By 1930, Maxwell Anderson had established a reputation as a nationally recognized playwright, screenwriter and poet. Then, during the 1930s, the decade of the Great Depression, he became one of the premier dramatists in the country.
Anderson was nominated for an Academy Award as a screenwriter in 1930 for "All Quiet on the Western Front," and during that decade, he received the Pulitzer Prize and two New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards.
Over 1,500 different plays were presented on Broadway in the 1930s, but less than 300 of them ran for 100 or more performances. Nine of Anderson’s “plays hit the century mark,” and no other playwright had that level of success.
In 1930, Anderson wrote "Elizabeth the Queen," a play that told the story of the English Tudor Queen Elizabeth I, and the treacherous actions of the person she reportedly loved, the Earl of Essex. The play was highly praised by the critics and ran on Broadway for 147 performances from early November 1930 to March 1931.
Because of Anderson’s success as a screenwriter for the movie "All Quiet on the Western Front" in 1930, the director, Lewis Milestone, brought him back to Hollywood in 1931 to write the screenplay for W. Somerset Maugham’s popular novel, "Rain."
In 1932, Anderson wrote two plays, "The Princess Renegade" and "Night Over Taos." The Princess Renegade never made it to Broadway, and Night Over Taos had to wait until 1939 before its Broadway debut, which resulted in only 13 performances.
In 1933, Anderson wrote the play "Both Your Houses," and the title for it came from a line in Romeo and Juliet, “a plague on both your houses.” It reflected the public dissatisfaction with the government during the administration of President Herbert Hoover and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It was “the first play written by an American that dealt largely with political crookedness in the federal government.” Although the play received critical acclaim, it only ran for 72 performances.
Later that year, Anderson wrote his second Tudor play, "Mary of Scotland," in which Helen Hayes played the title role, and Quentin Anderson, Maxwell’s oldest son, who was born in Minnewaukan, N.D., played a supporting role. The play ran for 248 performances from late November 1933 to mid-July 1934.
Anderson then wrote his first American historical play, "Valley Forge," which was about George Washington’s winter with the Continental Army. At the same time the play opened on Broadway on Dec. 10, 1934, Anderson was also profiled in Time magazine, and his picture appeared on the cover. Despite the free publicity, the play only lasted for 58 performances because “America was suffering from a paralyzing economic depression,” and many theatergoers could not afford the price of tickets.
In 1935, Anderson wrote "Winterset," a play that a biographer said was “clearly Anderson’s masterpiece.” Mio, the central character, is the son of a man falsely convicted of homicide. Mio learns that a key eyewitness was never called, so he sets out to find him. Critics marveled at how Anderson was able to weave in central elements of "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet," "Macbeth" and "King Lear" into the play, and he received the first New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play. "Winterset" opened on Broadway on Sept. 25, 1935, running for 179 performances, and then went on tour of the country, running for five more years.
In 1936, Anderson wrote a play about the tragic death of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria-Hungary and his mistress in 1889 in "The Masque of Kings," which ran for 89 performances on Broadway beginning in February. Later that year, he was inspired by Greek mythology when he wrote "The Wingless Victory," a tragedy that examined marital discord. The play ran on Broadway for 110 performances starting on Dec. 23, 1936, and concluded in March 1937.
"Winged Victory" was one of three plays written by Anderson that exceeded 100 performances in 1937. "High Tor," a mountain peak overlooking the Hudson River in New York, was the title of another one of his successful Broadway plays that year. It was about his neighbor, the owner of the mountain, who refused to sell it to a quarry mining conglomerate. The play began in January 1937, running for 171 performances. Anderson again received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
On Sept. 29, Anderson’s play, "The Star Wagon," debuted on Broadway and ran for 223 performances. It was a comedy about an inventor who creates a time machine to make his disgruntled wife happy, and Maxwell’s second son, Alan Anderson, had a major role in the play.
In 1938, Anderson got together with other noted playwrights and organized the Playwrights Producing Company “to assure that producers did not (have) to fight over which plays to choose or reject.” The company’s first play, "Knickerbocker Holiday," was a musical where Anderson wrote the play and lyrics to the songs and Kurt Weill composed the music. Despite the fact that the play took place in 17th century New York, it was actually a satire of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. It premiered on Broadway on Oct. 19, 1938, and ran for 168 performances.
The biggest thing to come out of it was “September Song,” with the lyrics written by Anderson. According to Billboard magazine, “over 300 different artists have performed this song,” and it was a hit for Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Willie Nelson. Royalties from the sale of records, sheet music and other items made this play “Anderson’s most profitable show.”
We will conclude the story of Maxwell Anderson next week.
“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.