Historical Context

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The Netherlands De Hartog was born in the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. He also spent an important period of his life in the city of Amsterdam, which is the capital of the Netherlands (although the seat of government is located in the city of the Hague). The nation...

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The Netherlands
De Hartog was born in the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. He also spent an important period of his life in the city of Amsterdam, which is the capital of the Netherlands (although the seat of government is located in the city of the Hague). The nation of the Netherlands, officially called the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is often referred to as Holland, after one of the country's major provinces. The language of the Netherlands is Dutch. In 1795, the Netherlands was occupied by the French and, under Napoleon, renamed the Kingdom of Holland. National sovereignty, however, was restored in 1814. During World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral. During World War II, although the Netherlands claimed neutrality, its citizens were largely sympathetic to the Allied cause. In 1940, however, the Germans invaded the region, which they occupied until it was liberated by Canadian forces in 1945. During the period of German occupation, a Dutch resistance movement sprang up, which helped de Hartog to escape a death sentence by helping him secretly leave the Netherlands for England. In the postwar era, the Netherlands formed strong ties with the nations of the former Allied forces.

Developments in Twentieth-Century Theater
The late nineteenth century represented the height of realism in drama of the Western world. The Moscow Art Theater, established in 1895 by Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, represented the pinnacle of realist theater. The beginning of the twentieth century, however, ushered in a variety of avant-garde and experimental efforts to break away from realism. In Italy, the theater of futurism, begun in 1909, initiated this break with the staging of theatrical events designed to break through the "fourth wall'' separating the events of a play from the audience. From 1910 to 1925, a theater of German expressionism was inspired by the expressionist movement in the visual arts. Expressionism was a reaction against societal norms and the aesthetics of naturalism and impressionism. Experimental theater in France during the first half of the twentieth century included the organization of such theatrical companies as the "Cartel," beginning in 1927, and the Theatre des Quinze, which, in its brief existence between 1930 and 1934, exerted a strong international influence. In the United States, the Theater Guild was established as an art theater in 1918, becoming the most influential stage in the nation with productions of the works of great playwrights such as Eugene O'Neill and Elmer Rice. O'Neill, in particular, helped to elevate American theater to a level of literary quality. The post-World War II era, during which The Fourposter was first produced on Broadway in New York City, initiated further variety in the development of theater. Perhaps the most internationally influential playwright of this era was the German Bertolt Brecht, whose ‘‘epic theater,’’ based on a technique he called the "alienation effect,’’ was intended to break from the illusionary quality of drama to present social commentary directly to the audience. Influential productions on the American theatrical scene during the 1950s included works by O'Neill, as well as by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

Literary Style

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The setting is of central importance in this play. The play's title, The Fourposter, refers to the fourposter bed around which key moments of crisis and reconciliation in the marriage of Agnes and Michael take place. The bed is the site of such events as the consummation of their marriage on their wedding night and the birth of their first child. In their later years, they are moving out of their house into a smaller apartment and have to leave the bed behind because it is too big to fir into their new place. In the final moments of the play, Agnes sums up the significance of the bed to their marriage. She comments, ‘‘It's odd, you know, how after you have lived in a place for so long, a room gets full of echoes. Almost everything we've said this morning we have said before.... It's the bed, really, that I regret most. Pity it wouldn't fit.’’ The four-poster bed represents the stable base of deep love that remains constant throughout their long and rocky marriage.

The setting is also significant in act II, as it demonstrates the wealth Michael and Agnes have achieved through his success as a writer. The stage directions describe the changes that have been made in their bedroom furnishings, from modest to extravagant: "The only piece of furniture left from the preceding scene is the four-poster, but it has been fitted out with new brocade curtains. Paintings hang on the walls; expensive furniture crowds the room....The whole thing is very costly, very grand and very new.’’ In act III, scene 1, which takes place in 1913, Agnes and Michael are still wealthy, but their furnishings show the signs of established, rather than newly acquired, wealth. The bed canopy, drapes, and furniture in this scene have changed, ‘‘all in more conservative taste now.’’

Time Frame
The time frame of the play is significant to its central concerns. The six scenes, divided into three acts, span the years 1890 to 1925. The scenes take place anywhere from one to twelve years apart. The play as a whole thus provides an overview of key moments in thirty-five years of a marriage. Although this leaves large gaps of time in the reader's (or theatergoer's) knowledge of the marriage, it paints a broad, sweeping portrait of the relationship, highlighting the larger patterns of conflict, reconciliation, and change.

Visual Cues
The play includes two sequences that are played out almost entirely through actions rather than dialogue. These two sequences, one in the first scene and one in the final scene, parallel one another, as they play out in pantomime the push and pull of the marital relationship. In the first scene, which takes place on their wedding night, Agnes is so nervous about getting into bed with Michael that she picks up her suitcase and walks out of the room, locking Michael inside. Michael, however, notices that she has left her shoes. The stage directions at this point describe Michael's actions and movements about the room, as he nervously and frantically unpacks his nightshirt, begins to undress, puts on his nightcap and nightshirt, then changes his mind and begins to dress again, without removing his nightshirt or night cap. At this point, Agnes returns, catching Michael in this state of partial dress and undress, an expression of his anxiety and uncertainty as to how he should best proceed with her.

In the final scene, Agnes and Michael act a similar series of moves and countermoves, which express an ongoing ambivalence between the two of them. Agnes wishes to place the ‘‘God Is Love’’ pillow on the bed for the incoming bride, but Michael is against the idea, for the sake of the groom. As each walks in and out of the room, Agnes and Michael put on and remove the pillow several times. Finally, Michael leaves the pillow on the bed, but he places a bottle of champagne next to it. Like the series of actions in the first scene, this series of actions plays out in pantomime a point of conflict and a moment of reconciliation between husband and wife—a pattern that continues throughout their marriage.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Atkinson, Brooks, New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 12, No. 22, Critics' Theatre Reviews, October 29,1951, p. 191.

Cook, Alfred, The Dark Voyage and the Golden Mean, Norton, 1966, p. 43.

de Hartog, Jan, ‘‘The Writer in Violent Times: The Dutch Underground Theatre,'' a transcript of a talk given at Weber State College, November 17, 1986.

----, The Fourposter: A Comedy in Three Acts, Samuel French, Inc., 1980.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925, p. 2.

Gassner, John, Best American Plays, Crown Publishers, 1958, p. 480.

Grawe, Paul, Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination, Nelson-Hall, 1983, pp.17-8.

Grote, David, The End of Comedy, Archon Books, 1983, pp. 36-7.

Hartman, John Geoffrey, "The Development of American Social Comedy 1787-1936,’’ Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1939, p. 1.

Further Reading
Astro, Alan, Understanding Samuel Beckett, University of California Press, 1990.
Astro gives an introduction to the major works of Beckett, with discussion of the Theater of the Absurd, as well as central themes and stylistics elements of his plays.

Moore, Bob, Victims and Survivors: The Nazi Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands, 1940-1945, Arnold, 1997.
This text provides a history of the treatment of Jews in the Netherlands during Nazi occupation of World War II.

Moorton Jr., Richard F., ed., Eugene O'Neill's Century: Centennial Views on America's Foremost Tragic Dramatist, Greenwood Press, 1991.
Moorton's book is a collection of essays by various critics discussing the significance of O'Neill to the development of twentieth-century American theater.

Stott, Annette, Holland Mania: The Unknown Dutch Period in American Art and Culture, Overlook Press, 1998.
Stott's book discusses the influence of Dutch artists on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art.

Compare and Contrast

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1940-1945: During World War II, the Netherlands officially maintains neutrality, despite the fact that its citizens are largely sympathetic to the Allied cause, and the country is occupied by Nazi Germany during these years.

Postwar Era: The Netherlands is liberated from German occupation by Canadian forces in 1945. The nation strengthens ties with former allied nations, joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Early-Mid-Twentieth Century: Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, is a center of art and culture and embodies a spirit of open-mindedness.

1960s-2000: Amsterdam gains a reputation as ‘‘swinging Amsterdam,’’ a mecca of permissiveness, individualism, and counterculture freedoms, appealing to many youths and radicals.

World War II: Anne Frank, a German Jewish girl, hides out with her own and another family in Amsterdam in order to avoid Nazi persecution. They are eventually discovered by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps, where Anne Frank dies. In all, some 70,000 Jews are deported from Amsterdam and sent to concentration camps, where many are killed.

Late Twentieth Century: The Diary of Anne Frank, written while the author in hiding, is edited and published by her father, who survived the concentration camp. Her diary is now widely read and taught to school children as an example of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust.

1940-1945:: During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, Queen Wilhelmi-na, her royal family, and the Netherlandic government establish a government in exile in England.

Postwar Era:: Upon liberation from German occupation, Queen Wilhelmina and the legitimate Netherlandic government return to the Netherlands to rule. During this postwar era, the government makes important moves toward increased democratization, such as establishing universal suffrage.

Media Adaptations

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The Fourposter was adapted to the screen in a 1952 production of the same name by Columbia Pictures. It starred Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer, and it was directed by Irving Reis.

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