The Philadelphia Story

by Philip Barry

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333

During his relatively brief career, Philip Barry alternated sophisticated comedies, such as The Philadelphia Story, which were highly successful, with serious plays, which rarely pleased the public. His first success, The Jilts (pr. 1922), which was later titled You and I (pr., pb. 1923), established his reputation as a delightful writer of comedy. He followed it with a similar play, The Youngest (pr. 1924, pb. 1925), which Barry himself disliked, but which ran for 104 performances on Broadway. In a Garden (pr. 1925, pb. 1926) was admittedly meaningful, but only the outstanding performance of Laurette Taylor kept the play on the boards for seventy-four performances, and the fantasy which followed, White Wings (pr. 1926, pb. 1927), lasted for only twenty-seven performances.

During the rest of his career as a playwright, the pattern continued. For example, two of Barry’s plays were written simultaneously and produced within two months of each other. The tragedy John (pr. 1927, pb. 1929) died after eleven performances; the comedy Paris Bound (pr. 1927, pb. 1928) lasted for 234. The serious play which critics admire most is Hotel Universe (pr., pb. 1930). The play incorporates the element of fantasy: Through a physicist’s manipulation of time, a group of sophisticated people are enabled to relive certain past experiences which have crippled them in the present. In what is a peculiar combination of psychoanalytic therapy and Roman Catholic confession and absolution, the characters are then healed and are able to proceed with their lives.

Although critics recognize Barry’s serious intent in such plays as Hotel Universe and although the public of his time tended to assume that because they were puzzled, he must be profound, later critical opinion sees him as a fairly pedestrian Catholic moralist rather than as a truly original thinker. The judgment of the public may have been better than his own. In brilliant comedies such as The Philadelphia Story, he best expressed his major themes: the folly and the destructiveness of prejudice, the need for tolerance and understanding in human relationships, the importance of forgiveness, and the sanctity of marriage.

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Critical Overview