Authors: Maxwell Anderson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Author Works


White Desert, pr. 1923

What Price Glory?, pr. 1924 (with Laurence Stallings)

Outside Looking In, pr. 1925

First Flight, pr. 1925 (with Stallings)

Three American Plays, pb. 1926

Saturday’s Children, pr., pb. 1927

Gods of the Lightning, pr., pb. 1928

Gypsy, pr. 1929

Elizabeth the Queen, pr., pb. 1930 (adaptation of Lytton Strachey’s history Elizabeth and Essex)

Night over Taos, pr., pb. 1932

Both Your Houses, pr., pb. 1933

Mary of Scotland, pr., pb. 1933

Valley Forge, pr., pb. 1934

Winterset, pr., pb. 1935

The Masque of Kings, pb. 1936

High Tor, pr., pb. 1937

Knickerbocker Holiday, pr., pb. 1938 (lyrics; music by KurtWeill)

Key Largo, pr., pb. 1939

Eleven Verse Plays, 1929-1939, pb. 1940

Joan of Lorraine, pr., pb. 1946

Anne of the Thousand Days, pr., pb. 1948

Lost in the Stars, pr., pb. 1949 (lyrics; music by Weill; adaptation of Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country)

Barefoot in Athens, pr., pb. 1951

Bad Seed, pr. 1954 (adaptation of William March’s novel)

Richard and Anne, wr. 1956, pb. 1995

The Day the Money Stopped, pr., pb. 1958 (adaptation of Brendan Gill’s novel)

The Golden Six, pr. 1958

Four Verse Plays, pb. 1959

Long Fiction:

Morning Winter and Night, 1952 (as John Nairne Michaelson)


You Who Have Dreams, 1925

Notes on a Dream, 1971


All Quiet on theWestern Front, 1930 (with others; adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel)

Joan of Arc, 1948 (with Andrew Solt; adaptation of his play Joan of Lorraine)

The Wrong Man, 1956 (with Angus MacPhail)


The Essence of Tragedy, and Other Footnotes and Papers, 1939

Off Broadway: Essays About the Theatre, 1947

Dramatist in America: Letters of Maxwell Anderson, 1912-1958, 1977


James Maxwell Anderson was born near Atlantic, Pennsylvania, on December 15, 1888, the son of Baptist lay minister William Lincoln Anderson and Charlotta Perrimela Stephenson. During the first few years of Anderson’s life, the family moved frequently from parish to parish in Ohio and Pennsylvania. He started high school in 1904 but had already begun to receive an informal education through constant reading–a habit that was to stay with him throughout his life. By the time he graduated from Jamestown High School in North Dakota in 1908, he had discovered John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Shakespeare, and other great poets. He had also begun to write poetry, which became a lifelong avocation.{$I[AN]9810001352}{$I[A]Anderson, Maxwell}{$S[A]Michaelson, John Nairne;Anderson, Maxwell}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Anderson, Maxwell}{$I[tim]1888;Anderson, Maxwell}

Maxwell Anderson in 1956

(Library of Congress)

During his ensuing college days at the University of North Dakota, Anderson became increasingly involved in poetic and dramatic studies. He was a charter member of a theatrical group organized by professor Frederick H. Koch; he edited the school yearbook, and he wrote the class play in 1911. These formative experiences prepared Anderson to pursue a theatrical career and, especially, to focus on poetic drama for the modern stage.

After marriage to classmate Margaret Haskett, Anderson began a short-lived career in education as a teacher and high school principal. Graduate study in English at Stanford University, several teaching jobs, and copyediting work with two San Francisco newspapers preceded an offer from The New Republic to become a staff writer in New York City. There, from 1919 to 1922, Anderson published numerous poems and essays while working on the editorial staffs of two newspapers. He was also cofounder and editor of Measure, a monthly poetry magazine that published many of the best poets of the time.

Beginning in 1923, however, Anderson turned his attention to drama. His first produced play was White Desert, a verse tragedy about hardship and jealousy on the North Dakota plains. Although it ran for only twelve New York performances, it showed his determination to bring verse to the American stage as well as his concern over the viability of ideals in modern society. Anderson continued to study the failure of idealism in What Price Glory?, a prose play based on war stories told to him by Laurence Stallings and written during evenings at the New York Public Library. It debunked romantic views of warfare that emphasized honor and glory, stressing instead less abstract reasons for fighting, such as the need for survival and commitment to comrades. The play was a critical and financial success, thus allowing Anderson to establish himself and his family in Rockland County, New York, where he dedicated himself to writing as a full-time occupation.

Anderson’s works span a remarkable range of forms and subject matter. For example, his penchant for social criticism emerged in Saturday’s Children, Gods of the Lightning, and Both Your Houses, which won for Anderson the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1933. These plays merged strong characters with insightful analysis of contemporary institutions and supple dramatic prose to capture the attention of his audiences. At the same time, however, Anderson was arguing in his essays for a more “exalted” theater–a dramatic experience that depended on heightened emotion and language to lift the audience above ordinary life.

Anderson’s focus on language led him to write verse dramas whose flexible iambic pentameter allowed them to be popular on the New York stage. At first, he concentrated on historical tragedies, including Elizabeth the Queen, Mary of Scotland, and Valley Forge. Yet even in these “history” plays, he developed characters with modern sensibilities and confronted complex political realities, which had their counterparts in present-day society. Eventually, Anderson turned his attention to writing verse plays on contemporary themes–generally considered his greatest achievement. Winterset and High Tor, two plays with modern themes, each ran for more than 170 performances, and both received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for dramatic excellence.

In addition to his achievement in social dramas and verse tragedy or comedy, he also wrote two distinguished musicals with composer Kurt Weill. Anderson’s most notable musical drama was an adaptation of Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948). The adaptation, titled Lost in the Stars, ran for 250 New York performances and won for Anderson the Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews; it is a sensitive treatment of the problems created by apartheid in South Africa.

Between 1925 and 1951 Maxwell Anderson became one of the most eminent and exciting playwrights in the United States. His original productions during that period amazed his contemporaries with their versatility and poetic power. He believed that playwrights must celebrate whatever is good and worth saving from the often confusing events of their own time. His high sense of purpose drove him to try to rise above contemporary acclaim–to write plays with the power to move audiences over the ages. According to most critical opinion, the results were impressive even when Anderson fell short of his own high standards. Anderson’s moral purpose, facility with language, experimentation, and very real accomplishments across a range of dramatic forms have made him one of the preeminent American playwrights of the twentieth century.

BibliographyAdam, Julie. Versions of Heroism in Modern American Drama: Redefinitions by Miller, Williams, O’Neill, and Anderson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. This excellent study is an exploration of redefinitions. Adam argues that Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Anderson not only do not provide a systematic theory of tragedy but also frequently do not engage in an easily classifiable dramatic practice. Often ignoring the formal aspects and philosophical dimension of traditional tragedy, they instead focus on its intensified character portrayal, which they believe typifies the genre. They identify tragedy with dramatization of heroism and redefine tragedy as primarily a dramatic tribute to individualism and human potential. First-rate bibliography.Anderson, Maxwell. Dramatist in America: Letters of Maxwell Anderson, 1912-1958. Edited by Laurence G. Avery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977. Consists of 212 illuminating letters on a wide variety of topics. The letters are arranged in chronological order, and each is presented in three parts: heading, text, and annotation. Extremely few letters, however, are available from the early period of Anderson’s life and from the period during which the author suffered a nervous breakdown. Contains a chronology, a list of letters, and appendices.Bailey, Mabel D. Maxwell Anderson: The Playwright as Prophet. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1957. A brief but well-written book of dramatic criticism aimed at a general audience. Bailey’s aim is to test the validity of Anderson’s creative principles–particularly his dramatic theory–by undertaking a critical examination of the plays that Anderson produced in accordance with that theory. Central to this theory is the notion that theme is the thing for which the work of art exists. Bailey offers many perceptive comments, particularly on the drama Barefoot in Athens.Clark, Barrett H. Maxwell Anderson: The Man and His Plays. New York: Samuel French, 1933. A pioneer study giving an overview on some of the early plays. The biographical section consists of six brief pages–a testimony to the playwright’s polite refusal to volunteer information about his personal life. Clark was one of the earliest critics to recognize Anderson’s unusual talent.Shivers, Alfred S. The Life of Maxwell Anderson. New York: Stein and Day, 1983. The first full-length biography of Anderson. It is based on correspondence, diaries, business documents, notes, legal documents, oral and unpublished written reminiscences of Anderson’s relatives and friends, and a memoir of Anderson and hitherto unpublished photographs. Also includes a family genealogy, a lengthy bibliography, a list of the Playwrights’ Producing Company productions, and a list of Anderson’s addresses.Shivers, Alfred S. Maxwell Anderson. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Based not only on a study of the dramatic works themselves and on the published secondary sources but also on archival materials and correspondence with Anderson’s relatives and friends, who volunteered much fresh information about the playwright and his art. As a result, the first chapter offers much more biography than had yet appeared in print. The remaining chapters consist of critical studies of the major plays and some of the minor ones.
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