The New York Times,
By S. N.
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,
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
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.
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
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,
|JUPITER: I shall
obliterate the past; shall I also reveal to you
|ALKMENA: No! No!
|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
|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?
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?
No—forgetfulness, Jupiter; I beg of
|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.