Broadway and American Integrity:
The Lost Souls that People our Stage
Broadway is not usually thought of as the keeper of America’s conscience, but among the serious American plays this season a favorite theme has been the American struggle for integrity. In Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife, the setting is Hollywood, and the hero, America’s favorite male star, is so dismayed by having to submit to a fourteen-years’ contract, at I forget how many thousands a week, that what with his wife’s contempt for him and the accumulating small wretchednesses of life, he finally cuts his throat in the bathtub. In N. Richard Nash’s The Young and Fair, which had a short run but was really not much worse than many successful plays, only intellectually threadbare, a young, poor, and militantly liberal alumna of a fashionable junior college, serving as administrative assistant to the directress of the school (once a sterling liberal, but now unfortunately compelled for financial reasons to serve a near-fascist board of trustees), succeeds only by a hair’s breadth in winning her superior back to democracy. In Fay Kanin’s Goodbye, My Fancy, a distinguished liberal woman correspondent, returning to her old college, finds that she must struggle with the corrupt president, a former lover, to return to his youthful ideals. In Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky, a young and tenderly naive playwright, who has written a sternly “idealistic” vision of the future which on its tryout in Boston is supposed to have failed, is so roughly handled by the producer and the cast that it is not until the favorable notices have come out that he realizes he is not a martyr at all, but a triumphant visionary who has won the advantage over the crass Broadway characters around him. Even in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which is inestimably better than all the plays noted above, and one of the few things now on Broadway, along with Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot, that even give one the experience of being at a play at all, “integrity” is somehow dragged in at the end to explain a human tragedy accountable only in deeper terms.
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