S. N. Behrman Essay - Critical Essays


Although S. N. Behrman’s plays were crafted for theatrical performance, they are also admirably suitable for reading. Modeled after the scintillating comedies of Wilde and Shaw, Behrman’s plays similarly are, by turn, clever, ironic, provocative. That is not to say, however, that Behrman was an original thinker on social issues, as Shaw was, or that his plays match Wilde’s sense of whimsy. Indeed, Behrman’s drama is uneven in quality. Plays such as The Pirate (adapted from Ludwig Fulda’s play Die Seerauber) and I Know My Love (adapted from Marcel Achard) or the musical Fanny must be judged as entertainments, not against the highest standards of the dramatic art. Other plays are quite dated, products of their time. In particular, the comedies of the 1930’s, for all their surface brilliance, resemble certain clever mating comedies of the motion pictures of that decade. During the hard years of the Great Depression, many theatergoers appreciated escapist fantasies that would carry them in imagination away from their troubles. The drawing-room settings of Behrman’s plays, with furnishings opulent and refined, provided an alternative world, one inhabited by mostly clever, attractive characters whose major problem in life was to find an appropriate mate. Behrman’s characters—mostly upper-class, worldly, and well-educated—fit comfortably into this world, but for modern theatergoers, the Depression-era frame of reference has vanished.

Nevertheless, Behrman’s plays still appeal to audiences interested in comedy of manners. He isolates universal human traits and observes them faithfully, without exaggeration. At his best, his comedies offer the viewer (or reader) moral choices that exercise the heart. Never vulgar, rarely sexually provocative, his comedies sparkle with ample appreciation for human potentialities: for the happiness of a true marriage; for friendship based on trust; for common sense that cannot be swayed by political or social bias; for discovery of the authentic self; above all, for tolerance of others’ foibles, together with the resolve never to injure innocent people through malice or ignorance.

Although Behrman was not, except in The Cold Wind and the Warm, basically an autobiographical playwright, many of his themes can be traced to circumstances in his life. His economically deprived youth and his years of struggle as a journalist lay behind his frequent depiction of the clash between characters emerging from deprivation and those already privileged by birth or class. At the same time, his culturally enriched childhood, one that particularly emphasized traditional Jewish values of social justice and strict moral probity, sensitized him to the contrast between superficially upright but morally corrupt people and those of genuine integrity. Finally, in his early comedies—particularly those before 1936—Behrman transformed Horatio Alger stories that he had enjoyed as a youth into moral tales concerning the Midas touch that turns gold into dross.

Typically in Behrman’s variations on these ambition myths, the major (sensible) character abandons his childish illusions, discovers his limitations, and accepts in a mature way his responsibilities or potentialities. Rarely, as in Serena Blandish, the character is a woman; on the whole, Behrman’s female leads are more astute than their romantic counterparts. For men and women alike, the tests for Behrman’s pattern of discovery/initiation are through friendship or through marriage. As a youth, Behrman was not physically robust or socially assertive. Perhaps by way of compensation, he cherished throughout his lifetime generous friendships (an assumption supported by People in a Diary), and in his plays he established the values of supportive relationships. The greater test of maturity, however, was in the courtship clash that precedes marriage. Married late in life, at the age of forty-three, Behrman tended to view on the stage the “war of the sexes” from the vantage point of rationality, not idealistic romance. If couples in his plays achieve the promise of a satisfactory (rational) union, the credit always goes to the woman, whom Behrman—like Shaw—championed as the more sensible of the sexes. In all relationships—those of competition, of friendship, and of courtship—Behrman holds up the exemplary pattern of tolerance. Without tolerance, his characters could never come to self-knowledge, and their world of high comedy would fall apart.

The Second Man

In The Second Man, Mrs. Kendall Frayne, a wealthy widow whose chief asset is her common sense, and Monica Grey, a younger woman, are romantically interested in Clark Storey. Storey is a would-be poet and novelist, handsome but passionless. His counterpart is Austin Lowe, a chemist with meager social graces to match his rival’s. Nevertheless, Storey wins the love of Monica; for her part, Mrs. Frayne is too worldly-wise to fall for the superficial would-be writer. By the end of the play, Storey escapes both romantic entanglements but discovers the unsettling truth that he possesses a “second man” in his nature, one that is “calm, critical, observant, unmoved, blasé, odious.” Thus, Storey attains, at the very least, the reward of painful illumination.

For Behrman’s original audience, the play offered both entertainment and a moral lesson that they were prepared to accept. By challenging the playgoers’ intelligence, the writer allowed them to discern, without the heavy hand of editorial...

(The entire section is 2279 words.)