Throughout his career, Maxwell Anderson boldly attempted to bring poetic drama to the American commercial theater. Always convinced that drama should provide a spiritual experience for the audience and committed to tragedy, Anderson also believed that poetry was the most appropriate medium for the expression of the emotions inherent in humanity’s tragic condition. He revered the Greek and Roman tragedies and was devoted to William Shakespeare. He followed these models in most of his commercial successes, choosing historical plots and characters to speak to ageless human concerns. Plays such as Elizabeth the Queen (1930) and Anne of the Thousand Days (1948) found receptive audiences who appreciated the Shakespearean echoes and accepted the poetic lines with enthusiasm. In Winterset, however, Anderson rejected the tragic stories of the distant past when he decided to write a poetic tragedy about contemporary events. That the play, in spite of unevenness, was a popular success and continues to be Anderson’s best-known effort suggests the skill of the author and his creative ability at draping contemporary events with an aura of timelessness.
The notorious case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti provides the background for Winterset. Anderson, like many other artists and intellectuals of the time, believed that the two radical Italian aliens were wrongly accused and convicted of murder. Several years after their executions, a friend of Anderson told him that the judge in the case was now nearly out of his mind and was continuously attempting to justify his decisions during the trial to any who would listen. From this kernel, Anderson built the drama.
The surface structure of the play parallels Renaissance revenge tragedy with Mio, the son of the wronged father, setting out to avenge the injustice of the court system to his father by finding the real murderer and punishing him. In its revenge pattern and in the characterization of Mio, the Anderson play seems consciously patterned on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603). Mio, like Hamlet, is the wronged son in search of vengeance. Like Hamlet, Mio was recently a student, is given to cynicism, and seems...
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