The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
As the curtain rises on The Philadelphia Story, Tracy Lord is in the sitting room of her family’s country house near Philadelphia hurriedly writing last-minute thank-you notes as her mother, Margaret Lord, brings in more gifts. Tracy is to be married the following day. During the ensuing conversation, it becomes clear that it is Tracy’s second marriage, following an elopement ten months previously, which terminated in divorce. As the scene progresses, the possibility of scandal escalates. Tracy’s former husband, C. K. Dexter Haven, is in the vicinity. Furthermore, Dinah Lord has found the proof sheets of an article which a magazine called Destiny is about to publish concerning the involvement of her father, Seth Lord, with a dancer, an affair which so angered Tracy that she has refused to invite her own father to the wedding. When Sandy Lord enters, it transpires that, as a journalist himself, he has made a deal with Destiny: In return for killing the article about Seth, they will be permitted to print the inside story on Tracy’s wedding. Sandy has even arranged for a fake telegram from Seth, regretting that illness will prevent his coming to the ceremony.
Soon the delegation from Destiny arrives: Mike Connor, who immediately displays his democratic disapproval of Main Line society, and Liz Imbrie, who is clearly in love with Mike. Although Sandy and Margaret hope to win over their guests, Dinah and Tracy assume...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Because The Philadelphia Story is a traditional comedy of manners, the dramatic devices used are those typical of the genre. The expensive set decoration establishes the upper-class setting of the story. In this case, a sitting room and a porch are substituted for the usual drawing room, but there is no essential difference, because these are the public rooms which are meant to present the social group, here the Lord family, at its best.
Much of the humor arises from the attempt to keep private scandal hidden from the public, represented in this play by the reporters. Thus when Tracy hears that the reporters are coming, she goes to her room and changes costume, emerging in a demure, high-necked dress that she hopes will establish her propriety. The deception, however, cannot be maintained for long. Later, when Mike carries the naked, drunken Tracy through the other public area, the porch, on the way to her bedroom, Barry is emphasizing the fact that private behavior always becomes public knowledge. This type of revelation scene in comedy of manners is traditional, going back to the screen that falls to reveal the hidden Lady Teazle in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (pr. 1777). In these plays, that which is hidden is always discovered; the sitting room or the drawing room eventually becomes not a place of successful deception but instead a place where the truth is revealed, so that private lives and public lives...
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World War II
The rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan during the 1930s tipped the scales toward a world war. These dictatorships—known as the Axis alliance—began to forcibly expand into neighboring countries. For instance, in 1936 Benito Mussolini’s Italian troops took over Ethiopia, which gave them a strong foothold in Africa. In 1938 Germany annexed Austria; a year later, German forces occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy took control of Albania in 1939.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. On September 3, 1939, a German U-boat sank the British ship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Another British ship, Courageous, was sunk on September 19. All the members of the British Commonwealth, except Ireland, soon joined Britain and France in their declaration of war.
The Great Depression
Contrary to popular belief, the stock market crash of 1929 did not trigger the Great Depression of the 1930s; rather, many economic analysts attribute the depressed economy to problems within the international stock market and investment banks. In fact, it seems that Great Depression owed more to the legacy of the First World War (in particular Britain and America’s punitive reparation policy) and to technological advances that increased profits but...
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Detailed stage directions are a very noticeable feature of The Philadelphia Story. There are three simple reasons for this. First, although the dialogue was strong in itself, it depends upon staging. Imprecise staging and inappropriate gestures detract from the impact of the dialogue.
Second, Barry was a consummate producer of plays: he understood much about stagecraft, and knew that if he wanted to replicate the success of one play all over the country, he had to give directors of amateur companies precise guidance.
Third, The Philadelphia Story is written realistically, and Barry worked hard to give the audience the impression that the action unfolding in front of their eyes was, indeed, an accurate representation of ‘‘the real thing.’’
Also, Barry’s stage directions enable the actors to add nuance to their characterizations. For instance, when Mike strikes a match, Tracy offers him a light from her lighter. The action is amusing because of Tracy’s pretense, but, because it is also a classic gesture of attraction between men and women, it is also a nice hint to the audience that Mike and Tracy may be interested in each other.
Comedy of Manners
By and large, the great American playwrights of the twentieth century are dramatists such as Arthur Miller,
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Compare and Contrast
1939:America feels the continuing effects of the Great Depression. Unemployment remains high and industrial production is low.
Today: The American economy booms: the Dow Jones Industrial Index passes the 10,000 mark, unemployment is at a record low, and inflation is under control.
1939: Europe erupts into full-scale war, pitting Nazi Germany and Italy against France and England. By the year’s end, Germany has taken control of Poland, partitioning it with Russia, while Russia has seized Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and is preceding in its invasion of Finland.
Today: The conflict in the former Yugoslavia escalates. In the wake of widespread killing, NATO launches a peace-keeping mission and commits to air and ground warfare against Serbia.
1939: Scientists announce that they have succeeded in splitting uranium, thorium, and protactinium atoms by bombarding them with neutrons. Their success paves the way for the invention of the H-bomb in the final years of World War II.
Today: After the escalation of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War the 1980s and 1990s were marked by attempts to reduce the superpowers’ arsenal of nuclear weapons. Developing world nations such as India and Pakistan, however, are keen to acquire nuclear weapons, and recently each...
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Topics for Further Study
Compare and contrast the stage and film versions of The Philadelphia Story. Discuss the advantages of film versions over stage productions.
Some critics have claimed that Barry tried to rescue the upper-classes from the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of them in contemporary theater. Do you think The Philadelphia Story is just such an attempt, or is it critical of high society?
Discuss Tracy Lord’s maturation during the play. If the play had been written in the 1990s, would it have ended with her remarrying Dexter Haven? Write an ending for the play that you think is realistic for contemporary times.
Choose two minor characters in the play—for instance, Margaret Lord and Liz Imbrie, or Seth and Willie Lord—and contrast them. Consider the values and ideals these characters represent, and how their presence influences the audience’s perception of Tracy Lord.
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The Philadelphia Story was adapted as a film in 1940. The film was directed by George Cukor and produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz for MGM. It starred Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, Cary Grant as C. K. Dexter Haven, and James Stewart as Macaulay Connor. Donald Ogden Stewart adapted Barry’s play into a screenplay. This highly successful adaptation is still the best-known version of Barry’s play.
In 1956 MGM produced a musical re-make of The Philadelphia Story entitled High Society. It was faithful to the original plot but was set during the Newport Jazz Festival and featured the playing and singing of Louis Armstrong. High Society was directed by Charles Walters and included a star-studded cast: Bing Crosby starred as C. K. Dexter Haven, Frank Sinatra as Macaulay Connor, Grace Kelley as Tracy Lord, and Celeste Holm as Liz Imbrie.
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What Do I Read Next?
Paris Bound (1927) is one of Barry’s most successful comedy of manners. It concerns the fashionable and rich Jim and Mary Hutton. On their wedding day, the couple decides that they will be tolerant of extramarital affairs. Their bohemian ideals come under pressure when Mary learns that Jim has visited an old sweetheart when traveling abroad.
Barry’s Holiday (1928) is an enjoyable comedy that depicts the relationship between Julia Seton, a millionaire’s daughter, and Johnny Case, a hardworking young man. The Seton family cannot tolerate Case’s determination to enjoy life when young and try to force him to join the family firm.
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) displays Steinbeck’s characteristic social realism and his determination to depict the lives of rural people with sympathy and understanding. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his epic novel about the struggles of an emigrant farming family who leave the dust bowl of the Midwest for the promised land of California.
Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913) remains a popular comedy. It is about a professor, Henry Higgins, who decides that he can pass off a young Cockney flower-seller, Eliza Doolittle, as a society lady. Shaw’s depiction of Eliza’s rise to social acceptance allows him to comment upon the British class system while also providing his audience...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Moe, Christian H. ‘‘The Philadelphia Story’’ in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992.
Wertheim, Albert. ‘‘The Philadelphia Story,’’ in Educational Theater Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2, May, 1978, pp. 273-74.
Wyndham, Francis. ‘‘Dreams and Drawing Rooms,’’ in Times Literary Supplement, December 19, 1975, p. 1507.
Brown, John Mason. ‘‘The American Barry,’’ in Still Seeing Things, McGraw-Hill, 1950, pp. 30-7. Brown includes reminiscences of Barry.
Gross, Robert F. ‘‘Servants of Three Masters: Realism, Idealism, and ‘Hokum’ in American High Comedy,’’ in Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition, edited by William W. Demastes, University of Alabama Press, 1996, pp. 71-90. Contends that scholars have overlooked the realism of American high comedy and have focused too much upon drama and social realism at the expense of American comedy.
Meredith, George. Essay on Comedy, Chapman and Hall, 1877, 99 p. British poet and novelist George Meredith was also known as a literary critic. His Essay on Comedy was one of the most influential critical texts on high comedy during the late nineteenth century and continued to influence critics and writers during the first...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Brown, John Mason. “The American Barry.” Saturday Review of Literature 32 (December 24, 1949): 24-27.
Gassner, John. “Philip Barry: A Civilized Playwright.” In The Theatre in Our Times. New York: Crown, 1954.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. “Miss Hepburn Pays Up.” Nation, April 8, 1939, 410-411.
Roppolo, Joseph Patrick. Philip Barry. New York: Twayne, 1965.
Weales, Gerald. “Philip Barry.” In Reference Guide to American Literature. 2d ed. Chicago: St. James, 1987.
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