show the progression of his actions.
Hershbell, Jackson K. “The Socrates and Plato of Maxwell Anderson.” North Dakota Quarterly 38, no. 1 (winter 1970): 45-59.
Explores Anderson's portrayal of Socrates and Plato in Barefoot in Athens.
Luckett, Perry D. “Winterset and Some Early Eliot Poems.” North Dakota Quarterly 48, no. 3 (summer 1980): 26-37.
Traces thematic similarities between Anderson's sense of alienation and lack of social integration in Winterset and...
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