Robert Anderson

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His ability to dramatize the human need for worth and understanding made Robert Woodruff Anderson one of the most popular American playwrights of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Like most of his characters, he came from a well-to-do family. His father, James Hewston Anderson, was an executive for the United Verde Copper Company and later, after the 1929 stock market crash, an agent for the Northwestern Life Insurance Company. If through his father Robert Anderson was exposed to the value of competition and economic success, his mother, Myra Ester Griff, instilled in him a love of the arts and the theater.

Anderson attended good schools: a private grade school in New Rochelle, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and Harvard University, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1939. While at the university, he met his future wife, Phyllis Stohl, a woman ten years his senior, who convinced him that his destiny lay in the writing of drama. He had already written more than twenty one-act and full-length dramas, few of which survive. Yet this output formed his theatrical apprenticeship.

During the World War II, Anderson served as an officer in the Navy, seeing duty in the South Pacific on board the cruiser Alaska for which he was awarded a Bronze Star. While on board ship, he wrote Come Marching Home, which won for him an Army-Navy prize for the best drama written by a serviceman. After the war, it was produced at several small theaters. This work and other scripts earned for him a National Theater Conference Fellowship, enabling him and Stohl (whom he had wed in 1940) to live in New York, where he devoted himself full-time to playwriting. Anderson lived in New York until his death on February 9, 2009 at age 91.

Anderson earned extra money by writing radio plays, adaptations of famous American works, and by teaching playwriting. He once remarked that it was teaching that helped him learn how to become a playwright and that working on radio and television scripts made him “a professional writer.” Yet it was not until 1953 that he experienced his first real success.

When Tea and Sympathy was produced on Broadway, the critics were almost unanimous in praising it as a significant work of theater. The public responded by giving it a run of 712 performances. The play’s themes of loneliness and lack of understanding became standard in Anderson’s work. In this coming-of-age drama, set in a New England boarding school, a compassionate housemother offers the young hero, who believes himself to be homosexual, salvation through sex. Such an ending might seem implausible, but it works dramatically. Anderson willingly suspends disbelief through careful plotting and skillfully crafted character development. In a milieu in which little boys are not supposed to cry, Anderson shows that it is fine to show emotion, that being a man includes tenderness, gentleness, and consideration.

The dramatization of sexuality as a means of communication and regeneration also occurs in Silent Night, Lonely Night, in which Anderson further treats marital and midlife crises. His characters reflect the fears and neuroses of their times, each in his own way searching for a meaningful relationship, for someone to love. In I Never Sang for My Father, Anderson explores a son’s relationship to his father and mother. The plot of this Bildungsroman is rather loosely constructed, but its characters are characteristically well drawn. The action, as in his other plays, is frankly autobiographical and presented melodramatically, while remaining universal in appeal nevertheless. The dichotomy between the typical masculine drive for success and the feminine virtues...

(This entire section contains 835 words.)

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of sensitivity and compassion is again apparent and establishes the basic tension between the main character and his parents. Anderson maintains that a society in which the acquisition of status and wealth determines a person’s worth is fundamentally sterile.

Although the subject matter of his plays tends to be repetitious, the structure and tone change often, from the four comic one-acts contained in You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running to the stylistic narrative style of I Never Sang for My Father to the allegorical Solitaire/Double Solitaire. Anderson’s consistent dramatization of marital relationships, pitting an insensitive husband against a more comprehending spouse (Anderson’s women appear to be natural creatures of understanding) makes his later plays seem repetitious. They also began to lose the dramatic fire of earlier works in their expository style. Few modern playwrights, however, can match Anderson’s display of sympathy and sensitivity for human beings tortured by alienation and self-doubt. In presenting human emotion, he appears taken by the romantic mystique of redemption through love but offers little hope to those already suffering from a lifetime of misunderstanding.

In an age of women’s liberation, in which the macho image becomes an amusing stereotype, Anderson’s plays might seem irrelevant. Yet critic and scholar Thomas Adler expressed confidence that they will continue to be performed “most especially because of Anderson’s humanity and compassion in portraying his distraught and lonely creatures.”


Critical Essays