On the Horizon: S. N. Behrman Comes Home
MOST American playwrights are fitted out with identification labels early in their careers. A conventional tag makes easy the reaction of the reviewers and the public to any play that a man writes. Whether it is to be praised or damned, it is convenient to be able to say that it is or is not typical Anderson, Hellman, Odets, Williams. It is considered proper to say of S. N. Behrman that he is America’s chief practitioner of high comedy; that he is, as Brooks Atkinson says incredibly in his review of The Cold Wind and the Warm, “the Congreve of American letters.”
Nothing that Behrman has written remotely resembles Congreve and, with the possible exception of Jane (1952), an adaptation of a Somerset Maugham story, no Behrman play since his first two (The Second Man and Serena Blandish), since 1929 in fact, can be called high comedy. In high comedy, if it is a definable genre, manners and morals are examined, lightly or bitingly, with conversation-witty, the playwright hopes-as the chief tool; the tradition in modern drama is mainly English, passing, with increasing vapidity, from Wilde to Maugham to Noel Coward. Behrman has been concerned not so much with manners and morals as with ideas, political and social, and with the interplay of man’s intellect and emotions. If he is to be compared to any English playwright, it should be to Bernard Shaw in genre, if not in quality.
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