Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1280
The Petrified Forest takes place in the diner of the Black Mesa Filling Station and Bar-B-Q in the desert of eastern Arizona on an autumn day in 1934. As the first scene opens, two telegraph linemen who are eating lunch at the diner discuss political theory. The First Lineman believes that the Russian Communist revolution is destined to spread to the rest of the world, and the second is skeptical. Jason Maple, the proprietor of the Black Mesa, enters and tells Boze, his employee, that there is a car outside waiting for gas. Gramp Maple, Jason’s father, enters the linemen’s conversation, telling about when he came to the desert fifty-six years earlier and about the interesting historical figures he has met, including Billy the Kid. Jason becomes annoyed at the First Lineman’s support of Communism. As he leaves, the First Lineman mentions a massacre in Oklahoma, referring to Duke Mantee’s escape from jail; throughout the rest of the scene, the approach of the Mantee gang is mentioned often.
Jason talks with Gramp about selling the Black Mesa so that he can use the money to open a motel in Los Angeles. When he goes to change for his American Legion meeting, his daughter Gabby is left alone with Boze. Boze is a former football star, and he is brash and cocky. He tries unsuccessfully to flirt with Gabby. He looks at the poetry she reads and is not interested; he shows her newspaper clippings about his college football glory, but she does not care.
A dusty hitchhiker, Alan Squier, enters the diner and orders food. Gramp talks to him about Mantee and about Billy the Kid. Gabby tells Squier about her ambition to go to France to study painting, after he notices her reading the poetry of a French writer. He tells her his story—that he wrote one novel and then lived in France for eight years trying to write another—with the wife he stole from his publisher —and Gabby begins to trust him enough to show her paintings, which she will not show anyone else. As they talk about their lives, she asks if he would like to run off to France with her, asking, ‘‘Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?’’ He admits his attraction but says he must leave. Gabby arranges for Squier to get a ride with the Chisolms, a wealthy couple with a chauffeur who have stopped for gas.
Before he leaves, Squier asks Gabby for one kiss, which is interrupted by Boze’s entrance. Boze becomes threatening when Squier cannot pay his thirty-cent tab, but Gabby tells Squier to just leave and, in addition, gives him a dollar. When he is gone, Boze propositions Gabby again. Remembering the way Squier encouraged her to embrace life and upset about being rejected by him, she agrees to go out into the field with Boze, but they are stopped when Duke Mantee and his gang force them back into the diner.
Mantee is described in the stage directions as having ‘‘one quality of resemblance to Alan Squier; he too is unmistakably condemned.’’ The workers are rounded up: Boze is hostile and threatening, while Gramp Maple tells the gangsters how Old West marshal Wild Bill Hickock filed down the trigger catch on his gun so he could kill five men in quick succession. Mantee tells the cook to make some food, and he orders drinks for everyone— even Gramp, over Gabby’s objections. Act 1 ends when Alan Squier reenters, saying that the Chisolms’ car was hijacked by the Mantee gang. When he sees that he is in the middle of a hostage situation, he is excited: ‘‘It’s pleasant to be back again—among the living. . . . Hooray!’’
Act II begins about a half hour after the end of act I. It opens with Gramp telling stories of some more obscure killers he has known. They listen to a radio broadcast, which describes the search for Duke Mantee as ‘‘the greatest manhunt in human history.’’ It mentions a second getaway car, populated by three men and a woman. They have stopped at the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q to rendezvous with the other members of the gang and specifically with the woman, Doris.
When Boze calls Squier to task for the liquor he has been drinking, Squier says that he can pay for it. Boze questions this, since he had no money to pay for his meal earlier, and Squier eventually admits that Gabby gave him a dollar. Angry, Boze starts to tell Squier about how she was prepared to go off and have sex with him before Mantee arrived, but Gabby stops him. Boze professes his love for her, and she, in turn, professes her love for Squier. Squier tells her that she should lavish her love on Duke: ‘‘There’s your real mate—another child of nature.’’ When she points out that he has been drinking too much, he explains that both he and Boze are suffering from impotence because the gangsters have taken control of their actions.
Mr. and Mrs. Chisolm and their chauffeur, Joseph, walk up, having waited for Squier to come back with help after the Mantee gang stole their car. Boze dives on a machine gun and gets the drop on Mantee, but Mrs. Chisolm enters and, seeing men with guns, screams. Her scream distracts Boze enough for Mantee to draw his pistol and fire, hitting him in the hand. He is led into the back room to be bandaged, but his heroic action makes Squier want to do something just as notable. Squier takes out a five-thousand-dollar life insurance policy from his bag and makes it out to Gabby, asking the Chisolms to act as witnesses, to make it legal. He then asks Mantee, who is already sentenced to die for multiple murders, to kill him before leaving the diner, and Mantee agrees.
There is tension when Pyles, the black member of the Mantee gang, offers a drink to Joseph, the Chisolms’s black chauffeur. Joseph asks Mr. Chisolm if it is all right to accept the drink and Pyles finds his attitude degrading: ‘‘Ain’t you heard about the big liberation?’’ he asks. ‘‘Come on—take your drink, weasel.’’ Joseph drinks it, but only after Mr. Chisolm nods his permission.
As she becomes slightly drunk, Mrs. Chisolm turns against her husband. She responds to Gabby’s idealism by recalling how her own family squelched her dreams of becoming an actress and how she married Chisolm, a boring banker, in order to be respectable. She openly propositions Duke Mantee: he is uninterested, and her husband is embarrassed.
Jason Maple arrives at the Black Mesa with members of his American Legion post, and the gangsters capture them. They bring the news that the other part of the Mantee mob has been captured and that the woman, Doris, has become an informer for the federal agents who are hunting Duke. Mantee’s associates tell him that they have to flee, quickly. He hesitates, and Squier encourages him not to let himself become wrapped up in thoughts of revenge but, instead, to run and be free. The local sheriff and his deputies surround the diner and have a shootout with the gangsters. Some members of the gang are killed. Mantee and the rest take hostages with them to ride on the car’s running board as human shields. As he is leaving, Mantee turns and shoots Squier. The sheriff’s men commandeer Jason’s car to chase them, and the other characters, including Boze and Gramp, surround Squier and pronounce their respect for him as he dies.
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