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Along with his writing partner Robert E. Lee, Jerome Lawrence wrote some of the most successful stage plays of all time, including Inherit the Wind (1955) and Auntie Mame (1956). Despite his great critical and popular success, Lawrence only received one Tony Award nomination for his work.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Productive Partnership
Lawrence was born Jerome Schwartz in Cleveland, Ohio. The son of a printer and a teacher, Lawrence was raised in a literary family and earned top honors when he graduated from Ohio State University in 1937. It was during his high school and college years that Lawrence first became involved in theater, acting in and directing school productions.
The works of Jerome Lawrence cannot be fully evaluated without considering his partnership with fellow playwright Robert E. Lee—not to be confused with the famous Civil War general of the same name—a partnership of fifty-two years that produced thirty-nine works for the stage, both in the form of plays as well as musical adaptations.
Lawrence and Lee were both Ohio natives. Born in the same general region of the state, they both attended Ohio universities and worked in the same local industry, commercial radio. Nonetheless, it took a relocation to New York City before the two met in 1942, after which they quickly began their creative partnership, writing a radio play together. Soon after, both men enlisted with the Army; the United States had entered World War II in December of 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The two men continued to collaborate, forming the Armed Services Radio Service and producing a series of radio programs for the troops.
From Radio to Stage
After World War II ended in 1945, Lawrence returned to civilian life, where he continued writing and producing radio programs in partnership with Lee. With the advent and quickly rising popularity of television in the 1950s, the writing team found their services in increasingly less demand. They decided to shift their efforts towards writing stage plays. With their writing prowess honed over a decade of producing radio scripts for dramas, comedies, musicals, and
variety shows, Lawrence and Lee scored an immediate success with their first dramatic effort for the stage, Inherit the Wind.
The play was directly inspired by the so-called ”Scopes Monkey Trial,” a famous case from the 1920s that put a high school biology teacher on trial for teaching evolution. The trial pitted controversial trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, who defended the teacher, John Scopes, against respected orator and former Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. The trial quickly became a national sensation, as it was painted in the press as a showdown between science and religion. The play introduced a theme that Lawrence and Lee would return to many times over the course of their career: using a fictionalized account of a historical incident to comment on current events. In the case of Inherit the Wind, Lawrence and Lee were looking back to a time in American history when there was a vigorous debate over intellectual freedom and relating that event to their own time. The America of the 1950s was beset by tensions over suspected Communist infiltration of the government and media. Politicians like Senator Joseph McCarthy, in their zeal to find scapegoats, created a climate of fear and recrimination in which people felt reluctant to speak up or take an unpopular position. The Scopes trial had particular resonance in the wake of a series of hearings that McCarthy called on Capitol Hill to investigate ”un-American activities.”
Expanding Dramatic Horizons
Lawrence and Lee would use their plays to address ongoing cultural concerns again, most notably with The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (1971), which contrasted the civil disobedience of the nineteenth century philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay his taxes to support a war he felt unjust, with the then-current Vietnam War, a conflict that many Americas opposed.
Not confining themselves strictly to historical dramas, Lawrence and Lee also penned several highly successful musicals and comedies, including an adaptation of the novel and movie Lost Horizon entitled Shangri-La (1956) and an adaptation of the 1955 novel Auntie Mame, which they also later adapted into a musical entitled Mame (1966), with Angela Lansbury in the title role. Both the play and the musical were tremendous hits; the former was adapted into a film starring Rosalind Russell in 1957, the latter, starring Lucille Ball, in 1974.
The American Playwrights Theatre
Lawrence and Lee were also instrumental in founding the first true regional theater organization, the American Playwrights Theatre in 1965. The APT was founded in response to the increasingly commercial nature of Broadway productions, in which producers put considerations of potential profitability above artistic merit and controversy. The late 1960s were a time of a burgeoning regional theater movement in America; regional theaters are professional organizations that produce plays according to their own seasons. The success of the APT and its Lawrence-Lee productions—particularly Thoreau, which was performed over two thousand times in APT-associated theaters in the two years after its premiere—were instrumental in increasing the popularity and viability of regional theater, thereby accomplishing the goal Lawrence and Lee had in mind when they founded the APT: bypassing and undermining the power and influence of Broadway.
The writing duo were honored for their work in the dramatic community with a variety of regional and national awards. Lee died in 1994, ending the long-standing and productive partnership with Lawrence. Shortly afterwards, their last publication, The Selected Plays of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (1994), hit the shelves. That same year, the last Lawrence-Lee play, Whisper in the Mind (1994), was produced.
Although most of his efforts were written in collaboration with Lee, Lawrence did produce a biography of the actor Paul Muni by himself. Lawrence died from complications due to stroke in his Malibu home in 2004. Although he had led a long and successful career, he had only been nominated for a single Tony Award, for Best Book of a Musical for Mame.
Works in Literary Context
Lawrence told interviewer Nina Couch that ”almost if not all of our plays share the theme of the dignity of every individual mind.” Again and again, Lawrence and Lee displayed an interest in freedom: of movement, of belief, of individual expression. Both in serious formats, such as Inherit the Wind, and in more lighthearted entertainments, such as Mame, they held up the independent thinker, often the outsider or outcast who dared to question the status quo, as the hero.
A risky proposition for any artist, artistic license is a term that describes the creative process in which facts or accepted dramatic or poetic form are somehow twisted, modified, omitted, or otherwise changed in order to make for a better story. When done well, artistic license (also called dramatic or poetic license) will go either unnoticed, or otherwise be dismissed or ignored by the audience—a phenomenon known as ”suspension of disbelief.”
However, artistic license can just as easily draw criticism, sometimes extremely harsh and pointed, from those who disagree with the licenses taken by the artist. Lawrence and Lee have come under fire for their artistic license taken with Inherit the Wind. The playwrights adapted a historical event, fictionalizing it to fit their dramatic aims. Facts were simplified, characters were mere ”sketches” of real-life people, and the actual historical events were subordinated to the dramatic requirements of the play and the intended message. Despite Lawrence and Lee’s statements that they never intended for the play to be an accurate depiction of the actual Scopes Monkey Trial, the play continues to draw criticism for the liberties it takes with the historical event.
Works in Critical Context
Successful and well-reviewed, Lawrence’s Broadway-produced plays have been the focus of critical attention from the very beginning. Although few fault their plays on pure substance, many critics have called into question the issue of historical accuracy, especially in the case of Inherit the Wind.
Despite the success of the APT, critics have been slow to recognize the success of Lawrence-penned regional productions. Although the rise of regional theater has taken much of the attention off of the Broadway stage, critics are still reluctant to give their attention to plays, such as Thoreau, that have not premiered or been produced in New York.
Inherit the Wind
From the beginning, Lawrence and Lee stressed that Inherit the Wind was not a strict historical adaptation. In their Playwrights’ Note, the playwrights state that their play is not history and that the work is meant to stand on its own. While recognizing the historical significance of the Scopes Trial, the authors raise the idea that the issues of the conflict between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan ”have acquired new meaning in the… years since they clashed at the Rhea County Courthouse.”
Whitney Bolton, in a Morning Telegraph review, states: ”What is of importance is that from that musty little town … came a note of hope; that… the accused made it easier … for the next accused thinker to take his stand for it.” In a review published in the Christian Science Monitor, John Beaufort writes that ”Drummond’s [defense of Brady] is an indictment of all dogma—whether springing from blind ignorance or blind intellectualism.”
- ”Inherit the Wind.” Drama for Students. Edited by David Galens and Lynn Spampinato. Vol. 2. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 1998.
- ”The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.” Drama for Students. Edited by David Galens. Vol. 16. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- Winchester, Mark. ”Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee: A Classified References::.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present7 (1992): 88-160.
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