The Philadelphia Story

by Philip Barry

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The Play

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As the curtain rises on The Philadelphia Story, Tracy Lord is in the sitting room of her family’s country house near Philadelphia hurriedly writing last-minute thank-you notes as her mother, Margaret Lord, brings in more gifts. Tracy is to be married the following day. During the ensuing conversation, it becomes clear that it is Tracy’s second marriage, following an elopement ten months previously, which terminated in divorce. As the scene progresses, the possibility of scandal escalates. Tracy’s former husband, C. K. Dexter Haven, is in the vicinity. Furthermore, Dinah Lord has found the proof sheets of an article which a magazine called Destiny is about to publish concerning the involvement of her father, Seth Lord, with a dancer, an affair which so angered Tracy that she has refused to invite her own father to the wedding. When Sandy Lord enters, it transpires that, as a journalist himself, he has made a deal with Destiny: In return for killing the article about Seth, they will be permitted to print the inside story on Tracy’s wedding. Sandy has even arranged for a fake telegram from Seth, regretting that illness will prevent his coming to the ceremony.

Soon the delegation from Destiny arrives: Mike Connor, who immediately displays his democratic disapproval of Main Line society, and Liz Imbrie, who is clearly in love with Mike. Although Sandy and Margaret hope to win over their guests, Dinah and Tracy assume the roles of spoiled and brainless socialites. When her fiancé, George Kittredge, enters, Tracy gushes over him; later, in a fit of invention, she introduces her uncle as her father, and pretends to forget the name of C. K. Dexter Haven, her former husband. Just as lunch is announced, Seth arrives, and Tracy’s real fury about the journalistic invasion becomes clear. The family troubles are his fault, she indicates, and then suggests the complexity of the situation by addressing him by her uncle’s name.

As the second act begins, it is obvious to the audience that in the conflict between the socialites and the reporters, the socialites are ahead; the very fact that Liz and Mike can talk about the simplemindedness of their hosts indicates that they have been deceived by them. As they talk, however, Mike and Tracy begin to draw closer; they have to admit that they both assume a toughness which is only superficial. In a later conversation with Dexter, Tracy again must approach the truth. Dexter’s gift to her, a photograph of their boat, brings back memories of their own happiness. Although Tracy has blamed Dexter for their divorce, he tells her that the cause was her own intolerance and that she will not be happy with a man such as George. When George pompously describes his plan to place Tracy on a pedestal, she begins to worry, and at the end of the scene, when her father, like Dexter, accuses her of spinsterish intolerance, Tracy is confused, for perhaps the first time in her life.

The second scene in act 2 takes place some hours later, after an all-night party. Once again, the Lords are scheming to outwit the press. With an inebriated and somewhat infatuated Mike cooperating, Sandy and Tracy plan to blackmail the publisher of Destiny in order to get all the publicity about their family stopped. Meanwhile, Tracy continues to spar with Mike; however, when she hears herself accusing him of intolerance, she stops and begins to see herself. Champagne and impulse reign; they kiss, they put in an emergency telephone call to summon the publisher, and they run offstage for a swim without suits....

(This entire section contains 885 words.)

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George arrives to check on Tracy’s conduct with Mike; Dexter unsuccessfully tries to send him home but at least manages to pocket Tracy’s telltale jewelry. When Mike enters carrying the naked Tracy, along with their clothes, however, even Dexter cannot cover up for her. He knocks Mike down, supposedly to prevent George from doing so, and George leaves in a huff.

The third act takes place just before the wedding. Tracy is hung over and confused. She has found a man’s watch beside her bed, and she has lost her bracelet and her engagement ring. When Dexter returns the jewelry and Dinah tells her about seeing Mike carrying Tracy into her bedroom, Tracy can only assume the worst. So does George, who sends a nasty note and then arrives in person to demand an explanation. Even though Mike assures George that nothing happened, Tracy sees her fiancé for the stuffed shirt that he is and breaks the engagement. Realizing that all the essentials for a wedding are in place except the bridegroom, Mike proposes, but Tracy refuses, leaving him free for Liz. Because the publisher has arrived and hired Mike back, he is too happy to be hurt by Tracy’s refusal. When Tracy admits that she has loved Dexter all along and that she wishes to remarry him immediately, Mike happily agrees to act as Dexter’s best man. There is only one more relationship unmended. After the other characters leave the stage to take their places at the ceremony, Tracy tells her father that she has now learned how to be human and therefore to be tolerant of others and, taking his arm, she exits.

Dramatic Devices

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Because The Philadelphia Story is a traditional comedy of manners, the dramatic devices used are those typical of the genre. The expensive set decoration establishes the upper-class setting of the story. In this case, a sitting room and a porch are substituted for the usual drawing room, but there is no essential difference, because these are the public rooms which are meant to present the social group, here the Lord family, at its best.

Much of the humor arises from the attempt to keep private scandal hidden from the public, represented in this play by the reporters. Thus when Tracy hears that the reporters are coming, she goes to her room and changes costume, emerging in a demure, high-necked dress that she hopes will establish her propriety. The deception, however, cannot be maintained for long. Later, when Mike carries the naked, drunken Tracy through the other public area, the porch, on the way to her bedroom, Barry is emphasizing the fact that private behavior always becomes public knowledge. This type of revelation scene in comedy of manners is traditional, going back to the screen that falls to reveal the hidden Lady Teazle in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (pr. 1777). In these plays, that which is hidden is always discovered; the sitting room or the drawing room eventually becomes not a place of successful deception but instead a place where the truth is revealed, so that private lives and public lives become the same.

All traditional comedies also have a quality of magic. As complication follows complication, the audience is in suspense as to how the playwright will ever resolve the knotted strands of his plot. Barry skillfully introduces more confusion than would be necessary for the plot. For example, Sandy plans to explain Seth’s absence at the wedding by a telegram stating that he is ill. The telegram is garbled and obviously phony; further, before it arrives, Tracy has decided to pretend that her uncle is her father, and then when her father turns up, she introduces him as her uncle. Another example of the multiplication of complications is the fact that Tracy ultimately has three possible bridegrooms. At the end of the play, while the wedding guests wait, Tracy must quickly deal with a proposal from Mike before she can marry Dexter.

The third traditional element which Barry handles beautifully in his play is the visual expression of comic plot complications. In the public rooms where comedies of manners are set, characters come and go rapidly and unexpectedly, frequently encountering the very characters with whom contact is most awkward. Part of the interest of the play is watching the way in which highly polished ladies and gentlemen deal with this awkwardness. Whether they pretend unconcern, as when the Lords invite Tracy’s former husband to lunch, or whether they lapse into plebeian behavior, as when Dexter knocks Mike across the room, their behavior is always unpredictable. As the audience watches the playwright to see how he magically resolves plot complications, so it also watches the characters to see how they will use their own social finesse to deal with the encounters which he arranges for them. In his handling of the traditions of comedy, and particularly of those established for comedy of manners, Barry deserves to be ranked with his predecessors, from William Congreve to Noël Coward.

Historical Context

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World War II The rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan during the 1930s tipped the scales toward a world war. These dictatorships—known as the Axis alliance—began to forcibly expand into neighboring countries. For instance, in 1936 Benito Mussolini’s Italian troops took over Ethiopia, which gave them a strong foothold in Africa. In 1938 Germany annexed Austria; a year later, German forces occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy took control of Albania in 1939.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. On September 3, 1939, a German U-boat sank the British ship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Another British ship, Courageous, was sunk on September 19. All the members of the British Commonwealth, except Ireland, soon joined Britain and France in their declaration of war.

The Great Depression Contrary to popular belief, the stock market crash of 1929 did not trigger the Great Depression of the 1930s; rather, many economic analysts attribute the depressed economy to problems within the international stock market and investment banks. In fact, it seems that Great Depression owed more to the legacy of the First World War (in particular Britain and America’s punitive reparation policy) and to technological advances that increased profits but made many workers redundant. Agricultural, mining, and textile markets, traditionally the source of great profit, were also depressed.

From 1929 to 1932, unemployment in America rose from about 1.5 million to about fifteen million. This extraordinarily rapid rise in unemployment placed tremendous strains upon social services. Farmers were also suffering. By the mid-1930s, drought and bank foreclosures had driven farm prices down by more than 50% and many tenantfarmers were forced off their land.

In the face of this unprecedented social and economic crisis, the American president, Herbert Hoover, held out for the upswing in ‘‘market forces’’ that he felt sure would put an end to the escalating crisis. The voters were not so confident, and in 1933 they elected the Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt to office. He immediately began implementing his ‘‘New Deal’’ reform plan: relief for the unemployed, fiscal reform, and stimulating measures to boost economic recovery. With the escalation of arms production in the late 1930s, America finally began to recover from the Great Depression.

Literary Style

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Stage Directions Detailed stage directions are a very noticeable feature of The Philadelphia Story. There are three simple reasons for this. First, although the dialogue was strong in itself, it depends upon staging. Imprecise staging and inappropriate gestures detract from the impact of the dialogue.

Second, Barry was a consummate producer of plays: he understood much about stagecraft, and knew that if he wanted to replicate the success of one play all over the country, he had to give directors of amateur companies precise guidance.

Third, The Philadelphia Story is written realistically, and Barry worked hard to give the audience the impression that the action unfolding in front of their eyes was, indeed, an accurate representation of ‘‘the real thing.’’

Also, Barry’s stage directions enable the actors to add nuance to their characterizations. For instance, when Mike strikes a match, Tracy offers him a light from her lighter. The action is amusing because of Tracy’s pretense, but, because it is also a classic gesture of attraction between men and women, it is also a nice hint to the audience that Mike and Tracy may be interested in each other.

Comedy of Manners By and large, the great American playwrights of the twentieth century are dramatists such as Arthur Miller, August Wilson and Eugene O’Neill. Drama often appears more resonant and universal; in contrast, comedy is invariably limited to themes such as marriage, adultery, and sex, and reflects contemporary society. These qualities can date comedy faster than drama.

The comedy of manners, a distinct sub-genre within the light comic tradition, is better able to survive the vagaries of time and fashion because its humor depends upon character foibles and upon situation humor, such as misunderstandings and identity switches.

The great nineteenth-century master of the comedy of manners was Oscar Wilde, whose plays included the masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). In this popular play, comedy is created not only by Wilde’s dazzling wit, but also by numerous confusions of identity and revelations of double lives. Philip Barry owes a great debt to Wilde in his use of intricate plots, confused identities, and comic misunderstandings.

Compare and Contrast

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1939:America feels the continuing effects of the Great Depression. Unemployment remains high and industrial production is low.

Today: The American economy booms: the Dow Jones Industrial Index passes the 10,000 mark, unemployment is at a record low, and inflation is under control.

1939: Europe erupts into full-scale war, pitting Nazi Germany and Italy against France and England. By the year’s end, Germany has taken control of Poland, partitioning it with Russia, while Russia has seized Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and is preceding in its invasion of Finland.

Today: The conflict in the former Yugoslavia escalates. In the wake of widespread killing, NATO launches a peace-keeping mission and commits to air and ground warfare against Serbia.

1939: Scientists announce that they have succeeded in splitting uranium, thorium, and protactinium atoms by bombarding them with neutrons. Their success paves the way for the invention of the H-bomb in the final years of World War II.

Today: After the escalation of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War the 1980s and 1990s were marked by attempts to reduce the superpowers’ arsenal of nuclear weapons. Developing world nations such as India and Pakistan, however, are keen to acquire nuclear weapons, and recently each nation has announced the successful testing of nuclear weapons.

1939: Color television is demonstrated for the first time. Black-and-white televisions are sold to millions of households in the 1950s.

Today: Most American households own two televisions, and have access to over one hundred cable channels.

1939: American labor organizations unionize employees from mass-production industries such as the steel and automobile industries, and force employers to accept the validity of strike action and collective bargaining power.

Today: American labor organizations struggle to maintain their traditional membership, as massproduction industries move to Mexico or overseas. They also strive to unionize the massive (and often non-English speaking and itinerant) labor force of the textile, agricultural, and service industries.

1939: President Franklin D. Roosevelt maintains his commitment to liberal ‘‘New Deal’’ social programs and announces American neutrality in the European War. The following year, he is reelected president for a third term.

Today: Second-term Democratic President Bill Clinton survives an impeachment vote, and continues to enjoy strong popularity despite the impeachment vote and Lewinsky scandal.

Media Adaptations

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The Philadelphia Story was adapted as a film in 1940. The film was directed by George Cukor and produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz for MGM. It starred Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, Cary Grant as C. K. Dexter Haven, and James Stewart as Macaulay Connor. Donald Ogden Stewart adapted Barry’s play into a screenplay. This highly successful adaptation is still the best-known version of Barry’s play.

In 1956 MGM produced a musical re-make of The Philadelphia Story entitled High Society. It was faithful to the original plot but was set during the Newport Jazz Festival and featured the playing and singing of Louis Armstrong. High Society was directed by Charles Walters and included a star-studded cast: Bing Crosby starred as C. K. Dexter Haven, Frank Sinatra as Macaulay Connor, Grace Kelley as Tracy Lord, and Celeste Holm as Liz Imbrie.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Moe, Christian H. ‘‘The Philadelphia Story’’ in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992.

Wertheim, Albert. ‘‘The Philadelphia Story,’’ in Educational Theater Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2, May, 1978, pp. 273-74.

Wyndham, Francis. ‘‘Dreams and Drawing Rooms,’’ in Times Literary Supplement, December 19, 1975, p. 1507.

Further Reading Brown, John Mason. ‘‘The American Barry,’’ in Still Seeing Things, McGraw-Hill, 1950, pp. 30-7. Brown includes reminiscences of Barry.

Gross, Robert F. ‘‘Servants of Three Masters: Realism, Idealism, and ‘Hokum’ in American High Comedy,’’ in Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition, edited by William W. Demastes, University of Alabama Press, 1996, pp. 71-90. Contends that scholars have overlooked the realism of American high comedy and have focused too much upon drama and social realism at the expense of American comedy.

Meredith, George. Essay on Comedy, Chapman and Hall, 1877, 99 p. British poet and novelist George Meredith was also known as a literary critic. His Essay on Comedy was one of the most influential critical texts on high comedy during the late nineteenth century and continued to influence critics and writers during the first decades of the twentieth century.

Wolfe, Thomas. Of Time and the River, C. Scribner’s, 1935, 892 p. Wolfe attended the infamous 47 Workshop of George Baker Pierce in the 1920s. His semi-autobiographical novel includes a portrait of Baker in the character of Professor Hatcher.


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Sources for Further Study

Brown, John Mason. “The American Barry.” Saturday Review of Literature 32 (December 24, 1949): 24-27.

Gassner, John. “Philip Barry: A Civilized Playwright.” In The Theatre in Our Times. New York: Crown, 1954.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. “Miss Hepburn Pays Up.” Nation, April 8, 1939, 410-411.

Roppolo, Joseph Patrick. Philip Barry. New York: Twayne, 1965.

Weales, Gerald. “Philip Barry.” In Reference Guide to American Literature. 2d ed. Chicago: St. James, 1987.


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