The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As the curtain rises on Tea and Sympathy, the audience sees a two-room set suggesting security and serenity, the warm and comfortable housemaster’s study onstage right, a student’s bedroom, a few steps higher, onstage left. As the action begins, young, sensitive Tom Lee is sitting on his bed singing the song “The Joys of Love,” while in the study, Laura Reynolds, a casually attired, lovely woman in her mid-twenties, and her friend, Lilly Sears, a flashily dressed woman in her late thirties, are talking idly while Laura sews what is obviously a period costume.

Lilly is unsuccessfully trying to persuade Laura that the boys in this preparatory school are all obsessed with sex; Laura is more inclined to believe that they need understanding and kindness. After Lilly leaves, Tom enters, and it is immediately obvious to the audience, though not to Laura, that he is in love with her. When he asks to take her to an upcoming dance, which her husband the housemaster will not be able to attend, Laura accepts, assuming that Tom simply knows no girls. In this scene, too, the audience learns that the costume that Laura is making is for Tom, who will play the starring role of Lady Teazle in Richard Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (pr. 1777). Tom confides to Laura that his father, an alumnus of the school, will probably be angered when he learns that Tom is once again playing a woman’s role; Tom also hints at some problems with other boys, who have nicknamed him “Grace” simply for his crush on actor Grace Moore. When he cares about someone, Tom admits, he tends to go overboard.

As the act proceeds, the theme of homosexuality is introduced. The young master, David Harris, comes to tell Tom that they were seen bathing together nude and that this indiscretion has cost him his job. In contrast to this episode, which on Tom’s part at least was completely innocent, Robert Anderson inserts a brief scene in which Tom’s critics display their masculinity by clustering at a window to watch a master’s wife nurse her baby. When the housemaster Bill Reynolds enters, anxious to tell Laura the gossip...

(The entire section is 872 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In Tea and Sympathy, the set itself suggests the conflict between two modes of life and two views of love. The set is divided into two areas, the room which belongs to the married couple, the housemaster and his wife, and the room where the student-protagonist lives with his roommate. A hallway at stage left leads to the rooms of the other boys, whose rooms are offstage but whose influence is always present.

As the relationship between Bill and Laura is revealed, it becomes more and more obvious to the audience that the set is a metaphor for their marriage. Their study, too, appears comfortable and pleasant, but, like their relationship, it has been created for the public. Their bedroom is offstage. On the other hand, Tom’s bedroom is as exposed as his emotions, brightened by personal touches, which suggest his love of beauty. The Indian prints and the phonograph are not selected to impress anyone but to express his own tastes. The difference between the two rooms is consistent with the difference between Bill and Tom.

The movement of the action between the two rooms suggests the changes which are taking place in the characters. At the beginning of the play, Tom is alone with his love for Laura, and Laura is playing her role of housemaster’s wife with a gossipy friend. As the play progresses, Tom comes briefly and formally into the housemaster’s area, seeking the conventional tea and sympathy that one would find in a study,...

(The entire section is 488 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Anderson, Robert. “Draw Your Own Conclusions.” Theatre Arts 38 (September, 1954): 32-33.

Bigsby, C. W. E. “Robert Anderson.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Chicago: St. James, 1999.

Bossier, Gregory. “Writers and Their Work: Robert Anderson.” Dramatist, Spring, 1998, 4.

Bryer, Jackson R., ed. The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Clurman, Harold. “Theater.” The Nation 177 (October 17, 1953): 317-318.

Nesmith, N. “Robert Anderson: A Discussion.” Dramatist, March/April, 2002, 10.

Newsweek. Review of Tea and Sympathy. 42 (October 12, 1953): 84.

Time. Review of Tea and Sympathy. 62 (October 12, 1953): 49-50.