Robert Anderson was a heavily autobiographical playwright. His focal character is usually male, is usually a writer, often also a teacher, is misunderstood or not properly appreciated by someone close to him—most often his father or his wife—and is sometimes suffering from a tragedy associated with his wife. This character is young in the plays written when Anderson was young—in All Summer Long, he is only twelve, and in Tea and Sympathy, he is almost eighteen—but in the plays written as Anderson grew older, the focal character also is older: In Silent Night, Lonely Night, he is in his early forties; in The Days Between, he is split into two characters, both of whom are around forty; in three of the four one-act plays that make up You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running, he is middle-aged, though in one of these he is not a writer; in I Never Sang for My Father, he is forty; in Solitaire, he is around fifty and, though not a writer since writing is obsolete in his society, a recorder of tapes in a library; and in Double Solitaire, he is forty-three.
Anderson’s themes derive from the circumstances of this character in various incarnations. One of his most common themes is the incompatibility of a husband and wife, particularly a middle-aged couple who were once madly in love with each other. Their incompatibility may or may not be in values or goals, but its major symptom is always an unhappy sex life. In some cases, it even results in a complete cessation of any sex life within the marriage. Closely related to this theme is the theme of the importance of good sexual experiences in and of themselves, even outside marriage. Sex is seen as therapeutic, and it becomes a charitable obligation for kind and selfless people to fulfill the sex needs that they discern in lonely people with whom they have a mental or spiritual rapport. Another common theme of the plays is an unhappy father-son relationship, usually stemming from the inability of a materialistic, forceful, athletically inclined father to understand or appreciate properly the nature or accomplishments of a more sensitive, thoughtful, artistic son. Two other themes are inherent in these unhappy relationships, whether marital or father-son: the theme of guilt and hostility within the failing or failed relationship, and the theme of loneliness—the loneliness of an individual who is unable to achieve with another a sharing of values, goals and aspirations, tenderness and love.
Surprisingly for a writer so personal in theme and character, Anderson has seldom been innovative in plot, style, or technique. Perhaps because of his many years of formal education in drama, his works are much influenced by earlier writers, particularly Anton Chekhov, John Van Druten, and Tennessee Williams. All Summer Long, for example, follows Chekhov’s Vishnyovy sad (pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908) not only in its slow pace and in the lassitude of its ineffectual characters but also in the loss of the family home, which literally slides into a river because the adults in the family have been unable to put aside their petty personal desires and take some positive action to prevent the erosion of the soil under the house. Tea and Sympathy has an equally heavy debt to Van Druten’s Young Woodley (pr. 1925), and I Never Sang for My Father owes several of its important elements to Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944). Anderson has, however, not been wedded to any particular format or technique, but has been willing to experiment with various techniques introduced by others, using for his settings in some plays the highly realistic, conventional scene behind the proscenium arch and in others settings that are to varying degrees illusionistic and nonrepresentational. He used an almost bare stage in some of the one-act plays and a narrator-chorus figure in I Never Sang for My Father. His attempts to make the theater more frank and open in its treatment of sex stem from his desire to see it become more adult and honest in its treatment of human relationships, particularly the marital and extramarital sexual relationships on which his plays so often center.
Tea and Sympathy
The autobiographical influences on Tea and Sympathy are readily apparent. The setting is a New England preparatory school similar to the one Anderson attended. Young Tom Lee has an artistic and sensitive nature and aesthetic interests that make him seem an “off-horse” to some of the other boys, to his housemaster, and to his father, who has sent Tom to this school in the hope that the housemaster will develop in Tom what the father considers a more manly character. Tom is not a writer, although in his elementary school days when his class needed a poet he was apparently the automatic choice. His real interest is in music, however, and he hopes for a career as a folksinger. Anderson’s own first interest had also been music, and only after a sinus condition ruined his voice did he turn to the writing of plays. Tom falls in love with Laura Reynolds, a woman almost ten years older than he. Like Anderson’s first wife, Phyllis, Laura is sympathetic to young people and eager to encourage talent in the young. Anderson’s dedication of the play to Phyllis, “whose spirit is everywhere in this play,” suggests that Laura resembles Phyllis in many other respects.
In addition to this strong autobiographical influence, however, there are also several strong literary influences on the play. One such influence, although a minor one, is Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (pr., pb. 1947). In Williams’s play, the young, sensitive first husband of Blanche kills himself when she discovers that he is homosexual. His suicide scars Blanche for life, leaving her with feelings of guilt and remorse that she attempts to expiate by having sex with teenage boys even later in life when she is much older than they. In Tea and Sympathy, the young, sensitive first husband of Laura, because of some incident unknown to Laura that called his courage and manliness into question, in effect kills himself by risking his life unnecessarily in battle to prove to others that he is not a coward. His death scars Laura and may lead to her desire to experience sexual love with the teenage Tom Lee.
Two more important literary influences are Van Druten’s Young Woodley and George Bernard Shaw’s Candida: A Mystery (pr. 1897). Tea and Sympathy is, in fact, so similar to Young Woodley that it might almost be considered an adaptation. In both plays, the young protagonist, a student at a boarding school, is disliked by his housemaster and teased by some of the students because he does not conform to their concept of manliness. Both housemasters hope eventually to become housemasters of their schools, and both are apparently projecting their own weaknesses and self-doubts on the protagonists. In both plays, the protagonist has been deprived of his mother early in life, in Young Woodley by her death and in Tea and Sympathy by the divorce of the parents. In both, the student is in love with the housemaster’s young wife (in both plays named Laura), whose nature and values are far different from those of her husband. In both, Laura encourages the young man in his artistic pursuits. In both, the young man visits the town prostitute, with resultant feelings of self-disgust, though for different reasons. In both, the young man, in a rage of frustration and despair, makes an attack with a butcher knife, Woodley an attack on another student and Tom an attempt at suicide. One important difference between the two plays is that in the last analysis, Woodley’s father is far more helpful and sympathetic to his son than is Tom’s father, a difference that reflects the lack of sympathetic understanding between Anderson and his own father. Another major difference is in the ending; Anderson gave his play a conclusion that, for that period in American theatrical history, was quite sensational.
This ending stems from the inspiration that Shaw’s play Candida gave to Anderson’s play. When Candida, the older married woman in Shaw’s play, speculates on the effect that her rejection of the young, poetic Marchbanks will ultimately have on him, she wonders whether Marchbanks will forgive her for selfishly maintaining her own purity and chastity instead of initiating him into the mysteries of sexual love. She concludes that Marchbanks will forgive her if some other good woman teaches him about such love, but will not forgive her if he has the disillusioning experience of learning about sexual love from a “bad woman.” In Tea and Sympathy, Tom asks Laura if she thinks Candida was right to send Marchbanks away, and Laura replies that Shaw “made it seem right.” Later, when Tom, overcome by emotion, impulsively embraces and kisses Laura, she momentarily rejects his kisses, and he flees to the arms of the local prostitute, where his repulsion for the prostitute makes him unable to perform sexually and fills him with self-disgust. Laura, hearing about Tom’s wretched experience, feels responsible for it, saying that she wishes she had let Tom prove his sexual prowess with her rather than sending him off to such a sordid experience. She has, thus, decided that Candida was wrong after all, and the play concludes as she is offering herself to Tom so that he will be able to prove to himself that he can indeed perform sexually as a man.
Here, Anderson is developing one of his favorite themes—the immorality and selfishness of allowing conventional mores to prevent one from offering a loving sexual experience to a kindred spirit who is lonely and in need of such love. The offering of a spirit of love and understanding is...
(The entire section is 4055 words.)