A Forgotten Playwright

Maxwell Anderson (December 15, 1888 – 1959)

A handful of Maxwell Anderson’s better plays – Anne of the Thousand Days (1948), Both Your Houses (1933), What Price Glory? (the WWI play that he cowrote with Laurence Stallings in 1924), and the two musicals that he collaborated on with Kurt Weill, Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) and Lost in the Stars (1949) – occasionally still get produced in the places where theater occasionally still gets produced.

Anderson’s name appears as screenwriter on some good movies as well, notably Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Mitchell Leisen’s Death Takes a Holiday (1934), and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956). So it isn’t completely accurate to say he’s been forgotten.

Posterity has not been kind to Maxwell Anderson, however. He wrote a ton. And, during his career, he was produced everywhere and widely admired. His early blank verse play – Winterset (1935), loosely based on the Sacco & Vanzetti case – was one of the most successful plays of his own time and one of the most produced high school plays of mine. In the Sixties and Seventies, if your school wouldn’t let you put on Lawrence & Lee’s Inherit the Wind (because it, you know, teaches evolution), they might accede to Winterset, not knowing it was sort of a Commie play in which the names have been changed to protect the unfairly convicted.

For once, I’m gonna stick up for posterity. I have an intense dislike of Anderson’s last popular play, The Bad Seed (1954), which in both its stage and film incarnations preaches that bad children are born evil and it isn’t the fault of their selfish, neglectful, alcoholic parents. Either they’re bad seeds or it’s Satan’s fault, a theme pursued ever since in everything from Village of the Damned (1960) to The Exorcist  and The Omen series of films.

And I recently tried to reread Winterset and found it stilted throughout and (in more than one place) laughable (as in “out loud”). The problem is the blank verse, which spoils not only Winterset but his Tudor history plays and another acclaimed early drama, High Tor (1937). Anderson fancied himself a poet, but he’s no Shakespeare and should have left well enough alone.

It’s interesting to note that three of Maxwell Anderson’s best works were collaborations, where I’m guessing that the presence of a creative partner reined in his tendency toward pretension. And Anderson’s finest play by far – Both Your Houses (1933) – eschews blank verse and has some of the wittiest, smartest, most pointed dialogue since George Bernard Shaw.

both your houses

Both Your Houses is a political drama about an idealistic Congressman who comes to Washington hoping to do right by his constituents … only to find out how laws get passed (and why) in the place where capitalism meets government and nothing good ever gets done. Revival, anyone?

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