S. N. Behrman

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1365

Samuel Nathaniel Behrman was the third child of Joseph and Zelda (Feingold) Behrman and was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. The first two children in the Behrman family, Hiram and Morris, were born in Eastern Europe (in or near Vilna, Lithuania). Because no official record of the writer’s birth date was ever recorded in Worcester, he arbitrarily selected his own “birthday” as June 9, 1893. In The Worcester Account, Behrman humorously described the circumstances of his search for his true date of birth and concluded that “common sense tells me that 1893 must be reasonably close.”

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Readers interested in the details of Behrman’s youth and schooling should turn to The Worcester Account, a colorful but by no means sentimentalized review of his adventures, the chapters originally written as short narratives for The New Yorker. From these pieces one learns that, although poor, Behrman’s family enjoyed some distinction among the other Jewish residents of the neighborhood because the father was a Talmudic scholar. From him, Samuel learned “the Old Testament stories as if they had taken place recently—as if they constituted his personal past.”

In 1899, Behrman entered Providence Street School, and in 1902, he heard a political speech delivered by Eugene V. Debs, then the Socialist Labor Party candidate for president. That chance occasion, as he later remarked, began in his life “an orientation it would otherwise not have had—a bias in favor of those who had suffered from cruelty or callousness.” Another direction in his life was pointed by his friend Daniel Asher (who appears as the character Willie Lavin in The Cold Wind and the Warm). With Asher, he witnessed at Lothrops’s Opera House in 1904 a melodrama entitled Devil’s Island, and years later he still recalled the enchantment of that performance.

By 1907, when he entered Classical High School in Worcester, Behrman had begun his lifelong habit of omnivorous reading. Among his early favorites were William Shakespeare and Horatio Alger. He could, for his high school classes, recite from memory passages from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601) and Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623), and he acquired an elementary knowledge of Latin and Greek, useful tools in his cultivation of language skills. During these years, he also deepened his friendship with Asher, who urged Behrman to write and who analyzed all the youth’s fledgling manuscripts.

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In 1911, Behrman toured on the Poli vaudeville circuit for some months with a skit that he had written himself, entitled “Only a Part.” The circuit covered a number of theatrical points, including a New York vaudeville house on Fourteenth Street. Behrman’s health, in those years precarious, obliged him to cut short the tour with two others, and he returned to Worcester. In 1912, at the family’s urging, he entered Clark College. As a special student at this local school, he continued to write and act, also turning his attention to oratory. His academic work as an English major was successful, but he failed to report to physical education classes and was suspended from Clark. In the summer of 1913, he enrolled at Harvard, then reentered Clark in 1914, but was again suspended for neglecting physical education classes. The next year, he sold his first story, “La Vie Parisienne,” which he wrote as a student in Charles Townsend Copeland’s class at Harvard. By 1916, he had enrolled in Professor George Pierce Baker’s Workshop 47, the only undergraduate admitted to Baker’s famous playwriting course. Also in that year, Behrman was graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree. After failing to find a job in newspaper offices in several cities, he decided to continue his education at Columbia University, where he studied under Brander Matthews and other notable teachers. In 1918, Behrman earned his master’s degree at Columbia. Offered a teaching appointment at the University of Minnesota, Behrman decided instead to hazard his fortune in writing. For the next two years, he worked for The New York Times, at first as a typist of classified ads and later as a book reviewer. Before and during this time, he sold stories and essays to several magazines. One of the most influential of them, The Smart Set, carried in its November, 1919, issue “The Second Man,” a story that he later rewrote into the play of the same title.

For the young journalist with dreams of becoming a playwright, the early years of the 1920’s were arduous, mostly frustrating, with only occasional periods of publishing success. This period came to an end in 1926, when Behrman developed a working friendship with a more established dramatist, Owen Davis , with whom he collaborated on a play entitled The Man Who Forgot. Later that year, A Night’s Work, written in collaboration with J. Kenyon Nicholson, was produced on Broadway. Through these efforts and the contacts that he established with producers Ned Harris and Crosbie Gaige, Behrman was able to supplement his income with publicity work for other New York-based plays.

Finally, on April 11, 1927, Behrman’s years of apprenticeship came to an end when the Theatre Guild presented The Second Man. After that popular and critical success, Behrman’s labors were often divided between playwriting and scriptwriting for Hollywood. Also dating from this period was his long-lasting association and friendship with Harold Ross of The New Yorker. Over the years, Ross commissioned Behrman to write many essays, including “profiles,” for his magazine—the first of which was on George Gershwin and appeared in 1929.

During the late 1920’s and the decade of the 1930’s, Behrman attained considerable prominence in his craft, as a playwright and as a producer-writer. In 1928, he sailed to England to oversee a production of The Second Man in London, with Noël Coward in the leading role. Indeed, over the years, the production of a Behrman play usually called for the talents of America’s and England’s most distinguished players: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Ina Claire, Catherine Cornell, and Laurence Olivier, among others. From 1929 to 1939, Behrman’s work was produced on Broadway stages with general approval: Serena Blandish, Meteor, Brief Moment, Biography, Rain from Heaven, End of Summer, and No Time for Comedy. For Behrman, these years brought both regret (with the death by suicide of Daniel Asher in 1929) and personal fulfillment (including his marriage in 1936 to Elza Heifetz and the birth of their only child, David Arthur, in 1937).

In 1938, Behrman joined the Playwrights’ Producing Company , an independent guild of writer-producers that included Robert E. Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice, and Sidney Howard. Until 1945, when Behrman withdrew from the company, he produced The Talley Method, The Pirate, Jacobowsky and the Colonel, and Dunnigan’s Daughter. During this time, he received a significant award, as well as academic recognition: In 1943, he was admitted to the Department of Arts and Literature of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1944, his Jacobowsky and the Colonel, based on a sketch by Franz Werfel but almost completely reinterpreted by the playwright, won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best foreign play of the season.

After 1945, Behrman divided his literary work—that is to say, writing not commissioned by Hollywood studios—between the stage and various kinds of prose. His later plays include I Know My Love, Jane, Fanny, The Cold Wind and the Warm, Lord Pengo, and his final production, But for Whom Charlie. Toward the end of his career, he turned with greater avidity to the expanded essay, which he called his “one hobby.” In 1952, he published Duveen, a biography of Joseph Duveen, a notorious art dealer about whom Behrman had earlier written a profile entitled “The Days of Duveen” for The New Yorker. The autobiographical volume The Worcester Account, as noted above, also had its genesis in The New Yorker. He published Portrait of Max (1960), a sheaf of essays entitled The Suspended Drawing Room (1965), his only novel, The Burning Glass (1968), and a book of memoirs and appreciations, People in a Diary (1972). Among the awards he received during the final decades of his life were an honorary degree from Clark University (1949) and the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award (1962). In the latter year, he was also appointed Trustee of Clark University. On September 9, 1973, Behrman died in New York of apparent heart failure.

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