Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Atlantic, Crawford County
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Maxwell Anderson was born in Atlantic, PA, in 1888.
Awards: Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics Circle Award
Maxwell Anderson was born in Atlantic, Pennsylvania, in 1888. After receiving his master’s degree from Stanford, he worked as a columnist, English teacher, and a poet before publishing his first play in 1923. A notable historian and dramatist, Anderson won the Pulitzer Prize for Both Your Houses in 1933, as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Winterset in 1935. Together with fellow playwrights, Anderson founded the Playwrights’ Producing Company, which produced many of his plays (including Knickerbocker Holiday , Joan of Lorrain , and Bad Seed ) and earned him great success. Anderson died in Stamford, Connecticut in 1959.
James Maxwell Anderson was born on December 15, 1888, in Atlantic, Pennsylvania, to Reverend William Lincoln (Link) Anderson and Perrimela (Premma) Stephenson. He was the second child and oldest son of a family of four sons and four daughters. Every few years, his father’s responsibilities to the Baptist church forced his family to move all over the eastern United States. Anderson spent time in Andover, Ohio, in 1890, then Townsville and Edinboro, Pennsylvania; he lived in McKeesport, New Brighton, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; moved to Jefferson, Ohio, in 1901; then to Algona, Iowa. “My father,” Anderson recalls, “was…what you call a good mixer, and a wonderful orator…but I knew it was all put on.” William Anderson, a stern and devout man, had no intentions for Maxwell to enter the ministry. Alternatively, he wanted his son to become an agnostic, a member of no church, but still a passionate believer in Christ and the spiritual possibilities of man.
When Anderson became 13, he began helping the family raise money by laboring “almost every kind of farm work known to man on almost every kind of farm,” says Robert Rice. When Anderson was not laboriously attending his father’s sermons or working in the fields, he would read every piece of literature he could get his hands on. Due to a mastoid infection that kept him out of school for one year, as his sister Lela remembers, Anderson was confined indoors and he began reading more than ever. Among some of the works that intrigued him was James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, and a handful of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. By eighth grade, Anderson had read all the major novelists, but his preferences led toward poetry. During his high school years, in New Hampton, Iowa, Anderson was introduced to Shakespeare, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The very title of Anderson’s later play, The Eve of St. Mark (1942), is of Keatsian influence, and Keats (along with Shakespeare) was always to be among Anderson’s most influential poets.
Anderson graduated high school in Jamestown, North Dakota, and enrolled in the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks shortly after. He joined the dramatic society and edited the school yearbook, in which he published a few of his own poems. Anderson also wrote plays as an undergraduate, including The Masque of Pedagogues (1911), which was penned during his third and final year. He employed Elizabethan devices of verse and song in The Masque (that later emerge in his greater plays about Queen Elizabeth, Mary of Scotland, and Anne Boleyn), in which he recalls his experiences as an undergraduate with friends, faculty, and administration. He includes five references to Shakespeare and two to Keats in the play.
In 1911, Anderson graduated from the University of North Dakota and married fellow classmate, Margaret Haskett. Together they had three sons: Quentin, Alan, and Terence. He first took a position as a principal and English teacher at a high school in Minnewaukan, North Dakota. Two years later, he moved with his family to California to pursue a master’s degree in English from Stanford University. His master’s thesis was entitled, "Immortality in the Plays and Sonnets of Shakespeare." For the next three years, Anderson taught English at a high school in San Francisco while writing editorials for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. In 1917, he became a professor and head of the English Department at Whittier College—a Quaker school. He did not spend too much of his career there. Although Quakers are traditionally a nonviolent people, Anderson was dismissed from the school in the spring of 1918 for expressing pacifist views (on campus and in editorials) opposing World War I. The incident left a mark in Anderson’s early plays of the ‘30s. In his 1934 play, Valley Forge, Anderson denounces the Quakers saying, “Sure, the big-hearted patriots of Pennsylvania—we fight for their liberty and they carry their butter and eggs to Philadelphia in a steady stream to feed King George’s troops.”
Anderson abandoned teaching after the Whittier incident and continued to write for the San Francisco newspapers. He moved with his family to New York in 1918 to write editorials for the New Republic. The editors were impressed with the poems and essays that he submitted, but they insisted that he change his views to a more moderate stance. Eventually he left the publication to join the New York Evening Globe and then the New York World. While writing for the New York World, one of the premier newspapers of the era, Anderson founded and was the editor of the poetry section, Measure. During his time as editor, Measure attracted the talent of young poets such as Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, and Conrad Aiken (Anderson’s favorite).
Margaret Haskett, Anderson’s first wife, died from a stroke-induced car accident in 1931. Even before her death, Anderson had been living with Gertrude Maynard, with whom he had one daughter, Hesper. Like the protagonist in his play Gypsy (1929), Maynard was neurotic and unfaithful, and she committed suicide in 1953. Anderson later married Gilda Oakleaf in 1954.
A career as a playwright happened by chance for Maxwell Anderson when John Howard Lawson invited him to the first reading of one of his plays. Anderson thought “If that’s a play, I can write one.” He began immediately writing White Desert, a tale set in verse in North Dakota (Anderson’s former home) on the tragedy of obsessive jealousy. It was professionally produced in 1923 on Broadway, but was considered a failure.
After a few bitter failures, Anderson began searching for a guide of principles to govern his writing. He began by becoming familiar with Aristotle’s Poetics and found something that the Greeks used widely in some of their finest plays; also in which Shakespeare and more modern playwrights have used in more subtle ways. By examining the successful plays of the past, he discovered a group of rules that governed serious drama (especially tragedy), by which the artist had to abide:
The play deals with the heart or mind of a person, not mainly with external events.
The story must consist of a conflict inside a signal human being between good and evil, and such categories are defined according to the audience’s judgment.
The protagonist, representative of the forces of good, must win; if he has represented evil, he must be defeated by the good and realize the fact.
The protagonist, who must emerge at the end of the play as more admirable that at the beginning, must not be perfect.
The protagonist has to be exceptional; or, if he is a man from the street, he must epitomize qualities of excellence that the audience is able to admire.
Excellence on the stage must ever be moral excellence.
A healthy moral atmosphere must prevail in the play; evil must not triumph.
The theater audience admires these human qualities on the stage: woman’s passionate faith and fidelity, man’s strength of conviction and positive character; the audience especially resent these qualities: woman’s infidelity, man’s cowardice and refusal to fight for a belief.
Anderson set aside verse in his second play, What Price Glory (1923). This attempt was in collaboration with fellow editor, Laurence Stallings, of the New York World. Audiences were stunned during the plays opening scenes as Anderson introduced strong marine vernacular and an unflattering picture of military life. What Price Glory was the first play, at the time, to approach war from a non-romantic perspective. Anderson found such critical and financial success that he left New York World and focused his efforts on becoming a full-time playwright.
After reading Lytton Strachey’s best-seller Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History, Anderson became extremely influenced by the English Renaissance and the Tudor Dynasty. Between 1930 and 1938, he began writing the poetic tragedies for which he is perhaps best remembered. Elizabeth the Queen (1930), featuring Queen Elizabeth I and Essex, in a human-interest drama about love and power, is perhaps his most successful play of the time period. In a review for TheNew York Times, J. Brooks Atkinson writes: “Mr. Anderson has written [Elizabeth the Queen] with the candor of an independent thinker who can say a wise thing as unobtrusively as he can make a glowing human statement…We sorely need plays rich in character, though and imagination. Mr. Anderson has written one.” In time, Anderson successfully completed the poetic Tudor trilogy with Mary of Scotland (1933) (about Mary, Queen of Scots) and Anne of a Thousand Days (1948) (about Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother).
In 1933, Anderson produced his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Both Your Houses. Written during the Herbert Hoover administration, where public dissatisfaction with the government was strong, Both Your Houses explores the interpretation of US Congressional corruption. Freshman Congressman Alan McClean of Nevada discovers that the Nevada Dam Approbation Bill has been filled with several costly addendums. McClean is outnumbered and outvoted by the committee members who stand to win personal gains from the bill. He decides he will beat the seasoned bureaucrats at their own game. With the help of Bus (committee chairman Simeon Gray’s daughter), McClean proposes a bill that is so clearly graft that he believes it will either be killed on the floor or by presidential veto; but the bill is passed, turning a $40 million proposal into a $465 million scheme. Upon discovering that government reform is impossible, McClean decides to leave his government position, unwilling to accommodate himself to the corruption anymore.
Barrett Clark and George Freedley praise Both Your Houses as “the first play of any moment written by an American that dealt exclusively or largely with political crookedness in the federal government.” Both Your Houses reached the stage of the Royal Theatre on March 6, 1933. Unfortunately, his intended target (the Hoover Administration), was then out of office. Anderson did offer a slightly revised version of Both Your Houses years later, in which he is “kinder” toward the motives of democracy within the American government. The revised version has never seen print, however, it was prepared for a staging at the Pasadena Community Playhouse in Pasadena, California, during July of 1939. Two of McClean’s speeches were altered and said to relate to Anderson’s convictions at the time to defend democracy from the totalitarianism that threatened the world from Hitler’s Germany.
Anderson shifted the focus of his writing slightly after the production of Both Your Houses. He began to deal with American citizens of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who are beset with one or more problems such as: legal injustice, tragic love, commercial greed, chronic dissatisfaction with job and marriage, racial and religious intolerance, and bad heredity. One play that stands out the most during this period of Anderson’s creative powers is Winterset.
Produced in 1935 in sonorous verse, Winterset is clearly Anderson’s masterpiece. It was inspired by the story of anarchist-immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were executed in 1927 on a controversial robbery and murder charge. The central character in Winterset is Mio; his father is wrongfully incarcerated for killing a paymaster during a robbery. After his father’s execution and his mother’s death from grief, Mio is forced out of town and lives as a drifter. Mio learns through a college professor’s article in a local newspaper that, Garth Esdras, an eye witness of the crime (who could have cleared his father’s name) was never called on to testify. Mio’s lust for revenge leads him to a waterfront tenement outside of New York City where he mistakenly falls in love with Garth’s sister, Mariamne. Judge Gaunt (who has lost his mind since the trial of Mio’s father) has also drifted into town, as all the key players of the crime converge on the tenement. The tension builds between characters steadily throughout the second act and peaks when Mio holds a mock trial in Garth’s home. Trock Estrella, a member of the gang that Garth once belonged to, admits to having performed the crime Mio’s father was killed for, but he escapes before Mio can complete his revenge. Trock then sets a trap in which Mio and Mariamne are gunned down by his henchmen.
There is an adaptation of Shakespearean devices in Winterset which lends to the genius of the play. In Anderson’s words, The world we live in is given meaning and dignity…by the great spirits who have preceded us and set down their records of nobility or torture or defeat in blazons or symbols which we can understand.In tribute to Shakespeare (who Anderson has been heavily influenced by in his plays), he created four of the characters in Winteset in the image of Shakespeare’s: Mio, Trock Estrella, Judge Gaunt, and Mariamne.
Critics, like John Bush Jones, have gone into detail about the association of the romance between Mio and Mariamne with Romeo and Juliet. A boy and a girl of unfriendly families have fallen in love; and one thinks first of Shakespeare's pair because his is the classic treatment of what is often a trite, sentimental, or melodramatic situation, says Jacob Adler. Also with Mio and Hamlet, both sons’ seek revenge; Mio, upon hearing the professor’s pamphlet (much like the reappearing ghost of Hamlet’s father), proceeds to uncover evidence of the tainted murder of his father. Trock Estrella’s right-hand man, Shadow, is a reference to Macbeth’s Banquo. Like Banquo; after outliving his usefulness, Shadow is commissioned to death by Trock. A similarity between Judge Gaunt and King Lear is evident as well; both having used their power of deception over another out of emotion, rather than reason, and have gone insane because of it.
With the depth created by Anderson in his characters, Winterset has become a timeless masterpiece. Opening on Broadway on September 25, 1935, it ran for 179 performances and received the first New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play, and continued to tour the country for five more years. Although considered a masterpiece and “the most notable effort at poetic drama in the American theater to date,” Winterset received mixed reviews from critics such as Mable Driscoll Bailey: “It is poetry, and it is tragedy; but it is not poetic tragedy. Or rather, it is not dramatic poetry. The poetry and the drama are not fused. The drama is very near greatness. The tragic effect is not so powerful.”
During the 1936-1937 theatre season, Anderson premiered The Wingless Victory, The Masque of Kings, and High Thor. The Wingless Victory is a tragedy written in verse that examines the theme of marital discord drawing on the Greek myth of Medea. In the end, Oparre, paining for acceptance, commits suicide. The Masque of Kings is also a verse tragedy written on the historical double suicide of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria-Hungary and his mistress in 1889. The most favorably received of the three was High Thor. The play received a Drama Critics Circle Award, which contributed to its success. The title comes from a mountain peak overlooking the Hudson River, only a few miles from Anderson’s home at the time. The subject is Anderson’s neighbor, Elmer Van Orden, who owned the mountain and fought to disrupt the efforts of businessmen who wanted to turn the mountain into a quarry. The central character is Van Van Dorn. In a complicatedly weaved plot, Anderson mixes together poetry, comedy, romance, fantasy, and reality. Among the supporting characters, there is the last Indian (who prays to nature to save his dying race), the girlfriend (who wants Van Dorn to get a job so they can get married), the local realtor (who makes dodgy business offers), the gangsters (who have robbed a local store and are hiding in the mountain), ghosts, lost Dutch sailors, and many more. In the end, Anderson’s morality runs its course and the predominance of good is displayed throughout the conclusion.
Together with playwrights Samuel Nathanial Behrman, Sidney Howard, Elmer Rice, and Robert Sherwood, Anderson organized the Playwrights’ Producing Company in 1938. Lawyer John F. Wharton also became a member of the company to assure that producers did not have to fight over which plays to choose or reject. The company’s first play was Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), a musical that satirized President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Deal policies. Kurt Weill wrote the musical score and Anderson the play and lyrics. President Roosevelt attended the play during its Washington DC debut and found it amusing. This, however, did little to help the ratings and the play had only a 21-week run. Many critics criticized the play for Anderson’s unskilled attempt at a musical, yet praised the musical score and witty lyrics. Bing Crosby reproduced the “September Song” from the play in 1943, which increased the sale of records, sheet music, and other royalties, which made Knickerbocker Holiday Anderson’s most profitable show. Other attempts at musicals were considered minor works, therefore, making this play the mark of the end of Anderson’s greatest period of ingenuity.
Knickerbocker Holiday also spawned the classic Sinatra tune, the “September Song,” which became an instant classic. It describes an old man’s cry for the passing of his youth. Anderson’s elegant lyrics are simple, soulful, and honest. According to Billboard.com, over 300 different artists have performed this song since Anderson’s conception: the most famous included Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, and Willie Nelson.
Anderson continued to write other plays and some had minor success. Journey to Jerusalem (1940) was based on Anderson’s account of the 12-year-old Jesus who has just learned that he is the Messiah and begins to embark on his sacred journey. One critic thought that the play should be read “since its beauty was dependent upon the sensitive imagination.” The Eve of St. Mark (1942) was one of Anderson’s best war dramas. Based on Anderson’s nephew, an Army pilot who was shot down in the Mediterranean Sea during World War II, the play was considered an appealing perspective on the World War II soldier. By special permission of the War Department, Anderson was allowed to travel to Africa, during the invasion in 1943, and interview General Dwight D. Eisenhower for his next play, Storm Operation, which premiered the following year. Anderson redisplayed many of the spectacular concepts from What Price Glory; however, the War Department hindered the grand effect after strict censorship.
Joan of Lorraine, produced in late 1946, was the hit of the season. The action of Joan of Lorraine takes place during the rehearsals for the production of Joan of Arc, in which the leading lady, Mary, must contend with the director’s vision of her character. At first, she is set against the portrayal of her character, but as the play goes on, she gains a greater understanding of Joan as the stage action takes her through varies confrontations with evil. With the help of Ingrid Bergman, the play became a motion picture entitled Joan of Arc.
At age 62, the Playwrights’ Producing Company faced overdue tax notices from the production of Eve of St. Mark. Although ready to quit the theater business all together, Anderson wrote The Bad Seed (1954), The Day the Money Stopped (1958),and The Golden Six (1958), which he called “potboilers,” strictly to make money. The Bad Seed was the only play to bring in any kind of financial gains. Running for 332 performances, it was a commercial success.
The Bad Seed is unquestionably the final most distinguished work of Anderson’s old age. Based off of the single set of Colonel Kenneth Penmark and his wife Christine’s apartment, tragedy ensues as their daughter, Rhoda, slips into a fit of serial murder. As the play continues, and more students at Rhoda’s school begin turning up dead, Christine learns from her father, Richard Bravo, about her own horrid past. Bravo reveals that he had adopted a tiny, two-year-old Ingold Denker, the daughter of the murderess Bessie, and had changed her named to Christine, but he ensures her that the mother’s brutality cannot be inherited by Rhoda. Later that night, Christine catches Rhoda carrying a suspicious looking crate through the hallway and confronts her. She finally gets a confession from Rhoda, but she shows no remorse for her crimes. They destroy all the evidence connecting Rhoda to the murders, but the painful nature of the girl remains a burden on Christine’s mind. She decides to slip Rhoda a large amount of sleeping pills before shooting herself, and ending the nightmare.
Anderson’s third wife, Gilda Oakleaf, whom he married earlier that year, was the one who urged Anderson (hospitalized at the time) to turn William March’s novel The Bad Seed into play form. Although weak and ill, Anderson completed the task in only two months and in time for its production by The Playwrights’ Producing Company in late 1954.
At his home in Stamford, Connecticut, Anderson died of a stroke in 1959. At the time of his death, Anderson was working on a play called Madonna and Child, and a musical, Art of Love, based on Ovid’s poems. Over the three decades that Anderson was an active playwright in the theatre, he produced 33 plays. He saw both success and failure during his career, and his legacy will remain with the glory of theatre’s future.
(With Laurence Stallings). What Price Glory. New York: American Play Company, 1923.
Elizabeth the Queen. London, New York & Toronto: Longmans, Green, 1930.
Both Your Houses. New York: Samuel French, 1933.
Winterset. New York: Anderson House, 1935.
High Tor. New York: Anderson House, 1937.
Knickerbocker Holiday. Washington, DC: Anderson House, 1938.
Journey to Jerusalem. New York: Anderson House, 1940.
The Eve of St. Mark. New York: Anderson House, 1941.
All Quiet on the Western Front. Universal, 1930.
(With L. Stallings and E. J. Mayer). So Red the Rose. Paramount, 1935.
Off Broadway: Essays about the Theatre. New York: W. Sloan Associates, 1947.
(Under the pseudonym John Nairne Michaelson). Morning, Winter, and Night. New York: Sloane, 1952.
Anderson, Maxwell. Both Your Houses. New York: French, 1933.
Anderson, Maxwell. Off Broadway: Essays About The Theatre. New York: W. Sloan Associates, 1947.
Anderson, Maxwell. Valley Forge. New York: Anderson House, 1934.
Atkinson, J. Brooks. “Every Inch a Queen.” The New York Times 4 Nov. 1930, 29.
Bailey, Mabel Driscoll. Maxwell Anderson: The Playwright as Prophet. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1957.