S. N. Behrman

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2279

Although S. N. Behrman’s plays were crafted for theatrical performance, they are also admirably suitable for reading. Modeled after the scintillating comedies of Wilde and Shaw, Behrman’s plays similarly are, by turn, clever, ironic, provocative. That is not to say, however, that Behrman was an original thinker on social issues, as Shaw was, or that his plays match Wilde’s sense of whimsy. Indeed, Behrman’s drama is uneven in quality. Plays such as The Pirate (adapted from Ludwig Fulda’s play Die Seerauber) and I Know My Love (adapted from Marcel Achard) or the musical Fanny must be judged as entertainments, not against the highest standards of the dramatic art. Other plays are quite dated, products of their time. In particular, the comedies of the 1930’s, for all their surface brilliance, resemble certain clever mating comedies of the motion pictures of that decade. During the hard years of the Great Depression, many theatergoers appreciated escapist fantasies that would carry them in imagination away from their troubles. The drawing-room settings of Behrman’s plays, with furnishings opulent and refined, provided an alternative world, one inhabited by mostly clever, attractive characters whose major problem in life was to find an appropriate mate. Behrman’s characters—mostly upper-class, worldly, and well-educated—fit comfortably into this world, but for modern theatergoers, the Depression-era frame of reference has vanished.

Nevertheless, Behrman’s plays still appeal to audiences interested in comedy of manners. He isolates universal human traits and observes them faithfully, without exaggeration. At his best, his comedies offer the viewer (or reader) moral choices that exercise the heart. Never vulgar, rarely sexually provocative, his comedies sparkle with ample appreciation for human potentialities: for the happiness of a true marriage; for friendship based on trust; for common sense that cannot be swayed by political or social bias; for discovery of the authentic self; above all, for tolerance of others’ foibles, together with the resolve never to injure innocent people through malice or ignorance.

Although Behrman was not, except in The Cold Wind and the Warm, basically an autobiographical playwright, many of his themes can be traced to circumstances in his life. His economically deprived youth and his years of struggle as a journalist lay behind his frequent depiction of the clash between characters emerging from deprivation and those already privileged by birth or class. At the same time, his culturally enriched childhood, one that particularly emphasized traditional Jewish values of social justice and strict moral probity, sensitized him to the contrast between superficially upright but morally corrupt people and those of genuine integrity. Finally, in his early comedies—particularly those before 1936—Behrman transformed Horatio Alger stories that he had enjoyed as a youth into moral tales concerning the Midas touch that turns gold into dross.

Typically in Behrman’s variations on these ambition myths, the major (sensible) character abandons his childish illusions, discovers his limitations, and accepts in a mature way his responsibilities or potentialities. Rarely, as in Serena Blandish, the character is a woman; on the whole, Behrman’s female leads are more astute than their romantic counterparts. For men and women alike, the tests for Behrman’s pattern of discovery/initiation are through friendship or through marriage. As a youth, Behrman was not physically robust or socially assertive. Perhaps by way of compensation, he cherished throughout his lifetime generous friendships (an assumption supported by People in a Diary), and in his plays he established the values of supportive relationships. The greater test of maturity, however, was in the courtship clash that precedes marriage. Married late in life, at the age of forty-three, Behrman tended to view on the stage the “war of the sexes” from the vantage point of rationality, not idealistic romance. If couples in his plays achieve the promise of a satisfactory (rational) union, the credit always goes to the woman, whom Behrman—like Shaw—championed as the more sensible of the sexes. In all relationships—those of competition, of friendship, and of courtship—Behrman holds up the exemplary pattern of tolerance. Without tolerance, his characters could never come to self-knowledge, and their world of high comedy would fall apart.

The Second Man

In The Second Man, Mrs. Kendall Frayne, a wealthy widow whose chief asset is her common sense, and Monica Grey, a younger woman, are romantically interested in Clark Storey. Storey is a would-be poet and novelist, handsome but passionless. His counterpart is Austin Lowe, a chemist with meager social graces to match his rival’s. Nevertheless, Storey wins the love of Monica; for her part, Mrs. Frayne is too worldly-wise to fall for the superficial would-be writer. By the end of the play, Storey escapes both romantic entanglements but discovers the unsettling truth that he possesses a “second man” in his nature, one that is “calm, critical, observant, unmoved, blasé, odious.” Thus, Storey attains, at the very least, the reward of painful illumination.

For Behrman’s original audience, the play offered both entertainment and a moral lesson that they were prepared to accept. By challenging the playgoers’ intelligence, the writer allowed them to discern, without the heavy hand of editorial intrusion, that Mrs. Frayne’s “sophistication” would prevent her from choosing a poor mate. In addition to flattering the audience’s urbanity, Behrman taught them a sound moral lesson. For all his protestations that he speaks honest truth, Clark Storey must—to protect his vanity—conceal his emotional shallowness and his greed to achieve status. Thus, the audience learns to reject an ambition that lacks the solid basis of integrity.

Serena Blandish

This and End of Summer lesson, presented with different variations on the theme, appears in Serena Blandish and End of Summer. In both plays, fortune hunters attempt, without hiding their motives, to secure marriages that will advance their ambitions. Subtitled The Difficulty of Getting Married, Serena Blandish showcases a charming, witty young woman who has emerged from an impoverished background. Serena catches the eye of Sigmund Traub, a wealthy, middle-aged, Jewish businessman. He takes her under his wing, provides her with social advantages and money (he even lends her a diamond ring), and generally acts like a Pygmalion to her Galatea. Her ambitions, however, are never realized. The money she displays to her rich suitors she does not really possess, and at the end of the play she remains unmarried. Similarly, in End of Summer, Dr. Kenneth Rice pursues but fails to snare two wealthy women. A “self-made man,” as he likes to call himself, he courts Leonie Frothingham and her daughter Paula for the sake of their money, but Leonie, a sensible woman in the mold of Mrs. Frayne, rejects his advances, as does her idealistic daughter. At the “end of summer,” he has neither wife nor money.

Male and Female Characters

Dr. Rice, a Freudian psychoanalyst, resembles other power-obsessive character types in Behrman’s plays: Hobart Eldridge (Rain from Heaven), Allan Frobisher (Jane), Orrin Kinnicott (Biography), Raphael Lord (Meteor), Lord Pengo (Lord Pengo), and Dr. Axton Talley (The Talley Method). Although different in certain respects, all these personalities are rigid, authoritarian, self-centered, and intolerant; most are politically conservative. They contrast with other male characters who, although less assertive, have more attractive personal qualities. Among these sensitive (but often unfocused and self-indulgent) types are a number of second-rate artists or aesthetes in the pattern of Clark Storey of The Second Man. They include Aaron (The Cold Wind and the Warm), Sasha Barashaev (Rain from Heaven), Daniel Chanler (I Know My Love), Roderick Dean (Brief Moment), Peter Crewe (Jane), Melchoir Feydak (Biography), Edgar Mallison (Serena Blandish), Derek Pengo (Lord Pengo), Willard Prosper (But for Whom Charlie), Miguel Riachi (Dunnigan’s Daughter), and Warwick Wilson (Biography). Although these would-be artists range in appeal from the fragile Aaron to the radical Marxist painter Riachi, they share the qualities of self-indulgence, independence, and (to varying degrees) fecklessness.

In general, Behrman’s male figures—whether petulantly dictatorial or dreamy—lack the balanced common sense of their female counterparts. Among his “strong” women in the pattern of Mrs. Frayne are Emily Chanler (I Know My Love), Fern Dunnigan (Dunnigan’s Daughter), Linda Esterbrook (No Time for Comedy), Abbey Fane (Brief Moment), Marion Froude (Biography), Enid Fuller (The Talley Method), and Lael Wyngate (Rain from Heaven). To these may be added Leonie Frothingham (despite her naïveté) and Serena Blandish, whose good sense compensates, in large measure, for her deficiency in exaggerating the values of money and status.

Tolerance and Intolerance

Along with their common sense and emotional maturity, these women share a quality of tolerance. For Behrman, tolerance greatly humanizes his protagonists. To be sure, several leading males are wisely tolerant—chief among them Jacobowsky, but the “strong” women (as contrasted to frivolous types) best exemplify the virtue. In The Second Man, Clark Storey tells Mrs. Frayne that she possesses the two “great requirements” for marriage: money and tolerance. Running through many of Behrman’s comedies is a conflict between the tolerant, blessed with habits of kindness and serenity, and the intolerant. In Biography, three characters hold narrowly rigid opinions: Orrin Kinnicott, Richard Kurt, and Bunny Nolan. Responding to Marion Froude’s open nature, Kurt upbraids her, for “what you call tolerance I call sloppy laziness.” The audience, comparing the two personalities—the woman cheerful and emancipated, the man egotistic, wrapped up in radical politics—can be expected to draw a different conclusion.

In Rain from Heaven, Behrman stigmatizes, in the words of Lael Wyngate, an “epidemic of hatred and intolerance that may engulf us all.” Perhaps the playwright best expresses this theme in Jacobowsky and the Colonel. In the second act, the Nazi Colonel warns Marianne that he cannot tolerate being treated in any fashion that he believes is disrespectful. The Nazi’s counterpart in this moral tale of “strange bedfellows” is Jacobowsky, the “wandering Jew” who has learned to accept life’s evils with a redeeming sense of good humor. Through his example, the Colonel undergoes an initiation in the rites of true manhood. By the end of the play, the Colonel is not entirely “mature,” not wholly tolerant, but he has at least learned to make compromises.

Behrman’s insights into the corrosive effects of intolerance derive, at least in part, from his life’s education as a Jew. Curiously, most of his apprenticeship work and the plays of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s avoid all mention of Jews. To be sure, Sigmund Traub in Serena Blandish is a Jew, a Bond Street merchant, but Behrman reveals little about the man’s psychological reasons for pampering a beautiful woman not linked to him by passion. Not until 1934 in Rain from Heaven did Behrman create a Jewish character who functions as a spokesperson for his own ideas: Hugo Willens, who, despite his Nordic appearance, had to flee Europe because his grandmother was a Jew.

The Cold Wind and the Warm and But for Whom Charlie

Among the later plays, The Cold Wind and the Warm explores autobiographical themes already presented in Behrman’s essays for The New Yorker; in this, his most touching play, Behrman comes to terms with his Jewishness, without evasion or apology. A drama of recollection, The Cold Wind and the Warm surprised some critics, who were accustomed to Behrman’s usual “high comedy”; although reviews were mixed, the play lasted for 120 performances at the Morosco. The playwright’s final stage offering, But for Whom Charlie—one of his least successful plays—included the minor character Seymour Rosenthal, a Jew who had once been excluded from a college fraternity because of his religion. Also in the play, however, was Brock Dunaway, a Jewish novelist seventy years old—a survivor, just as Behrman was to survive the hardships of his own past.

Friendship and Humor

Fortunately for the decent characters in the author’s drama, they do not stand alone in their struggle against prejudice. For Behrman, the links of friendship, perhaps more enduring than those of romantic passion, unite men and women of goodwill. By the final act of Amphitryon 38, Jupiter and Alkmena move toward a deeper appreciation of each other. Jupiter asks the rhetorical question: What is the object of friendship? Alkmena’s answer is probably also Behrman’s: “To bring together the most totally dissimilar people and make them equal.” This judgment is crucial in accepting the friendship of people as dissimilar as the Colonel and Jacobowsky. The audience must grasp the idea that they not only tolerate each other but also become friends. If social antagonists can appreciate each other’s values, then people of goodwill have an even greater obligation to join forces. In Biography, Marion Froude’s friendship with Melchoir Feydak is based on mutual respect and admiration. As decent, empathetic persons, they stand out as the only fully tolerant characters in the play. Conversely, when Behrman’s characters lack a capacity for friendship, they become self-centered and obnoxious. Like Dr. Kenneth Rice (End of Summer), who cannot trust another person deeply enough to make him (or her) a friend, Raphael Lord (Meteor) and Dr. Axton Talley (The Talley Method) ultimately become monsters. Without meaningful attachments, Behrman believes, human beings lose their spiritual bearings and destroy themselves.

It is noteworthy that Behrman’s defective characters invariably lack humor. For the dramatist, a sense of the comic, no less than a capacity for friendship, marks the true human being. In an interview with The New York Times in 1952, Behrman remarked: “The essence of the comic sense is awareness: awareness of the tragedy as well as the fun of life, of the pity, the futility, the lost hopes, the striving for immortality, for permanence, for security, for love.”

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