Archibald MacLeish Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

ph_0111207653-Macleish2.jpg Archibald MacLeish Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Critics concerned with the achievements of Archibald MacLeish unite in warning literary taxonomists against differentiating between his work as poet and as dramatist, for with only one exception, all his plays are composed in verse. Nevertheless, his poetic dramas form a group that can be considered separately from his poetry. Indeed, MacLeish’s output in both genres is considerable; of the three Pulitzer Prizes he received, two were awarded for his poems.

As early as 1917, MacLeish published his collection of verse Tower of Ivory, bringing together his undergraduate efforts from his years at Yale, detached poems derivative in both tone and technique of the powerful nineteenth century British Romantic lyric tradition. The volume is significant, however, for introducing MacLeish’s ubiquitous artistic themes: human beings’ relation to God and the reality of human existence. No more of his poetry appeared until 1924, when The Happy Marriage was published. Here, MacLeish appears more influenced by the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, and here he experimented with a number of more complex verse forms as well as with the difficulties inherent in paradox. Two other works of the 1920’s, The Pot of Earth and Nobodaddy, have been included variously in discussions of either MacLeish’s poetry or drama. In truth, they are embryonic verse plays, despite the author’s reference to them as poems. Because they prefigure and resemble his fully developed plays, they should be included with that genre.

After continued exclusive attention to poetry, especially during his sojourn in France, MacLeish received his first major recognition as a poet for Conquistador (1932), a powerful lyric and descriptive epic in free terza rima form. Chronicling the heroic exploits of...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Throughout his long and distinguished career, Archibald MacLeish’s seemingly unlimited energies were spent in an amazingly broad range of activities directed at the reconciliation of literature and public service. He was an indefatigable lecturer in halls and on university campuses throughout the United States, exemplifying his informing belief that artists cannot indulge themselves by retreating exclusively to a private “tower of ivory” (the title of his first poetry collection) but must use their “gifts” (the title of his first published poem) by addressing themselves to current public issues in the larger world in which they all live.

In both his prose and poetry, MacLeish drew on his wide-ranging intellectual and aesthetic resources to recast the American legacy of myth, history, and folklore into powerful and moving parables for troubled times. The British critic John Wain has observed that “MacLeish . . . has certainly made it a central part of his business to ‘manipulate a continuous parallel’ between the immemorial and the modern.” This tendency is most evident in MacLeish’s verse drama, and it is here that his achievement in twentieth century American literature is most significant. Until the appearance of J. B., there had been little work of any importance in this genre, and the success of this monumental epic of philosophic rationalism encouraged others to explore new possibilities for poetic drama.

The popularity and critical acclaim earned by MacLeish’s exemplary J. B. proves that he not only mastered the techniques of stagecraft but also, and more important, created a responsive, humanistic, yet classically theatrical work that speaks to common experience while at the same time engaging each member of his audience personally. In an age geared to mass audiences and noncontroversial, often mindless yet commercially successful productions, MacLeish’s courage in refusing to compromise his beliefs and values is remarkable in itself.

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

In addition to some twenty volumes of poems, Archibald MacLeish presented innumerable lectures to college students, librarians, and the general public. Some of these are recorded in the volumes of prose essays he published, many on the public role of the poet as guardian of his own society. Several others concern social issues of the 1930’s through the 1960’s. The essays analyzing poems and commenting on the responsibility of the poet, such as Poetry and Opinion: The “Pisan Cantos” of Ezra Pound (1950) and Poetry and Experience (1961), illuminate MacLeish’s own work as well as distinguish him from such contemporaries as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.

The other major literary genre in which MacLeish worked was verse drama. One of his earlier works, Nobodaddy: A Play (pb. 1926), whose title is derived from William Blake’s name for the Old Testament God of vengeance and restrictions, presents an interpretation of the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. A closet play, it dramatizes the relationship between self-conscious humanity and indifferent, alien nature. In 1934, he collaborated with Nicholas Nabokoff on Union Pacific: A Ballet, but much of his creative energy in the 1930’s was devoted to writing hortatory verse plays, such as The Fall of the City: A Verse Play for Radio (pr., pb. 1937) and Air Raid: A Verse Play for Radio (pr., pb. 1938). These works approach propaganda in their enthusiasm for the freedom of democracy and their attempts to warn Americans against the dangers of fascism.

Of the later plays, The Trojan Horse (pr. 1952) presents implicit criticism of the McCarthy era while This Music Crept By Me upon the Waters (pr., pb. 1953) dramatizes the individual’s quest for happiness and the transitory, paradoxical nature of that happiness. J. B.: A Play in Verse (pr., pb. 1958), MacLeish’s most popular and widely read play, is an adaptation of the story of Job to modern American life; it ran successfully on Broadway for ten months.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Archibald MacLeish’s reputation has remained undeservedly small in view of his contributions to both literature and public life. In addition to his achievements as a writer, MacLeish was highly successful in government and academic posts. Although academic scholars have paid relatively little attention to his work, he received many awards and honorary academic degrees, including—among many others—the John Reed Memorial Prize (1929), the Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry (1932), three Pulitzer Prizes (in 1933 for Conquistador, in 1953 for Collected Poems, 1917-1952, and in 1959 for his drama J. B.), the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine (1941), the Order of Commander from the French Legion of Honor (1946), the Bollingen Prize (1953), the National Book Award in Poetry (1953) for Collected Poems, 1917-1952, an Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award in drama (1959), an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for The Eleanor Roosevelt Story (1966), an Academy of American Poets Fellowship (1966), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977), the National Medal for Literature (1978), and the Gold Medal for Poetry, awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1979). He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1933 and served as chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 1946-1949.

MacLeish is probably most noteworthy for his refusal to “escape” into his art, for his effort...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962. This book is a social chronicle of the left wing from 1912 to the early 1940’s. It describes the response of a select group of American writers to the idea of communism and deals with particular issues and events that helped to shape their opinions. The discussion of MacLeish focuses on the author as the “darling of communism” during the Spanish Civil War.

Cohn, Ruby. Dialogues in American Drama. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971. Although this volume does not contain much analysis of MacLeish’s earlier plays since the author believes they are merely unsuccessful adaptations of his poetry to dramatic form, Cohn’s incisive reading of J.B. makes this volume worth consulting.

Donaldson, Scott and R. H. Winnick. Archibald MacLeish: An American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. Donaldson’s biography of MacLeish discusses his education at Hotchkiss, Yale, and Harvard Law School; his expatriate life of writing in Paris; his editorship of Fortune; and his political career.

Drabeck, Bernard A., and Helen E. Ellis, eds. Archibald MacLeish: Reflections. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. This oral autobiography, drawn from recorded conversations the editors pursued with MacLeish from 1976 to 1981, is a valuable, unique compendium of MacLeish’s commentary on his own poetry and prose and that of his peers. The preface by Richard Wilbur is especially helpful in placing MacLeish’s achievements in centennial perspective.

Ellis, Helen E., and Bernard A. Drabeck. Archibald MacLeish: A Selectively Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. A useful bibliographic resource.

Falk, Signi. Archibald MacLeish. New...

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