Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

Beggar on Horseback is similar to the other plays on which Connelly and Kaufman collaborated in this period in that it makes caustic comments on the popularity of the cheap in art over the valuable. In Dulcy (pr., pb. 1921), for example, Leach’s superficiality is revealed through his patronizing statements about William Shakespeare. Like Beggar on Horseback, plays such as Helen of Troy, N.Y. (pr. 1923) and Be Yourself (pr. 1924) do not attack the popular art forms as such, but lampoon the pretensions that argue the superiority of popular taste only because it sells. In one respect, Beggar on Horseback is less compromising than earlier works such as Merton of the Movies (pr. 1922), which suggests that one must come to terms with the vulgar, as Merton does in his cynical contempt for the movies that made him rich.

The yearning for the simple life, which emerges in Neil’s desire to live in a plain little cottage, is another strain that runs through the Connelly and Kaufman plays. In The Deep Tangled Wildwood (pr. 1923), a small town presents a haven for a New York playwright who is tired of the fads and trends of the big city. Connelly developed this longing for an uncluttered existence in more depth in The Farmer Takes a Wife (pr., pb. 1934), which portrays the Erie Canal as a kind of Eden of happy eccentricity.

Beggar on Horseback also contains the same elements of domestic comedy that had been featured in two of Connelly and Kaufman’s previous plays. Like Beggar on Horseback, To the Ladies (pr. 1922) and Dulcy are analyses of mismated couples. As in Dulcy, Connelly and Kaufman mate a foolish woman with a sensible man; in To the Ladies on the other hand, the playwrights match a foolish man with a wise woman. Beggar on Horseback, however, rejects the rather simple conclusion reached by both of these plays that happiness is best achieved by both a pleasant marriage and a profitable business career. Beggar on Horseback proposes that a man can be poor but still be happy as long as he is pursuing his muse and is bolstered by a loving wife, like the wife in To the Ladies.

Beggar on Horseback is the most successful of the Connelly and Kaufman collaborations. It is also important from a historical viewpoint as being the first American drama to make successful use of expressionism on the commercial stage. This play not only is one of the few of Connelly and Kaufman’s plays that remains relevant but it also anticipated innovative plays in other genres. To a certain extent, the dream in Beggar on Horseback resembles the absurdist plays of Edward Albee, Eugène Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett. In the final analysis, though, one cannot quite label Beggar on Horseback as a precursor to these plays because Connelly and Kaufman never arrive at a total rejection of the world. The optimistic note on which Beggar on Horseback ends resounded again and again in the plays that both Kaufman and Connelly wrote after they had gone their separate ways.

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