State of the Union Summary

Introduction

Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse first staged their Pulitzer Prize–winning play, State of the Union, in 1945, and published it a year later. The play was inspired by events of the time. Following World War II, which ended in 1945, global politics became a concern of many American citizens, as the play indicates. Issues of declining relations with the Soviet Union, atomic weapons, and America’s inclusion in the newly formed United Nations are mentioned at various points in the play, which explores the various underhanded and dubious political methods that candidates use to get elected president of the United States. The two playwrights wrote the work after a friend, Helen Hayes, suggested they write a play about a presidential candidate.

In the play, that candidate is Grant Matthews, a self-made businessman who is very popular with the public for his strong and controversial views— and who at least one critic feels is molded after the real-life 1940 presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie, a person who is mentioned in the play. A politician, James Conover, and a host of other politically influential supporters convince a reluctant Grant to run for president, and he agrees, thinking that he can do so without compromising his plan to be an honest candidate. Unfortunately, as Grant makes more and more concessions, he—and his wife, Mary—realize that in order to be honest, he must risk alienating special interest political groups, which could cost him the election. Ultimately, the playwrights, through Grant’s final speech, encourage the American people to take a more active role in the political process. Although the playwright team wrote many popular plays during their partnership, State of the Union is arguably their most well-known. The play is available in a 1998 paperback edition from Dramatists Play Service.

State of the Union Summary

Act 1, Scene 1
State of the Union starts out during a meeting in the Washington, D.C., home of James Conover, a politician who is searching for a Republican presidential candidate popular enough to win the 1948 election. Kay Thorndike, a newspaper publisher, thinks that Grant Matthews, a wealthy, self-made businessman who has become very popular for his speeches, is the right candidate and encourages James to consider him. Spike McManus, one of Kay’s reporters, is also at the meeting. Although he is a reporter, his political abilities make him more of a strategist. Grant is reluctant about the idea of being a presidential candidate, and so is James. They agree that the best way to figure out if Grant is the right man is to follow him on a speaking tour that he is doing at his various airplane manufacturing plants around the country. Unfortunately, word of Grant’s affair with Kay has started spreading, so James suggests that Grant invite his wife along for the tour, as a very public statement that their estranged marriage is still okay.

Act 1, Scene 2
The next night, Grant is encouraged by James to take some of the passion out of his speeches. Grant works with Spike to change his remarks. Mary arrives, and, due to the lack of space in the house, she agrees to stay in the same room as Grant. While Grant is downstairs meeting some politically influential people, James lets Mary know that Grant is thinking about running for president. Mary correctly guesses that she has been invited along on the speaking tour to quell rumors about Grant and Kay—a relationship that she is aware of. James also lets her know that he is aware of Mary’s own affair, with an Army major. Mary is pleased at the rumor and encourages James to let Grant know about it, so she can make him jealous, as he has made her jealous of Kay. Mary also recognizes right away that, although Grant says he wants to be an honest politician and not play any games, Grant is being manipulated by James and the others. When the maid brings a pair of Kay’s glasses to Grant’s room and asks him what address to send it to, Mary realizes that Grant has seen Kay recently, and it changes her mood. In a huff, she creates a makeshift bed on the floor and forces Grant to sleep there while she takes the bed.

Act 2
Several weeks later, Grant and Mary arrive at a hotel in Detroit to make his final speech at a banquet, both excited about the response that Grant has been getting on his other presentations. James and Spike, however, are not thrilled. While the speeches have excited the general population, the special interest groups and other political entities that sway the course of an election are not happy with Grant’s statements—many of which come out in favor of the common citizen, at the expense of industry. Before the speech, in the Matthews’s hotel suite, Spike lines up several quick meetings for Grant with various special interest groups. In between meetings, James, worried about the content of Grant’s Detroit speech, tries to get Grant to take out some of the more radical statements, but Grant refuses.

While Grant is out of the room, James tries to coerce Mary to get Grant to change his...

(The entire section is 1320 words.)