The Petrified Forest

by Robert E. Sherwood

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1056

As if suggesting a play of social protest, the action begins with a conversation between two telegraph linemen about freedom and socialism. The two are sitting in the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q, a filling station and café on the edge of the Arizona desert. Listening is Gramp Maple, the father of the proprietor; he tells the men of his pioneering days, especially of the time he was shot at by Billy the Kid. The talk thus leads to the subject of law and order, or the lack thereof, as evinced by Duke Mantee and his gang, who have massacred six people in an Oklahoma shoot-out and are now reported to be somewhere in the area. Jason Maple, the proprietor, is contemptuous of the gang and vows that he and his American Legion fellows will deal with them. Jason’s daughter, Gabby, has come in from the kitchen. Restless, impatient with her shallow father, she seems the controlling force of the place; she is a sensitive young woman who reads romantic poetry that Boze Hertzlinger, a gas-jockey and former college athlete, belittles with the self-assured cockiness of the failure. He is attracted to Gabby, but she curtly parries his advances.

Meanwhile, Alan Squier enters the eatery. Dressed in shabby elegance, shouldering a rucksack, and carrying a walking stick, Squier is a drifter, a sort of noble vagrant, a status that may be better understood in the context of the Depression. Gentle, soft-spoken, almost knightly, he takes a liking to the bluff innocence of Gabby, while she is vaguely attracted to his quiet urbanity. Finding a sympathetic ear, she tells Squier about her French mother, who married her father during World War I but who could not acclimatize to the desert and so returned to France, where Gabby hopes to go someday to visit her. Every year for her birthday her mother sends Gabby books of poems, and it is one of these books that she was just reading. At Squier’s request, Gabby recites a love poem by François Villon and expresses again her dream of going to France. Squier is touched by her innocence and sensitivity. He tells her of his own life: He wrote a self-consciously stark novel at age twenty-two; married his publisher’s wife, who ran off with him to the Mediterranean; lived as a frustrated, “inarticulate” writer for eight years, then left his wife and came to America to find “something to believe in.”

Convinced that she has found a kindred spirit and attracted by his knowledge of the world beyond the petrified forest of Arizona, Gabby shows Squier one of her paintings. He is impressed but bewildered, sensing Gabby’s restless, creative energy. He gently reproves her when she urges him to run off with her and take her to France. Instead, he asks her for a kiss as he prepares once more to set out on the road. Boze enters and in a jealous pique tries to throw Squier out, but Gabby checks him. Just then, Mr. and Mrs. Chisolm enter. Well-to-do, they are driving to California and have stopped to refuel. Gabby asks them to take Squier along. She and Squier shake hands in farewell.

After Squier and the Chisolms have gone, Boze romances Gabby, who agrees to walk with him in the desert moonlight. Before they leave, she begins to tell Boze about Squier’s remarks concerning man’s failure to conquer Nature, but just then the Mantee gang bursts in. Armed, the gang orders Gabby, Boze, and Gramp to stay calm while Duke Mantee orders food and drink. After a moment, Squier reenters to warn them about Mantee,...

(This entire section contains 1056 words.)

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who had intercepted the Chisolms and him on the road and exchanged cars. When Squier sees the gang, he resignedly asks for a drink. As the curtain closes, he raises his glass in a salute.

Act 2 opens half an hour later. Gramp has been recounting his pioneer days of law and disorder. Mantee has been listening to the radio news reports about his escape and the dragnet set for him. He is firm but civil in his demands for food and drink. Boze is openly defiant, but Mantee scornfully ignores him. When Boze grabs for a gun, Duke Mantee shoots him in the hand and warns Boze that next time he will kill him. Gabby comforts Boze, and they are taken out by one of the gang.

Meanwhile, Squier has been watching Mantee. The two have a subtle respect for each other; Squier in particular expresses his admiration for Mantee as a paragon of individualism. Even Mrs. Chisolm, who admits to having led a circumscribed life, declares her respect for Mantee.

This insight into Mantee as a kindred spirit prompts Squier to offer the gangster a startling proposition. Squier’s only asset is a life insurance policy to which he has not assigned a beneficiary. Perceiving Mantee as a “man of imagination,” Squier quietly asks him, along with Gramp and Mrs. Chisolm, to witness his designation of Gabby as his beneficiary. Then he pleads with Mantee to shoot him dead before leaving the cafe. Mrs. Chisolm at first believes Squier to be mad, but she then realizes that Squier is in love with Gabby and wants to give her a chance at a future. Mantee himself has already perceived Squier’s love and gently agrees to his request.

When Gabby returns from tending to Boze, Squier admits his love for her and encourages her to follow her dream. Just then Jason Maple and his fellow Legionnaires come into the café. The gang takes them prisoner, but Jason informs Mantee that the gang is trapped, as the sheriff and his posse are on their way. Shooting is heard outside as the sheriff arrives. There is much gunfire and everyone in the café keeps low. Mantee decides to make a run for freedom, but as he prepares to escape Squier reminds Mantee of his promise. Acknowledging that they will meet each other again soon, Mantee shoots Squier and runs from the café amid a fusillade.

In the final scene, Gabby cradles the dying Squier in her arms. She fights back tears as the men decide to give him a hero’s funeral in the petrified forest. As the curtain falls, Jason telephones the police, warning them that Mantee is heading south.

Dramatic Devices

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Like a well-made classical drama, Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest observes the unities of time, place, and action. No more than two hours elapse, and the entire action of the drama takes place in the lunchroom of the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q. No attempt is made to use innovative staging or to evoke moods with lighting. Though evening approaches near the end of the play, the darkness beyond the interior of the café is not so much symbolic as simply naturalistic. Everything in the play is intended to enforce the deadening reality of the characters’ situation. The lunchroom is minutely depicted—the walls are covered with advertisements. The dialogue is unobtrusively correct, natural. Such colloquialism is suggested rather than conscientiously transcribed, as in many of the realistic plays of the 1930’s.

The characters themselves are more stereotypical than profound: Gabby is the young ingénue; Gramp, the garrulous old pioneer; Jason, the shallow, would-be bourgeois; Boze, the failed college athlete. It is in this very clarity of presentation, the direct simplicity of exposition, however, that the play holds the interest of the audience. Sherwood establishes a sense of inevitability early, with the reference to the Mantee gang foreshadowing the subsequent action. When Squier leaves the café and Mantee subsequently enters, the audience is presented with a neat anticlimax, or rather, a double-climax, as Squier reenters and finds himself a captive as the curtain falls on act 1.

The ending of the play echoes the beginning. Just as the telegraph linemen open the action with a discussion of liberty and socialism, so the conclusion is a kind of physical reenactment and interpretation of the argument: Mantee has “freed” Squier from his world-weariness while the gangster himself remains free, though hounded by the State. In addition, Sherwood’s flat, almost prosaic dramaturgy, stressing a kind of blunt reality, provides a powerful contrast to the frustrated idealism of Squier, the inchoate dreams of Gabby, and the thwarted individualism of Duke Mantee.

Historical Context

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Organized Crime A new era for crime in America arose in the 1920s when the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution ushered in Prohibition. For decades, temperance groups had fought to outlaw alcohol, citing clear and overwhelming evidence of its negative effect on society. Sale and consumption of liquor was prohibited in the United States from January 1, 1920, until 1933, when the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed.

An unanticipated result of Prohibition was that it gave rise to a criminal class that had previously been scattered. Even though it was illegal, people still wanted liquor and were willing to pay for it, which meant that there was a handsome profit to be made for anyone willing to flout the law. In small towns and rural areas, moonshiners, who made their own product in stills put together out of copper kettles and tubing, often provided liquor. Local people, sometimes even those involved in law enforcement, knew who had the stills, and they went to them for moonshine. Prohibition, therefore, served to blur the line between criminals and law-abiding citizens. Instead of making alcohol socially unacceptable, it often ended up making it socially acceptable to ignore the law.

The effect of Prohibition on organized crime was even more powerful in urban areas. In cities, people could not operate stills with open fires, at least not to provide as much liquor as was required. Criminal syndicates rose up to illegally import alcohol from other countries, usually Canada or Cuba. The benefits gained from unity, from pooling resources of transportation, offshore connections, and political influence, made it worthwhile to combine forces, creating larger mobs, while the competition from different mobs going after the same customer base gave rise to violent gangland wars. The image of gangsters firing Thompson submachine guns (‘‘Tommy guns’’) that is commonly evoked as an element of the Roaring Twenties comes from the public’s full awareness of the turf battles that were being played out in city streets by gangsters whose names were becoming nationally familiar, such as Dutch Schultz, ‘‘Bugs’’ Moran, and Al Capone.

Bank Robbers While Prohibition made public personages out of criminals, it was the Great Depression that made them popular. The depression began after the stock market crash of October 1929: within two years, U.S. stocks lost around $50 billion, which had a rippling effect on the economy. Banks that lost money from investments had to call in loans; businesses that had borrowed from the banks had to lay off workers; unemployed workers had to draw what money they had out of banks and then default on their mortgages, causing even tighter financial conditions.

A certain class of criminal arose, one that realized that the only way to get money was to go to where it was kept, the banks, and steal it at gunpoint. They targeted banks in small towns, generally, where the security would be lax. Different career bank robbers were known for their different approaches: Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, for instance, were polite to their victims, whereas George ‘‘Baby Face’’ Nelson gained a reputation as a ruthless homicidal maniac. John Dillinger was recognized as the most important of them all, having been named by J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, as ‘‘public enemy number one.’’ Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Dillinger were all killed in shoot-outs with authorities in separate incidents in 1934, the year before this play was produced.

As opposed to the urban mob figures, the bank robbers found a place in the imaginations of the American people who, like Gramp Maple in The Petrified Forest, idealized them as folk heroes, much as an earlier generation had done for thieves like Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Those who were made suddenly poor by the depression found a sense of empowerment by watching the bandits rob the banks they felt had cheated them out of their money. The majority of Americans were poor, and many found the direct criminals more sympathetic than the ones who made their fortune manipulating the system. As folk singer Woody Guthrie put it in his song ‘‘The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd,’’ which lionized the notorious criminal as a modern-day Robin Hood, ‘‘Some will rob you with a six gun, / And some with a fountain pen.’’ A later line from the same song notes: ‘‘And as through your life you travel, yes and through your life you roam / You won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.’’

Movie Gangsters During the depression, Hollywood, and in particular the Warner Brothers Studio, made a series of films that focused upon criminals. The first was Little Caesar, in 1930, starring Edward G. Robinson as Rico, a small-time hood who rises to wealth and power through sheer ruthlessness. The film makes grand drama out of the inherent complexities of the criminal lifestyle: in the end, Rico, having decimated his enemies, is betrayed by a man that he could not bring himself to kill, out of friendship. The film was a huge success, and Warner Brothers quickly followed it with Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, who surprised audiences who were used to seeing him act in sophisticated comedies. Like Rico, Cagney’s Tom Powers starts small and ends big, losing his humanity along the way. What these films had, and what the dozens of gangster films that followed tried unsuccessfully to copy, was strong central performances by actors who could hold audiences’ sympathies while frightening them with their machine-like determination. The film-gangsters’ mastery of their worlds allowed victims of the depression to imagine that success was available to anyone but that the moral cost was not worth it.

The gangster film cycle burned itself out quickly. By 1933, America had elected a new president, and the optimism of Roosevelt’s New Deal edged out the nation’s panic over a free-falling economy. Protests over the gangster films’ excessive sex and violence made studio executives realize that public tastes had changed, and escapist musicals became the new trend. Still, the American archetype of the doomed, machine-gun-wielding bandit had been established, and it remains with us today.

Literary Style

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ConventionThe Petrified Forest uses an age-old dramatic convention which takes a set of diverse characters and creates some reason why they have to remain together in some confined space, in order to keep the actors on stage together throughout the performance. Plays have used such conventional devices as a social gathering, such as a wedding, birthday party, or poker game; or a closed method of transportation, such as a lifeboat or elevator. In Robert Sherwood’s next play, Idiot’s Delight (1936), travelers are forced to remain in a hotel in Europe when bombs start dropping at the start of World War II. In his play Key Largo (1939), a Florida hurricane makes it impossible for anyone to leave the premises of a hotel. (Another reason they are unable to leave is that, as in The Petrified Forest, the hotel staff and guests are being held by gangsters who are waiting to join others from their mob.) Because the traditional stage is a rectangle at the front of the theater, audiences have become accustomed to conventions that bring strangers together into one con- fined space, and they tend to accept them even when such gatherings would seem highly improbable in the real world.

DenouementDenouement is a French word meaning ‘‘the unknotting.’’ In literary criticism, it is used to refer to the part of the story that comes after the climax, when the various plot complications are resolved.

In The Petrified Forest, the climax comes when Duke Mantee shoots Alan Squier. It is the one definitive moment at the end of the play, the one action that settles issues that had been left open. Once Squier asks Mantee to shoot him, early in the second act, the situation is out of his hands. It is no longer his decision about whether Mantee goes through with it; it is Mantee’s decision alone. Audiences are given several clues to make them believe that Mantee might not kill Squier even after he has said that he will. First, the fact that he only wounds Boze, who is trying to kill him, indicates that his reputation as a cold-blooded killer might be exaggerated. He seems to find a soft spot in his heart for people, particularly Gramp Maple, and so one could easily believe that he never really intended to shoot someone who poses no threat to him. In addition, the whole play seems to be a test of Squier’s character, so that once he has found meaning in his life by professing his love for Gabby, there is no dramatic reason why he has to die. Still, in spite of all of the indicators to the contrary, Mantee shows himself to be the murderer that his friends and the newspapers say he is.

After the climactic moment when Squier is killed, several interesting, but not necessary, things happen in the denouement. Boze, who had been his rival for Gabby’s affection, pronounces him ‘‘a good guy’’; Gramp says he was ‘‘a hero,’’ raising a question of what it really means to be heroic; and Gabby deals with her grief courageously, reciting a poem that gives her comfort in her time of need, which signifies that her artistic ideals have not been shattered by the day’s proceedings. These are all aspects of the characters that might have gone differently, but the play’s denouement is showing audiences what the future holds for them.

What the denouement does not give is the fate of Duke Mantee. There are hints that the manhunt is closing in on him and that the chase will only last as long as it takes radio-alerted policemen to pull him over. There is, however, just as much evidence that the same cunning and ruthlessness that has helped him escape before will serve him again and that he will always be on the run.

Antihero An antihero is a main character in a play that does not have the traditional qualities that a hero possesses, such as courage, strength, or idealism. In The Petrified Forest, Alan Squier is very honest about the fact that he does not have any of these traits. He tells Gabby when he first meets her, ‘‘I’ve been hoping to find something that’s worth living for—and worth dying for.’’ He wants to be buried in the Petrified Forest because it represents ‘‘the world of outmoded ideas.’’ When he is taken prisoner, he asks for whiskey and passes drinks around to the others. He even tells Mantee that he is no threat to the gunman’s ‘‘superiority,’’ saying, ‘‘[i]f I had a machine gun, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.’’ Despite the fact that he does not have the traditional qualities of a hero, audiences can take interest in how Alan Squier comes out of this situation because they care for him. They admire his honesty, even though it does replace courage and ideals. When Gramp says that he died ‘‘a hero’s death,’’ he is giving new meaning to the word ‘‘hero,’’ expanding it to mean someone who has done a supremely selfless act, even though he is not technically a hero.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: America is in the middle of the Great Depression. Small businesses like the one in the play have a difficult time avoiding bankruptcy.

Today: Independent gas stations and restaurants are increasingly rare, as both industries are dominated by franchise businesses.

1930s: America has a fascination with the exploits of gangsters such as John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and Baby Face Nelson.

Today: A whole category of rap music is dedicated to the exploits of ‘‘gangstas.’’

1930s: A young woman living in the Arizona desert could only dream of what France was like.

Today: Any person with an internet connection can find endless information about daily life in France from the World Wide Web.

1930s: Because of laws and traditions that require races to remain separated, law-abiding blacks are likely to participate in society as paid servants, such as cooks, butlers, and cleaning persons.

Today: Equal job opportunity has been required by federal law since the 1960s, and as a result no occupations are expected to be staffed solely by any one race.

1930s: The Painted Desert and Petrified Forest area of Arizona is a popular vacation stop.

Today: Entertainment spots such as Disney World and Las Vegas are more popular than are natural formations as vacation destinations.

1930s: Audiences are shocked to hear the kind of language that Gabby uses in the play, considering it improper for a lady.

Today: Gabby’s language is so mild by today’s standards that it would hardly be noticed.

1930s: Workers in the United States who are distressed about the nation’s social inequality might have a casual discussion about the benefits of Communism over lunch in a diner.

Today: During the cold war (1945–1990), most Americans considered Communism a threat. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most Americans dismiss it as a failure.

Media Adaptations

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The Petrified Forest was adapted as a film starring Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart (who were in the original Broadway production) and Bette Davis. Directed by Archie Mayo and produced by Warner Brothers in 1936, it is available on VHS from Turner Home Video.

The play was also filmed as part of the Producers’ Showcase series and broadcast on NBC television on May 30, 1955. This version, starring Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Lauren Bacall, and Jack Klugman, is available on VHS from Video Yesteryear.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Doherty, Brian, ‘‘Footlights,’’ Review, in Canadian Forum, Vol. XV, 1934–1935, p. 194, quoted in R. Baird Shuman, Robert E. Sherwood, Twayne’s United States Author Series, No. 58, Twayne Publishers, 1964, p. 67.

Guthrie, Woody, ‘‘The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd,’’ lyrics, Woody Guthrie, American Folksong, Sanga Music Inc., 1958.

Isaacs, Edith J. R., ‘‘Robert Sherwood: Man of the Hour,’’ in Theatre Arts, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, January 1939, pp. 31–40.

Krutch, Joseph Wood, ‘‘Comedy,’’ in The American Dream since 1918: An Informal History, rev. ed., Braziller, 1957, pp. 134–225.

Lawson, John Howard, ‘‘The Technique of the Modern Play,’’ in Theory and Technique of Playwrighting, Hill & Wang, 1936, pp. 143–44.

Further Reading Auchincloss, Louis, ‘‘Robert E. Sherwood,’’ in The Man behind the Book: Literary Profiles, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996, pp. 192–98. Written by one of the most famed biographers of the mid-twentieth century, this brief but telling profile of the playwright does not have much detail about Sherwood’s life but is told by an intelligent observer.

Brown, John Mason, The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times, 1896–1939, Harper & Row, 1962. Brown’s book is considered to be the definitive biography of Sherwood, following his life up to the start of World War II and offering insight into how the playwright’s ideas formed. He also wrote The Ordeal of a Playwright: Robert E. Sherwood and the Challenge of War, published by Harper & Row in 1970.

Meserve, Walter J., Robert E. Sherwood: Reluctant Moralist, Pegasus, 1970. Meserve examines Sherwood’s career in terms of his Christian social ideals.

Wiser, William, The Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930s, Carroll & Graff, 2000. Wiser’s follow-up book to The Crazy Years: Paris in the Twenties does what the play does: it links the artistic freedom that Paris was famous for to the harsh realities that lay ahead with the coming of World War II.


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Sources for Further Study

Broussard, Louis. “Everyman at Mid-Century: Robert E. Sherwood.” In American Drama: Contemporary Allegory from Eugene O’Neill to Tennessee Williams. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Brown, John Mason. The Ordeal of a Playwright: Robert E. Sherwood and the Challenge of War. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

Gould, Jean. “Robert E. Sherwood.” In Modern American Playwrights. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966.

Kulshres, Chirantan. “Robert Sherwood.” In Reference Guide to American Literature. 2d ed. Chicago: St. James, 1987.

Meserve, Walter. Robert E. Sherwood: Reluctant Moralist. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Shuman, R. Baird. Robert E. Sherwood. New York: Twayne, 1964.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide