In his own introduction to Tea and Sympathy, Robert Anderson called it first and foremost a love story. The play began with Tom’s love song, expressing his feelings for Laura; proceeded with the gifts of courtship; and concluded with the physical expression of love. The last lines of the play concern love. When in the future Tom speaks of this, his first experience with a woman, Laura admonishes him to “be kind,” in other words, to remember the affection that made their sexual union valid.
In contrast, Laura is repulsed by Bill’s violent lovemaking. In order to prove his manliness, Bill has forsworn tenderness. Clearly Laura feels as much used as Ellie Martin; thus she can understand Tom’s revulsion when he is expected to commit a sexual act with a woman for whom he feels nothing. If there are perverts in Tea and Sympathy, Anderson suggests that they are the insecure Bill Reynolds and the immature boys who reassure themselves with Ellie Martin’s body.
A second theme in Tea and Sympathy involves a specifically American problem. Perhaps owing to their historical proximity to the frontier, it has been noted that Americans tend to define manliness as bragging vulgarity, evidenced in the preoccupation with sports like the mountain climbing that is seen to prove the virility of Bill’s young friends, and in the use of women as sexual objects, as in the case of Ellie Martin. As a result, men who, like Tom, are...
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