Maxwell Anderson 1888-1959
American playwright, essayist, and poet.
The following entry provides criticism on Anderson's works from 1970 through 1999. For criticism prior to 1970, see TCLC, Volume 2.
Anderson was a prolific and versatile playwright best known for his revival of verse drama and his application of the tenets of Aristotelian tragedy to the modern stage. Anderson's work ranged from historical drama to comedy, musicals to serious political pieces. Some plays were written simply to entertain, others to galvanize an audience into political action or to fight injustice. In addition to a substantial output of plays, Anderson published poetry, editorial commentary, and literary criticism. He also adapted a number of prose works for stage and screen. Of his generation of American playwrights, only Eugene O'Neill left a comparable artistic legacy.
Anderson was born on December 15, 1888, in Atlantic, Pennsylvania, to William Lincoln and Charlotta Perrimela Stephenson Anderson. Because his father was an itinerant Baptist preacher, Anderson's schooling was interrupted repeatedly by his father's work. In 1911 Anderson graduated from the University of North Dakota and married Margaret C. Haskett, a fellow student. He taught high school English for two years, periodically publishing poetry in the New Republic. After graduate study at Stanford University, where he wrote a master's thesis on William Shakespeare, Anderson returned to teaching English for three years before being appointed head of the English Department at Whittier College in Southern California. However, Anderson was discharged in his first year for his strong anti-war stance. He then joined the editorial staff of the New Republic, moving on to the New York Evening Globe and the New York World while continuing to write poetry. Anderson soon realized that poetry would not support him, so he turned to drama for its financial promise. After a series of apprentice pieces, Anderson collaborated with Laurence Stallings, a veteran of World War I, on his first major play, What Price Glory? (1924). The success of this shocking but realistic portrayal of war enabled Anderson to quit journalism and establish himself as a playwright. Anderson achieved great success as a playwright, collaborating with such notables of the American stage as Stallings, Harold Hickerson, and Kurt Weill. In 1931 his wife died, and two years later he married Gertrude Maynard. The same year, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Both Your Houses (1933), and he won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Winterset (1935) and High Tor (1937). Anderson also wrote screenplay adaptations for Hollywood films, including the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front, Death Takes a Holiday (1934), and Joan of Arc (1948), based on his own play Joan of Lorraine (1946). The last decade of Anderson's life was clouded by financial problems and Maynard's suicide. In 1954 he married actress Gilda Oakleaf. He died of a stroke at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, on February 28, 1959.
Anderson had little success with his early plays. But with Elizabeth the Queen (1930), Anderson defined for the first time his hallmark mode of poetic tragedy and his use of historical settings. Throughout the 1930s he continued his exploration of tragedy and combined historical and contemporary themes. Both Your Houses is a satirical portrait of the United States Congress. In Mary of Scotland (1933) he returned to poetic tragedy. In Winterset, considered one of his greatest achievements, Anderson used the Sacco-Vanzetti case to explore the moral questions of guilt and forgiveness. His next play, High Tor—also a critical and popular success—was a combination of tragedy and farce in which Anderson developed his capacity for fanciful stagings of moral issues. Key Largo (1939), which concerns the conscience-stricken aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, marks the beginning of Anderson's involvement in the Allied struggle against fascism. The start of World War II brought a new urgency to Anderson's moral vision, and he immediately put his art at the service of the war effort. The retrospective tone of Key Largo gave way in Candle in the Wind (1941) to alarm at the Nazi invasion of France and a call to action. The success of Anderson's most important play of the war, The Eve of St. Mark (1942), was due to his own experiences with troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His involvement in the Allied effort deepened when he traveled to North Africa to research Storm Operation (1944). With the war over, Anderson once more turned his attention to historical subject matter, but now with an increasing interest in formal dramatic problems rather than poetic tragedy, as in Joan of Lorraine, with its “play within a play” structure, and Anne of the Thousand Days (1948), with its flashbacks from Anne Boleyn's impending execution. With his humanist play Lost in the Stars (1949), an adaptation of Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country, Anderson returned to the theme of moral urgency that had characterized his best work.
Despite Anderson's huge canon and many successes, he has been relatively neglected by critics since his death. Nonetheless, in the body of criticism that is devoted to him, Anderson is highly admired for bringing verse drama onto the American stage, as well as for his use of historical settings to explore contemporary themes. He remains one of the most important representatives of twentieth-century American theater.