Study Guide

The Philadelphia Story

by Philip Barry

The Philadelphia Story Summary

Introduction

Philip Barry was one of the more popular and successful American playwrights of the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote more than twenty plays, but is best remembered for The Philadelphia Story, a comedy of manners set in Philadelphia high society during the late 1930s.

Tracy Lord, the wealthy heroine of The Philadelphia Story, divorces her husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, and is about to marry a man named George Kittredge. However, their wedding preparations are interrupted by meddlesome reporters, her ex-husband, and her estranged father; she is also disconcerted by the growing realization that she still has feelings for her ex-husband, Dexter. Amidst the situation comedy and fast-paced dialogue, Barry explores several contemporary social issues, such as society’s perception of class differences in America and contemporary attitudes towards adultery and divorce.

The play was enthusiastically reviewed by critics and enjoyed a successful Broadway run for over a year. During that period, more people saw The Philadelphia Story than had seen all of Barry’s other plays combined. In fact, the success of the play effectively rescued the troubled Shubert Theater in New York (otherwise known as the Theater Guild) from bankruptcy. Barry had written the role especially for the actress Katherine Hepburn, and the play’s success simultaneously launched Hepburn’s career on the stage and film.

The Philadelphia Story has remained a popular staple of regional theater companies since its debut. Although social attitudes towards adultery and divorce have changed, the play endures because of its compelling characterization of Tracy Lord, a young woman whose self-discoveries still speak to younger generations of theatergoers and movie fans.

The Philadelphia Story Summary

Act I
The play opens with an intimate family scene between the long-suffering Margaret Lord and her two daughters, Tracy and Dinah. The three women are busy planning Tracy’s wedding to George Kittredge. She is marrying in style, with a prenuptial party and a stylish reception for five hundred people.

When Tracy briefly exits, Dinah tells her mother that Dexter is in town. Dinah is clearly fond of Dexter, and seems to regret her sister’s divorce. Later in the scene, Dinah telephones Dexter and issues him an invitation to the festivities.

Tracy’s impending marriage and her past alliance are discussed in light of the failed marriage of her parents. Tracy despises her father for his poor treatment of her mother, but her mother tends to blame herself. Their disagreement seems to parallel Tracy’s attitude towards her own failed first marriage. Was her first husband, Dexter, at fault? Or was she? Should she be more forgiving, like her mother? Tracy dismisses the idea of shared blame, commenting that she and her mother ‘‘just picked the wrong first husbands.’’

Tracy exits. Dinah has been proofreading; she now reveals that the proof sheets are a magazine story about her father’s adultery. Dinah innocently believes the story is false; Margaret inadvertently reveals that the story is true.

Sandy, Tracy’s elder brother, arrives. He works as an editor at The Saturday Evening Post. Margaret asks him whether the story can be stopped. Tracy learns about the story. Sandy announces that he has ‘‘fixed’’ the problem: instead of printing the story, the magazine will instead cover Tracy’s wedding. Tracy is furious with this ‘‘trade’’ to ‘‘save’’ her ‘‘Father’s face,’’ pointing out that he doesn’t deserve it. Yet she agrees to cooperate.

Tracy realizes that the reporters will suspect something is suspicious when her father is not present for the wedding. (Tracy has refused to invite him.) Sandy responds by saying that he already thought of this possibility and arranged a telegram announcing that their father cannot attend the wedding due to illness. This is not good enough for Tracy: she decides to pretend that her Uncle Willie is her father and that her family is a bunch of pretentious snobs.

Liz Imbrie and Mike Connor arrive to write the story. Dinah greets them, speaking in French and singing ditties. Mike concludes that she is ‘‘an idiot . . . They happen in the best of families, especially the best.’’

Tracy enters and dismisses her sister, then proceeds to play out the even more ridiculous part of charming, flattering hostess. When Mike says, ‘‘I’m ’Mike’ to my friends,’’ Tracy replies, all sweetness and light, ‘‘Of whom you have many, I’m sure.’’ Her interrogative manner takes Liz and Mike by surprise.

Tracy reenters with Kittredge and introduces him. Uncle Willie arrives, and Tracy pretends he is her ‘‘Papa!’’ Unexpectedly, Dexter arrives. The charade is further complicated when Tracy’s real father, Seth, arrives. She promptly pretends that he is Uncle Willie.

Act II
As Act II opens, Mike and Liz provide another perspective on Lord...

(The entire section is 1337 words.)