The New York Times, December 6, 1964

Drawing Rooms?


In a recent article, Howard Taubman devoted himself to the subject of Drawing-Room Comedy; he used the phrase interchangeably with the Comedy of Manners. He was good enough to refer to me as a practitioner. I began to think about it. I came to the conclusion that both categories are outmoded, meaningless and that their use should be, discontinued.

There are no drawing rooms in America. There are living rooms, parlors, dens, romp rooms, snuggeries but no drawing rooms. For the matter of fact, there are very few manners left either. The ceremonial of politesse has long since been in abeyance. Two salient contemporary play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?" and "Look Back in Anger," are both certainly and conspicuously, comedies of manners and they both take place in living rooms.

In London, in 1916, I saw, in the beautiful Haymarket Theater, a superb performance of "Lady Windermere's Fan." Now that was a drawing-room comedy! The men filed in in white ties, the women in evening gowns, and parried at each other in Wilde's exquisitely stylized epigrams. The play was a museum-piece in motion. The war had made historic the social system without which the play could not have been written. Without that system Wilde couldn't have managed. It is inconceivable to think of him writing any of his drawing-room comedies today. The epigram is embalmed, a chased antique.


As Mr. Taubman remembered my early comedies, I made the effort to do so, too. "The Second Man" takes place in the living room of a third-rate writer; "Biography" in an artist's studio on 57th Street; "End of Summer" in the living room of a cottage in Maine during' the Depression. The hostess is well-dressed because she is well-heeled, but most of the younger characters are unemployed and write chain letters, an illusory monetary pastime of that period. What then made it so easy to classify them, as they have been, as drawing-room comedies?

It must have been the fact that the characters were all reasonably educated and articulate. So are the characters in Edward Albee's play (professors, moreover!) and in John Osborne's play. As distinctions, then, articulateness and education must be ruled out. "Pygmalion" is certainly a drawing room comedy because, when Shaw wrote it, the same drawing room existed for him as existed for Wilde and the same social system. Most of "Hamlet" takes place in a drawing room. When you can invite an entire theatrical company into your parlor to put on a show for you, you may certainly be permitted to call the playing area a drawing room, especially if you happen to be a Prince of the Realm. The characters in "Hamlet" are well-educated (though it is wise to remember Gide's cautionary advice when you think about Hamlet: never to forget that, after all, he attended a German university!) and well-dressed and articulate.

I have always thought myself that "Hamlet" is a divine comedy, made divine by its exalted articulateness, a high comedy of irresolution. Hamlet's tergiversations have their comic aspects. He won't kill Claudius when he is praying because he doesn't want his uncle to meet his Maker with his best foot forward! Hamlet is an exquisitely sensitive, neurotic young man whose imagination outruns his intelligence. The fact that everybody dies in the end does not make it a tragedy; it was a custom of the time to strew the stage with corpses. Max Beerbohm once said that he felt very estranged in 16th century. England. The decapitations were so incessant and casual and the audiences, he felt, must have been necrophile.

It isn't death that makes a play tragic; it is the lacunae in character versus the failed demands of the intellect and of moral force, conscience. There is nothing tragic in death; it is uninteresting, really, except to the doctors. Ibsen makes Hedda Gabler's suicide interesting because it results from a character conflict; the tragedy has already taken place in Hedda; her suicide is merely its Q.E.D. "We are all poor creatures," a distinguished Justice of the Supreme Court has said; tragic conflict and comedy conflict are between the poor and the poorer in the idiosyncrasy of character; conflicts between and within people.

A Question

Where this conflict is acted out couldn't matter less. Let us say that the late Charles Eastman, the head of the Kodak Company, who certainly had a drawing room and with an organ in it, committed suicide because of some intense moral conflict within himself which affected other people and which seemed to him not resolvable except by his own death, as Hedda felt, and that this action took place in his drawing room. Well, a play could certainly be written about that. Would it not be a Drawing-Room Serious?

Why must a drawing-room play be a comedy? Not necessarily at all. I am sure that there are infinite drawing-room tragedies. If we are going to keep these categories they should be extended. There should be Drawing-Room Seriouses as well as Comedies of Bad Manners. We certainly have plenty of those and rightly because they reflect the times. The lovely play made from Henry James's "Washington Square" is certainly a Drawing-Room Serious. "The Cocktail Party" is a drawing-room tragedy.

It is the furniture of the mind that makes a comedy or a tragedy, not marquetries, escritoires, butlers or other bibelots. The only butler I ever had in a play was in "Serena Blandish," and I got him from Enid Bagnold, who has survived the drawing-room era. He was played by A. E. Matthews, who must have been born in a drawing room.

Giraudoux's golden comedy, "Amphitryon 38," which I had the pleasure of adapting, is a drawing-room comedy, taking place in a mythical time antedating rent controls. Any good comedy has its basis in tragedy, it is a hair's breath removed, not the tragedy of death, but the abiding one of life. Let me quote from a conversation in the last act of Giraudoux's play. Alkmena, the mortal and Jupiter, the god are sitting cozily on a sofa in Alkmena's drawing room. Jupiter has been making Alkmena large promises: clairvoyance, forgetfulness, happiness:

JUPITER: I shall obliterate the past; shall I also reveal to you your future?
JUPITER: It will be a happy one, believe me.
ALKMENA: I know what a happy future consists of. My beloved husband will live and die. My dear son will be born and live and die. I shall live and die.
JUPITER: Since I cannot share your mortal life with you, will you not, for an instant, share the life of the gods? Since your whole past is about to sink into oblivion, do you not wish to see, in one flash of clarity, the whole world—past, present and future—and to comprehend its meaning?
ALKMENA: No, no, I’m not curious.
JUPITER: Do you not wish to see humanity at its labors, from its birth to its final dissolution? Do you not wish to see the eleven great beings who will constitute the finest ornaments in all history? One, with his lovely Jewish face; another with her little nose from Lorraine?
ALKMENA: (tempted for a moment, sighs) No! No!
JUPITER: And since you are about to forget everything, do you not wish to understand the illusions that constitute your virtue and your happiness?
JUPITER: Nor at this last moment what I really am to you?
ALKMENA: No—forgetfulness, Jupiter; I beg of you—forgetfulness—
JUPITER: And I beg you, Alkmena; do not abandon me; do not leave me with nothing on my hands but my divinity.
ALKMENA: I must—as you must abandon me to my humanity.

Actually, there has been only one, authentic drawing-room comedy ever written in this country. It is "Twentieth Century" by Hecht and Macarthur. It is, like "Lady Windermere's Fan," classical and historic. There were trains in those days and they had drawing rooms in them.

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