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Maxwell Anderson

Maxwell Anderson

Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959), an American play wright noted for his verse dramas, tried to show men living by their beliefs even in a world where evil tends to dominate.

Maxwell Anderson was born in Atlantic, Pa., on Dec. 15, 1888. Since his father, William, was a Baptist clergyman who changed parsonages frequently, Anderson attended 13 schools in states from Pennsylvania to North Dakota. In 1911 he graduated from the University of North Dakota and married Margaret Haskett. He taught at Stanford University while earning his master's degree and held positions with the Call-Bulletin and the Chronicle in San Francisco. In New York from 1918 on, he contributed to the New Republic, worked on the Evening Globe and the World, and helped found a poetry magazine, The Measure.

The production of White Desert (1923) started Anderson's writing career on the New York stage. Of his eight plays produced prior to 1930, four were written in collaboration and one was an adaptation of a novel. His collaboration with Laurence Stallings on What Price Glory? (1924) was successful. A realistic portrait of men in war, it proved a welcome contrast to earlier romantic treatments of the subject. Saturday's Children (1927), a compassionate though conventional domestic drama, was received favorably. Anderson collaborated on an interesting failure concerned with the Sacco-Vanzetti case, Gods of the Lightning (1928), in which propaganda overcame dramatic skill.

Anderson's reputation soared in the 1930s. Elizabeth the Queen (1930) is a moving story of love confronted by the realities of politics and ambition. Mary of Scotland (1933) has a memorable picture of a woman overcome in a political battle to the death. Both Your Houses (1933), with its political intrigue in Congress, received the Pulitzer Prize. Anderson's wife had died in 1931, and he married Gertrude Maynard in 1933. Two years later he won his first Drama Critics' Circle Award with Winterset, a mature treatment of the Sacco-Vanzetti materials with a daring use of verse; he won this prize again with High Tor (1936), an effective blend of fantasy and reality. The Star Wagon (1937) and Knicker-bocker Holiday (1938) were popular successes. In 1938 he helped organize the Playwrights Company.

With the exception of Journey to Jerusalem (1940), the influence of the war appears in all his plays from Key Largo (1939) through Truckline Café (1946); the most esteemed is The Eve of St. Mark (1942). Columbia University recognized his accomplishments with an honorary doctor's degree in 1946. In the following year his Off Broadway: Essays about the Theatre was published.

After World War II Anderson's reputation faded. Of his last eight plays, Joan of Lorraine (1946) and Anne of a Thousand Days (1948) are notable, but only Lost in the Stars (1949), a musical adaptation of a novel on South Africa, was a critical success.

Following the death of his second wife in 1953, Anderson married Gilda Oakleaf. He continued to enjoy relative seclusion and a rural atmosphere while avoiding personal publicity and Broadway habitats. His thirty-second and last full-length play, The Golden Six (1958), was a failure. Anderson died in Stamford, Conn., on Feb. 28, 1959.

Further Reading

Barrett H. Clark, Maxwell Anderson: The Man and His Plays (1933), and Mabel Driscoll Bailey, Maxwell Anderson: The Playwright as Prophet (1957), discuss the plays. The fullest bibliographical treatment is Martha Cox, Maxwell Anderson Bibliography (1958). Suggested background reading with critical assessments are Arthur Hobson Quinn, A History of the American Drama from the Civil War to the Present Day (1927; rev. ed. 1936); Eleanor Flexner, American Playwrights, 1918-1938, (1938); and Walter Meserve, An Outline History of American Drama (1965).

Additional Sources

Shivers, Alfred S., The life of Maxwell Anderson, New York: Stein and Day, 1983. □

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Anderson, Maxwell

Maxwell Anderson, 1888–1959, American dramatist, b. Atlantic, Pa., grad. Univ. of North Dakota, 1911. His plays, many of which are written in verse, usually concern social and moral problems. Anderson was a journalist until the successful production in 1924 of What Price Glory?, a war drama written with Laurence Stallings. Winterset (1935), based on the Sacco-Vanzetti case, is probably Anderson's most successful verse tragedy. He wrote many historical dramas including Elizabeth the Queen (1930), Mary of Scotland (1933), Valley Forge (1934), Joan of Lorraine (1947), Anne of the Thousand Days (1948), and Barefoot in Athens (1951). Among his other plays are Both Your Houses (1933), High Tor (1937), The Star Wagon (1937), Key Largo (1939), and The Eve of St. Mark (1942). He also wrote the librettos for Kurt Weill's Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) and Lost in the Stars (1940). A collection of his poetry, Notes on a Dream, was published in 1972.

His eldest son, Quentin Anderson, 1914–2003, b. Minnewauken, N.Dak., was a literary critic, cultural historian, and Columbia Univ. professor (1939–81). Educated at Columbia (B.A., 1937; Ph. D., 1953) and Harvard (M.A., 1945), he was an expert on 19th-century American literature and wrote such books as The American Henry James (1957), The Imperial Self (1971), and Making Americans (1992).

See biography by A. S. Shivers (1982); bibliography by M. Cox (1958, repr. 1974).

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