The poetic drama of Maxwell Anderson
Plouffe, John Bernard
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The poetic drama of Maxwell Anderson involves "but one phase of the playwright's writing. For before Anderson turned to the poetic drama form in 1930 with Elizabeth the Queen, he had written over a period of six years six prose satires. In this first chronological group was What Price Glory, now a distinguished play in our American Theatre. But by 1930 Anderson had fallen under the rule of the Poetics. Aristotle's theory of drama and particularly his philosophy of the individual changed Anderson suddenly from a fair prose-satirist to a potentially 'great' dramatist. For as all great playwrights from Aeschylus through Ibsen had regarded man in his universal aspect, Anderson finally turned from a sociological philosophy to the expression of this objectively true fact, that the most important phase of man is not his social, nor political -but rather moral self The Poetics of Aristotle Anderson 'stream-lined in his Essen of Tragedy, an indispensable norm to judging Anderson in his theory of man and drama. The only serious change Anderson made in Aristotle was to supply the importance of the social in the conflict of the individual. Since Aristotle existed in times which found few social disputes, there is a serious neglect of that phase of things in the Poetics. Anderson has very adequately supplied that lapse in his regard of the nature of the individual's conflict. He has retained licitly Aristotle's 'catharsis' (or purgation), 'mimesis' (or representation, for the audience's vicarious participation), and the insistence on poetry as the sublimest form of art to match the sublimest aspect of man, with which drama first concerns itself, the moral. Anderson supplies one new phase of things over Aristotle, that of the Emotional Discovery of his protagonist, or final realization by the hero of his tragic flaw. With this, Anderson commits his greatest theoretical error. For whereas in Aristotle the protagonist early realizes his tragic flaw and proceeds to his down-fall inevitably by will, Anderson's heroes do not realize the error of their ways until the final scene, at which time Anderson not only purges them but exalts them for their discovery. The result of this in at least two plays leads perilously close to melodrama. Winterset is perhaps Anderson's most widely known play. As his play of most contemporary interest (it is a parallel of the Sacco-Vanzetti affair), it is far from being the playwright's dramatically best play. Mio Romagna, the hero, is an over-idealized specimen functioning in what is meant to be a play of realism. The Emotional Discovery, when Mio discovers revenge which has motivated all his previous action is wrong, leads Winterset into an almost melodramatic ending. To the Hamlet theme of fall through revenge Anderson has added a Borneo and Juliet conclusion. The result is a confused purgation, since both love and virtue tumble through Mio's dramatic flaw. The poor timing of protagonastical realization of flaw occurs again in Key Largo, where King McCloud regains during the last minute of the play the self-honor he has been lacking through the first two hours. The Wingless Victory, Anderson's version of the Medes and the last of the three properly social plays, is more nearly Aristotelian and avoids the error of Winterset and Key Largo only to be inferior in its own way, through excessive romanticism. Chronologically Anderson's first plays were his histories. Undoubtedly they are his best group. The fear that Elizabeth the Queen and Mary of Scotland might contain proportionately more of the exaggerated romanticism which mars the social plays subsides at their reading. For Anderson masterfully fuses the modern idea with the romance of the historical. Night Over Taos, Valley Forge, and The Masque of Kings are not the great plays that Elizabeth the Queen and Mary of Scotland are, but at least they are dramatically more perfect than any in Anderson's social or fantasy group. Fantasy with Anderson is an experiment more than anything else. In this group he has written three plays, High Tor, The Star Wagon, and Knickerbocker Holiday. Of these High Tor is the sole good play, perhaps because in it the playwright coalesced the material with his fantasy, since the play has a high center of social implication. The Star Wagon is patently sentimental; Knickerbocker Holiday a rather awkward libretto for a musical comedy of Pieter Stuyvesant and democracy in America. Anderson's last-play to date is Journey to Jerusalem, a fair indication that he is deteriorating even further into excessive idealism. With this drama Anderson is proceeding more and more away from the practical sense of things he reached in his histories. Some turn-about-face is in order. Anderson's poetry is good and bad, brilliant and poor. At times he is inclined to be 'wordy', too often as a matter of fact to maintain the fine keel much of his poetry shows he can do. However well or bombastic it sounds, close analysis proves clearly it is exclusively close to mere verboseness. Like his dramatic technique, it needs bolstering. In spite of the fact that the playwright's theatre art is one of the most advanced of our times, in direction, staging, and casting, cloying qualities in his dramatic theory, presentation, and poetic form must be wholesomely eradicated before Anderson can approach the 'great' drama he so faithfully and sincerely seeks.
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