No Time for Comedy

S. N. Behrman
New York: Random House, 1939
First edition in dust jacket

Whether Behrman’s disappointment over the fiasco with the failed Wine of Choice prompted him to transfer his loyalties away from the Theatre Guild must remain conjecture. Joining the Playwrights’ Producing Company as its fifth founding member assured him of greater control with future productions of his, although that aspect of the creative process never concerned him much. The originators of the Playwrights’ Company, Robert E. Sherwood and Elmer Rice, were adamant in their distaste for the Theatre Guild’s production practices. The other two members of Playwrights’ Company, Maxwell Anderson and Behrman’s personal friend Sydney Howard, held similar views about the Guild. Mainly they objected to producers Langner and Helburn tampering with their texts, a phase of production and preproduction that Behrman accepted as matter of course. Reviewing the first matinee of End of Summer in Boston, one critic observed: "Philip Moeller, Theresa Helburn, Lee Simonson and others of the Theatre Guild staff were buzzing around at the stage box to speak to the players. I had the feeling that they were constantly changing both the lines and the business. I know that this is one of the best known theatrical sports, rewriting the play every night after the show during the tryout weeks, and playing a different version each day." Behrman’s new alliance with the Playwrights’ Company did not prove to be totally frictionless concerning practical measures. For their first venture with Behrman, they found themselves obliged to co-produce No Time For Comedy starring Katharine Cornell – with whatever trepidations and lack of enthusiasm – owing to previous agreements with that manager/leading lady. Sole control over matters of production provided a basic tenet of the Playwrights’ founding. This new joint association, however, constrained them to cast Cornell as she made her first attempt at light comedy – with a welcomed, surprising degree of personal success. In No Time For Comedy, a seven-year itch induced largely by a writer’s block infects playwright Gaylord Esterbrook. In the presence, if not precisely the arms, of "the other woman," Amanda, Gaylord’s writing problem seems dispelled. Moreover, instead of permitting him to write trivial comedies, where he displays unquestioned mastery, Amanda inspires Gaylord to write a profound drama. "Rot," thinks actress-wife Linda Esterbrook, somewhat out of practical concern as she awaits the fourth of her husband’s comedies as her next triumphant vehicle. (Her tolerance had already forgiven him his assumed infidelity.) Better to write successful trivial comedies than shallow tragedies. Why not a comedy based on their own romantic triangle at a time when the world is precariously perched on total chaos, and her husband, masking his need for "experience" with a kind of altruism, wants to run off to join the Spanish insurgents? What better time for comedy than a period when "The more inhuman the rest of the world the more human we. The grosser and more cruel the others the more scrupulous, the more fastidious, the more precisely just and delicate we." Her justification? "One should keep in one’s own mind a little clearing in the jungle of life. One must laugh." Gaylord recognizes the wisdom of his wife’s reasoning and prepares to write his latest comedy based on his experience with Amanda. This successful offering has been regarded by many as faintly autobiographical. This must remain a moot point in the absence of any comments from Behrman, who jealously guarded his private life. But he dedicated No Time For Comedy to his wife, Elza.

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