Sally Benson Wolcott Gibbs - Essay

Wolcott Gibbs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mrs. Benson [in "The Young and Beautiful"] is clearly attempting something a little more ambitious than a study of a shallow adolescent egocentric. I should say, without being precisely sure, that she thinks of Josephine as a victim of a time of peculiar spiritual chaos for the young (the action of the play takes place in 1915), and that she believes there is a small but authentic tragedy in the story of a girl whose enormous vitality might have found some satisfactory outlet under almost any other social conditions but who is now condemned to a series of easy conquests that she finds dismayingly empty without quite knowing why….

The fact that it never comes through very clearly or convincingly [on the stage] is, I imagine, mainly the result of her extraordinary gift—earlier manifested, of course, in the stories that made up "Junior Miss"—for writing so charmingly and wittily about adolescence. At the moment, Tarkington is more or less in eclipse, and the comparison may seem invidious, but there is quite a lot in "The Young and Beautiful" that will remind you strongly of "Seventeen."… The result is as funny and tender and delightful as it can be, and I suspect that it defeats the serious purpose of the play almost absolutely…. The hard fact is that we are asked to accept Josephine simultaneously as the perfect caricature of a teen-age flirt and as the solemn symbol of infant damnation. I think Mrs. Benson is brilliantly successful on the first of these levels, but on the second I'm afraid her play often collapses into something very close to absurdity. (p. 92)

Wolcott Gibbs, "Jeune Fille Fatale," in The New Yorker (© 1955 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXI, No. 34, October 8, 1955, pp. 92, 94-5.∗