Maxwell Anderson Anderson, Maxwell - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

White Desert (play) 1923

What Price Glory? [with Laurence Stallings] (play) 1924

The Buccaneer [with Laurence Stallings] (play) 1925

First Flight [with Laurence Stallings] (play) 1925

Outside Looking In (play) 1925

You Who Have Dreams (poetry) 1925

Gypsy (play) 1927

Saturday's Children (play) 1927

Gods of the Lightning [with Harold Hickerson] (play) 1928

The Essence of Tragedy and Other Footnotes and Papers (essays) 1929

All Quiet on the Western Front (screenplay) 1930

Elizabeth the Queen (play) 1930

Night Over Taos (play) 1932

Rain (screenplay) 1932

Both Your Houses (play) 1933

Mary of Scotland (play) 1933

Death Takes a Holiday [with Gladys Lehman] (screenplay) 1934

Valley Forge (play) 1934

So Red the Rose [with Laurence Stallings and Edwin Justus Mayer] (screenplay) 1935

Winterset (play) 1935

The Wingless Victory (play) 1936

High Tor (play) 1937

The Masque of Kings (play) 1937

The Star-Wagon (play) 1937

Knickerbocker Holiday [with music by Kurt Weill] (play) 1938

Key Largo (play) 1939

Journey to Jerusalem (play) 1940

Candle in the Wind (play) 1941

The Eve of St. Mark (play) 1942

Storm Operation (play) 1944

Joan of Lorraine (play) 1946

Off Broadway: Essays about the Theatre (essays) 1947

Anne of the Thousand Days (play) 1948

Joan of Arc [with Andrew P. Solt] (screenplay) 1948

Lost in the Stars (play) 1949

Barefoot in Athens (play) 1951

The Bad Seed (play) 1954

Dramatist in America: Letters of Maxwell Anderson, 1912-1958 (letters) 1977

Arthur T. Tees (essay date winter 1970)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tees, Arthur T. “Legal and Poetic Justice in Maxwell Anderson's Plays.” North Dakota Quarterly 38, no. 1 (winter 1970): 25-31.

[In the following essay, Tees notes that although Anderson's characters rarely find justice within the American legal system, they do achieve poetic justice outside of it.]

Maxwell Anderson was frequently interested in the problem of justice in his plays. Eleven of his thirty-one Broadway productions were directly concerned with justice inside and outside the courtroom. In only one of these eleven, however, is there any optimism that legal procedures can bring justice; the characters in the remaining ten plays find justice outside but not inside the courtroom. Legal injustice and poetic justice are the rule in Anderson's plays.

Anderson's attitude toward the different kinds of justice—that dispensed by the courts and that found elsewhere in life—is summarized in a passage from Anne of the Thousand Days. The ill-fated Queen asks the Lord Chancellor, “Do you love justice, Sir Thomas?” To which More replies, “Now where would I have seen it? … Still, men do seem to get what they deserve—in a rough way—over a long period.”1 If England's leading jurist had not seen justice, it was not likely to be found in the courts. And through Sir Thomas More, Anderson was speaking not only of More's era but of the twentieth century as well.

The lack of justice in courts of law is a theme which Anderson first voiced in 1925 in Outside Looking In. Based on Jim Tully's novel, Beggars of Life, this play has as its central theme the conviction that there is more justice to be found among the hoboes who are outside of organized society than can be found within society itself. Thus Edna, who vengefully killed her stepfather because he seduced her and started her on a life of prostitution, is aided in her escape from the North Dakota authorities to the sanctuary of Canada. In the process the hoboes who befriend her hold a kangaroo court in which the hobo “judge” comments on organized justice as he has known it:

Be it known by those present that this here court will dispense with justice for the present, like every other court in this land of the millionaire and home of the slave. This here court is a bar … for the subornation of evidence and the laying down of the law. Gentlemen may cry for justice, gentlemen may plead for justice, but I tell you that a court is a place where justice can be evaded by anybody that's able to afford it.2

In Outside Looking In Anderson commented on legal or courtroom justice without actually showing it in action. But in collaborating with Harold Hickerson on Gods of the Lightning, he demonstrated directly the type of justice he felt was common in the courts. This 1928 drama, based on the famous Sacco-Vanzetti trial of the same period, was the most devastating indictment of courtroom jurisprudence to come from his pen. All opportunities for justice are ruthlessly blocked by the dramatists in the trial of two innocent men for the murder of a pay-master during a robbery.

The Gods of the Lightning cast includes (1) a district attorney under political pressure to obtain a conviction he knows is wrong, (2) a defense attorney who, because of personal indiscretions, can be threatened with exposure if his defense is effective, (3) a judge who overrules every objection of the defense while sustaining those of the prosecution, and (4) a jury foreman who asks one of the accused if he was the man who planted a bomb under the foreman's front porch the night before the trial. In addition there are prosecution witnesses who swear to things they were not in a position to see and a misinterpreted ballistics report. The stage is set for an inevitable miscarriage of justice.

The extreme nature of the indictment of American jurisprudence in Gods of the Lightning may have been due in part to the play's proximity in time to its subject; the Sacco-Vanzetti trial was a much-criticized event even as the play was being presented. However, the basic distrust of courtroom justice in it was hardly temporary, for a decade later Anderson again staged a miscarriage of justice in Knickerbocker Holiday. Set in seventeenth-century New Amsterdam, the musical comedy does not have as formal a trial as is found in Gods of the Lightning, but the city council which serves as both legislature and judiciary passes an equally fatal sentence upon the hero of the play, Brom Broeck. Broeck correctly but indiscreetly accuses his former employer, Tienhoven, of selling liquor and firearms to the Indians, a capital offense. Unfortunately, making accusations against the council is also a capital offense, and Tienhoven is a member of the council. Consequently it is Broeck, not Tienhoven, who is sentenced to hang. Tina, Tienhoven's daughter and Broeck's sweetheart, intervenes:

Father, father, would you hang the man I love?
He vas going to hang me, vasn't he?
But you were guilty!
THE Chorus:
Yes, you were guilty!
Not legally, I vasn't!
And he's innocent!
THE Chorus:
Yes, he's innocent!
Not legally, he's nod!
But it's not justice!
THE Chorus:
No, it's not justice!
Nobody said it vas justice! Ve said it vas legal!
But what are laws for, if not for justice?
I tell you dot some oder time, not now.(3)

For Tienhoven and Anderson, justice and legality were two different matters. Since Knickerbocker Holiday is a musical comedy, Broeck escapes hanging, but this is due to events outside the courtroom-council chamber.

Once again a decade passed before Anderson returned to the question of legal justice, and again his attitude remained unchanged. In Anne of the Thousand Days (1948) the Queen is tried for adultery. She is convicted on the testimony of Smeaton who perjures himself under torture. This injustice rebounds on the King, however, for having heard Smeaton's testimony, Henry wonders if it might be true after all. To taunt him, Anne corroborates Smeaton's story, forcing Henry to question the witness further until it becomes obvious that Smeaton is lying. Nevertheless, an innocent victim is sentenced to die in a miscarriage of courtroom justice.

The following year Anderson reiterated his distrust of the trial system in Lost in the Stars, a dramatization of Alan Paton's famous novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. Three Africans are accused of the murder of a white man during a robbery. All are in fact guilty, but only Absalom, son of a clergyman, admits his guilt at the trial; the others have witnesses who testify that they were elsewhere at the time of the killing. Although the judge suspects that Absalom is right in implicating the others, the evidence is insufficient, and Absalom alone is sentenced to die.

One of the songs of Lost in the Stars has as its haunting refrain the admonition that “the wild justice is not found in the haunts of men!”4 The song suggests that it is as easy to sieve up the moon from the sea or snare the rainbow as it is to catch the...

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Randall J. Buchanan (essay date winter 1970)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Buchanan, Randall J. “A Playwright's Progress.” North Dakota Quarterly 38, no. 1 (winter 1970): 60-73.

[In the following essay, Buchanan accounts for Anderson's success with the form of verse tragedy on the American stage.]

In the American theater in the first half of the twentieth century one playwright in the number of plays written and produced, stands out from the group. That man is Maxwell Anderson, who wrote approximately forty plays and radio scripts that include such varied forms as musical comedy, domestic comedy, historical drama, fantasy, and poetic tragedy. In volume of work alone Anderson stands above most of his contemporaries, and in variety...

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Esther M. Jackson (essay date March 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jackson, Esther M. “Maxwell Anderson: Poetry and Morality in the American Drama.” Educational Theatre Journal 25, no. 1 (March 1973): 15-33.

[In the following essay, Jackson discusses Anderson's role in the creation of an indigenous language for American drama.]

Poetry is … a way of using language … that impels the user … toward whatever vision he may be able to formulate of human destiny.1


One of the most widely discussed of the problems thought by many critics to have limited the maturation of American drama is that described as “language.” Critics such as...

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John Bush Jones (essay date March 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, John Bush. “Shakespeare as Myth and the Structure of Winterset.Educational Theatre Journal 25, no. 1 (March 1973): 34-45.

[In the following essay, Jones examines Anderson's allusions to Shakespeare in light of his theory of drama as myth.]

“I speak from a high place, far off, long ago, looking down.”1 Spoken by Mio early in the third act of Winterset, these words could as easily be the personal voice of Maxwell Anderson attempting to define the function—even the mission—of the dramatist. The aspect of Anderson's dramatic theory which sees drama as myth and the dramatist as myth-maker or prophet has been occasionally...

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Gerald Weales (essay date spring 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “And we're lost out here in the stars.” Southern Review 15, no. 2 (spring 1979): 513-18.

[In the following essay, Weales examines, through a review of Dramatist in America: Letters of Maxwell Anderson, 1912-1958, the theme of compromise both in Anderson's plays and in his life as he tried to balance his literary standards with his desire for critical and popular success.]

“It's true that she would compromise in little things—” says Mary Grey in Joan of Lorraine, finally agreeing with her director on how Joan of Arc should be played, “but it's also true that she would not compromise her belief—her own soul. She'd...

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Arthur T. Tees (essay date summer 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tees, Arthur T. “Maxwell Anderson's Changing Attitude toward War.” North Dakota Quarterly 48, no. 3 (summer 1980): 5-11.

[In the following essay, Tees finds evidence in Anderson's canon of his change from an anti-war stance to a less pacifist position later in his life.]

Maxwell Anderson, during his thirty-five year career as a playwright, was generally consistent in his treatment of themes. From first to last he was distrustful of government, although he was not, as a critic once characterized him, an anarchist.1 Anderson was ever concerned with individual freedom, from the ill-disciplined independent spirit of Flagg (What Price Glory?)...

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Lena Cowen Orlin (essay date summer 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Orlin, Lena Cowen. “Night over Taos: Maxwell Anderson's Sources and Artistry.” North Dakota Quarterly 48, no. 3 (summer 1980): 12-25.

[In the following essay, Orlin traces Anderson's source material for Night over Taos and defends the play against earlier criticism.]

The Group Theatre premiered Maxwell Anderson's Night Over Taos during its first season, in March of 1932. In his “Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties,” The Fervent Years, Group cofounder Harold Clurman remembered that his immediate impression of the script was “not a happy one. The play seemed bookish, contrived, uninspired. I was reluctant to have the...

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Jeffrey D. Mason (essay date summer 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mason, Jeffrey D. “Maxwell Anderson's Dramatic Theory and Key Largo.North Dakota Quarterly 48, no. 3 (summer 1980): 38-52.

[In the following essay, Mason discusses the ways in which Anderson broke from his own dramatic theories in Key Largo.]

Much of the scholarship written on Maxwell Anderson's plays has concentrated on the fact that many of them were written in verse. This tendency is not surprising; Anderson produced the largest body of American verse drama in the twentieth century. It is surprising, however, that the scholars who write about Anderson's dramatic theory have veered away from the verse issue in favor of the structure and...

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Jennifer Jones (essay date spring 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, Jennifer. “A Fictitious Injustice: The Politics of Conversation in Maxwell Anderson's The Gods of Lightning.American Drama 4, no. 2 (spring 1995): 81-96.

[In the following essay, Jones examines Anderson and Harold Hickerson's play The Gods of Lightning for its portrayal of the social and political climate of the era of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and questions the play's actual political viewpoint.]

Since I left the University, the practical side of my nature has won a complete victory over the academic, and I have become a Socialist. For some time I have been pondering over this complete change of front … at any...

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Tony Speranza (essay date fall 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Speranza, Tony. “Renegotiating the Frontier of American Manhood: Maxwell Anderson's High Tor.American Drama 5, no. 1 (fall 1995): 16-35.

[In the following essay, Speranza explores Anderson's depiction of changing ideals of American manhood in High Tor.]

“In these new times,” asks Lise, Maxwell Anderson's spectral ingenue in High Tor, “are all men shadow? / All men lost” (58)? Coming during the waning years of the Great Depression, these questions about the substance and location of American men resonated beyond the walls of the Martin Beck theatre. In January 1937, Anderson teamed with director Guthrie McClintic to bring together on...

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Barbara Lee Horn (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Horn, Barbara Lee. “Life and Career.” In Maxwell Anderson: A Research and Production Sourcebook, pp. 7-12. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Horn discusses Anderson's life and works, commenting on what contributions he made to the American theatre from 1920 through 1950.]

Maxwell Anderson was to the American theatre what Schiller was to the German or Rostand to the French theatres. If not their equals, he contributed to the American stage a romantic drama exalted in spirit and idealistic in aim. Although adept at writing the drama of realism, he held that nothing less than poetic tragedy would suffice great theatre. He brought...

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Atar Hadari (essay date spring 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hadari, Atar. “The Failed Verse Theatre of Maxwell Anderson.” American Drama 8, no. 2 (spring 1999): 83-98.

[In the following essay, Hadari explains why he considers Anderson's verse theater to be, ultimately, a failure.]

When Maxwell Anderson lived in upstate New York his nearest neighbor was John Howard Lawson, a playwright seven years his junior who'd managed with his first play to obtain a production from the Theatre Guild and a royalty advance of five hundred dollars. Five hundred dollars was the sum Anderson had had to borrow to make the down-payment on his new farm and the amount awed him. On being invited over one night to hear a reading of the play...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Shivers, Alfred S. The Life of Maxwell Anderson. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein and Day, 1983, 397 p.

Biography that traces Anderson's life and career.


Avery, Laurence G. “Maxwell Anderson and Both Your Houses.North Dakota Quarterly 38, no. 1 (winter 1970): 5-24.

Discusses Anderson's later revised version of his play Both Your Houses, which has never been available in print.

Gilbert, Robert L. “Mio Romagna: A New View of Maxwell Anderson's Winterset.North Dakota Quarterly 38, no. 1 (winter 1970): 33-43.


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