The Second Man

S. N. Behrman
Garden City: Doubleday Page, 1927
First edition in wrappers

Shocked that the script reader for the Theatre Guild had rejected Behrman’s The Second Man, agent Harold Freedman appealed directly to producer Lawrence Langner. Fortunately Langner agreed with Freedman’s evaluation, and in the spring of 1927, production plans for The Second Man went forward. "Those few hours [of the performance] in the Guild Theatre on April 11 changed all my circumstances for the rest of my life," Behrman wrote of the premiere of The Second Man. This comedy of manners had been transformed from a short story Behrman had sold to The Smart Set in 1919. It presents Clark Storey in the classic mold as worldly, intelligent, and largely undeceiving, following the ideal of self-knowledge. Regarded by most as elegant, witty, and sophisticated, the play had its detractors who found it shallow, flippant, and cynical. Clark, however, would ask in his own defense: "Why is a story about unhappy, dirty people better than one about gay and comfortable ones?" An acknowledged dilettante novelist, Clark is inclined toward a luxury denied him by inheritance, genius, or education, but not necessarily by circumstance. Although physically attracted to young Monica Grey, Clark exploits his association with the ultra-wealthy Mrs. Kendall Frayne. Disdaining romantic love, he recognizes that his comfortable survival depends upon the Mrs. Fraynes-of-the-moment. From this beginning, it is apparent that Behrman follows George Meredith in an unconcern for a formalized, conventional plot, although The Second Man is more tightly structured than most of his plays. Behrman’s interest and real concern lay always with the interior movement of his leading characters, their awareness and their growing self-knowledge. Such concerns are discernible in Behrman’s typically strong second-act curtains. His most often-quoted second-act curtain line, for example, is Lady Lael Wyngate’s in Rain From Heaven (1934): "Hobart, please remember – Herr Willens is not only my lover; he is also my guest." Behrman’s clever equation brings down the curtain with the laughter of surprise, not with the more typical, cliff-hanging suspense. In The Second Man, no quip, no epigram brings down the second-act curtain; rather an almost painful, sadomasochistic image prevails as Clark pounds the keyboard of the piano and Monica "huddles in the chair to escape the flagellation of sound." To the very end of his theatrical career Behrman seems never to lack the facility of a technician; he could as easily have brought down The Second Man’s second-act curtain with a laugh had the latest encounter between Clark and Monica called for it at that moment. It did not. Therein lies one of the major differences and riches between Berhman’s texts and those of other commercially successful writers of comedy. Behrman does not stoop to the wise-crack, the put-down, the one-liner joke. Conversely, this may also offer some explanation why Behrman never achieved overwhelming popular success accorded many of his peers. Behrman’s comedy, for all its acknowledged out-and-out laughter, largely induces a continuing smile of the mind. In a comparison to Behrman’s peer, Philip Barry, critic-director-historian Harold Clurman notes: "One doesn’t have to make a choice, but I think Behrman is superior to Barry. With all deference to Barry, his plays are more agreeable to the audience, more superficial. With Behrman there is always a note – even as early as The Second Man – a note of psychological ambiguity and complexity which Barry never had. You have to be somewhat astute for a Behrman play. The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, Paris Bound – anyone can understand them – they’re the real bedlevel of the prosperous middle-class. It was easier for Barry to plot better because his material was so simple. But the minute you get into real complexity of character and thought, you have difficulty with plotting. The instance that taught me very sharply was with Odets. Golden Boy is better plotted, but Paradise Lost is richer." When The Second Man script reached Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild, it had achieved a readiness that made the typical out-of-town tryout unnecessary. Although Alfred Lunt and his wife, Lynn Fontanne, had scheduled a vacation, the character of Clark Storey so fascinated and challenged Lunt that he persuaded his wife to take on the less satisfying role of Kendall Frayne for a limited engagement. The couple played in about one-third of The Second Man’s 178 Broadway performances, indicating that the play, even without the famed acting team and in the intense heat of a New York summer, could sustain attraction by itself. It has never been out of the Samuel French catalogue and continues to delight audiences attending summer-stock and repertory theatres. Theatregoers of the London production, starring Noel Coward, were convinced that Coward himself had written the piece under the nom de plume of S.N. Behrman. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Behrman returned the compliment in a letter to Alfred Lunt: "I think that Blithe Spirit is one of the most dazzling comedies in the English language: marvelously constructed and witty all along the way. It is really a prodigious tour de force of wit. Willie Maugham once said to me that he envied Noel for his apartment on the Place Vendome. I envy him for having written Blithe Spirit."

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