The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

Organized Crime
A new era for crime in America arose in the 1920s when the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution ushered in...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Petrified Forest uses an age-old dramatic convention which takes a set of diverse characters and creates some...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the famed arts and literature scene of Paris in the 1920s, and explain why so many Americans were drawn to become part of that...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The Petrified Forest was adapted as a film starring Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart (who were in the original Broadway production)...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Sherwood followed The Petrified Forest with Idiot’s Delight, the first of his three Pulitzer Prize–winning plays. Published...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Doherty, Brian, ‘‘Footlights,’’ Review, in Canadian Forum, Vol. XV, 1934–1935, p. 194, quoted in R....

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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:...

(The entire section is 97 words.)