Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684
During the Labor Day holiday in a small Kansas town, seven lives are disrupted by the arrival of a sensually attractive, indigent young man who performs some cleanup work for a meal. The young man, Hal Carter, carries out the work for “Mrs.” Potts (who is unmarried); the experience of a male presence in her house increases her sense of vitality and gives her a new perspective on the life that she has led as her mother’s aide and, currently, nursemaid. “Mrs.” Potts’s neighbor, Flo Owens, is unsettled by the young man, in whom she sees, first, a threat to the plans that she has for her daughter Madge and, second, the embodiment of her own desire for a man, following a decade of adjustment to her husband’s desertion. Madge is captivated by Hal and finds in him the direction in life that she chooses to take. Her younger sister, Millie, finds her own sense of female maturity awakened by Hal and becomes ready, as a result, to pass from tomboyhood to intellectualism.
The person most dramatically influenced by Hal’s arrival is the town’s schoolteacher, Rosemary Sydney: She resents Hal for reminding her of her lost youth and unsatisfied desires, and she is stimulated by her resentment to pressure Howard Bevans, her only marital prospect, into a guarantee of wedlock. Therefore, Howard’s life of easy and unchallenging bachelorhood is ended as a result of Hal’s appearance. One other man, Alan Seymour, is also affected: He loses Madge, who he had assumed would marry him, to Hal. Alan engineers Hal’s flight from town by falsely accusing him of car theft, but Madge subsequently leaves town to follow Hal.
The disruptions of the seven lives are highlighted by various social differentials: middle-class affluence versus moderateness of means, the married state versus forms of the single state, high intelligence versus mediocre intellectual ability, physical attractiveness versus plainness, and differences of age.
Madge Owens, a dime-store clerk, is unhappy despite her beauty, which ensures her ability to catch the most desirable bachelor in town, the Cadillac-driving Alan Seymour. Her romantic dreaming is punctuated by the distant train whistle at evening and comes to center on Hal, who can offer her no material security and with whom she falls in love. Hal and Alan, once roommates in college, present the contrast of an exciting failure and a successful dullard, respectively. Madge’s younger sister, Millie, resents Madge’s beauty because it brings people, including their mother, to prefer Madge. Yet, Millie is as superior in intelligence to Madge, as Alan is shown to be to Hal. The play ends with the intimation that Millie and Alan, both destined to respectable citizenship, are ideally suited as marriage partners and with the departure of Madge in pursuit of the unlucky Hal.
The three middle-aged women are left in the wake of the young. Helen Potts, whose marriage was annulled by her domineering mother but who has kept the name, Potts, of the boy whom she married, cherishes her memory of Hal as she continues to nurse her aged and now-invalid mother. Flo Owens, whose husband abandoned her and their two young daughters ten years earlier, looks sadly upon her daughter’s flight from the nest. Rosemary Sydney leaves for a honeymoon with a reluctantly compliant Howard Bevans after having emotionally coerced him into a promise of marriage. Each of the three women has had her frustrations intensified and redefined by the sensual presence of Hal.
The Labor Day holiday is the scene of two annual events: a town picnic and the eve of the reopening of schools at summer’s end. The picnic is not seen on stage. In the 1956 film adaptation of the play, the picnic was shown as a lavish extravaganza hardly tenable by the modest appointments of a small Kansas town. The stage’s...
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