Of the fifteen plays that comprise Robert Sherwood’s dramatic compositions, The Petrified Forest is the eighth and thus stands almost in the center of his creative work, chronologically as well as artistically. It was the first of his three masterworks composed within a three-year period (The Petrified Forest, pr., pb. 1935; Idiot’s Delight, pr., pb. 1936; Abe Lincoln in Illinois, pr. 1938, pb. 1939) and the first to treat seriously the theme of idealism and the decline of Western values.
His first play, The Road to Rome (pr., pb. 1927), poked fun at the bourgeois values of ancient Rome—in an analogy to the materialistic American society of the 1920’s—and defended the ideal of pacificism through the love affair between Hannibal and Amytis, who persuades her lover to renounce war. After several less successful works, Sherwood produced Reunion in Vienna (pr. 1931, pb. 1932), another comedy, this one satirizing Freudian psychology. It was followed by Acropolis (pr. 1933), which drew a pointed analogy between the death of the democratic ideal in ancient Athens and the growing totalitarianism of Europe in the 1930’s.
These plays clearly show Sherwood as a versatile dramatist, trying his hand at the popular comedy of manners, a form exemplified by the work of his contemporary Philip Barry, at sentimental comedy, and at thinly veiled fables, such as Acropolis. As one of the country’s foremost film critics during the 1920’s, Sherwood understood the popular taste, and some cinematic characteristics are evident in his work, as, for example, in the shoot-out in The Petrified Forest. Interestingly, the role of Duke Mantee, both on Broadway and in the screen version, was played by Humphrey Bogart.
Like many of his generation who had served in World War I, Sherwood, who had been wounded, returned with scars deeper than the simply physical. He perceived the world as on the brink—civilization bankrupt, society bereft of values. His plays suggest a need for tolerance and understanding. The compassion of Abe Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a play which garnered for Sherwood one of his three Pulitzer Prizes, differs only in degree and circumstance from the kindred understanding of Duke Mantee and the gentle sadness of Alan Squier.
The Petrified Forest thus treats idealism not as a comedy of manners but as melodrama, what the erstwhile film critic himself called a “good show.” As such, its themes are clearly related to the earlier works while also looking ahead to the defeatism of Idiot’s Delight and to the serene integrity of the young Lincoln in Illinois. The Petrified Forest makes no claim for the liberal or the conservative, for the Americanism of the workingman or the leftist beliefs of the intellectual. It merely dramatizes the dilemma between them, the polarity between freedom and death, reality and idealism.