Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628

The Petrified Forest is generally considered to be the start of Robert Sherwood’s most prolific period as a playwright, during which he won three Pulitzer Prizes for drama within five years. Even when The Petrified Forest was first produced, it was recognized as a sign of a major literary career. Brian Doherty, writing in the magazine Canadian Forum, noted that this play and the one Sherwood wrote before it, Reunion in Vienna, ‘‘definitely establish Sherwood’s right to be ranked as one of the leading American dramatists.’’ Many critics found the play to be technically complex and intellectually challenging in its structure. One was John Howard Lawson, who used it as an example in his 1936 essay, ‘‘The Technique of the Modern Play.’’ Lawson observed how Sherwood’s approach to his material was ‘‘as static as the point of view of the hero,’’ identifying only one real action in the entire production, when Mantee kills Squier at the end. ‘‘From a structural point of view,’’ Lawson wrote, ‘‘the deed is neither climactic nor spontaneous, because it is a repetition-situation.’’ This acknowledgement of the play’s lack of traditional dramatic action in its structure is not a criticism, just an acknowledgement of the style Sherwood used to capture Squier’s intellectual condition.

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Edith J. R. Isaacs, on the other hand, was openly critical of the way Sherwood handled the situation in The Petrified Forest. In her essay ‘‘Robert Sherwood: Man of the Hour,’’ which was written near the height of Sherwood’s dramatic career in 1939, she praised the craftsmanship he displayed in Reunion in Vienna but went on to say that ‘‘[t]hen, to disturb the critics’ placidity, came The Petrified Forest, with one of the best first acts Sherwood has ever written . . . and with a second act that rides full tilt into the most specious hokum with which the playwright has ever made a compromise.’’ Isaacs conceded that the structure of the play is meant to show the contrast between Squier’s inability to act and Mantee’s violent outburst at the end, but she did not think his attempt to combine structure and content was successful, nor did she find it worth doing in this case. ‘‘It is sincerely hoped that Mr. Sherwood regrets writing The Petrified Forest after Reunion in Vienna,’’ Isaacs wrote.

Critics in general have not been as harsh in their judgment as Isaacs, but they have been willing to concede that the play may not work as well on the philosophical level as it does on the dramatic one. What Isaacs found problematic and branded as ‘‘hokum,’’ more recent critics have accepted as entertainment. One critic who was able to view the play at a distance of more than twenty years was Joseph Wood Krutch, who singled it out in his 1957 book, The American Dream since 1918: An Informal History. After noting Sherwood’s serious intent in writing the play, Krutch explained that the author’s sincerity was irrelevant in this case, because Sherwood was such a gifted craftsman that he could make the play work anyway: ‘‘The Petri- fied Forest could succeed on its superficial merits alone,’’ Krutch writes, ‘‘and one has some diffi- culty in deciding whether or not one has been charmed into granting it virtues deeper than any it really has.’’ Because philosophical issues have changed over time and the question of meaning and meaninglessness is not the pressing social concern that it was in the first half of the last century, recent appraisals of the play tend to focus away from its worldview and, like Krutch, to appreciate Sherwood’s control of language and situation. Some critics still feel that the situation is too contrived to make The Petrified Forest the serious drama that it presents itself to be.

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