The Philadelphia Story

by Philip Barry

Start Free Trial

Treatment of Class Issues

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Barry’s comedies are almost all set in the world of ‘‘high society’’ and feature characters who are rich, privileged, and educated. This does not mean, however, that he sets out to celebrate the upper-class; in fact, Barry subtly explores class conflict in many of his comedies, including The Philadelphia Story.

Barry is no radical, however, and while he presents his audiences with hints of the conflicts that underscored the myth of American egalitarianism, he never moves beyond this gentle thematization of class conflict. In fact, his endings usually reinforce rather than challenge the status quo.

The Lords, as their surname boldly asserts, are so firmly entrenched as leaders of Philadelphia society as to almost be American aristocrats. Pennsylvania, the home of so much revolutionary activity during the American Revolution is home to an established social hierarchy that would have made the American Loyalists proud.

Barry emphasizes this ironic twist of history in a tense exchange between Sandy and Mike early in the play. The two men discuss the present Democratic Roosevelt administration, and Mike asks— assuming the Sandy is a conservative—‘‘I suppose you’re all of you opposed to the Administration.’’ Sandy wittily responds, ‘‘No—as a matter of fact we’re Loyalists.’’

Sandy’s word play hints that the Lords may be liberal supporters of the Roosevelt Administration, but also suggests that their sympathies would have been ‘‘Loyalist’’ (or pro-British, anti-Revolutionary) during the American Revolution.

The same exchange between Mike and Sandy is critical to Barry’s development of the theme of class conflict. In it, Sandy reveals himself to be sensitive about his family’s wealth and privilege: ‘‘I think you ought to give us a break . . . in spite of certain of our regrettably inherited characteristics, we just might be fairly decent.’’ Mike, however, is not so quick to set aside his suspicions.

These suspicions are confirmed when Sandy admits that although he, like Mike, does work in the newspaper industry, the two men are on opposite sides of the divide: Mike, a journalist, represents the working man, whereas Sandy, an editor, organizes and dictates policy and is therefore management. Mike announces brusquely that he is ‘‘opposed to everything’’ Sandy represents, but Sandy responds coolly that Mike’s magazine ‘‘is hardly a radical sheet,’’ and asks him snidely, ‘‘what is it you’re doing—boring from within?’’

A moment later, he adds that Mike’s idol Thomas Jefferson was never a man of the people, but rather, like the Lords, came from a background of wealth and privilege: ‘‘Have you ever seen his house at Monticello?’’

The two men’s opposing interests and perspectives are only reconciled in their joint—and somewhat underhanded—decision to collude in the blackmailing of Mike’s editor, Sidney Kidd. Sandy acts in the interests of the Lord family to reveal Kidd’s own dirty past; Mike, only half-aware of what he is doing, reveals the necessary information, because he believes that Kidd is degrading his creative talent. Their action is hardly one of class resistance: rather, each man is inspired to strike out at Kidd for his own reasons, and each man joins forces with the other only in order to achieve this goal. However, it suggests that they have reached a rapprochement.

Barry’s ambivalent attitude towards class difference is most apparent in the characterization of George Kittredge. George, whom Tracy describes as an ‘‘angel,’’ was once a dirty angel: a coalminer who worked in the mines and rose through the ranks to the head of the company. Early in the play, Sandy asks Tracy whether George was ‘‘sore’’ about a recent newspaper article about him, in which he was identified as a...

(This entire section contains 1671 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

‘‘former coal miner.’’ The audience never hears Tracy’s response to this question, but they are alerted to George’snouveau riche status and to the possibility of tension arising in the family about his recent shift from miner to boss.

Mike seems to share Sandy’s somewhat snide attitude to George’s social elevation, albeit in a different way. He describes George as ‘‘up from the bottom,’’ a word choice that perhaps inadvertently links the low depths of the mine shafts with poverty’s negative associations. Sandy’s response shows that he, for once, is aware of the word’s dual meanings: ‘‘Just exactly—and of the mine.’’

Mike then makes plain why he is suspicious of Kittredge: ‘‘National hero, new model: makes drooping family incomes to revive again.’’ Kittredge may well have done a tremendous job of reorganizing the failing mines, but at what cost? The mine may well run better in its ‘‘new model,’’ but the only people whose fortunes seemed to have revived in the wake of its reorganization are the owners, ‘‘the drooping family.’’

No mention is made of the workers—the miners themselves—and the question hangs in the air: who suffered, who benefited, who was laid off in order to revitalize the mines? This ominous question is answered a short time later, when Kittredge announces that his plans to reform the mines extend to reforming the unions: there is a lot, he says, that is ‘‘yet to be done with Labor relations.’’

Kittredge is crucial to the overall plot development— in particular to Tracy’s developing ambivalence about her impending marriage—and it is worth examining his character in more detail. The first time he appears on stage, Tracy introduces him as ‘‘my beau,’’ Liz compliments him on his appearance, and Kittredge himself announces that ‘‘I’ve shaken quite a lot of coal-dust from my feet in the last day or two.’’ Tracy, who firmly believes her fiancee is angelically handsome, responds to Kittredge’s self-conscious attempt at a joke with one herself, but one that comes out sounding a little patronizing: ‘‘Isn’t he beautiful? Isn’t it wonderful what a little soap and water will do?’’

This early suggestion that Kittredge is selfconscious and perhaps uncomfortable about his recent rise from rags to riches, and that their different backgrounds could cause problems between the couple, is evident later in the play. Kittredge, in a long conversation with Tracy, displays a concern about appearances and good taste that marks him as nouveau riche: as aspiring to the respectability and status of the upper classes. Dexter, on the other hand, who is born to wealth, ‘‘never concerns himself much with taste.’’

The difference between the two men comes down to being born into a certain class, and consequently being certain of one’s station in life. For Kittredge, this means cutting certain ‘‘unimportant people’’ out of his social calendar, and establishing a circle which others will aspire to join, just as he, too, once longed to join Tracy in her golden shadow. ‘‘Our little house on the river up there . . . I’d like people to consider it an honor to be asked there. We’re going to represent something, Tracy—something straight and sound and fine.—And then perhaps young Mr. Haven may be somewhat less condescending.’’

Kittredge’s social insecurity leads him inevitably into the disastrous trap of comparing himself with someone who is inherently secure and confi- dent. While this study in contrasts might be of interest simply in itself, it becomes significant because Kittredge has pursued and won someone who is from Haven’s background, and who consequently shares his easy confidence and contempt for such nouveau riche concerns.

The play’s ending is foreshadowed in these early scenes. It is also, however, something of a foregone conclusion that the couple are not suited, for in Barry’s somewhat conservative worldview, like must marry like, and the great, the talented, the creative, must join forces with their equals.

The conclusion that like must marry like is inherently a conservative one. No one could fault Barry’s characterization of Tracy Lord or Dexter Haven: both are charismatic, smart, witty people, and are clearly suited. But Haven’s merits are contrasted with those of two working-class men: one of whom labors industriously in a socially acceptable (and hardly radical) profession, writing, and the other of whom rises from dirt to wealth.

The first, Mike Connor, seems at first glance the more radical and challenging of the two men: he identifies himself as a liberal in the Jeffersonian tradition, and is hostile to upper-class interests. Yet Mike’s threat is considerably softened as a result of his romantic entanglement with Tracy: he proves himself a ‘‘true gentleman’’ by refusing to ‘‘take advantage’’ of her and offering, with an almost Victorian attitude, to marry her since he has been implicated in her damaged honor. Finally, he makes the ‘‘funny discovery’’ that ‘‘in spite of the fact that someone’s up from the bottom, he may be quite a heel. And that even though someone else’s born to the purple, he still may be quite a guy.’’

Kittredge, the ‘‘heel,’’ may have raised himself by his bootstraps, but he disturbed Philadelphia’s tranquil social hierarchy by aspiring above his class, and, moreover, by clinging to what are essentially middle-class moral values, rather than embracing the more accommodating liberal values of the upper class.

Barry’s The Philadelphia Story is for the most part a frothy social comedy, but its sweet exterior masks darker themes—not least of all amongst them the tensions between the social classes in the 1930s. Barry explores this tension firstly through the presence of Mike, an intruder with a chip on his shoulder, and secondly through the play’s central event, the impending marriage of Tracy Lord and George Kittredge.

The lesson that affects Mike—appearances can be deceiving—conceals a real undercurrent of conservatism in Barry’s plot. Tracy’s rejection of Kittredge for Haven is certainly a rejection of idealization and of constrictive middle-class morality, but it is also a rejection of the social infidel, and a confirmation of the rigidity of the existing class hierarchy.

Source: Helena Ifeka, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Ifeka is a Ph.D. specializing in American and British literature.

The Philadelphia Story

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Philip Barry’s social comedy in three acts is set in the house of a rich, high-society Philadelphia family in the 1930’s. Tracy Lord, the mercurial, oldest daughter of the family’s separated parents, is a divorcee who will, on the morrow, embark on a second marriage to a stuffy, self-made millionaire named George Kittredge. Puritanical about the frailties of others, Tracy has recently divorced a childhood friend, Dexter Haven, for his past alcoholic weakness, and holds no sympathy for her father, whose escapades with a dancer are to be made the feature of a popular magazine. To avoid public disclosure of a family scandal, Tracy’s brother has persuaded the magazine’s editor to suppress the story in return for letting two reporters do an inside story on Tracy’s wedding. The journalists soon arrive: Mike Connor, an idealistic writer unafraid of venting disapproval of mainline society, and a young woman journalist clearly in love with her colleague. To render their observations harmless, Tracy assumes a deceptive facade and falsely identifies her uncle as her father, whom she has not asked to the wedding. Equilibrium tumbles when the father arrives along with her uninvited first husband, Dexter. When both men are reprimanded by Tracy for showing up, each accuses her of being coldly unforgiving of others’ frailties. Disturbed by the accusation, the heroine gives way to a mutually shared attraction with Mike, leading to a kiss and a champagne-inebriated, midnight swim without suits. In realizing that she too is capable of lapses which demonstrate warm, human feelings, Tracy gains a truer measure of herself and a larger tolerance of others. Her bridegroom-to-be learns of the incident, suspects the worst, and demands an explanation on the wedding morning. Fully recognizing his pompousness, Tracy breaks off the engagement and happily accepts Dexter’s offer of remarriage, and the wedding takes place with a new bridegroom.

One of Barry’s most accomplished works, The Philadelphia Story belongs to a small group of his social comedies, Holiday among them, dealing with the nature of marriage and the life of the upper classes—the stratum of society from which the author sprang and which he knew well. These refined comedies represent the most successful category of Barry’s work, departing from his larger group of plays treating serious religious, moral, and psychological questions often developed in symbolic or fantastic form as in Hotel Universe. However, moral concerns remain essential ingredients in his comedies, including The Philadelphia Story.

Underlying the wittily and elegantly presented portrait of Philadelphia’s mainline society, there is a theme which questions class mores and conventional ideas about marriage, advocating the value of tolerance. Tracy, the focal character, only has the possibility of self-fulfillment and hope for a happy marriage if she fully realizes that her nature is humanly frail and her lack of tolerance (and that in others) reprehensible. Having been quick to condemn the human frailties of her former husband and her father, she is shaken when told by them individually that her intolerance of weakness renders her a cold ‘‘Virgin Goddess’’ whose sinless high standards only spur on transgressions by others. When, however, she recalls her affectionately intoxicated, unrestrained ‘‘skinny-dipping’’ escapade with Mike on the eve of the wedding, from which she had emerged chaste owing only to Mike’s gentlemanly behavior, she learns that she too is capable of the same lively, hedonistic impulses she has condemned in others.

Embodying the thematic thrust of the play, Tracy’s growth forms the spine of the action. The intolerant heroine is surrounded by several people committed to their prejudices and a refusal to accept ideas or behavior that differ from their own. Together with her class and family, she shares a suspicion and dislike of reporters, whom she sees, initially, as spying intruders with no manners or sensitivity until she realizes Mike’s dimension as a writer and human being. Yet Mike, who like her fiancé George is her social inferior, has the inverted snobbery of the proletarian intellectual who perceives the rich as non-productive, social parasites. George is a parvenu who has embraced the restrictive conventionality of the moneyed, upper class to which he aspires, and he expects the unconventional Tracy to fit his image of a wife. Upon discovering his fiancée’s behavior with Mike, and shocked by it, his nasty reaction and demand for explanation reveal him to Tracy as the stuffed shirt he is. She then breaks off the engagement and kindly rejects a marriage proposal from Mike to accept that of Dexter, her tolerant first husband who has always understood and loved her. Her final decision reflects the central character’s culmination of a journey toward self-understanding, tolerance, and humanity.

A fine example of its genre, The Philadelphia Story demonstrates its author’s skilled craftsmanship in creating the milieu of high society peopled by three-dimensional, interesting characters within a well-structured and highly polished comic plot. The plot, whose humorous action arises from an attempt to keep a private scandal from exposure by the press, richly provides comic complications, confrontations, and revelations typical of an effective comedy of manners. In terms of characterization, the figure of Tracy Lord (which was written for, and was the springboard to fame for, Katharine Hepburn, both in the original and successful Broadway production and the subsequent motion picture version) remains a stunning portrait of an intelligent young woman who discovers tolerance and humanity. Reversing a typical pattern of the genre, the author shows in George Kittredge a man risen from the ranks who turns out to be a prig, and in Dexter Haven a man from society’s upper crust who proves himself to be gallant and understanding. Also interestingly drawn are such characters as reporter Mike Connor, Tracy’s unpredictable and hoydenish younger sister, and an uncle fond of pinching ladies’ bottoms.

A successful 1980 Broadway revival gave proof of the play’s durability, as have its frequent productions in regional theatre. With The Philadelphia Story, Barry has earned a firm place in American letters as an elegant writer of social comedy.

Source: Christian H. Moe, ‘‘The Philadelphia Story’’ in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 604–06.

Miss Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

That there have always been two Philip Barrys has long since been well known to those who have followed Mr. Barry’s double life as a dramatist. One of these has been the cosmic Mr. Barry who has fought an anguishing, often arresting, inner struggle as he has gone searching for his God in such scripts as John, Hotel Universe, The Joyous Season, and this winter’s Here Come the Clowns. The other Mr. Barry, the first to be heard from and the one his largest public has always doted upon, is the dramatist who has shown a genuine flair for badinage and written such perceptive tearful comedies as You and I, White Wings, Paris Bound, In a Garden, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and The Animal Kingdom.

It is this second Mr. Barry, the smiling one with a lump in his throat, who has tossed off The Philadelphia Story, that play, so pleasant at times but so unimportant throughout, which can boast as its truest and most commanding virtue the fact that it brings Katharine Hepburn triumphantly back to our stage. Although Mr. Barry’s new script is not in his best comic vein, through it shine those qualities, literate and ingratiating, which have distinguished his better comedies. It is the work of a man, sensitive and witty, who, even when he has embarked upon what proves to be something of a dramatist’s holiday, turns up bearing his special gifts.

As he relates how a rich young Philadelphia divorcee, a chill perfectionist, a married virgin who has no understanding in her heart, is awakened to love and life by a drunken incident with a writer the night before she is to marry another man, Mr. Barry has difficulty starting his fable and nods at times, in the best Greek fashion, while keeping it going. Yet when once he has established his wealthy family, and abruptly indicated that they are supposed to be on their best behavior because their country home is being invaded by a writer and a lady photographer representing a magazine thinly disguised as Destiny, Mr. Barry’s play begins to show agreeable signs of his authorship.

If his comedy is not a good one, if it forces one to think back to the superiority of Paris Bound which it often brings to mind, it has its commendable points. At least it passes the time, often very pleasantly. It bristles with amusing lines. It has scenes which indicate Mr. Barry’s surety as a comic dramatist. It makes clear what a gay and intuitive mind is his and how polished can be his gift for dialogue. Even at its feeblest and most aimless, it is warmed by a winning sense of tolerance. Once again Mr. Barry may be turning Congreve into a cardinal, and advancing his old argument that a single transgression is no justification for divorce between two people who really love one another. But to this he adds a welcome and timely plea to the effect that people, not classes, are what matter; that poverty does not spell virtue any more than riches necessarily spell meanness.

At its best Mr. Barry’s play is no more than a rich cloak which Mr. Barry, in a moment of Raleighesque gallantry, has spread wide for Miss Hepburn to walk upon. Miss Hepburn is not an actress easy to describe. It is difficult to distinguish between what she is and what she does. It is more than difficult; it is irrelevant. To an almost unmatched extent what she is, is also what she does.

What she is, as playgoers came to know in The Warrior’s Husband, and as movie-goers realized in such films as Morning Glory, Little Women, and Alice Adams, is one of the most beautiful young women on our stage and screen and also one of the most fascinating. That on the screen she has wavered between performances of high excellence and those which have been said to be downright embarrassing by people who have had the heart to see them, only indicates, as does her more recent stage record of failure in The Lake and triumph in The Philadelphia Story, that Miss Hepburn is a performer who, more than most, needs to find the right script, to be protected by expert direction, and to have her very special gifts displayed to equally special advantage. As an actress she bears a greater resemblance than the majority of her rivals to the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. Certainly when she is good, she can be very, very good indeed.

That she is blessed with uncommon endowments no one can deny who has seen her at her best or at her worst. She has intelligence, breeding, fire, a voice which in its emotional scenes can be satin, a body Zorina might look upon with envy, and a personality of such compulsion that, without meaning to do so, she can make the center of the stage wherever she happens to be. There is grace—a lovely and arresting grace—about her very awkwardness; about the tomboyish attitudes she strikes from time to time; and, most especially, about that free-limbed quality of hers which can turn her very crosses into the poetry of motion.

Most of all, there is Miss Hepburn’s beauty. Dramatic critics, of course, have a way of pretending that an actress’ beauty is of no importance either to them or to her art. What has led them to do this is at once a desire to seem judicial when appraising technique, and the fact—the melancholy fact—that so many of our actresses have had to get along (and done very nicely, thank you) unaided by beauty. Miss Hepburn is not one of these. Beauty is decidedly in league with her. Nor is her loveliness of that languid, bovine sort so dear to the elder Edward with his well-known fondness for Lilys who, though eye-filling in their serenity, were apt to be more Jersey than Lily. Miss Hepburn’s face is as interesting as it is pretty, as flexible as it is wellmodeled. It has strength no less than temperament behind it. Above all, its decisive modeling enables

Miss Hepburn to project her expressions onstage with the clarity of a close-up. With its high cheek bones, its almost equine spread, its generous mouth, and its sculptured features, it is the mask of a Bryn Mawr Garbo whose visual fascinations are endless. Moreover, Miss Hepburn can act. And act she does with agreeable results, not only by being what she is but by doing very nicely what she is called upon to do in Mr. Barry’s script when, in the last act, he gets around to asking her.

Source: John Mason Brown, ‘‘Miss Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story’’ in his Broadway in Review, Norton, 1940, pp. 127–31.


Critical Overview