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Playwright Robert E. Lee (who shares his name with a very famous Confederate general of the American Civil War) is best known for popular Broadway works he wrote with his longtime collaborator, Jerome Lawrence. Over the span of five decades, beginning with their first joint venture in 1942, the duo wrote thirty-nine plays, including the well-known Broadway productions Inherit the Wind, Auntie Mame, and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Lee and Lawrence were successful at using their stage plays, which were often historical, to satirize modern society or comment upon the political conditions of the time periods during which they were written.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Lee was born October 15, 1918, in Elyria, a Cleveland suburb. His father, Mel-vin, was an engineer, and his mother was a teacher. During his childhood in Ohio, Lee witnessed the hardships faced by his community during the Great Depression. Following the catastrophic stock market crash of 1929, economic hardship would affect almost all levels of society; Lee would later use his experiences and observations made during the Great Depression to create works such as Auntie Mame, which satirized elite, decadent society.
Collaboration with Lawrence
Lee attended Ohio Wesleyan University, and then launched a professional career as a writer and director in commercial radio. In 1942, at the instigation of friends, Lee, who was then overseeing radio ads for a New York City advertising agency, met Jerome Lawrence, a writer for CBS radio. The two ambitious young men immediately formed a writing partnership. Their first collaboration was ”Inside a Kid’s Head,” produced for the radio program Columbia Workshop (and later widely anthologized). By the spring of 1942 the two writers were successful enough that they established an office in Los Angeles.
Lee and Lawrence’s climb to commercial success was interrupted, however, by America’s entry into World War II. Both men went into the armed forces in the summer of 1942 and spent most of the war years creating and producing programs for the Armed Forces Radio Service. These programs, though meant to entertain and educate U.S. Army soldiers, also encouraged Lee and Lawrence to use patriotic rhetoric that spoke out against the tyranny represented by Hitler in Nazi Germany and Mussolini in Fascist Italy. Lee and Lawrence would adopt similar rhetorical strategies when criticizing McCarthy-ism in Inherit the Wind and supporters of the Vietnam War in The Night Thoreau spent in Jail.
When the war was over, both Lee and Lawrence returned to civilian life and continued their partnership as radio writers and directors, creating scripts for such programs as Favorite Story (starring Ronald Colman), The Frank Sinatra Show, and Hallmark Playhouse. In 1948, Lee married Janet Waldo, a radio actress then best known for playing the title role in the popular comedy series Meet Corliss Archer. They had two children, Jonathan and Lucy Lee. Lawrence and Lee also landed a contract for their first Broadway show, writing Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’! (1948), a vehicle for comedienne Nancy Walker, choreographed by Jerome Robbins and directed by George S. Abbott. Despite the involvement of three theatrical legends—Walker and Robbins at the beginnings of their careers, Abbott already famous—the musical had only a modest success, with 188 performances.
From Radio to Stage
From 1948 through 1954 Lawrence and Lee maintained their focus on radio. As producers, directors, and writers, they were responsible for 299 broadcasts of the weekly series The Railroad Hour, while continuing work on many other radio and television programs. Lawrence and Lee turned to the stage in the early 1950s, however, as the advent of commercial network television caused the comedy and serial programming of commercial radio to disappear; radio was beginning its transformation to music and news formats. Their first produced play, which proved to be their greatest success (806 performances), was Inherit the Wind. With it they established several patterns that recurred in much of their later work.
Inherit the Wind is based on a historical event: the Scopes trial of 1925, which led to the prosecution of a Tennessee high-school biology teacher for teaching the theory of evolution. Lawrence and Lee’s play fictionalizes the events, however, and is also seen as a veiled commentary on both the atmosphere of conformity that permeated America in the post-war 1950s, and also the spread of McCarthyism. Joseph McCarthy, a conservative United States senator, spurred the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which aimed to rid America of a perceived Communist threat. In the post-World War II period known as the Cold War, during which America reached a stand-off with Soviet Russia and its allies, many politicians feared that America’s postwar enemies (namely Russia) would infiltrate the country with spies and informants. The investigations by McCarthy and his colleagues began a ”Red Scare” in which high-profile politicians, artists, and public figures were often unjustly accused of Communist sympathies. Though Lawrence and Lee could not make a blatant attack upon McCarthy and his allies (for fear of being blacklisted or arrested), they satirized the narrow-minded thinking of the members of the House Un-American Activities Committee by comparing them to the creationists of the Scopes trial. Lee and Lawrence would later use the same strategy of historical allegory with their immensely popular The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.
Written in 1970, fifteen years after Inherit the Wind, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail similarly uses a specific historical event that Lee and Lawrence present as a way of commenting on a contemporary political situation at the time it was written. In the case of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Lee and Lawrence used writer Henry David Thoreau’s famed act of civil disobedience—refusing to pay taxes to an America fighting in the Mexican-American War—as an analogy for the Vietnam War of the 1970s. Lee and Lawrence adopted Thoreau’s rhetoric of conscientious political objection to reflect their view that the unpopular and lengthy war in Vietnam should be ended.
Aside from writing and producing plays with Lawrence, Lee became an adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1967, where he taught aspiring actors, playwrights, and screenwriters. Throughout his academic and professional career he adhered to his conviction that the role of a theater artist is to explore political, psychological, and philosophical issues through drama; the ensuing product should then enlighten audiences while also entertaining them. Lee died of cancer in 1994 in Los Angeles.
Works in Literary Context
Throughout his works, Robert E. Lee features eccentrics and idealists (such as Auntie Mame, Henry David Thoreau, and John Scopes) who championed free thinking and free speech. Lee is also remembered for his ability to use settings from past historical time periods to reflect on his own.
Nonconformity and Self-Reliance
Lawrence and Lee intended Inherit the Wind as a comment on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s campaign against communism, which the playwrights regarded as a thinly veiled attack on the freedoms of speech and thought. Accordingly, the play pits John Scopes, the high school teacher that dared to teach Darwinism and the theory of natural selection, against narrow-minded officials determined to preserve the status quo. For Lawrence and Lee, it was clear that evolution and Darwinism represented progress and the growth of the human spirit, in opposition to the repressive censorship of Brady and Reverend Brown and their efforts to block rational development. The conflict of the play is not between evolution and creationism (a term not in common usage when it was written), therefore, but between freedom of thought and repression of free inquiry. By giving the play that focus, and also by avoiding close reproduction of the historic events in Tennessee, the playwrights were able to emphasize the more universal aspects of the conflict.
Similarly, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail dramatizes an actual historical incident: the night in which writer Henry David Thoreau, protesting the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, went to jail for refusing to pay his taxes. While the play’s structure reflects the kind of theatrical experimentation particularly prominent in the latter half of the 1960s, the content of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail comments as clearly on contemporary social and political events as did Inherit the Wind. Thoreau’s rejection of his government’s involvement in the Mexican-American War mirrors in direct ways the public’s growing rejection of the U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam; indeed, the first production of the play in 1970 was abruptly closed when campuses across the country erupted after shootings at Kent State University in Ohio during war protests.
Aside from his political convictions, Thoreau also rejects conventional education and the rigid rules of Deacon Ball. Thoreau’s resignation as a teacher after flogging students at Ball’s insistence is paralleled with philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s resignation as a pastor because of ethical doubts. Later scenes demonstrate further facets of Thoreau’s beliefs and unwillingness to conform to the social order of Concord, Massachusetts. As was the case in Inherit the Wind, Lawrence and Lee utilize conventional theatrical devices—potential romance, personal tragedy—to connect with the central idea driving the action of the play, yet throughout the protagonist remains an idealistic individual with a fierce dedication to the discovery of the truth.
Satire of Fashionable Society
A challenge to conventional authority is the mainspring of Lawrence and Lee’s Auntie Mame. Patrick Dennis’s original novel of the adventures of a madcap free spirit and the nephew she inherits became, in Lawrence and Lee’s hands, an episodic comedy with serious undertones. The Great Depression of the 1930s figures largely in the comedy, as do satiric thrusts at ethnic prejudices, trendy education, hidebound conformism, pretentious intellectualism, and social snobbery. The constant redecoration of Mame’s Beekman Place apartment in New York provides its own running satire of fashion, and the guests present at the cocktail party in the first scene of the play are a cynical portrait of fashionable society.
Auntie Mame also celebrates freedom of thought (and speech), particularly in Mame’s defiance of the anti-Semitism of the Upsons in the second act, and also emphasizes individualism. That it does so comically rather than in a serious dramatic context may have obscured the degree to which Auntie Mame shares concerns with Inherit the Wind and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Unlike the other two well known plays, Auntie Mame is not based on a historical event, nor does it comment on specific contemporaneous controversies. Its presentation of the dangers of conformity, however, does reflect a concern of the mid-1950s that is also exhibited in the anti-McCarthyism of Inherit the Wind.
Works in Critical Context
Inherit the Wind
Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind ran for 805 performances on Broadway. Drawing from actual persons, including prosecutor William Jennings Bryan and defense attorney Clarence Darrow, Lee and Lawrence brought to the stage what a Newsweek critic called ”one of the best serious dramas to hit Broadway and one of the best rounded. Its dialogue moves easily, sometimes brilliantly.” A Life article noted: ”Splashed together in bold colors like a circus poster…. [it depicts] a vivid provocative piece of U.S. history.”
Auntie Mame and its musical adaptation, Mame, are quite different in tone from Inherit the Wind. Lighter and less intent on social comment, Auntie Mame and Mame were among the longest-running productions in Broadway history, lasting 639 and 1508 performances respectively. When Auntie Mame opened in New York, Wolcott Gibbs described it as ”rich in situations whose comic effect I have no reason to suppose has been diminished by age; and the chances are that it will run forever.”
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail
In its serious examination of individual freedom, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is akin to Inherit the Wind. Although popular (it was performed more than two thousand times under the auspices of American Playwright’s Theatre), the play met with some critical disapproval. A reviewer for Variety explained: ”Thoreau without warts … might still provide dramatic sparks if he had someone to clash with, but the invisible Establishment remains offstage, the reactionary Deacon Ball is mostly comic relief, and Emerson never disagrees.” Raymond Crinkley called the play ”an idealization of comfortable dissent. …It is indicative of the poverty of our creative minds that Thoreau is well thought of.” On the other hand, Richard Coe contended that The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail attempts ”to see in the past striking parallels with the present.” He found it ”a stirring and a touching play… [that] will prove hauntingly provocative.” Critic Gerald Colgan believed it to be ”finely and vigorously written, with …a true quality of revelation, a real insight into a mind that has left its stamp on the world’s thought.”
- Review of Inherit the Wind. Life (May 9, 1955).
- Review of Inherit the Wind. Newsweek (May 2, 1955).
- Review of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Variety (November 4, 1970). Coe, Richard. ”Auntie Mame is a Whammy!” Washington Post and Times Herald (October 17, 1956): C6.
- –. ”Ms. Justice Loomis, Successor to Mame.” Washington Post (December 18, 1977): L1, 6.
- –. ”Thoreau: Stirring, Touching.” Washington Post (October 29, 1970): CI, 14.
- Couch, Nena. ”An Interview with Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 7 (1992): 3-18.
- Crinkley, Richmond. ”Wet TNT.” National Review (January 12, 1971): 45-46.
- Gibbs, Wolcott. ”The Theatre: Miss Russell Gets Around.” The New Yorker (November 10, 1956): 110-122.
- Winchester, Mark. ”Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee: A Classified References::.” Studies in American Drama 1945-Present 7 (1992): 88-160.
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