The Petrified Forest, first performed in 1935, is one of the frequently performed plays of Robert E. Sherwood, one of America’s best-known playwrights, winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1936, 1939, and 1941. One of the reasons the play is so well known is that the 1941 movie adaptation is considered a classic of the gangster genre. Like the Broadway production, the movie starred Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart. The role of Duke Mantee, a bitter and complex sociopath, made Bogart a movie star, and his performance helped define how Hollywood was to portray gangsters ever after.
The story concerns three characters who move between love and despair: Alan Squier, a penniless intellectual who has come to the desert to die; Gabby, the cafe waitress who believes that her life would be rich with meaning if she could leave the cultural wasteland of America and go to France to study art; and Mantee, a desperate criminal who stalls his escape to reunite with a woman he never talks about. Sherwood uses them, along with the other characters who are held hostage by the gangsters at a small diner on the edge of the desert, to explore the American myths of the sensitive artist and the gangster, finding that they are not as different as they might at first seem.
Because of its blend of lively dialog, colorful characters, and psychological understanding, The Petrified Forest has remained a perennial favorite and has continuously been revived since it was first written. It is often included in anthologies of American drama and is available from Dramatists Play Service of New York.
The Petrified Forest takes place in the diner of the Black Mesa Filling Station and Bar-B-Q in the desert of eastern Arizona on an autumn day in 1934. As the first scene opens, two telegraph linemen who are eating lunch at the diner discuss political theory. The First Lineman believes that the Russian Communist revolution is destined to spread to the rest of the world, and the second is skeptical. Jason Maple, the proprietor of the Black Mesa, enters and tells Boze, his employee, that there is a car outside waiting for gas. Gramp Maple, Jason’s father, enters the linemen’s conversation, telling about when he came to the desert fifty-six years earlier and about the interesting historical figures he has met, including Billy the Kid. Jason becomes annoyed at the First Lineman’s support of Communism. As he leaves, the First Lineman mentions a massacre in Oklahoma, referring to Duke Mantee’s escape from jail; throughout the rest of the scene, the approach of the Mantee gang is mentioned often.
Jason talks with Gramp about selling the Black Mesa so that he can use the money to open a motel in Los Angeles. When he goes to change for his American Legion meeting, his daughter Gabby is left alone with Boze. Boze is a former football star, and he is brash and cocky. He tries unsuccessfully to flirt with Gabby. He looks at the poetry she reads and is not interested; he shows her newspaper clippings about his college football glory, but she does not care.
A dusty hitchhiker, Alan Squier, enters the diner and orders food. Gramp talks to him about Mantee and about Billy the Kid. Gabby tells Squier about her ambition to go to France to study painting, after he notices her reading the poetry of a French writer. He tells her his story—that he wrote one novel and then lived in France for eight years trying to write another—with the wife he stole from his publisher —and Gabby begins to trust him enough to show her paintings, which she will not show anyone else. As they talk about their lives, she asks if he would like to run off to France with her, asking, ‘‘Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?’’ He admits his attraction but says he must leave. Gabby arranges for Squier to get a ride with the Chisolms, a wealthy couple with a chauffeur who have stopped for gas.
Before he leaves, Squier asks Gabby for one kiss, which is interrupted by Boze’s entrance. Boze becomes threatening when Squier cannot pay his thirty-cent tab, but Gabby tells Squier to just leave and, in addition, gives him a dollar. When he is gone, Boze propositions Gabby again. Remembering the way Squier encouraged her to embrace life and upset about being rejected by him, she agrees to go out into the field with Boze, but they are stopped when Duke Mantee and his gang force them back into the diner.
Mantee is described in the stage directions as having ‘‘one quality of resemblance to Alan Squier; he too is unmistakably condemned.’’ The workers are rounded up: Boze is hostile and threatening, while Gramp Maple tells the gangsters how Old West marshal Wild Bill Hickock filed down the...
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