The Philadelphia Story

by Philip Barry

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Themes and Meanings

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It may seem surprising that a comedy of manners set in Philadelphia Main Line society is essentially a plea for tolerance. The two most interesting characters in the play, Mike and Tracy, as well as Tracy’s pompous fiancé, George, are all so committed to their own ideas that they cannot accept others as they are, much less enjoy the differences between people. Early in the play, the prejudices of these characters become clear. Both George and Mike are of humble backgrounds; neither understands what the Lords are like. George has developed his own image of the extremely proper aristocrat who is to be his wife and expects the unconventional, mercurial Tracy to fit the pattern. Mike considers people such as the Lords to be brainless, heartless parasites, and he dislikes them even more because he has been pulled from news stories of social significance to cover their extravagant wedding festivities. On her part, Tracy shares with her class the dislike and distrust of reporters, whom she sees as voyeurs without sensitivity or manners, and in addition, she is furious about the fact that her father’s indiscretion has forced her to admit the press to her wedding.

Although the play focuses on Tracy’s need to change, if she is ever to have a happy marriage, she can only develop through seeing the intolerance shown by George and Mike, who though her social inferiors, behave no worse than Tracy herself. The stage directions make it clear that Philip Barry expects the actor who plays Tracy to reflect her growing understanding more through facial expression than through words. When George describes her future place on the pedestal he is constructing for her, Tracy reacts with distaste and concern. In the middle of a diatribe about Mike’s intolerance, Tracy stops, obviously hearing in her accusation of Mike the echo of other characters’ criticisms of her. Although Tracy had seemed blithely to ignore the identical assessments of her own flaw which were made by the two men she most loved, her father and her former husband (both of whom she had rejected because of their imperfections), evidently she had heard more than she admitted. Despite all the scheming and the verbal sparring, the audience is allowed to see Tracy thinking deeply.

Dexter had mentioned an earlier episode when Tracy got drunk and discarded her clothes; therefore it is no surprise to the audience when, after the champagne party, she suggests the swim with Mike. The next morning, Tracy remembers nothing, and even when she finds out that nothing happened, she realizes that she must credit Mike’s gallantry, rather than her own restraint. The result is a happy one. Because she now sees him as a tyrant, Tracy rejects George; because she has also seen her own tyrannical possessiveness, she must admit her error and be reconciled with the two men she has wronged, her father and Dexter. Unlike George, she has indeed learned to be a human being.


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Prejudice and Tolerance
Tracy Lord believes that her uncompromising morals are part of her strong character: she expects ‘‘exceptionally high standards for herself’’ and ‘‘lives up to them.’’ She is disappointed when others fail to live up to her standards. In fact, her father’s behavior caused a deep schism in their relationship, as she was unable to forgive him. Also, her husband’s alcoholism led to their estrangement; instead of trying to help him, she had rejected him for his weakness.

Tracy’s brief fling with Mike, which becomes the source of many comic misunderstandings in Act III, enables her to break free of...

(This entire section contains 365 words.)

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her own selfimposed moral straitjacket and become more sensitive to human weakness. By the end of the play, she has cast off her prejudices and embraced a more tolerant standard from which to judge herself and others.

Public vs. Private Life
The stimulus for much of the comedy in The Philadelphia Story is the impending revelation of Seth Lord’s adulterous affair with Tina Mara. The forthcoming article in Destiny horrifies the Lord family, for they value their reputation highly, particularly Tracy.

Moreover, they value their status as members of the Philadelphia elite, and members of this group were expected to be discreet. Thus much of the original impetus for the comedy of manners hinges upon the Lord family’s attempt to cover up past misdeeds.

The Lord family’s concern about their public reputation is cleverly emphasized in their playful decision to act out a stereotype in front of reporters. Tracy acts the part of simpering hostess, while Dinah acts like an eccentric and pretentious ‘‘idiot.’’ In fact, the entire Lord family presents a false facade of their private life to the reporters: each member wants to maintain the illusion that the Lords are still happily married and that the family is fully functional.

The tension between public reputation and private behavior is of course the source of much of the play’s comedy, but it also represents a growing concern among the leisured classes about the tabloid frenzy for scandal and gossip. Barry portrayed this increasing tension through his presentation of the lives of the rich and famous.