The Philadelphia Story was well received when the play first premiered on Broadway at the Shubert Theater on March 28, 1939. The New York Times praised the playwright and the Theater Guild company for their ‘‘top form’’ and called the play a ‘‘gay and sagacious comedy.’’ That review was typical of the critical response.
The play has remained popular for several decades. It was made into a successful movie in 1940, which starred Katherine Hepburn. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, American critics were more interested in social protest drama and tended to overlook Barry’s writing as light entertainment. When they did turn to Barry with a serious eye, they explored several elements of his work.
Francis Wyndham, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, focused on the father-daughter relationship that figures as a background theme in some of Barry’s plays. His somewhat unusual argument hinted at ‘‘incestuous undertones’’ in Barry’s writing.
Moreover, Wyndham evidenced a prejudice against Barry’s style of light comedy: ‘‘Barry was himself prouder of his serious flops than of his tailor-made successes, but . . . the verdict of Variety and the Broadway public has been sadly justified by the passage of time . . . the frankly artificial framework of drawing-room comedy was necessary to preserve the frail but genuine spark of Barry’s talent.’’
Unable to appreciate Barry’s mastery of the comedy of manners, he chose to concentrate on the more obscure and unconventional elements of Barry’s writing and to dismiss the very things that were Barry’s strengths.
Albert Wertheim, writing a few years later in Educational Theatre Journal, was able to appreciate Barry in his own right. He recognized Barry as ‘‘one of the few masters of the American comedy of manners,’’ and contended that Barry had surmounted the inherent challenges in the genre: ‘‘As all comedies of manners do, Philip Barry’s demand a great sense of style from actors and actresses who must demonstrate the wit and urbanity that wealth and social position can foster, yet at the same time show the foibles and failures that exist despite social prominence and material well-being.’’
Wertheim praised the play mainly because of Barry’s compelling characterization of Tracy Lord and in particular because of her development as a character. He asserted that the major ‘‘business of Barry’s play [is] to bring Tracy Lord a comic insight that will enable her to harmonize her social poise with her inner humanity . . . to produce, in short, something akin to Barry’s idea of true human grace.’’ Tracy must soften her ‘‘morally uncompromising’’ attitude towards people’s behavior, and she does this through her own personal experience of a fall from grace.
Wertheim’s essay, written after the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, virtually ignores the question of whether the play was still relevant in such changed times. Why, for instance, should Tracy’s journey of self-discovery end in a return to her abusive ex-husband?
Wertheim also emphasized the more conservative representation of class in the play: ‘‘Barry’s aim was at least in part a revaluation of the merits and basic humanity of the upper class after the flogging it received at the hands of the social revolutionary playwrights of the Depression years.’’ Yet, he did not discuss Barry’s representation of the Depression era in the play, nor offer an explanation of precisely what the supposed ‘‘merits’’ of the upperclass were.
In 1988 Gary Green echoed Wertheim’s praise of the play. Green maintained that beneath the ‘‘wittily and elegantly presented portrait of Philadelphia’s mainline society,’’ Barry questioned ‘‘class mores and conventional ideas about marriage’’ and advocated ‘‘the value...
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Also like Wertheim, Green accepted the play’s surface representation of class, particularly Barry’s apparent redemption of the alternately despised and idolized upper class. Mike and George are Tracy’s ‘‘social inferiors.’’ Mike is crippled by ‘‘the inverted snobbery of the proletarian intellectual’’ and perceives ‘‘the rich as non-productive, social parasites.’’ George is a ‘‘parvenu who has embraced the restricted conventionality of the moneyed upper class to which he aspires.’’
Yet some critics assert that the ‘‘moneyed upper class’’ in The Philadelphia Story, just as in other Barry comedies, have a remarkably flexible set of moral standards, and George’s problem is that his moral standards are out of kilter with the Lord family values. Moreover, although Barry celebrates the Lords’ urbanity and wit, he does not present them as productive members of society.
Although Barry is considered one of America’s best writers of comedies of manners, the true complexity of his writing is underappreciated. The best comic writers can speak to their own times and to later generations: it is this rare skill that makes their work enduring. Barry is one such writer.