Authors: Robert Anderson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright and screenwriter

Author Works

Drama:

Come Marching Home, pr. 1945

All Summer Long, pr. 1953

Tea and Sympathy, pr., pb. 1953

Silent Night, Lonely Night, pr. 1955

The Days Between, pr., pb. 1965

You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running, pr., pb. 1967 (includes 4 one-act plays: The Footsteps of Doves, I’m Herbert, The Shock of Recognition, and I’ll Be Home for Christmas)

I Never Sang for My Father, pr., pb. 1968

Solitaire/Double Solitaire, pr. 1971

Free and Clear, pr. 1983

A Discarded Rose Petal, pb. 1997

Screenplays:

The Nun’s Story, 1959 (adaptation of Kathryn Hulme’s novel)

The Sand Pebbles, 1966 (adaptation of Richard McKenna’s novel)

I Never Sang for My Father, 1970 (adaptation of his play)

Teleplays:

Double Solitaire, 1972 (adaptation of his play)

The Patricia Neal Story, 1981

Absolute Strangers, 1991

Long Fiction:

After, 1973

Getting Up and Going Home, 1978

Biography

His ability to dramatize the human need for worth and understanding made Robert Woodruff Anderson one of the most popular American playwrights of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Like most of his characters, he came from a well-to-do family. His father, James Hewston Anderson, was an executive for the United Verde Copper Company and later, after the 1929 stock market crash, an agent for the Northwestern Life Insurance Company. If through his father Robert Anderson was exposed to the value of competition and economic success, his mother, Myra Ester Griff, instilled in him a love of the arts and the theater.{$I[AN]9810001342}{$I[A]Anderson, Robert}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Anderson, Robert}{$I[tim]1917;Anderson, Robert}

Robert Anderson in 1953

(Library of Congress)

Anderson attended good schools: a private grade school in New Rochelle, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and Harvard University, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1939. While at the university, he met his future wife, Phyllis Stohl, a woman ten years his senior, who convinced him that his destiny lay in the writing of drama. He had already written more than twenty one-act and full-length dramas, few of which survive. Yet this output formed his theatrical apprenticeship.

During the World War II, Anderson served as an officer in the Navy, seeing duty in the South Pacific on board the cruiser Alaska for which he was awarded a Bronze Star. While on board ship, he wrote Come Marching Home, which won for him an Army-Navy prize for the best drama written by a serviceman. After the war, it was produced at several small theaters. This work and other scripts earned for him a National Theater Conference Fellowship, enabling him and Stohl (whom he had wed in 1940) to live in New York, where he devoted himself full-time to playwriting. Anderson lived in New York until his death on February 9, 2009 at age 91.

Anderson earned extra money by writing radio plays, adaptations of famous American works, and by teaching playwriting. He once remarked that it was teaching that helped him learn how to become a playwright and that working on radio and television scripts made him “a professional writer.” Yet it was not until 1953 that he experienced his first real success.

When Tea and Sympathy was produced on Broadway, the critics were almost unanimous in praising it as a significant work of theater. The public responded by giving it a run of 712 performances. The play’s themes of loneliness and lack of understanding became standard in Anderson’s work. In this coming-of-age drama, set in a New England boarding school, a compassionate housemother offers the young hero, who believes himself to be homosexual, salvation through sex. Such an ending might seem implausible, but it works dramatically. Anderson willingly suspends disbelief through careful plotting and skillfully crafted character development. In a milieu in which little boys are not supposed to cry, Anderson shows that it is fine to show emotion, that being a man includes tenderness, gentleness, and consideration.

The dramatization of sexuality as a means of communication and regeneration also occurs in Silent Night, Lonely Night, in which Anderson further treats marital and midlife crises. His characters reflect the fears and neuroses of their times, each in his own way searching for a meaningful relationship, for someone to love. In I Never Sang for My Father, Anderson explores a son’s relationship to his father and mother. The plot of this Bildungsroman is rather loosely constructed, but its characters are characteristically well drawn. The action, as in his other plays, is frankly autobiographical and presented melodramatically, while remaining universal in appeal nevertheless. The dichotomy between the typical masculine drive for success and the feminine virtues of sensitivity and compassion is again apparent and establishes the basic tension between the main character and his parents. Anderson maintains that a society in which the acquisition of status and wealth determines a person’s worth is fundamentally sterile.

Although the subject matter of his plays tends to be repetitious, the structure and tone change often, from the four comic one-acts contained in You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running to the stylistic narrative style of I Never Sang for My Father to the allegorical Solitaire/Double Solitaire. Anderson’s consistent dramatization of marital relationships, pitting an insensitive husband against a more comprehending spouse (Anderson’s women appear to be natural creatures of understanding) makes his later plays seem repetitious. They also began to lose the dramatic fire of earlier works in their expository style. Few modern playwrights, however, can match Anderson’s display of sympathy and sensitivity for human beings tortured by alienation and self-doubt. In presenting human emotion, he appears taken by the romantic mystique of redemption through love but offers little hope to those already suffering from a lifetime of misunderstanding.

In an age of women’s liberation, in which the macho image becomes an amusing stereotype, Anderson’s plays might seem irrelevant. Yet critic and scholar Thomas Adler expressed confidence that they will continue to be performed “most especially because of Anderson’s humanity and compassion in portraying his distraught and lonely creatures.”

BibliographyAdler, Thomas P. Robert Anderson. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Adler examines Anderson’s life and works, providing critical analysis. Bibliography and index.Ayers, David Hugh. The Apprenticeship of Robert Anderson. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1970. The first book-length study of Anderson, with a valuable bibliography of reviews and articles that appeared in The New York Times. Also contains a definitive account of Anderson’s salad days, Navy plays, the period of his wife’s cancer, the lawsuit concerning Tea and Sympathy, and the formation of the New Dramatists in 1951.Gordon, A. C. A Critical Study of the History and Development of the Playwrights’ Producing Company. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1972. A thorough study of this producing organization, where Robert Anderson and Maxwell Anderson (no relation) crossed careers between 1953 and 1959. The work underlines Robert Anderson’s lifelong interest in producing and developing new playwrights.Klein, Alvin. “Giving a Theater Force His Due.” The New York Times, October 22, 2000, p. 15. This article about Hofstra University’s tribute to Robert Anderson provides some glimpses into Anderson as a person and playwright, including his influence on playwright Donald Margulies.Sullivan, Dan. “Anderson Makes a Living: Between Killings.” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1987, p. 53. In this article on the revival of I Never Sang for My Father at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, Sullivan talks with Anderson about his love for the theater and the difficulty of getting plays produced.Wharton, John F. “The Sixth Playwright.” In Life Among the Playwrights. New York: Quadrangle, 1974. Presents the story of the Playwrights’ Producing Company, of which Wharton was a founding member. This chapter introduces Anderson’s involvement, claiming he could have been the revitalizing force for the group in its waning years.Wharton, John F. “The Sixth Playwright.” In Life Among the Playwrights. New York: Quadrangle, 1974. Presents the story of the Playwrights’ Producing Company, of which Wharton was a founding member. This chapter introduces Anderson’s involvement, claiming he could have been the revitalizing force for the group in its waning years.
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