Robert Anderson Anderson, Robert (Woodruff) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert (Woodruff) Anderson 1917–

American playwright, novelist, and scriptwriter.

In many of his plays, Anderson questions the sanctity of such societal institutions as marriage and family. Critics generally applaud his ability to present human situations through shifting undercurrents of emotion but regret his occasional lapses into melodrama.

Tea and Sympathy, his 1953 Broadway success for which he also wrote the screenplay, established Anderson as a sympathetic spokesman for young people.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed. and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7.)

Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Tea and Sympathy"] is a totally successful play because it deals with a theme which has a strong appeal to our audiences…. (p. 317)

I speak of the play's theme, although I was not altogether sure at first what the theme was. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the play tells an interesting story which suggests a number of themes none of which are emphasized or probed at any particular depth. The story is that of a sensitive prep-school boy who on very slight evidence is suspected of being a homosexual…. The main theme therefore is a defense of the special person in a society which tends to look askance at the "odd" individual, even the unpremeditated non-conformist. If the play has a message, it is to the effect that a boy like its protagonist may be more truly a man than those falsely rugged folk who oppress him.

The play also cautions us against prejudice, slander, and false accusation—in a word, is a plea for tolerance. Naturally, we are all for it: every contribution in this direction is more than welcome. Yet in this regard I cannot help thinking that we have arrived today at a peculiar brand of tolerance. We tolerate the innocent! We say "this person who is accused of being off-beat—socially, sexually, or politically—is not guilty; we must therefore be tolerant." If he is guilty, should we then tear him to bits? I should prefer to see a play in which, let us say, a homosexual is shown to be a genuinely worth-while person and the persecution that he suffers is presented as a disease within ourselves. (pp. 317-18)

Though now easily acceptable, a play like "Tea and Sympathy" is probably still regarded by many as adventurous and advanced, though it is actually primitive in its theme, characterization, and story development. It is, in fact, a very young play.

This is no adverse comment on it. It is the work of a young playwright, Robert Anderson, whose approach is honorably craftsmanlike and humane. (p. 318)

Harold Clurman, "Theater: 'Tea and Sympathy'," in The Nation (copyright 1953 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 177, No. 16, October 17, 1953, pp. 317-18.

Richard Hayes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a composition for the theater, "Tea and Sympathy" is entrenched in that plenitude and elegance of craft of which the American stage is sometimes capable: dramatically, it has been arranged with economy and poise; its psychology is fashionable, its "values" unexceptionable. What elevates it to serious interest is a refinement of personal feeling, and a certain ambiance in which Mr. Anderson has wisely permitted the play to repose….

Mr. Anderson's dish of tea, sweetened with love, is served to a troubled adolescent (again), maliciously accused of sexual inversion in an aggressively "adjusted" New England prep school. Amid so much contempt and bullying, the boy finds an ally in his housemaster's warm and responsive young wife, and together they share in innocent collusion against a system which holds the test of everything to be its durability. (p. 90)

The explicit outlines of "Tea and Sympathy," so morally outrageous, do not in point of fact permit the charge. Mr. Anderson has confined himself to recording the weather of a human situation, and here the criterion must always be the quality of feeling. What disturbs, rather, is the strangely adjustable nature of the playwright's moral imagination. He approaches the public, or social, aspects of his theme with restraint and a fine, civilized intelligence, but his manipulation of personal relationships is far less fastidious. When Lillian Hellman wrote "The Children's Hour," a play of similar preoccupation and consequence, she somewhat inverted the pattern: make a melodrama of morality. Mr. Anderson has succumbed to the melodrama of sentiment.

Mr. Anderson would appear to be the more humane; he nourishes the current mode of sentimentalism. But sensitivity has again exacted its toll: the evidence is plain in the pallid language of "Tea and Sympathy," in its inability to bear the moral traffic, and the drama's neat, faintly vulgar psychology (is a single sexual act, for example, so therapeutic? will it unravel so tangled and branching a history of inferiority?). What the play lacks is any dimension of power or moral vivacity. (pp. 90-1)

Richard Hayes, "The Stage: 'Tea and Sympathy'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1953 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LIX, No. 4, October 30, 1953, pp. 90-1.

Wolcott Gibbs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Anderson, whose "Tea and Sympathy" established him as one of our foremost authorities on the sensitive young man in a hostile world, has practically sewed up this title with his new play, called "All Summer Long."… The unhappy adolescent this time is harried not by a false charge of homosexuality but only by the stupidity of his family, and the boy-and-older-woman relationship has been discarded in favor of a similar tender understanding between two brothers. The play, however, remains substantially the same in mood and message. The young, Mr. Anderson continues to insist, suffer with an intensity that is far beyond the average comprehension, and our society, generally speaking, is ruthlessly organized against them. Since it is without the automatic shock and calculated dénouement of its predecessor, "All Summer Long" seems to me a better and more reputable play, but I still can't help feeling that the author's tendency to identify himself with children in a child's world, to see life sheerly as a war between passionate young innocence and tarnished adult experience, keeps his work from being really very stimulating to the mature. In this case, the enormous volume of evidence advanced to prove that grownups are awful strikes me as more than a little dull, and since his contrasting affirmations of faith in their juniors depress me only slightly less, I think we'll just let that point go.

The action of the play focusses on a...

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Eric Bentley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tea and Sympathy by Robert Anderson is about a private-school boy who is to lose the feeling that he is a homosexual by proving his potency with the housemaster's wife. The subject matter suggests a whole roster of other plays (The Green Bay Tree, The Children's Hour …) but most of all Tea and Sympathy strikes me as the 1953 version of Young Woodley, not so much for its plot, or even its setting, as for its relation to the public's current view of what is scandalous. The formula for such a work is Daring as Calculated Caution. Or: Audacity, Audacity, But Not Too Much Audacity. Such a play must be "bannable" on grounds of what used to be considered immoral but also defensible on grounds of what is now considered moral. Sweet are the uses of perversity.

Tea and Sympathy is a highly superior specimen of the theatre of "realist" escape. Superior in craftsmanship, superior in its isolation, combination, and manipulation of the relevant impulses and motifs. Its organization of the folklore of current fashion is so skilful, it brings us to the frontier where this sort of theatre ends. But not beyond it. One doesn't ask the questions one would ask of a really serious play. Here, in the cuckoo land of folklore, one doesn't ask how the heroine knows the hero is innocent, one doesn't permit oneself the thought that he may not be innocent, for he has an innocence of a kind the real world never supplies: an...

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Eric Bentley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

All Summer Long is another mood play, belonging to the succession that began with Summer and Smoke and Member of the Wedding. The aim is Chekhov's trigger effect: the releasing of large forces by tiny movements. The actual fact is a series of tiny movements, each ticketed, in at least one speech, with the author's intentions and even views. All sorts of motives and motifs hover about the play without quite getting into it. Or, if they do get in, it is in the form either of clumsy symbolism or overt mention. Under the former head, I would place the main incident of the action: the house in which our family lives is being undermined by the river and will collapse. Under the head of overt mention, I would place many of the cripple's speeches, especially one in which he lists and sums up the other characters and another in which he states the theme of Joseph Conrad's The Shadow Line. The general effect is not of large forces and tiny movements but of big intentions bogging down in small facts…. Then, too, as in Tea and Sympathy, this author tends to substitute clinical information explaining people for dramatic action presenting them. In fairness it should be added that, when we are momentarily not oppressed by all the paraphernalia of the family mechanism, we enjoy his ingratiating humor. (pp. 4-5)

Eric Bentley, "The Family" (originally published in a slightly different version as "Theatre: 'All Summer Long'," in The New Republic, Vol. 131, No. 2080, October 4, 1954), in his What Is Theatre? A Query in Chronicle Form (copyright 1956, by Eric Bentley; reprinted by permission of the author and publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon Press, 1956, pp. 4-5.

Brooks Atkinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Robert Anderson's "Silent Night, Lonely Night,"… [a man and a woman] conduct a long discussion of love, marriage and adultery….

But after an act and a half of recollections and rationalizations, a theatregoer cannot be blamed if he wishes that Mr. Anderson and his actors would please change the subject….

For an act and a half they tell each other the unhappy stories of their lives and resist adultery for noble reasons. Between the first and second scenes of the second act, however, they resort to adultery to assuage their grief. For all practical purposes this seems to solve their problems. On Christmas Day they are both refreshed, and they resume their separate married lives in good heart….

To Mr. Anderson, all this doubtless has a private significance that has to be respected. But his elegy on marriage is performed in public and has to be judged by public standards. They are likely to seem a little chilly to Mr. Anderson. Although the dialogue is written by a man who respects the graces of style, "Silent Night, Lonely Night" is excessively verbose. It is also uneventful….

[Subordinate characters] bring a little variety from the outside into Mr. Anderson's series of confessions by two grieving people. But "Silent Night, Lonely Night" is also a long night. During the discussion between the man and the woman, one phrase turns up frequently: "I'm so sorry." Perhaps that would be a suitable phrase with which to conclude this notice.

Brooks Atkinson, "Theatre: 'Silent Night, Lonely Night'," in The New York Times (© 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 4, 1959 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XX, No. 23, December 7, 1959, p. 205).

Richard Watts, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Silent Night, Lonely Night" is touching, gentle, sensitive and very, very wistful. Robert Anderson's new play … contemplates the brief encounter of two tormented and unhappy young people in a New England inn on Christmas Eve with tender and rueful understanding…. But it seems to me that its forlorn mood of wistfulness has the misfortune to grow so monotonous that the eventual effect is far more trying than moving….

The sad, short, tender relationship between the pair, which is based on mutual loneliness and compassion, is presented with delicacy and sympathy, but the monotony does creep in, and the one note on which the narrative is based becomes as wearying as it is undramatic. Unrelieved wistfulness can go only so far in theater, and I'm afraid the bounds are soon exceeded in Mr. Anderson's play. The tenderness becomes cloying, and not even the addition of such minor characters as a young bridal couple can destroy the pall of the monotone….

Mr. Anderson's writing is graceful and often charming, but his tender drama is lost in its one small note.

Richard Watts, Jr., "Two Sad People on Christmas Eve," in New York Post (reprinted by permission of the New York Post; © 1959, New York Post Corporation), December 4, 1959 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XX, No. 23, December 7, 1959, p. 205).

John Gassner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[All Summer Long] revolves around the failure of an American family to save its home, because of listlessness and disorientation…. It would have been difficult to find a more intelligent and sensitive playwright for the assignment of dramatizing Donald Wetzel's A Wreath and a Curse, the novel upon which All Summer Long was based. Nobody familiar with Tea and Sympathy could doubt that Robert Anderson would make sensitive drama out of the tensions of these confused young characters who receive little sympathy, guidance, or encouragement from their bumbling elders…. (p. 289)

A just appraisal of Robert Anderson's second Broadway work must distribute praise and blame....

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Richard Watts, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After expressing mild discontent over his giving them the collective title of "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running," I have only enthusiasm for Robert Anderson's four short plays…. They are notably fine comic and dramatic episodes, written with skill and insight….

[The first of the quartet] has to do with a dramatist who, having achieved a reputation by writing dignified but conventional plays, wants to do a daring one in which a character will appear in the nude. Dealing with the audition of a startled but eager actor who is a little surprised but anxious to get the demanding role, it is not only remarkably hilarious but has a good deal of shrewd comment to make on matters...

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Robert Graham Kemper

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sex is the theme that links the four short plays written by Robert Anderson and presented under the over-all title You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running. Actually, Anderson has written three plays, the fourth (or, rather, the first) being an introduction and a guide to the others. How one responds to the initial play will set one's pattern of interpretation for the others. I do not like to brag, but I got the message of the first play, and therefore found the others warm and humorous insights into the grandeur and misery of human sexuality.

In the first play—"The Shock of Recognition," which is what the author solicits from his audience throughout the evening—a fictional...

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Henry Hewes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[What] emerges from [I Never Sang for My Father] is a gentle reminder of how well-to-do American families unintentionally pollute the lives of their members.

But what also emerges is a kind of dull disappointment in the ordinariness and familiarity of it all. The play begins rather promisingly as the son, Gene, steps forward to share his intelligence with us. His philosophical statement, "Death ends a life but not a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor's mind towards a resolution it may never find," is spoken in a special density of light that suggests the mysterious area of the subconscious. Then by a subtle brightening of the lights we bob up to the surface of the play's...

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John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a popular commercial dramatist for home consumption [Anderson] is fine, but of precisely the sort that does not travel. In [I Never Sang for My Father] one is conscious all the time of the adroitness with which he is pressing the right buttons for an American audience, from the things the Americans around one laugh at, the things they listen to in apparently moved silence. But, kept apart by a common language or not, most British playgoers are likely to find that the buttons do not produce the right effect, or indeed often any effect at all. (p. 43)

As you may perhaps have gathered, this is another of those plays, with which the American theatre is strewn, about an agonised father-son...

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Allan Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Another addition to the two-character bedroom boom is Robert Anderson's Silent Night, Lonely Night…. There are minor characters in the play, but the action centers on the man and woman in a New England inn on Christmas Eve. They are middle-aged, unhappy in their marriages, and terribly despondent…. They circle back and forth in their preparation for the affair, with the telephone handy as a means of communication with the missing mates. Sex again is salvation, and the implicit approval of extramarital relations is mitigated by each one's returning to his marriage in the end, better prepared to endure his unhappiness…. The Christmas background implied the religious approval of resurrection through...

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Catharine Hughes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Solitaire/Double Solitaire] has its heart in the right place (if a little too much on its sleeve). It is honest, occasionally poignant, an evening of serious purpose and fleeting humor and, in its way, uncompromising. But it is also tiresome, tedious and ultimately unsuccessful. The reasons why will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has followed Anderson's career.

[The first play,] Solitaire, is set sometime in the future. The System has taken over, and marriage and the family have been abolished. People may work only one day a week, and those men whom the System has decreed are qualified must periodically deposit a specified amount of sperm to continue the race. Whether its automated...

(The entire section is 391 words.)

Samuel J. Bernstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Double Solitaire, a play that many critics believe to be his best, or at least his best since Tea and Sympathy, Robert Anderson makes his most trenchant and personal statement on marriage. The play centers on Charley and Barbara Potter, who must decide whether or not to renew their marriage vows on their twenty-fifth anniversary, as Charley's parents, Ernest and Elizabeth Potter, had done twenty-five years before. (pp. 93-4)

The question that informs the entire play is: Will Barbara and Charley stay together or separate? In essence, this is what their decision to renew or not renew their vows would mean. The deeper question raised is: What kind of an institution is marriage? Is it...

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