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.