The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Second Man opens on the comfortably furnished living room of a suite in a studio apartment building; the baby grand piano, the profusion of books, and the general atmosphere suggest the occupant’s interest in the arts. When the curtain rises, Mrs. Kendall Frayne is nervously consulting her watch. She has been trying to reach Clark Storey by telephone, with no success. When it does ring, the caller leaves a message that clearly annoys her. As she turns to leave, Storey enters, late as usual, having been detained by a fellow writer at lunch. Kendall tells him about the message and displays some jealousy because the caller was Monica Grey. Monica is, Kendall believes, in love with Storey although she is engaged to millionaire Austin Lowe, an outstanding scientist. Monica’s mother wants her to marry Austin because she is poor. Storey denies any interest in Monica, pointing out that he himself is quite fond of money, of which he has very little, and would never dream of becoming involved with anyone who had none. He invites Kendall to have dinner with him later in his flat, and before she leaves to dress she writes him a check for five hundred dollars. It is clear that the two are lovers and that she has been supporting him while he tries to pursue his literary career. He has already published some short stories, but by his own admission his talent is small.

Austin arrives, disturbed because he is in love with Monica and he is afraid that she loves someone else. Storey promises to persuade her to marry Austin, who thanks Storey for his help and leaves. When Monica enters, Storey announces that he is dining with Kendall and abandons Monica to Austin, who has just returned. As the act ends, Monica and Austin try to make small talk over the meal Storey has ordered.

In the first scene of act 2 a few hours have passed; it is apparent that the dinner has not been a success. Austin mentions that Storey has sold some of his writing to a magazine (this is Storey’s explanation of Kendall’s check, which he had left carelessly on the table), but when Monica sees the signature, she crushes the check in disgust. Austin, alarmed, smooths it out and only then discovers who the real donor is. He does not disapprove,...

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The Second Man Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Second Man introduces its audience to a group of sophisticated people and scrutinizes their manners and their way of life. All four have a considerable amount of time on their hands—even Austin, whose scientific discoveries do not require him to spend too many hours in the laboratory. On two occasions Storey is seen trying to write, but he expends so little effort on the process that the result cannot be taken very seriously. Although Monica has no money, she always wears elegant clothes, proving that despite her “poverty” she has little in common with those genuinely in want. An actor who once appeared in a Behrman play commented, “Even the bums are fairly affluent.”

Music has an important function in the play. At one point, when Kendall has begun to feel that she is losing Storey to the younger woman, she plays excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Richard Strauss’s poignant opera about a mature woman who must surrender her lover to a more youthful rival. Storey plays jazz to illustrate the liveliness of his feeling for Monica, and Austin suggests taking Monica to the opera to hear Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (1874)—his idea of fun.

Kendall’s check is used not only to goad Monica into telling her lie but also to show how cavalier Storey is about money and how ashamed he is subconsciously of his weakness of character. However, when Monica reproaches him for “dawdling away your life on a sofa when you might be standing straight on your own feet,” he is angered enough to envision them in five years, “you looking blowsy—with little wrinkles under your eyes—and I in cheap shirts and cracked shoes—brooding in a room over the corpse of my genius.”

The abandoned scarf alerts Austin to Monica’s obsession with Storey and precipitates the major confrontation with the gun. The telephone is used most skillfully to inform the audience that Storey has finally won Kendall back, but the one-sided conversation, with only Storey visible onstage, keeps the love scene cool and detached, suggesting what their marriage will be like.

The Second Man Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Behrman, S. N. “At 75, S. N. Behrman Speaking as a Survivor, Not a Contemporary, Talks of Many Things.” New York Times Magazine, June 2, 1968, 28-29.

Behrman, S. N. People in a Diary: A Memoir. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Gross, Robert. S. N. Behrman: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. The American Drama Since 1918: An Informal History. 1939. Rev. ed. New York: G. Braziller, 1967.

Lewis, Allan. American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theater. New York: Crown, 1965.

Reed, Kenneth T. S. N. Behrman. Boston: Twayne, 1975.