Philip Barry made his mark in American theater as a writer of high comedy and as an experimentalist, and during three decades of playwriting, he explored fully both of these artistic tendencies in his work. In the process, he came to occupy a kind of middle ground between dramatic extremes. In the words of John Gassner, Barry tried to arrive at a point of reasonableness in an unreasonable world. As a theatrical moderate, he faced a much more difficult task than did the more extreme dramatists of the period between the two world wars. Neither a social satirist nor a vacuous entertainer, a partisan politico nor a know-nothing fool, an unthinking realist nor a muddled metaphysician, Barry practiced a healing art, and his mission was to reduce the dissonance of the modern American theater. Barry’s diffidence, however, made him difficult to classify, and literary history has not treated him well. Often misunderstood when he was alive, after his death he came to reside in a critical limbo in American theatrical history. As a Catholic, it is a position he would have understood and perhaps relished.
Barry became one of the United States’ most financially successful playwrights, earning enough money to allow him to live in the manner of one of his own characters. He was perhaps the most accomplished writer of high or sophisticated comedy between the wars, a period notable for its witty comedies of manners. He was among the most innovative American playwrights working on Broadway during the 1920’s and the 1930’s. In spite of all these accomplishments, however, Barry remains largely excluded from serious discussions of American literature. The reasons for this are complex but center on Barry’s need to be a maverick, an eccentric in a world dominated by corporate mentalities. Barry’s plays, for all their commonality of themes, are just quirky enough to avoid easy synthesis. Both experimental and traditional, comic and serious, religious and skeptical, Barry’s work provides enough ambiguity and variety to place him in his own category, which is to say, by himself, alone. It is a position Barry would have welcomed, for like so many of his characters he eschewed easy answers and sought salvation on his own terms.
You and I
Barry established his reputation with his play You and I, which under the working title The Jilts had won an award as the best play of Baker’s Workshop 47. Under the terms of the award, the play chosen was to be produced on Broadway and then taken on tour. You and I was a resounding success, both in New York and on tour, and set the pattern for Barry’s other drawing-room comedies, most notably Paris Bound, Holiday, and The Philadelphia Story. With witty dialogue and a modish plot, the play revealed the essentially corrupt spirit of capitalism and concluded with a realistic vision of life’s limitations. The action centers on Maitland White, a fortyish businessman who decides to give up his comfortable advertising job in a soap company and return to the ambition of his youth, to become a painter. His wife rather generously agrees to give up her affluent lifestyle to help him realize his dream. His son, who is just embarking on his own life, has fallen in love with a girl and is about to give up his ambition to become an architect and go to work for the firm his father has just quit. The play concludes as the father returns to work, thereby freeing the son both to marry and to realize his dream of studying architecture in Paris. Matey realizes by the play’s end that time has robbed him of any chance to become anything but a mediocre artist and that his family obligations must take precedence over his individual desires. Dreams, ambition, and talent can all die with age and obligation; such is the rather sobering resolution to Barry’s witty plot.
This pattern of hope, loss, and reconciliation (or resignation) marked all of Barry’s most famous and successful comedies. Paris Bound, which was produced in 1927 following a series of increasingly unsuccessful dramas, also contains a cautionary ending. Jim and Mary Hutton have been married for six years when Mary learns that her husband has committed casual adultery. Deeply hurt at such a betrayal, she leaves for Paris to sue for divorce. In spite of her “modern” attitude about such things, announced on her wedding day, Mary is now prepared to forsake her liberality in favor of a more conventional morality—until she, too, is faced with temptation by Richard, a bright, attractive, young composer. Although she does not have an affair with Richard, she learns the ease of such venial sins and accepts her husband back without revealing her own involvement. She has learned that the spiritual bond within marriage should be valued above mere physical fidelity. Again, Barry’s dialogue was praised by the critics, while audiences were titillated by his unconventional attitude toward extramarital affairs. A smash hit on Broadway, the play was also included in the ten best list for 1927, and screen rights were purchased by Pathé. Once again, Barry’s wit and charm obscured a more serious theme, one that would surface again and again in his later plays—namely, the question of marriage and resolutions to marriages in trouble. Like that of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, Mary Hutton’s resolution in Paris Bound strikes one as a little too pat for the anguish that has been expended. The problem of divorce and broken relationships was of considerable social interest during the 1920’s, but Barry declined to confront it head-on.
Indeed, Barry was always able in his high comedies to skirt popular and often controversial issues by placing them in warm and sunny settings. One of the ways in which he used the upper-middle-class milieu for which he became famous was to couch radical themes in comfortable surroundings and thereby make them more palatable to his audiences. A case in point is his next broadly successful comedy, Holiday. Returning to the theme of a young man’s dreams, Holiday deals with Johnny Case, who wants to risk his small fortune in order to go...
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