The Front Page

by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur

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Critical Overview

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When The Front Page first opened in New York City in 1928, the play’s critical praise was qualified by a controversy over language. Many reviewers considered it harsh and inappropriate.

J. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times summed up the controversy. He asserted, ‘‘The Front Page, which is one of the tautest and most unerring melodramas of the day bruises the sensitive ear with a Rabelaisaian vernacular unprecedented for its uphill and down-dale blasphemy.’’

Still, Atkinson found much to praised. ‘‘Hilarious, gruesome, and strident by turns, The Front Page compresses lively dramatic material into a robust play.’’ Atkinson closed his review with this qualifier: ‘‘Quite apart from its authenticity, which may be disputed, it adds a fresh peril to casual playgoing for the purposes of entertainment.’’

An unnamed colleague of Atkinson’s at the New York Times came to a similar conclusion. The reviewer maintained: ‘‘Wrangling at poker, leering over the political expediency of the execution, abusing the Sheriff and the Mayor insolently, they [the reporters] utter some of the baldest profanity and most slattern jesting that has ever been heard on the public stage. Graphic as it may be in tone and authenticity, it diverts attention from a vastly entertaining play.’’ These issues of authenticity return repeatedly in later years.

A few critics considered what The Front Page said about journalism and America in general. Euphemia Van Rensselaer Wyatt, a reviewer for the Catholic World, claimed that ‘‘The Front Page, as an example of American stagecraft is spectacular, as an example of open-hearted coarseness of speech it is outstanding.’’

She continued, ‘‘[T]hough its basic morals are quite sound and its vulgarity lacks innuendo, the words used are neither nice nor seemly. The humor, however, is thoroughly American and spontaneous.’’

While The Front Page did not have a long run, the play has been revived regularly over the years. The controversy over the language basically died down, and many critics debated how the play had aged.

Reviewing a popular New York revival in 1969-70, John Simon wrote in his book Uneasy Stages:

This 1928 play is full of the least attractive ideas of its time: American chauvinism, contempt for culture, condescension to the intellect, sentimental affection for crooks in and out of government. And, vilest of all, the notion that newspapermen are the toughest, shrewdest, meanest and ultimately cleverest guys in the world.

Yet many critics have found aspects of The Front Page timeless, if not contemporary.

Walter Kerr maintained that the play aged well because it was not about a specific time. In his book God on the Gymnasium Floor and Other Theatrical Adventures, he contended that ‘‘The Front Page isn’t really faithful to the early twenties or later twenties or to anything in particular. Its authors admitted that at the time.’’

Alan Brien of Plays and Players, viewed the script as the reason for its agelessness. ‘‘It still works, like an ancient nickelodeon, because of the craftsmenship of its authors.’’

In 1986–87, The Front Page was revived on Broadway. Critics noticed how the play echoed contemporary America. Robert Brustein of The New Republic asserted that ‘‘Mosher believes The Front Page to be the finest American play ever written. I’m not prepared to go that far with him, but the Lincoln Center production certainly makes the case with persuasive eloquence.’’

Later in his piece, Brustein maintained that ‘‘for all the double crosses, good-nature chicanery, and idiomatic wisecracks, the play provides a glimpse of the seamy side of American politics and press practices that is ferociously contemporary.’’

Similar assessments were made about a 1994 revival at Canada’s Shaw Festival. Michael A. Morrison of The Village Voice points out that ‘‘At times the play shows its age. The misogyny of the reporters and references to the black citizens with the N-word grate on the ear, but the play’s satirical flogging of political correctness (half a century before the phrase was coined) is engagingly contemporary.’’ Similarly, John Bemrose of Maclean’s writes ‘‘Anyone who thinks that current TV programs such as The Simpsons—where crude putdowns are the rule—represent a disturbing new trend in American life should consult The Front Page.’’

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