Robert Anderson

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Robert Anderson was a heavily autobiographical playwright. His focal character is usually male, is usually a writer, often also a teacher, is misunderstood or not properly appreciated by someone close to him—most often his father or his wife—and is sometimes suffering from a tragedy associated with his wife. This character is young in the plays written when Anderson was young—in All Summer Long, he is only twelve, and in Tea and Sympathy, he is almost eighteen—but in the plays written as Anderson grew older, the focal character also is older: In Silent Night, Lonely Night, he is in his early forties; in The Days Between, he is split into two characters, both of whom are around forty; in three of the four one-act plays that make up You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running, he is middle-aged, though in one of these he is not a writer; in I Never Sang for My Father, he is forty; in Solitaire, he is around fifty and, though not a writer since writing is obsolete in his society, a recorder of tapes in a library; and in Double Solitaire, he is forty-three.

Anderson’s themes derive from the circumstances of this character in various incarnations. One of his most common themes is the incompatibility of a husband and wife, particularly a middle-aged couple who were once madly in love with each other. Their incompatibility may or may not be in values or goals, but its major symptom is always an unhappy sex life. In some cases, it even results in a complete cessation of any sex life within the marriage. Closely related to this theme is the theme of the importance of good sexual experiences in and of themselves, even outside marriage. Sex is seen as therapeutic, and it becomes a charitable obligation for kind and selfless people to fulfill the sex needs that they discern in lonely people with whom they have a mental or spiritual rapport. Another common theme of the plays is an unhappy father-son relationship, usually stemming from the inability of a materialistic, forceful, athletically inclined father to understand or appreciate properly the nature or accomplishments of a more sensitive, thoughtful, artistic son. Two other themes are inherent in these unhappy relationships, whether marital or father-son: the theme of guilt and hostility within the failing or failed relationship, and the theme of loneliness—the loneliness of an individual who is unable to achieve with another a sharing of values, goals and aspirations, tenderness and love.

Surprisingly for a writer so personal in theme and character, Anderson has seldom been innovative in plot, style, or technique. Perhaps because of his many years of formal education in drama, his works are much influenced by earlier writers, particularly Anton Chekhov, John Van Druten, and Tennessee Williams. All Summer Long, for example, follows Chekhov’s Vishnyovy sad (pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908) not only in its slow pace and in the lassitude of its ineffectual characters but also in the loss of the family home, which literally slides into a river because the adults in the family have been unable to put aside their petty personal desires and take some positive action to prevent the erosion of the soil under the house. Tea and Sympathy has an equally heavy debt to Van Druten’s Young Woodley (pr. 1925), and I Never Sang for My Father owes several of its important elements to Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944). Anderson has, however, not been wedded to any particular format or technique, but has...

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been willing to experiment with various techniques introduced by others, using for his settings in some plays the highly realistic, conventional scene behind the proscenium arch and in others settings that are to varying degrees illusionistic and nonrepresentational. He used an almost bare stage in some of the one-act plays and a narrator-chorus figure inI Never Sang for My Father. His attempts to make the theater more frank and open in its treatment of sex stem from his desire to see it become more adult and honest in its treatment of human relationships, particularly the marital and extramarital sexual relationships on which his plays so often center.

Tea and Sympathy

The autobiographical influences on Tea and Sympathy are readily apparent. The setting is a New England preparatory school similar to the one Anderson attended. Young Tom Lee has an artistic and sensitive nature and aesthetic interests that make him seem an “off-horse” to some of the other boys, to his housemaster, and to his father, who has sent Tom to this school in the hope that the housemaster will develop in Tom what the father considers a more manly character. Tom is not a writer, although in his elementary school days when his class needed a poet he was apparently the automatic choice. His real interest is in music, however, and he hopes for a career as a folksinger. Anderson’s own first interest had also been music, and only after a sinus condition ruined his voice did he turn to the writing of plays. Tom falls in love with Laura Reynolds, a woman almost ten years older than he. Like Anderson’s first wife, Phyllis, Laura is sympathetic to young people and eager to encourage talent in the young. Anderson’s dedication of the play to Phyllis, “whose spirit is everywhere in this play,” suggests that Laura resembles Phyllis in many other respects.

In addition to this strong autobiographical influence, however, there are also several strong literary influences on the play. One such influence, although a minor one, is Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (pr., pb. 1947). In Williams’s play, the young, sensitive first husband of Blanche kills himself when she discovers that he is homosexual. His suicide scars Blanche for life, leaving her with feelings of guilt and remorse that she attempts to expiate by having sex with teenage boys even later in life when she is much older than they. In Tea and Sympathy, the young, sensitive first husband of Laura, because of some incident unknown to Laura that called his courage and manliness into question, in effect kills himself by risking his life unnecessarily in battle to prove to others that he is not a coward. His death scars Laura and may lead to her desire to experience sexual love with the teenage Tom Lee.

Two more important literary influences are Van Druten’s Young Woodley and George Bernard Shaw’s Candida: A Mystery (pr. 1897). Tea and Sympathy is, in fact, so similar to Young Woodley that it might almost be considered an adaptation. In both plays, the young protagonist, a student at a boarding school, is disliked by his housemaster and teased by some of the students because he does not conform to their concept of manliness. Both housemasters hope eventually to become housemasters of their schools, and both are apparently projecting their own weaknesses and self-doubts on the protagonists. In both plays, the protagonist has been deprived of his mother early in life, in Young Woodley by her death and in Tea and Sympathy by the divorce of the parents. In both, the student is in love with the housemaster’s young wife (in both plays named Laura), whose nature and values are far different from those of her husband. In both, Laura encourages the young man in his artistic pursuits. In both, the young man visits the town prostitute, with resultant feelings of self-disgust, though for different reasons. In both, the young man, in a rage of frustration and despair, makes an attack with a butcher knife, Woodley an attack on another student and Tom an attempt at suicide. One important difference between the two plays is that in the last analysis, Woodley’s father is far more helpful and sympathetic to his son than is Tom’s father, a difference that reflects the lack of sympathetic understanding between Anderson and his own father. Another major difference is in the ending; Anderson gave his play a conclusion that, for that period in American theatrical history, was quite sensational.

This ending stems from the inspiration that Shaw’s play Candida gave to Anderson’s play. When Candida, the older married woman in Shaw’s play, speculates on the effect that her rejection of the young, poetic Marchbanks will ultimately have on him, she wonders whether Marchbanks will forgive her for selfishly maintaining her own purity and chastity instead of initiating him into the mysteries of sexual love. She concludes that Marchbanks will forgive her if some other good woman teaches him about such love, but will not forgive her if he has the disillusioning experience of learning about sexual love from a “bad woman.” In Tea and Sympathy, Tom asks Laura if she thinks Candida was right to send Marchbanks away, and Laura replies that Shaw “made it seem right.” Later, when Tom, overcome by emotion, impulsively embraces and kisses Laura, she momentarily rejects his kisses, and he flees to the arms of the local prostitute, where his repulsion for the prostitute makes him unable to perform sexually and fills him with self-disgust. Laura, hearing about Tom’s wretched experience, feels responsible for it, saying that she wishes she had let Tom prove his sexual prowess with her rather than sending him off to such a sordid experience. She has, thus, decided that Candida was wrong after all, and the play concludes as she is offering herself to Tom so that he will be able to prove to himself that he can indeed perform sexually as a man.

Here, Anderson is developing one of his favorite themes—the immorality and selfishness of allowing conventional mores to prevent one from offering a loving sexual experience to a kindred spirit who is lonely and in need of such love. The offering of a spirit of love and understanding is not enough in such circumstances; the truly loving person will feel the obligation to offer the full consummation of a sexual experience and will feel guilty for withholding such an offer. This theme provides the major conflict of Anderson’s next play, Silent Night, Lonely Night, in which two lonely, unhappy people meet by chance on Christmas Eve and, though both remain committed to their own unhappy marriages, help and strengthen each other by experiencing together a full sexual communion for that night only. Each has regrets for times in the past when he or she should have offered such an experience but withheld it through mindless obedience to an inappropriate system of morality, and both are seen at the conclusion of the play as better persons because they have learned to overcome such rigid principles. In this play, the Christmas Eve setting seems intended to give a religious sanction to Anderson’s thesis.

Not only the morality but also the validity of this thesis can be, and indeed has been, questioned. Gerald Weales has branded it as belonging to the “fashionable sex-as-therapy” school of drama, which he finds unrealistic, and even John Gassner pointed out the strong possibility that in reality, the awe in which Tom Lee held Laura would prevent him from performing sexually with her and would thus compound, instead of alleviating, his trauma. Others have noted the lengths to which Anderson went to make the sensational ending seem right. They note that he divided his characters for the most part along melodramatic lines into the good and the bad, with both Laura and Tom clearly in the category of the good and with the vicious housemaster clearly in the category of the bad. In addition, the housemaster is revealed as a latent homosexual, and Laura unequivocally breaks off her marriage to him before she offers herself to Tom. Even Laura’s seduction of Tom takes place on his eighteenth birthday, so that she cannot be accused of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Tea and Sympathy thus takes up all the major themes of Anderson’s later plays: the unhappy marital relationship, the unhappy father-son relationship, the feelings of guilt and loneliness deriving from the failure of such relationships, and the moral imperative of offering sexual experiences generously under certain circumstances. While derivative in plot and technique, it does break new ground in treating homosexuality explicitly rather than by innuendo and in the sexual frankness of the scene on which the curtain drops.

I Never Sang for My Father

I Never Sang for My Father, though produced the year after You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running, was written earlier and represents an earlier stage in Anderson’s development. It is his most thorough and most successful attempt at exploring a difficult father-son relationship. Again, the autobiographical elements of the play are obvious. Tom Garrison, the father in the play, is like Anderson’s father in many respects. He is a self-made man, and he loves athletics and athletic values. He was once a mayor (Anderson’s father once ran for the office of mayor of New Rochelle), and he has never understood or appreciated the artistic and literary interests of either his wife or his son. The son, Gene Garrison, is like Anderson in being both a writer and a college professor, in having had a wife who died slowly of a lingering illness, in being much closer to his mother than to his father, and in trying unsuccessfully to establish a satisfying relationship with his father.

The most important literary influence on the play is Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. Anderson’s play was first written as a movie script, and when Anderson sought a way of giving the play version a fluidity of movement from short scene to short scene, he borrowed the narrator-chorus figure that Williams had used so successfully in The Glass Menagerie. In addition, the two plays are similar in that both protagonists are trying to free their lives from the claims that parents are trying to impose on them, that both do eventually reject those claims and escape their parents’ domination, and that neither succeeds in throwing off the consequent feelings of guilt and remorse.

In addition to the unsatisfactory father-son relationship, I Never Sang for My Father develops at some length the incompatibility of the interests and values of Margaret and Tom Garrison, thus providing yet another example of Anderson’s interest in the theme of the unhappy marital relationship. As in his earlier treatments of this theme, the incompatibility of values is reflected in an unsatisfactory sex life, though this aspect of their lives is barely hinted at by Margaret Garrison.

In its exploration of both the father-son and the marital relationship, I Never Sang for My Father is probably Anderson’s best play. The characters are real, and the anguish that they experience as they try unsuccessfully to reach one another is deep and moving. Gene’s reactions ring true as those of a middle-aged son who loves his mother and tries to love his father but is appalled by the inevitable dependence of both on him. Gene and his mother understand each other well, and their shared understanding of Tom intensifies their closeness. Gene and his father, on the other hand, are diametrically opposed in temperament and values, so that all Gene’s efforts at reaching some rapport with his father fail miserably. Nevertheless, Gene continues to try, partly because he feels it his duty to do so, partly because his nature craves a father he can love, and partly—as his sister Alice suggests—because he has never gotten over the fact that he does not measure up to his father’s idea of manliness. Tom views with contempt all Gene’s accomplishments as a writer and teacher, and only once in his life, when Gene was in the Marines, has Tom felt proud of his son.

Tom is the most rigid character in the play, yet Anderson treats him fairly, showing that his character and attitudes stem from a bad relationship with his own father and from the resultant hardship of his life as a child and as a young man. His unreasonableness is believable, and his son’s simultaneous desire and inability to break through it are convincing. Alice is also convincingly complex as the daughter who has succeeded in escaping Tom’s domination, partly because his opposition to her marriage gave her an excuse to do so with a clear conscience, but who in one vulnerable moment unexpectedly reveals how deeply she has been affected by the lack of love from her father.

Although there is nothing new in this play—the characters, their circumstances, and their helpless and mostly ineffectual attempts to deal with those circumstances are very familiar—I Never Sang for My Father will probably be remembered for its complex and credible characters and for the sincerity of the emotion the play generates.

You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running

In You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running, Anderson returned to a form which he evidently found very congenial, the one-act play. Of approximately twenty-four plays written in his Harvard years, some twenty were one-act plays, and the one nonmusical play he wrote at Exeter was a one-act play. Of the four plays that make up You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running, two—The Footsteps of Doves and I’m Herbert—are mere entertainments, little more than skits. The other two—The Shock of Recognition and I’ll Be Home for Christmas—have much greater significance in acuteness of observation and validity and interest of characterization.

The Footsteps of Doves derives its title from a saying of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to the effect that major changes in one’s life are not announced dramatically, with thunderous crescendos, but slip up on one almost imperceptibly, like the footsteps of doves—a saying that Anderson had used earlier, in Silent Night, Lonely Night, and would use again in his novel After. In this play, the footsteps are heard only by the husband when a middle-aged couple, George and Harriet, are buying a new bed and Harriet insists on twin beds despite all of George’s arguments for the double bed. George and Harriet’s sex life has deteriorated badly since the time of their youthful happiness together, and George sees the purchase of the twin beds as symbolic of an utter lack of hope that it will improve. When the younger, more vital Jill appears and makes a thinly veiled offer to share a double bed with George, it becomes apparent that he will accept this offer and thus will thenceforth accept her, rather than his wife, as his permanent sex partner.

This play expresses Anderson’s oft-reiterated belief in the importance of a happy sex life to a good marriage, but it is new in its isolation of that element from all the other elements that go into making a good marriage. In his earlier plays, an unhappy sex life is seen as the result of other kinds of incompatibility in the marriage—personality clashes, value clashes, clashes in beliefs and goals—but in this play, one knows nothing about the couple except their sex life.

I’m Herbert also focuses on the sex life of a couple as the sole index of the happiness of their marriage. Some critics have found in the play that theme so common among absurdist playwrights, the lack of communication in modern society; this interpretation, however, is negated by the fact that the lack of communication in I’m Herbert stems neither from the specific conditions of modern society nor from the perennial human condition but solely from senility, a specific medical problem found only in some elderly people. Thomas P. Adler sees the play as almost a paean to a happy marriage that has “passed beyond physical sexuality”; this interpretation, however, is negated by the fact that the old couple in the play remember nothing at all about their former or present mates but the sexual experiences they shared, and that the sexual experiences they remember are not attached to any particular person in their minds but are remembered simply for themselves. Love is nowhere to be found in this play, which focuses entirely on the theme of the importance of sexual excitement and gratification. In the absence of any greater depth of meaning, then, it seems to be no more than an extended and tasteless joke based on a highly unfair and inaccurate stereotype of the elderly. I’m Herbert is, thus, the least satisfying of the plays in the quartet.

The Shock of Recognition is the first of Anderson’s plays to center on the discussion of a particular theatrical issue. Jack Barnstable is an autobiographical character in that he is a writer of plays arguing for a position that Anderson supported, the acceptance in the theater of greater honesty and realism in dealing with sex. Herb Miller is a stereotype of the kind of opponent such a position often meets: a man who prides himself on his virility and who thinks of sex as the appropriate subject for dirty jokes told among men and for broad innuendoes used to embarrass naïve young women but not as something that can be discussed openly and objectively among adult men and women or can be presented in such a fashion onstage. The really interesting character in this play, however, is Richard Pawling, the actor who will sacrifice anything to get a part in a play. Both ludicrous and pathetic in his eagerness and determination to please, he is Anderson’s most richly comic character, and the play is memorable more for this character than for any other element, even the then shocking but now passé idea of presenting male frontal nudity onstage.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas , though beginning as comedy and presumably intended to maintain the comic tone to complement the tone of the other plays in this group, is at times too moving and real in its pain to be funny. Chuck’s hurt and anguish, his real fear that his life has no meaning, are too strong. Like the other plays in this group, I’ll Be Home for Christmas deals with the importance of sex, but unlike the others, it demonstrates that a healthy marriage needs more than sexual gratification. Chuck, the middle-aged husband, is appalled at the mechanical, even clinical, view that his wife Edith has of sex, which she considers an extremely important part of a wholesome married life. He is revolted as she discusses the sex education that she has been giving and proposes to continue giving to their children. He has a much more romantic view of sex and demands much more meaning, not only in his marriage but in his entire life, than he discerns around him. Unfortunately, the one-act format works against the play on this point. There has not been room to develop any notion of the values that Chuck has stood for in the past. The values of Edith are, however, both apparent and repugnant, so that as Chuck sits brooding over a letter in which his son Donny has rejected Chuck’s way of life as meaningless, the audience is likely to wonder why Donny did not address the letter to his mother, rather than to his father.

Solitaire/Double Solitaire

The success of this quartet of one-act plays led Anderson to try the one-act format once again in two short plays on the theme of family life, Solitaire/Double Solitaire. The lack of success of this duet on Broadway may have helped to push Anderson in the direction of writing novels. Another very important element in his turning to novels, however, was certainly the fact that in Double Solitaire he had carried frankness in the discussion and portrayal of sex to the limits that it could reach on the stage. As Anderson has acknowledged, the autobiographical, even confessional, nature of the content of After required “so much explicit sex” and “so many interior monologues” that he had to give up his attempts to present it in the form of a play and turn to the novel instead.


Anderson, Robert (Woodruff)