S. N. Behrman

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 111

S. N. Behrman wrote two “profile”-type biographies: Duveen (1952) and Portrait of Max: An Intimate Memoir of Sir Max Beerbohm (1960). The Suspended Drawing Room (1965) is a collection of (mostly) familiar essays focusing on such notables as Robert E. Sherwood, Ferenc Molnár, and A. E. Kazan. The Worcester Account (1954), the best of Behrman’s prose works, is a collection of pieces originally published in The New Yorker. The Burning Glass (1968) is a semiautobiographical novel, and People in a Diary (1972; reissued as Tribulations and Laughter, 1972) is a memoir containing brief, often poignant essays and sketches. Behrman was also the author of numerous screenplays, including several adaptations of his own and others’ works.


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Although S. N. Behrman’s career as a dramatist spanned several decades, his major impact on the American theater covered roughly two and a half decades, from 1927, with the great success of The Second Man (178 performances in New York City), to 1944, with Jacobowsky and the Colonel, which had a run of 415 performances, also in New York City. Excluding his earlier apprenticeship plays, written during and after studies at Harvard University, Behrman’s career as a dramatist ranged from 1923, with Bedside Manners (in collaboration with J. Kenyon Nicholson), to 1964, with But for Whom Charlie. During this period, the playwright offered to the New York stage—without counting other locales—a total of twenty-two plays in full production, most of them enjoying considerable or at least moderate success. Only three plays were (relatively speaking) unsuccessful: Wine of Choice, Dunnigan’s Daughter, and But for Whom Charlie. Even these works, however, attracted some favorable critical notice. Along with Jacobowsky and the Colonel, which later became a motion picture, Fanny (written as a musical comedy in collaboration with Joshua Logan) and I Know My Love enjoyed the longest runs. These works were essentially entertainments, written with a shrewd sense of the audience response yet without the writer’s special touches of mannered comedy. Earlier, during the “vintage” years, as critic Kenneth T. Reed describes the period between 1927 and 1936, when the writer had seven plays in production on Broadway, a new comedy by Behrman was a special event, one eagerly awaited.

For this audience, a particular quality that marked the author’s comedies was “sophistication.” This term, still generally applied to Behrman, has only limited usefulness, because, among other reasons, not all his plays belong to this mode. The most significant exception is The Cold Wind and the Warm, a semiautobiographical work, impressionistic and poetic. Moreover, the word “sophistication” has negative connotations, perhaps carrying over from social criticism of the 1930’s and 1940’s. From this point of view, the word denotes, among other negative attitudes, frivolity, urbane elegance, and elitism. To be sure, most of Behrman’s early comedies are set in the drawing rooms of the privileged class, with a clash between intellectuals (either true or sham), together with grasping middle-class parvenus whose special concerns are money, status, and advantageous marriage. Nevertheless, Behrman’s judgment of privilege in these comedies is critical and gently satiric, not approving.

By more narrowly construing “sophisticated,” the word may be applied with greater confidence to the wide range of Behrman’s drama. In the general class of comic ironists such as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, W. Somerset Maugham, and Noël Coward (also, arguably, Neil Simon), Behrman writes plays that resemble comedies of manners or polite comedies, but unlike Wilde (although he admired the Irishman’s The Importance of Being Earnest, pr. 1895, pb. 1899), Behrman never treats frivolity or triviality as a prime theme, and unlike Coward (although he also admired Coward’s Blithe Spirit, pr., pb. 1941), Behrman avoids sentimental fantasy. Curiously, Behrman’s work more closely resembles the lighter drama of Shaw and the less farcical comedies of Maugham. Behrman’s comedy does not propagandize in favor of socialistic causes, but beneath the surface banter of the American writer is a tough realistic edge, a sharp awareness of the vulgar display of wealth and the brutality of social intolerance. Also, in its satiric wit stopping short of misanthropy, Behrman’s work reminds one of certain Maugham plays, such as Our Betters (pr. 1917, pb. 1923) and The Circle (pr., pb. 1921).

Judging the impact of his own work, Behrman was modest. In People in a Diary, he wrote: “For a time, Philip Barry, Paul Osborn, and I were the only American writers of high comedy .” Of these playwrights, only the first is still remembered. By the late 1930’s, Behrman had already established his reputation.


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Asher, Donald. The Eminent Yachtsman and the Whorehouse Piano Player. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973. In a 256-page memoir about Asher’s father, Daniel Asher, upon whom is based a central character in Behrman’s The Cold Wind and the Warm, the author includes a portrait of Behrman and a vivid description of early twentieth century life in the tenement ghetto of Massachusetts’s Worcester, where Behrman and Daniel Asher grew up.

Gassner, John. “S. N. Behrman: Comedy and Tolerance.” In The Theatre in Our Times. New York: Crown, 1954. Gassner draws examples from Behrman’s major plays to establish his distinction as an able writer of high comedy. He finds that the playwright’s artistic and ideological vision encompasses comic detachment and a thematic advocacy of indulgence and tolerance in confronting a reality that is contradictory and commonly two-sided.

Gross, Robert F. S. N. Behrman: A Research and Production Handbook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. This sourcebook provides a detailed record of Behrman’s work as a Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, from the 1920’s to the mid-1960’s, and encompasses published and unpublished primary materials (plays, film scripts, fiction, and essays) and the critical responses. Includes plot summaries and critical overviews for fifty-one plays, as well as an annotated bibliography.

Joshi, B. D. Major Plays of Barry and Behrman: A Comparative Study. Jaipur, India: Pointer, 1989. Compares Behrman with Philip Barry. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Klink, William R. S. N. Behrman: The Major Plays. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1978. Klink lucidly evaluates Behrman’s major plays excluding those adapted or written in collaboration. The study includes an introduction briefly discussing published and unpublished material about Behrman, a summary conclusion, and a bibliography. Valuable as one of few books solely on Behrman.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. The American Drama Since 1918: An Informal History. New York: George Braziller, 1957. Krutch devotes twenty-five pages of a chapter on comedy to an admiring, relatively comprehensive discussion of Behrman’s plays, concluding with No Time for Comedy. Identifies the thematic thrust of Behrman’s comedies before 1940.

Reed, Kenneth T. S. N. Behrman. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Reed’s biographical and critical study provides one of the most accessible, valuable, and comprehensive treatments of the playwright and his work. Contains a chronology, a detailed examination of Behrman’s plays (including prose works) within the context of his life and career, an index, and a select bibliography. Contains a photograph of Behrman.

Sievers, W. David. Freud on Broadway: A History of Psychoanalysis and the American Drama. New York: Heritage House, 1955. Sievers identifies Behrman as one of the “post-Freudian playwrights of the thirties” who redirected psychoanalytical observations of the isolated individual to the socio-centered problems of fascism, radicalism, racism, and greed. While overemphasizing Behrman’s contribution to psychoanalytic drama, Siever’s evaluation of the playwright’s characters and themes is persuasively interesting. Contains an index.

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