Authors: S. N. Behrman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright and screenwriter

Author Works


Bedside Manners, pr. 1923 (with J. Kenyon Nicholson)

A Night’s Work, pr. 1924 (with Nicholson)

The Man Who Forgot, pr. 1926 (with Owen Davis)

The Second Man, pr., pb. 1927

Serena Blandish: Or, The Difficulty of Getting Married, pr. 1929

Meteor, pr. 1929

Brief Moment, pr., pb. 1931

Biography, pr. 1932

Rain from Heaven, pr., pb. 1934

End of Summer, pr., pb. 1936

Amphitryon 38, pr. 1937

Wine of Choice, pr., pb. 1938

No Time for Comedy, pr., pb. 1939

The Talley Method, pr., pb. 1941

The Pirate, pr. 1942 (adaptation of Ludwig Fulda’s play Die Seeräuber)

Jacobowsky and the Colonel, pr., pb. 1944 (based on Franz Werfel’s play Jacobowsky und der Oberst)

Dunnigan’s Daughter, pr., pb. 1945

I Know My Love, pr., pb. 1949 (adaptation of Marcel Archard’s play Auprès de ma blonde)

Jane, pr., pb. 1952 (based on W. Somerset Maugham’s story)

Fanny, pr. 1954 (with Joshua Logan; music and lyrics by Harold Rome; based on Marcel Pagnol’s plays Marius and Fanny and screenplay César)

The Cold Wind and the Warm, pr. 1958

Lord Pengo, pr. 1962

But for Whom Charlie, pr., pb. 1964

Long Fiction:

The Burning Glass, 1968


He Knew Women, 1930 (adaptation of his The Second Man)

The Sea Wolf, 1930 (adaptation of Jack London’s novel)

Surrender, 1931 (with Sonya Levien)

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1932 (with Levien; adaptation of Kau Douglas Wiggin’s children’s novel)

Brief Moment, 1933 (adaptation of his play)

Anna Karenina, 1935 (with Salka Viertel and Clemence Dane; adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel)

The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1935 (with Lajos Biro, Robert E. Sherwood, and Arthur Wimperes)

Quo Vadis, 1951 (with John Lee Makin and Levien; adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel)


Duveen, 1952

The Worcester Account, 1954

Portrait of Max: An Intimate Memoir of Sir Max Beerbohm, 1960

The Suspended Drawing Room, 1965

People in a Diary, 1972 (reissued as Tribulations and Laughter, 1972)


Samuel Nathaniel Behrman (BEHR-muhn) was one of the leading creators of American stage comedies in the 1930’s. He was born to Joseph and Zelda Feingold Behrman, Orthodox Jews, who together with their two oldest sons had fled persecution in Lithuania three years earlier. Joseph Behrman, a grocer, was a Talmudic scholar who taught his children Hebrew and recounted Old Testament stories as if they had occurred in his recent past. The most profound influence on young Behrman was his urbane friend Daniel Asher, seven years his senior, who took him to his first play in 1904. Asher encouraged him to write and helped revise his early efforts.{$I[AN]9810001348}{$I[A]Behrman, S. N.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Behrman, S. N.}{$I[tim]1893;Behrman, S. N.}

After high school, Behrman toured the vaudeville circuit in a comic sketch he had written, until bad health forced him to return home. He began to attend Clark College, but when he was suspended for refusing to attend physical education classes, he transferred to Harvard University, where he studied playwriting under George Pierce Baker. After graduating from Harvard and failing to find newspaper work, Behrman earned a master’s degree in English from Columbia University. With the advice of Asher, he turned down a teaching offer from the University of Minnesota and worked for The New York Times for two years, progressing from typist of classified advertisements to book reviewer; he also published several short stories during this time.

In 1922, Behrman began collaborating on stories and plays with J. Kenyon Nicholson, and two of their plays found short-lived productions. The Second Man was a solo success for Behrman in 1927, but his insecurity about his continued progress as a playwright led him to begin contributing articles to The New Yorker in 1929, a relationship that lasted until his death. Behrman was finally beginning to achieve his goals in 1929 when he was shocked by the suicide of Asher. He examines the impact that his mentor had on him and his guilt over the man’s death in The Worcester Account and The Cold Wind and the Warm.

Like many successful playwrights of the time, Behrman began writing screenplays, and he primarily worked with other writers on adaptations of novels. Characters in his play Biography deride the need of artists to prostitute themselves in Hollywood, but in an essay in The New Yorker that appeared in 1934 Behrman defended the art of film. Certainly his film work did not distract him from writing what are considered his finest plays during the 1930’s. In 1936, Behrman married Elza Heifetz, the sister of the violinist Jascha Heifetz, and their son was born the following year.

Behrman disdained such terms as “comedy of manners” and “drawing-room comedy,” preferring the label “high comedy,” for he used comedy as a means of seriously exploring such subjects as the role of love in marriage, the quest for success, the acquisition of wealth and power, conflicts between generations, and the threat to freedom posed by political extremes of both left and right. His plays are concerned more with the intellectual side of his characters than with the social surfaces of their lives.

Behrman’s ideas are illustrated by the character types he uses in his plays. One is the failed artist, a person of talent rather than genius, like the protagonist of The Second Man, who forsakes his true love for the comfortable life provided by his association with wealthy women. This character, a writer, cannot resist the cynical side of his nature that will not allow him to commit himself to anyone or anything. Another type is the emancipated woman, such as the heroine of Biography, who paints portraits of celebrities and is asked to write her memoirs, a prospect that upsets her former lovers. She resists the efforts of these ambitious, idealistic men to impose their views of the world upon her. A third type is the megalomaniac: the financiers of Meteor and Dunnigan’s Daughter, the scientists of End of Summer and The Talley Method, the art dealer of Lord Pengo. Obsessed with power, these men attempt to dominate everyone around them. Doubts about the motives behind capitalism and science appear in many Behrman plays. The most prominent character type stands for the playwright’s own liberal, humanitarian values and offsets the influence of the extremists, making a case for tolerance of the views and deficiencies of others.

Behrman’s plays have been praised for their witty and sophisticated dialogue, attacked for their didacticism, lauded for their strong protagonists, and chided for offering idealized embodiments of intelligence and wit in place of believable characters. Although Behrman’s plays have been likened to those of George Bernard Shaw, W. Somerset Maugham, and Noël Coward, the most frequent comparison has been with Philip Barry, best known for The Philadelphia Story (pr., pb. 1939), though Behrman’s characters display considerably more psychological complexity than do Barry’s.

BibliographyAsher, Donald. The Eminent Yachtsman and the Whorehouse Piano Player. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973. In a 256-page memoir about Asher’s father, Daniel Asher, upon whom is based a central character in Behrman’s The Cold Wind and the Warm, the author includes a portrait of Behrman and a vivid description of early twentieth century life in the tenement ghetto of Massachusetts’s Worcester, where Behrman and Daniel Asher grew up.Gassner, John. “S. N. Behrman: Comedy and Tolerance.” In The Theatre in Our Times. New York: Crown, 1954. Gassner draws examples from Behrman’s major plays to establish his distinction as an able writer of high comedy. He finds that the playwright’s artistic and ideological vision encompasses comic detachment and a thematic advocacy of indulgence and tolerance in confronting a reality that is contradictory and commonly two-sided.Gross, Robert F. S. N. Behrman: A Research and Production Handbook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. This sourcebook provides a detailed record of Behrman’s work as a Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, from the 1920’s to the mid-1960’s, and encompasses published and unpublished primary materials (plays, film scripts, fiction, and essays) and the critical responses. Includes plot summaries and critical overviews for fifty-one plays, as well as an annotated bibliography.Joshi, B. D. Major Plays of Barry and Behrman: A Comparative Study. Jaipur, India: Pointer, 1989. Compares Behrman with Philip Barry. Includes a bibliography and an index.Klink, William R. S. N. Behrman: The Major Plays. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1978. Klink lucidly evaluates Behrman’s major plays excluding those adapted or written in collaboration. The study includes an introduction briefly discussing published and unpublished material about Behrman, a summary conclusion, and a bibliography. Valuable as one of few books solely on Behrman.Krutch, Joseph Wood. The American Drama Since 1918: An Informal History. New York: George Braziller, 1957. Krutch devotes twenty-five pages of a chapter on comedy to an admiring, relatively comprehensive discussion of Behrman’s plays, concluding with No Time for Comedy. Identifies the thematic thrust of Behrman’s comedies before 1940.Reed, Kenneth T. S. N. Behrman. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Reed’s biographical and critical study provides one of the most accessible, valuable, and comprehensive treatments of the playwright and his work. Contains a chronology, a detailed examination of Behrman’s plays (including prose works) within the context of his life and career, an index, and a select bibliography. Contains a photograph of Behrman.Sievers, W. David. Freud on Broadway: A History of Psychoanalysis and the American Drama. New York: Heritage House, 1955. Sievers identifies Behrman as one of the “post-Freudian playwrights of the thirties” who redirected psychoanalytical observations of the isolated individual to the socio-centered problems of fascism, radicalism, racism, and greed. While overemphasizing Behrman’s contribution to psychoanalytic drama, Siever’s evaluation of the playwright’s characters and themes is persuasively interesting. Contains an index.
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