Critical Context

After a fifteen-year period of apprenticeship, with Tea and Sympathy Robert Anderson had a Broadway hit. Still, after its production in 1953 he fell into a long period of relative obscurity. It was not until 1967, with a group of four one-act plays titled You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running, that he rose again to general notice. Another successful play and a duo of one-acts followed. Anderson had been writing successful screenplays since his adaptation of Tea and Sympathy in 1956, and he was later noted for his adaptation of Richard McKenna’s 1962 novel The Sand Pebbles in 1966 and for the screen version of his 1968 play, I Never Sang for My Father (pr., pb. 1968), which in 1971 won for Anderson the Writers Guild Award for Best Screenplay.

In Tea and Sympathy, Anderson introduced the themes that were to be typical in his later works, human isolation and the difficulty in developing relationships between individuals, even between those united by blood or by marriage. The title I Never Sang for My Father, for example, suggests the subject of the play, the problems inherent in a father-son relationship, and the guilt that remains after an inevitable failure in the expression of love. Solitaire/Double Solitaire (pr. 1971, pb. 1972) consists of two plays which deal specifically with loneliness.

If Tea and Sympathy is important because it is Anderson’s best-known play, also significant is what it is not. It is a story of a boy who is convicted by his society of being a homosexual solely based on his mannerisms, his cultural interests, and his appeal to a possibly homosexual teacher. In this sense, it is a plea for justice. However, because Tom is not a homosexual, the play is not a plea for tolerance of other sexual preferences; indeed, the most unsympathetic character in the play is probably a latent homosexual, Bill Reynolds. Admittedly, it is this character’s dishonesty, even with himself, and his resulting vindictiveness toward Tom that Anderson attacks. In any case, while Tea and Sympathy, like Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (pr., pb. 1934), raised the subject of sexual deviations among teachers and their young students, the focus was on false accusation, and it remained for later playwrights to deal compassionately with homosexuality as a reality.