As a dramatist, Sidney Kingsley is noted for being a theater technician—not a surprising reputation, since he spent all of his life in the theater and directed all of his plays except The Patriots. Typically, the characters in his plays represent a social spectrum and dramatize sharp, overt ideological differences. Within this pattern, there are also more subtly contrasting pairs of individuals: Gimpty and “Baby-Face,” former members of the same youth gang in Dead End; the two proletarian brothers in The World We Make; the two women who love George Ferguson in Men in White; and Rubashov and his inquisitor in Darkness at Noon.
Few dramatists have more consistently articulated in their works the liberal political philosophy than has Kingsley. Keenly attentive to the social and political events of his day, Kingsley’s plays demonstrate his faith in the essential goodness of people, his suspicion of authority and power, his belief in progress, and his admiration for the life of reason. Jefferson, the hero of The Patriots, is Kingsley’s ideal intellectual. Those people who work with dedication and integrity are the cornerstones of his hope for the future. At times, Kingsley tended to be sentimental about the working class, and frequently his idealism and his belief in the value of work for its own sake led him into melodramatic conflicts and facile resolutions. At his best, however, he powerfully embodied the virtues of liberal humanism.
Kingsley’s plays have invariably displayed his fondness for spectacle. His settings are obviously the result of studied decisions, and they appear in virtually every production to be an indispensable element in the play. Bel Geddes’s stunning set for Dead End articulated the social contrasts at the heart of the play as much as did its plot. The prison set in Darkness at Noon, with its spectacular tapping out of communication from one cell to another, starkly defined Soviet Russia for Kingsley’s audience. The operating room in Men in White and the squad room of Detective Story anticipated in their powerful immediacy the television series of a later era. Indeed, Kingsley’s sets have sometimes been disproportionately powerful: The expressionistic set of Ten Million Ghosts may in fact have been too heavy for the play, and the first two settings in The World We Make convey such a sharp, deterministic insistence that the rest of the play, set in John’s room, seems too sequestered.
The World We Make
Dr. Schiller’s statement in The World We Make, that no normal human being lives alone in the world, is a basic truth for Kingsley’s plays, which stress the working out of the necessary difficulties in social existence. His characters tend to be types, figures who seem vibrantly alive only when struggling with the idea of their social duties. In this respect, it is society that animates them. Like other social realists, Kingsley has the gift of evoking a sense of community, the feeling that his characters are bound, for better or worse, by a system of deeply felt values. When this system breaks down, as it does in Kingsley’s later work, the basic unity of the plays begins to fragment.
Men in White
The title of Kingsley’s first play, Men in White, indicates the play’s focus on the profession of medicine itself. Throughout, Kingsley is concerned with what a doctor’s life is and what it should be, examining the ethics, economics, and dedication of the medical community. The entire play is confined to various parts of St. George’s Hospital, and in one of the most crucial scenes, Kingsley takes the audience into the operating room, where the real and the melodramatic mingle. As Laura prepares to witness her fiancé operating, she suddenly discovers that the case, a botched abortion, is the result of her fiancé’s affair. As this is happening, the visual dimension of the play emphasizes the ritual, the impersonal element, of medicine, so much so that the scene becomes an ironic comment on the plot and the action, a measure of the personal frustrations of the characters. The efficiency and sterility of the operating room convey an atmosphere of professional mystery: The putting on of the gloves, the scrubbing, and the masks all blend to suggest the distinct, new nature of this community and the people in it, and the scientific impersonality of its activities.
Two doctors, one mature and one at the beginning of his career, are at the center of the action. The older man, Dr. Hochberg, is a model for those around him. Although he seems casual in his initial appearance, it is soon apparent that he is a very disciplined, confident practitioner, the expert to whom everyone turns for advice and direction. He is a man of principle, informing the rich Mr. Hudson that doctors are more interested in working and learning than in making money, yet he is practical enough at board meetings to realize that the hospital’s economy requires wealthy friends. In explaining his profession, he states that success in medicine is essentially a kind of glory, that one lifetime is not long enough to get at all the problems that confront medicine.
The younger man, Dr. George Ferguson, is more dynamically involved in the plot. At a position in life where he must make many crucial career decisions, George finds himself torn between Hochberg’s demand for dedication—ten more years of hard work—and the insistence of Laura that he devote more time to her and to his personal life. Despite George’s genuine respect for the master professional, Hochberg, his fiancé’s request does not seem unreasonable. The conflict here defined, between the responsibilities and ambitions inherent in public life and the demands of private life, is a recurrent situation in Kingsley’s drama.
George seems to acquiesce to Laura’s wishes, though he wants to compromise with Hochberg rather than reject him. At this point, the plot is complicated by the botched abortion, a problem, the play suggests, resulting from a thoughtless moment between George and a sympathetic nurse. When Laura discovers the situation, she rejects George, saying that there is no excuse for what he did. Hochberg is much more tolerant and objective, noting that human bodies are human bodies and that the pregnancy was an accident. George seems about to marry the nurse, but she conveniently dies. In the conclusion, George explains to a more forgiving Laura that the hospital is where he belongs and where she ought to leave him. In terms of what the play has presented, he seems to be right.
Kingsley’s most popular play, Dead End, owed its success to its theatrical boldness and to its projection of the mood of the 1930’s. The...
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