Sidney Howard was neither an innovator in dramatic form nor a particularly profound writer, and he readily admitted these facts. He was content to “get a kind of glamour around reality,” to dare less and achieve more. He was nevertheless a substantial playwright of considerable theatrical skill and imagination who stepped into the ongoing stream of social drama in America and produced at least two major plays in that genre.
They Knew What They Wanted
Despite a tendency toward preachiness, They Knew What They Wanted is an important play for its humanity and for its insight into social morality. A modern version of Dante’s story of the love of Paolo and Francesca, it demonstrated Howard’s ability to write a compact, effective play.
Tony, a sixty-year-old Italian winegrower, proposes by mail to Amy, a young waitress, whom he has seen once and admired. They correspond, and Amy asks for a photograph of him. Instead, he sends one of Joe, his handsome young hired hand. On his way to the station to pick up Amy, Tony has an automobile accident and is injured. When Amy arrives at the house, she mistakes Joe for Tony, and on discovering that Tony is to be her husband, she is shocked. After the wedding party, Amy, miserable, is left alone with Joe, and they make love. The discovery three months later that Amy is pregnant, Tony’s resultant anger, his struggle with his pride, and his final acceptance of and triumph over the trouble, as well as the resolution for all three characters of this dilemma, make up the heart of the play. All three characters, in the end, know and get what they want, and all are, in the end, satisfied.
In Tony, Howard created his most successful character. The most appealing and most real figure in the play, Tony is also the one most able to deal with the exigencies of the world. He discovers that he can accept Amy’s child, love Amy, and find joy in his new family. He becomes not the most miserable of men but a “most happy fella.” The other two characters make similar discoveries: Amy discovers that she really cares for Tony and wants to be his wife, and Joe finds that he really values his freedom. The play ends satisfactorily, for the characters and for the audience.
The Silver Cord
The Silver Cord, although it also suffers from preachment, has a profound effect on audiences, delving into a deep and often hidden layer of human emotion. Mrs. Phelps, a domineering mother, is in a struggle to possess the love of her two sons and to exclude from their affections the women whom they love. She successfully destroys the love of Robert and his fiancée, Hester, but fails to break up the marriage of her older son, David, and Christina, a more determined woman than Hester and more of a match for Mrs. Phelps. Howard expresses his antipathy toward filial duty grounded on pathological dependence through Christina, who says, “An embryological accident is no ground for honour,” and through Hester, who says of children, “Have ’em. Love ’em. And then leave ’em be.”
The play dramatizes this conflict—between a “professional” mother and an independent and ambitious wife. Both deserve some sympathy even as each struggles desperately for the fulfillment of her...
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