When The Shrike, penned by Joseph Kramm, opened on Broadway on January 15, 1952, it received accolades from the public and the critics, which helped guarantee a successful run for 161 performances. Later that year, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
The Shrike chronicles the experiences of Jim Downs, a middle-aged man who has been placed in a mental hospital after a failed suicide attempt, brought on by a stalled career in the theater. His severe depression and feelings of hopelessness are alleviated, however, when an opportunity presents itself for Jim to revive his career. He insists that he is strong enough to leave the hospital and to live a productive and happy life. The doctors, however, disagree. They are convinced that his mental instability has been caused by the failure of his marriage and not because he fears that he is losing his creative energies. The play traces Jim’s desperate struggle with the hospital authorities to regain his independence and retain his autonomy. His battle is complicated by his wife, Ann, who in her desperation to hold onto their marriage, becomes an effective accomplice to the hospital’s autocratic system. As Kramm documents the power plays Jim must endure as he attempts to gain his release from the hospital, he presents a compelling portrait of repression and resistance.
The first act of The Shrike opens at a city psychiatric hospital. Ann Downs arrives with her husband, Jim, who has just swallowed a number of pills in a suicide attempt. Eventually, Jim regains consciousness and admits what he has done. Dr. Kramer, the attending physician, tells Miss Hansen, one of the nurses, to order extra care for Jim during the next forty-eight hours. When Miss Hansen shows her concern that Ann won’t be able to pay for this, Ann insists that Jim get ‘‘anything that’s needed.’’ Ann tells the doctor that she found him in his apartment and admits that they are separated.
The next morning, Miss Cardell notes that Ann has stayed by Jim’s side all night and so tells her to go home, but Ann refuses. Ann discusses Jim’s case with Dr. Barrow, one of the hospital’s psychiatrists. She tells him that when Jim regained consciousness, he asked her, ‘‘why didn’t you let me die?’’ Barrow tells her to get all the information she can from Jim, explaining that what he says now will express ‘‘what he really thinks and feels. As he regains consciousness, he will begin to build the walls again.’’ In an effort to help determine Jim’s motivation for the suicide, Ann notes that Jim once directed a Broadway show that got good notices, but he has not been able to get work since.
During a conversation with Dr. Barrow, Jim admits that he wants to die because he feels that he is ‘‘no good,’’ that he has ‘‘gotten nowhere,’’ and that he is too old now to be a success. When Ann tells him she loves him, Jim warns her that he does not want her love. In a private conversation with Barrow, Ann insists that Jim still loves her.
Two days later, Jim is sitting up in bed, focused on getting out of the hospital as soon as possible. He asks Grosberg, an attendant, to mail a letter for him to Charlotte, his girlfriend. Ann arrives and tells Jim that he got a call about a job in the theater. The news excites him and prompts him to speed up his recovery. Ann worries that he is pushing himself too much. When Jim tells Barrow that he wants to leave in a few days so that he can interview for the position, the doctor decides to consult with the hospital’s other psychiatrists.
In a private moment, Jim tells Ann that when he gets out, he will not be coming back to her, but she refuses to discuss it with him. Dr. Kramer tells him that medically, he will be well enough to leave soon and that he could not have gotten better so quickly without Ann’s help. Later, when Dr. Barrow and Dr. Schlesinger discuss Jim’s case with Ann, she admits that she is not sure Jim is ready to leave. She tells...
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