The Cold Wind and the Warm

S. N. Behrman
New York: Random House, 1959
First edition in dust jacket
Inscribed by Behrman


(On front free endpaper)  For Harold, / I would like to get / you interested in this / play. It is only a / first draft, you know! / Any suggestions? / With love and / gratitude, / from / Sam / New York: November, 1959.


Inscribed to director Harold Clurman, the inscription is clearly facetious; Clurman directed the play on it’s opening at the Morosco Theatre in New York City, on December 8, 1958, with Eli Wallach in the role of Willie.

No play in Behrman’s lifetime offered more resistance in just getting down on paper than The Cold Wind and the Warm. Nearly three years passed before the story developed as in the published version, plus an additional two years of rewrites before the first script reached producer Robert Whitehead. All this does not take into account the extensive rewriting that followed, including minor changes after the New York premiere. By contrast, Behrman wrote Biography between 8 April and 9 June of 1932, and it went into fall rehearsal with a December premiere on Broadway. The Second Man took only three weeks to write. That the material of The Cold Wind and the Warm proved so intractable represents an interesting facet of Behrman’s personality. It is, of course, regrettable that the always skillful craftsman never achieved the necessary distancing which would have enabled him to create a Willie Lavin (Daniel Asher) for the theatre who is both believable and pathetic. Behrman explained: "If he was just a character in a play, it would have been simple to give his act a meaning, but real life is not so explicable .... He was fine on solving the larger problems of the world, but not the small personal ones. As I put it just now, ‘He couldn’t face the everyday responsibilities of a permanent attachment.’" Consequently in being true to the mercurial original, Behrman created something of a false character. The density of personality, the psychological complexity that could always be counted on as a hallmark in any of Behrman’s leading characters, is nowhere to be seen in Willie Lavin. The theatricalized version of Daniel Asher leaves the spectator largely perplexed, confused, and dissatisfied. No amount of last-minute tinkering with the production in Boston (where the voice-over prologue was rushed in as a device to foretell the inexplicable suicide that would unfold before the spectator) could salvage this somewhat flawed characterization. It is bitterly ironic that Behrman’s attempt to exercise the ghost of Daniel Asher and to acknowledge his own responsibility for failing his friend and mentor at a time of great need fell short of the desired achievement. Instead of his art assisting in a catharsis, it merely increased his pain through frustration and ultimate disappointment in the lukewarm reception the play received on Broadway. The Cold Wind and the Warm contains some of Behrman’s finest mature writing and remains a huge favorite among his coterie, indicating that perhaps it may attain a larger and more appreciative audience in the future. The structure of the comedy-drama seems to employ motion picture technique – that is, fragments, moments, scenes that form the fabric of the memory play genre. Willie’s unrequited love for Myra fails to satisfy everyone as a motivation for Willie’s suicide, and this controversy probably would have remained had Behrman’s screenplay reached the shooting stage. For the film version, however, Behrman intensifies the pressure on Willie by having Myra at last make herself available to Willie just after he has proposed to and been accepted by Leah. Tobey Sacher, Behrman’s persona and the pivotal character in The Cold Wind and the Warm, grows to manhood in the light of the sun and the moon of his universe, his loving Aunt Ida, and his intellectual mentor, Willie Lavin. The neighborhood, the town, surely the whole world basks in the warm glow of Aunt Ida’s outgoing personality, her unselfish, free matchmaking, her practical, no-nonsense approach to daily existence, and a fulfilling life. Tobey is no exception. But the mercurial nature of the questing Willie, who dissects the mysteries of the universe, greatly influences Tobey during his maturing years, always providing answers for the youth’s curiosity. At moments Willie proves to be a god with feet of clay, even to the naive Tobey. Even more awesome than what lies beyond infinity is why Willie refuses to accept the close-at-hand Leah for the unreachable Myra, or why he cannot bring order to his life and devote himself to the pursuit of one profession. Seven years pass in which, at last, Tobey begins to establish his reputation as a musician, while Willie remains a free-floating drifter, still brilliant of mind and pursuing his own will-o’-the-wisp. Tobey forces his friend to face the reality of his misspent life. Willie, attempting to obey the tenets of Tobey’s well-ordered existence, ends his life. Tobey finds himself obliged to live on without his friend but never really relieved of the mystery of motivation nor of his own possible responsibility for Willie’s death.

Copyright © 2009