During the 1920s, Eugene O’Neill was the most successful American playwright, and that honor shifted to Maxwell Anderson in the 1930s.
During the '30s, Anderson wrote a variety of plays that each lasted for over 100 performances on Broadway. Of those successful plays, there were two centering on the English Tudor dynasty, two modern political dramas, one crime melodrama, one comedy, one musical and one tragic drama centering on marital discord.
In 1939, Anderson closed out a highly successful decade with a criminal suspense drama, "Key Largo." It was about a deserter from the Spanish Civil War who returned home in southern Florida, and he and his friends were held captive by Mexican bandits just before a hurricane hit the area. It debuted on Nov. 27, 1939, and ran for 105 performances.
In 1940, Anderson ventured into a whole new area with "Journey to Jerusalem," a play about Jesus Christ at the age of 12, who has just learned that he is the Messiah. In 1941, he wrote "Candle in the Wind," a play about the romance of an American girl and a resistance fighter in German-occupied France. The play ran for 95 performances beginning on Oct. 22, 1941, and the title referred to a fragile flicker of light that is in danger of being extinguished at any moment. Elton John chose it as the tribute title to a song memorializing Marilyn Monroe 30 years later.
While the play was still in production at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway, the U.S. entered World War II. Early in the war, Anderson’s nephew, an Army pilot, was killed when his plane was shot down, causing it to crash into the Mediterranean Sea. This inspired Anderson to write his next play, "The Eve of St. Mark," which was well-received and ran for 307 performances after its debut on Oct. 7, 1942.
The War Department was impressed with Anderson’s contributions to the war effort, not only for his excellent most recent Broadway play, but for two radio plays he wrote, "Your Navy" and "From Reveille to Breakfast." In preparation for Anderson’s next play involving the war, the Navy gave him “special permission” to travel to Africa for the invasion of that continent in early November 1942. With this experience, Anderson wrote two more radio plays, "Meeting in Africa" and "Letter to Jackie."
Anderson was then granted an interview with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in preparation for his next stage play, "Storm Operation." It debuted on Jan. 11, 1944, but because of “strict censorship” demanded by the War Department, much of the play’s impact suffered, and it closed after only 23 performances.
As World War II began drawing to a close, Anderson reunited with Kurt Weill on a new play, "Ulysses Africanus," an “Odyssey-like story set in the aftermath of the American Civil War.” However, a number of staging problems occurred, and the project was abandoned.
In 1946, Anderson released his play "Truckline Café," which was about a World War II soldier who was reported missing and believed to be dead. His wife then took up with another man, and when the soldier returned home, he became very angry. Marlon Brando played the part of the soldier, which was his first major theatrical role. The audience loved his performance, but the critics did not, and the play closed after 13 performances. “Brando would run up and down a flight of stairs prior to an entrance to induce an effectively frenzied demeanor for one of the scenes,” and he received the Best Supporting Actor Award for 1945-46 for his performance.
Later in 1946, Anderson wrote a play about Joan of Arc, titled "Joan of Lorraine," with Ingrid Bergman playing the lead role. It debuted on Broadway on Nov. 16, and ran for 199 performances.
On Dec. 8, 1948, Anderson’s play "Anne of the Thousand Days" premiered on Broadway and ran for 288 performances. The play was about Anne (Boleyn), who was the second wife of King Henry VIII and the mother of Queen Elizabeth. Rex Harrison received the Tony Award for best actor in his role as King Henry VIII.
Anderson again teamed up with composer Kurt Weill for his next play, "Lost in the Stars," a musical based on Alan Paton’s popular novel "Cry, the Beloved Country." Once again, Anderson wrote the script and lyrics to the songs, and the play opened on Broadway on Oct. 30, 1949, running for 281 performances. The title song, “Lost in the Stars,” enjoyed popular success and was later recorded by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Elvis Costello, Leonard Nimoy and many others.
Anderson’s next play, "Barefoot in Athens," premiered Oct. 31, 1951. It was directed by his son, Alan Anderson, and ran on Broadway for only 29 performances. Shortly thereafter, the company he founded, Playwrights’ Producing Company, ran into trouble for overdue taxes, and Anderson threatened “to quit the theater business all together.”
However, he did write another play, "The Bad Seed," about an adopted girl who was able to charm her way out of criminal activities. It debuted on Broadway on Dec. 8, 1954, and ran for 332 performances. “The play was shortlisted (in the running) for the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but Joseph Pulitzer Jr. pressured the prize jury into presenting it to 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' instead.”
In 1958, Anderson wrote two more plays, "The Day the Money Stopped" and "The Golden Six," but they had only limited success.
Maxwell Anderson died on Feb. 28, 1959, two days after suffering a stroke. Anderson was truly one of the giants of the American theater, writing over 30 plays that were performed in Broadway theaters.
However, his creative output far exceeded what took place on stage. Anderson wrote a number of one-act plays that were broadcast on radio. From his plays and stories, 27 motion pictures were produced as well as 13 television movies and 24 episodes on television series. Anderson was a screenwriter for seven movies and was a contributor of two other films.
He also wrote the lyrics for a number of songs, of which 19 were recorded by major recording artists.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.