The New York Times, May 7, 1939



After tussling dramatically with the problems with which the world is painfully struggling, the exhausted playwright (and the exhausted audience!) both came to realize that in the theatre it is no good presenting the insoluble. In the real world—that is to say, in the ambiguous realms of politics and business—mistakes are forgiven: Mr. Chamberlain may travel with questionable results to Munich and Herr Hitler to the Venusberg and every one is satisfied so long as the results merely escape disaster. But in the theatre you cannot be negative. You must end on a major note. You must, before the final curtain, bring in a solution, all wrapped up and tidy, or the audience will tell you that you are inconclusive and will signify its discontent by staying away.

Perhaps people are justified in expecting more from the artist than from the statesman. In any ease they do not allow him the same leeway. He is not permitted to muddle through, he must get somewhere by curtain time, his budget balanced. The playwright in a transition period like this one, one of the swiftest in history, must nevertheless not be carried away by the stream. And yet as an individual, as a citizen, he is sensitive to the tendencies of the moment, profoundly affected by them. The dilemma put by Chekhov into the mouth of his novelist, Trigorin, in "The Sea Gull" is more acute now than perhaps it has ever been:

I love this lake, these trees, the blue heaven; nature's voice speaks to me and wakes a feeling of passion in my heart, and I am overcome by an uncontrollable desire to write. But I am not only a painter of landscapes, I am a man of the city besides. I love my country, too, and her people; I feel that, as a writer, it is my duty to speak of their sorrows, of their future, also of science, of the rights of man, and so forth. So I write on every subject, and the public hounds me on all sides, sometimes in anger, and I race and dodge like a fox with a pack of hounds on his trail . . . and finally I come back to the conclusion that all I am fit for is to describe landscapes.

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But one cannot these days describe landscapes; they are deeply sown with the leaflets of the propagandist! Robert Sherwood recently got on a boat for a holiday in South America. Forming in his mind, he says, was "an idea for a romantic comedy about nothing at all important or relevant to the times." When he reached Buenos Aires, however, he was so assailed by stories of German penetration in that country that the project of writing a romantic play seemed to him about as remote as a revival of the Arthurian legends. What, then, is a playwright to do? He can escape to the past. He can write about Queen Elizabeth, Abe Lincoln, Oscar Wilde, John Keats, Marie Antoinette, Benjamin Franklin. He may choose either such periods as in their turmoil present some analogy to present-day conditions, where the contest and the adversaries, sealed by death and history, afford him a conclusion, or such periods and characters where there is no parallel at all, rendering the escape complete.

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I was in this tight spot in the interval before I began to write "No Time for Comedy." I had just about decided to join the migration to the past and had settled myself to an hibernation with the biographical dictionaries in order to find a historical character whose career was at once exciting and non-political. There were Don Juan and Casanova, but they had been done. Abraham, Adam and Alcibiades all seemed too remote. To absorb the A's alone seemed a young man's job, too formidable to venture at 45. Suddenly the obvious struck me; why not dramatize my own dilemma, write a comedy on the impossibility of writing comedy? Whether I have demonstrated the thesis or refuted it remains for the audience to say.

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