Sherwood's Play a Comedy

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1877

Robert E. Sherwood’s 1935 play The Petrified Forest, delves into deep topics concerning love and existence, and it ends with one man shooting another in cold blood—but at its core it is a comedy. This might seem an odd idea to audiences who find few outright laughs in the play. A better way to judge it overall, though, might be for audiences to ask what effect the play has had on them when it is done. Most viewers would probably find that they are sorrier for hopeless intellectual Alan Squier’s loss of ideas than they are for his actual death, and that gangster Duke Mantee being ‘‘doomed,’’ as Sherwood describes him in a stage direction, is not really such a bad thing at all. The basic distinction between tragedy and comedy, as defined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, is that in tragedy everything turns out badly, regardless of who is good and who has good intentions, whereas in comedy things turn out well. A further distinction, which derives from the first, holds that tragic characters are the ones audiences come to care deeply about and empathize with, whereas comic characters are held at an objective distance, where their successes and failures can be observed as part of one grand and generally benevolent scheme.

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The characters in The Petrified Forest are passionate, sometimes; they have personality traits that most people can relate to, even when those traits are submerged in broadly painted caricatures. What happens to them, even the lead characters, is less compelling to audiences than the ways in which they interact. They operate like cardboard cutouts that are posed in interesting positions, which is not at all unusual for comedy. The play is enjoyable, and it is thought-provoking in a large, abstract sense, but Sherwood is only able to achieve its many virtues by rendering all of the characters as types.

The most obvious of these is, of course, Gramp Maple, the grizzled old-timer who wanders around the stage looking for someone willing to listen to his stories about how life used to be, when his life was vibrant and what he did and said actually mattered. His is a character type that appears in all cultures, a reminder of how times change. Sherwood makes Gramp interesting by making his values the opposite of what audiences would expect. Normally, the ‘‘cranky old man’’ figure will have conservative values, because he feels that the old order that he’s been comfortable with is being overrun by lawless criminal attitudes. Gramp, on the other hand, is sick of order. He misses the challenges of the uncivilized frontier. But turning the stereotype around by having Gramp cheer the troublemakers does not make him less of a stereotype; he’s just doing the unexpected: surprising the audience in the way that good comedy often does.

Gramp is given his nemesis in his son, Jason, who is pompous, arrogant, and devoted to the social order in an almost maniacal way. Jason, too, is a character type. Early in the play, he is rankled by the Communist lineman. Rather than revealing any further dimensions to his character as the play progresses, Sherwood proceeds to magnify this one trait of gung-ho patriotism by putting Jason in a ridiculous uniform and having him grab a gun that he is obviously (compared to the play’s gangsters) unqualified to use. His foolish nature holds true to form when the posse he has joined to capture the Mantee gang is itself captured and immediately disarmed.

Boze Hertzlinger, whom Alan Squier sarcastically refers to by his jersey number when he calls him ‘‘Number 42 out there,’’ never really rises above the stereotype of the washed-up athlete. Sherwood does try, in the second act, to add depth to Boze by having him swear true love to Gabby, but this has little effect on her or, therefore, to the audience. Boze’s most notable action is in making a grab for a shotgun and turning it on the notorious killers, but this does not really say anything about him that was not already present from the beginning. Sherwood does say in the stage notes that Boze’s voice is ‘‘strained’’ when announcing that he is not afraid to die, indicating that he actually is, but this does not mean that he is a coward, and since he is not an established coward, his courageous act does not represent the turning point that it seems meant to be. Boze starts out as a self-deluded braggart, and his claim of love and his leap for the gun do nothing to contradict that.

Any consideration of the comic elements of The Petrified Forest would be incomplete without mentioning the Chisolms. Mr. Chisolm is the kind of character who would have delighted depression audiences: though he is rich, he is not necessarily better than anyone and generally is, in fact, quite worse. His wealth is of no use to him at the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q. He is foolish enough to try to bargain with a tough guy like Duke Mantee. Like a character from Aesop’s Fables, he tries to be thrifty and ends up losing all of his money. His wife openly despises him and mocks his sexual virility in public. Chisolm’s final instructions to his wife are played as pure, unabashed comedy. The comic set-up—‘‘[i]f I’m killed and you’re not’’—leads audiences to expect some emotional dimension that Chisolm has not shown so far, some tenderness even after she has humiliated him. The comic payoff is that she should ‘‘notify Jack Lavery. He has full instructions,’’ showing him to be a heartless bureaucrat to the end.

Secondary characters can be comic figures without the play itself being a comedy. The focus of the play is, after all, on Alan Squier, Gabby Maple, and Duke Mantee. These characters have more problems, more issues to discuss, and they provide more for the audience to empathize with. They certainly do not seem at first to exist in a comedy. There is a difference, though, between involving the audience with the character’s issues and involving them with the actual character. Even these lead characters, whose ideas are explored in detail, end up functioning more as symbols of people than as convincing, rounded characters.

In the case of Duke Mantee, much of the play’s emotional distance is probably intentional. He is a media-star gangster, his viciousness hyped in newspapers and on the radio and by his henchman Jackie, who precedes Duke into the restaurant announcing, ‘‘This is Duke Mantee, folks. He’s the worldfamous killer and he’s hungry.’’ In person, though, Mantee does not act like the heartless animal that others say he is. When Boze threatens to shoot him, he stops him by just injuring him slightly, only as necessary—hardly the sort of thing a soulless killer would do to keep his hostages in line. The fact that he changes positions late in the play and decides that Gramp should not have any liquor, because ‘‘[t]he girl says he oughtn’t to have it,’’ implies a growing concern for the old man’s health. And his insistence on waiting for Doris shows him to be, at least in part, as much of a fool for romance as anyone. The structure of the script requires that audiences believe there is at least a slight possibility that Mantee will not shoot Alan Squier in the end, and so these humane touches are necessary for story construction. His contradictory actions do not really make him a complex character, though. A case could be made that Mantee finds himself going soft as he bonds with the people in the diner and that he shoots Alan to reaffirm to himself that he will not let sentiment pull him down, but that does not explain why he would let Boze off so lightly. He shoots Squier to assert his animal nature over Squier’s intellectualism. This much is clear on the abstract level, but it does not fit with his actions. His personality quirks are understandable for symbolic purposes, but they are too far removed from real human behavior to consider this a tragic drama.

Alan Squier seems to be the play’s focal character, the one that audiences are supposed to relate to, but under scrutiny he proves himself to be little more than a big, walking allegory. He has allegedly come across the desert without a penny on him, forging ahead, even though life has no meaning for him. The reason life has no meaning appears to be that he has read much but could not write his second novel. Still, he retains a poetic appreciation for metaphor. He lights up at the appropriateness of the Petrified Forest as symbolic of all of society’s ills, and when he starts to admit to finding meaning in his life, he expresses it just as poetically: ‘‘I’ve found what I was looking for here in the Valley of the Shadow.’’ It is easier to understand Squier’s concerns in theory than it is to understand him. Squier himself would be the first to admit that his death is a symbolic end to a symbolic life. It is not comic in a ‘‘funny’’ sense but comic in that audiences feel comfortable with seeing him go.

At the end of the play, Gabby remains. She grieves for Squier, the man that she fell deeply in love with hours ago, during their first conversation. What has she lost? The company of the man who engaged her in intellectual conversation and clever talk, trying to convince her that intellectuality and cleverness are worthless. What has she gained? Five thousand dollars in insurance money. She starts out the play with romantic dreams of Villon’s France and ends it reading Villon over that most romantic image of all, a lover who died young. With all of the gunplay and shouting, not much changes for Gabby throughout the course of the play except that she finds herself rich enough to leave Arizona.

The Petrified Forest is a comedy with more frights than laughs. It presents itself as an exploration of modern ideas, but, in the process of putting those ideas into the mouths of characters, Sherwood has turned them into self-fulfilling prophecies. Duke Mantee is a murderer with some kind traits, but basically he is the murderer that everyone says he is. Alan Squier shows up at the Black Mesa thinking that ideas are irrelevant and that he is obsolete, and in the end he dies, and none of the survivors seems to have registered a word that he said (a fate that he seems to wish upon himself by prompting Gabby with the Villon poem she reads at the end, as if he is pushing her back to the emotional place she was when he arrived). Gabby Maple dreams of France in the beginning, and at the end she has her opportunity to go there. As Alan tells her, after he has arranged his own death, ‘‘Maybe we will be happy together in a funny kind of way.’’

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Petrified Forest, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.


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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1304

Reunion in Vienna may not be intrinsically very important or even, in view of its close approach to the spirit of mid-European comedy, very original. With some show of reason one might, however, hail it as marking an epoch in the history of one of those minor folk ambitions which are seldom recorded even in histories of culture. From their earliest days the Washington Square Players were wistfully anxious to be, among other things, ‘‘continental,’’ and the American intellectual often exiled himself in Europe for no better reason than that American authors were incapable of treating a chronicle of light love lightly. Here at last Mr. Sherwood had succeeded completely where others had failed; he was as ‘‘continental’’ as though he had been born in Budapest. One more of the reproaches traditionally leveled against American culture had been triumphantly answered. The works of Mr. Molnar need make us feel inferior no longer.

Possibly Mr. Sherwood himself decided that, having demonstrated his talents in this direction once, it was not necessary to demonstrate them again. In any event he soon proved that he could invent for himself a form as thoroughly American as it was novel, and he produced with great success two plays of which the second at least may perhaps best be described as a didactic vaudeville—a melodramatic farce-with-a-moral in which the author manages to discuss a current problem while maintaining all the superficial excitement, all the bustle and all the raffish humor, of Broadway. Mr. Sherwood is an intellectual by education as well as by temperament, but he has demonstrated that by taking thought he can beat more naïve dramatists at their own game.

Of the two plays, the one which it is most easy to take with complete seriousness is The Petrified Forest (1935), which came first. Its brilliant and instantaneous success need surprise no one. Writing so suave and acting so ingratiating would have been enough to insure the popularity of a play far less interesting in itself, and even now, indeed, they make it difficult to be sure just how substantially good it really is. Mr. Sherwood had something to say and he was obviously in earnest. He was also, however, too accomplished a craftsman to ask indulgence from any Broadway audience, since he knows the tricks of his trade and has a witty fluency quite sufficient to make something out of nothing. He could fool us to the top of our bent if that was what he wanted to do, and we may take it for granted that at least half of his delighted audience would have liked the play for reasons which have little to do with its theme. The Petrified Forest could succeed upon its superficial merits alone, and one has some difficulty in deciding whether or not one has been charmed into granting it virtues deeper than any it really has.

To begin with, the play is quite capable of standing on its feet as a simple comedy melodrama of a familiar type. The lonely filling station on the edge of the desert has been used before, and so has the band of fleeing desperadoes which descends upon it to take charge temporarily of the assorted persons who happen to find themselves there. In itself all this is merely sure-fire theatrical material, and so is the fresh and innocent rebelliousness of the budding young girl, who happens in this case to be the proprietor’s daughter. Add, for love interest, a penniless young man who has made a failure at writing, and there is still little to distinguish the play from very ordinary stage fare. Imagine further that the dialogue is bright and the characterization crisply realistic. You have now a play admirably calculated to please anyone intelligent enough to prefer that even the routine should be well performed. What is more, this routine play can easily be detached from all the meanings which Mr. Sherwood has given it. It is complete in itself and it is, as I remarked before, quite capable of standing alone.

Yet for all this, it is plain enough that the play is double and that the familiar situations may be taken, not at their face value, but as symbols. Solidly realistic as the filling station is, it is obviously intended also as a place out of space and time where certain men can meet and realize that they are not only individuals but phenomena as well. Though there is no obvious patterning, no hint of plain allegory even for an instant, the characters represent the protagonists in what the author conceives to be the Armageddon of society. The young man is that civilized and sophisticated intelligence which has come to the end of its tether; the young girl is aspiration toward that very sensitivity and that very kind of experience which he has not ceased to admire but which have left him bankrupt at last. About them are the forces with which they realize they cannot grapple: raucous bluster in the commander of the American Legion, dead wealth in the touring banker, primitive anarchy resurgent in the killer and his gang. By whatever grotesque name the filling station may call itself, and no matter how realistic the hamburger being served across its lunch counter as ‘‘today’s special’’ may be, the desert tavern is also Heartbreak House, a disintegrating microcosm from which the macrocosm may be deduced. And the moral—or at least the only one which the only fully articulate person in the play can deduce—is a gloomy one. What Mr. Sherwood calls Nature, and what a poet once called Old Chaos, is coming again. We thought that she was beaten. We had learned her laws and we seemed to manipulate her according to our will. But she is bound to have her way again. She cannot get at us with floods and pestilence because we are too clever for that. But she has got us through the mind and the spirit. Intelligence can no longer believe in anything, not even in itself. It can only stand idly by with refinement and gallantry and perception while the world is taken over by the apes once more. And so when the bullets of the posse begin to shatter the windows, the young man and the young woman drop to the floor in each other’s arms. It is a symbol of all they know or can still believe in, but they have no illusion that it is enough.

When Cervantes had finished the first part of Don Quixote, he was visited, so he says, by a friend to whom he confessed his inability to describe in any Introduction what his aim in the book might be; and upon this the friend replied that he should not worry about either explanations or meanings. ‘‘Strive,’’ said he, ‘‘that the simple shall not be wearied and the great shall not disprove it.’’ One can hardly deny that the method worked in that particular instance, and it works again in the case of Mr. Sherwood’s play. I have, to be sure, a lingering feeling that there are dangers inherent in the effort to write on two levels at once, and some scruples about accepting as symbols things as familiar in their literal use as some which The Petrified Forest employs. There is an unresolvable ambiguity at times, not only concerning the meaning but also concerning the emotional tone, and the melodrama as such sometimes gets in the way of the intellectual significance. But such objections are purely intellectual. Mr. Sherwood achieved the almost impossible feat of writing a play which is first-rate theatrical entertainment and as much more than that as one cares to make it.

Source: Joseph Wood Krutch, ‘‘Comedy,’’ in The American Drama since 1918, George Braziller, Inc., 1957, pp. 134–225.

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Critical Overview