The Petrified Forest

by Robert E. Sherwood

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Themes and Meanings

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From one point of view, The Petrified Forest is a melodrama in the tradition of the Western. In this light, Mantee is a latter-day Billy the Kid or even an American equivalent of Robin Hood. Gramp Maple’s constant references to Billy the Kid, together with some of the characters’ fearless admiration of Duke Mantee, make an obvious connection between the gangster and that legendary hero-villain. Like the Western hero, Mantee lives beyond the imperatives of social conduct while maintaining an unwavering personal code in which the individual is treated with dignity. Mantee is not a brute. He treats no one meanly. His motives are uncomplicated and there is about him an element of personal honesty, something without hypocrisy. Squier guesses, for example, that there is a bit of the romantic in Mantee, urging him to wait as long as he can for his girl to arrive before fleeing for the border. It is this spirited individualism that Alan Squier sees in Duke which brings the two of them together as spiritual kin.

Squier, too, is independent, free from the shams and delusions of the intellectual world, unconvinced of the conventions of morality, distrustful of belief. As Mantee is the physical outlaw, Squier is the spiritual outcast, and so the drama is in a sense a modern morality play in which the characters are allegorical representatives of body and soul in search of truth or unity.

In this play, however, there is no real resolution. Even as the action ends with Duke on the run and Squier dead, the audience is left with only the insipid denizens of the café—the mediocre, the frustrated, the incompetent, or, as in Gabby’s case, the inarticulate. As part of an allegory, Squier is not a full-bodied personality. His cynicism, his worldly ennui, which suggest the played-out characters in many of the novels of the 1920’s, make him only an effete victim in a world on the verge of the petrified forest, where meaning has hardened and ideals calcified. Squier’s love for Gabby is a love for the innocent, the straightforward, the unsophisticated, and hence the unworldly. Though Gabby is the only figure of hope, the play ends inconclusively, her future uncertain.

The Petrified Forest thus borders on the absurd, in the existential sense of life as a kind of dead end. Squier’s final heroism is a piece of romantic melodrama enacted in a context of lawlessness and frustration. That Mantee is not captured but escapes, presumably to wreak further havoc, indicates the chaos which harries society.


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Social OrderThe Petrified Forest raises questions about the prevailing social order from the moment the curtain rises. The first person to talk is a Communist sympathizer, and his first line is, ‘‘Certainly it’s Revolution!’’ This character explains what he thinks about capitalism and its flaws. Throughout the course of the play, readers can see that Robert Sherwood is not endorsing communism. He does, however, recognize that there is something wrong with the existing social order, and so he is openminded about different ideas about how society should run.

The current social order is represented in the play by Jason Maple, who wears an ornate uniform to his American Legion meeting and opposes things that he finds un-American. Jason’s own father mocks his uniform and points out that he was not even involved in active fighting while he was in the service, which shows Jason’s patriotic fervor to be based more on appearances than on substance. Gramp finds the American Legion’s militaristic attitude to be a sign that they are soft, or too refined....

(This entire section contains 1319 words.)

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‘‘The trouble with this country is, it’s got settled,’’ Gramp explains.

Gramp favors gangsters, who fight to disrupt the social order, over Legionnaires, who fight to maintain it. He speaks glowingly of killers with whom he has associated, fascinated by their deeds. The mystique of the gangster is that he rejects society’s laws and places himself above them, which makes him more free than those who accept the law.

Mrs. Chisolm proves the attraction of lawbreakers by choosing the gangster Duke Mantee, whom she calls a ‘‘real man,’’ over her socially powerful husband. Sherwood has her recall how the established social order made her turn away from her heart’s desire, which was to be an actress, showing how being socially acceptable has led her to eye her husband with contempt.

Although the play raises doubts about the prevailing social order, it is that social order that triumphs in the end. Duke Mantee, the social misfit, is hunted down; Squier, the lone traveler, ends up dead. The only one to benefit is Gabby, from the insurance money she will inherit.

The main element for change in the lives of this play’s characters is their awareness that their lives are in danger. The threat of death makes them give up all pretensions. For instance, in the early part of the play, Boze puts on an act of arrogant overconfidence. When Gabby notes that he thinks a lot of himself, he responds, ‘‘Who wouldn’t, in my position?’’ But when the gangsters hold him at gunpoint, Boze mutters vague, barely coherent threats that are easily laughed away. In the same way, Squier tries to keep up his carefree attitude while being held hostage, but his good humor is strained and can only be maintained with drinking. As he drinks, he becomes more depressed and filled with self-loathing, telling Gabby that his problem is ‘‘the same disease that’s affecting Boze! Impotence!’’ He is not talking about sexual impotence but rather the inability to take action in the face of mortal danger.

Things change when Boze faces the danger they are in directly: he grabs a shotgun and turns it on Mantee. His move fails, but at least he has broken the sense of doom. Alan Squier is not the type of man to handle a gun, but seeing Boze face death encourages him to face death in his own way, by asking Mantee to shoot him, which Gramp, in the end, calls ‘‘a hero’s death.’’

One other character whose life is affected by peril is Duke Mantee himself. He does not talk about Doris, who is supposed to meet him at the Black Mesa, but audiences can tell that he loves her, because he seems blind to the danger that he is in, needing the members of his gang and Alan Squier to shout it at him. As the play progresses, Mantee finds himself paralyzed, torn between the instinctive desire to keep himself out of peril and the desire to wait for her or, later, the desire for revenge once he finds out she has betrayed him.

Man versus Nature
This play presents a clear view of the way that man’s intellectual ability separates him from his natural, instinctive functions. It assigns each human tendency, intellect and instinct, to the two main male leads, who are physically linked, according to Sherwood’s stage direction, by the fact that they are both ‘‘unmistakably condemned.’’ Squier feels a loss of meaning in his life because he has become alienated from nature. He describes himself as having ‘‘brains without purpose. Noise without sound. Shape without substance.’’ He is one of the intellectuals who felt that they had subdued Nature, only to find that nature is fighting back with neuroses. Gabby, who has been raised in a difficult land and has never had a real chance to express herself intellectually, is impressed with Squier’s intellectual ability and finds him much more interesting than Boze, who is earthy and physical.

Squier, in turn, admires Duke Mantee, who is able to act unself-consciously in a way that he himself never can. He calls Mantee a ‘‘child of Nature,’’ suited to be Gabby’s ‘‘mate.’’ It is a great disappointment when, in the end, he finds that Mantee does not act instinctively to save his own life by running but, instead, complicates his action by thinking about going to Doris to take revenge for her betrayal. Squier tells him that going for his revenge would be a betrayal of himself: he would be overriding his instinct for self-preservation with a complex, purely human emotion.

Morals and Morality
Alan Squier arrives at the Black Mesa empty of any morals. He defines himself as a gigolo, who made his living for years taking his wife’s money in exchange for being her sexual plaything. He turns down Gabby’s offer to travel with him, happy to have the opportunity to remember her and to think that he might have been able to sin. He lists all of the philosophical and religious systems he can think of and proclaims that they are as dead as the trees in the Petrified Forest. The play represents Squier’s moral growth. Through some combination of jealousy for Boze’s grand gesture that got him shot and the shadow of his own lost values that he sees in Gabby, he builds a rudimentary sense of morality. It is not very complex and has only one level—all that he does for the rest of his short life is done in order to assure her ability to go to France, as she has always dreamed. Still, it is a moral system in that it gives him something to live for beyond immediate pleasure or pain.

It is ironic, then, that Squier almost makes Gabby give up her own morality. She comes away from their first conversation together with his assurance that there is nothing very magical about France, which she has pinned her hopes on. She later tells Boze that she was willing to have sex with him (Boze) because she thought, ‘‘I’d better get rid of all the girlish bunk that was in me, like thinking so much about going to France, and Art, and dancing in the streets.’’ Having learned from Squier that only experience counts, regardless of whether it is in France or the American desert, she nearly gives in to Boze’s vulgar propositions, just to see what sex is like. Later, she looks in horror at what she almost did, realizing what a violation of her own sense of morality it would have been. As Squier is rebuilding his own moral sense, which has been worn down by years of abstract intellectualism, Gabby is learning to defend her own morality from the same intellectual void.