End of Summer

S. N. Behrman
New York: Random House, 1936
First edition in dust jacket

One would like to think of Behrman’s next play, End of Summer, as a tongue-in-cheek response by the playwright to the reception of the serious Rain From Heaven, by placing the same work on American shores and in the framework of a light, comedic format that critics and public alike preferred to receive from this playwright. Numbering among the characters are the Russian émigré Boris (who resembles Count Tolstoy, son of Leo); a Fascist, Dr. Rice; the anarchist-Catholic-Communist Dennis McCarthy; and the isolationist-nonaligned Leonie, whose personal curse is always to fall in love with the wrong man. Providing support from the background as pioneering capitalists are Leonie’s mother, Mrs. Wyler, and Leonie’s ex-husband, Sam. There are the uncommitted young people, highly educated but without jobs during the Depression and leaning toward social reform; and finally Dr. Dexter, a scientist who, as an earlier Werner von Braun, rises above politics to pursue pure scientific inquiry. The manuscript presages a melodrama akin to Patrick Hamilton’s long-running mystery play, Angel Street (1941): the Fascist Dr. Rice was to narcotize the vulnerable Leonie into a constant stupor, then death, whereupon he would inherit her wealth. Behrman details this same plot in his only novel, The Burning Glass (1968). Behrman’s representation of capitalism, which has Chekhovian overtones, offers Leonie Frothingham’s summer place in Maine as something of a rock of salvation, a catchall for the under privileged set adrift in an ocean of economical and political upheavals that would ultimately result in World War II. Leonie falls victim to the exploitive Dr. Rice, an opportunist adventurer. Her daughter Paula, however, exposes Rice’s flagrant inconstancy. The flirtatious Leonie consoles herself with the far leftist, Dennis McCarthy, who predicts the coming of a millennium. The play’s ending proved vexing as the production moved from one tryout city to another. The sharpest rebuke came from Boston’s critics just prior to the company’s move to Broadway. It now seems likely that if the play had not been recast with the dynamic and sexually attractive Van Heflin in the role of Dennis McCarthy, Behrman would not have developed his satisfying – if slightly ominous – conclusion, consistent with the balance of the play, in the eleventh hour. The predicted millennium never achieved realization, of course, though the period did witness the passing of the old order to a large degree. Fortunately Behrman’s original ending, that of Fascist dominance, never materialized either. The invaluable presence and assistance of Ina Claire once again resulted in one of Behrman’s best-crafted scripts, and it came to be his favorite play, the one he considered his best written. In the summer of 1977, Public Broadcasting Service aired the Asolo State Theatre production of End of Summer on the "Great Performances" series. Helen Hayes appeared as Mrs. Wyler.

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