The Philadelphia Story
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
PHILIP BARRY 1939
Philip Barry was one of the more popular and successful American playwrights of the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote more than twenty plays, but is best remembered for The Philadelphia Story, a comedy of manners set in Philadelphia high society during the late 1930s.
Tracy Lord, the wealthy heroine of The Philadelphia Story, divorces her husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, and is about to marry a man named George Kittredge. However, their wedding preparations are interrupted by meddlesome reporters, her ex-husband, and her estranged father; she is also disconcerted by the growing realization that she still has feelings for her ex-husband, Dexter. Amidst the situation comedy and fast-paced dialogue, Barry explores several contemporary social issues, such as society’s perception of class differences in America and contemporary attitudes towards adultery and divorce.
The play was enthusiastically reviewed by critics and enjoyed a successful Broadway run for over a year. During that period, more people saw The Philadelphia Story than had seen all of Barry’s other plays combined. In fact, the success of the play effectively rescued the troubled Shubert Theater in New York (otherwise known as the Theater Guild) from bankruptcy. Barry had written the role especially for the actress Katherine Hepburn, and the play’s success simultaneously launched Hepburn’s career on the stage and film.
The Philadelphia Story has remained a popular staple of regional theater companies since its debut. Although social attitudes towards adultery and divorce have changed, the play endures because of its compelling characterization of Tracy Lord, a young woman whose self-discoveries still speak to younger generations of theatergoers and movie fans.
Philip Barry was born on June 18, 1896, in Rochester, New York, to a wealthy Irish-Catholic family. He was educated in both Roman Catholic and secular schools before attending Yale University in 1913. Rejected for military service during the World War I, Barry worked for the U.S. Department of State at home and abroad during 1918–1919.
He returned to Yale in 1919 for his senior year, and became involved in the Dramatic Club. He contributed short stories and poetry to the Yale Literary Magazine and the college newspaper; later, he wrote a one-act play for the Dramatic Club.
After graduating from Yale he attended George Pierce Baker’s famous 47 Workshop at Harvard University. The 47 Workshop was a course in playwrighting and producing that taught several renowned writers.
Barry spent the early years of the 1920s working for an advertising firm. When his third play, The Jilts, was produced on Broadway as You and I (1923), he quit his job and became a full-time playwright. You and I depicted a young man’s decision to forsake security for the stage, and it became an immense success. He divided his time between New York and Cannes, although America remained the setting of most of his dramas and comedies.
Barry was a prolific writer: he wrote nineteen major plays and a novel. He wanted to be recognized for his serious dramas as well as his comedies, but his dramas were invariably commercial flops; although critics have subsequently pointed to his innovative and early use of psychoanalysis on the stage, his dramatic works remain unappreciated to this day.
Consequently, Barry’s reputation primarily rests on his three most successful comedies, Holiday (1928), Paris Bound (1927), and The Philadelphia Story (1939). These three plays are set in upperclass New England, and all of them concern marriage and status in contemporary America. In Holiday, the happy-go-lucky protagonist is engaged to a wealthy woman; she and her family want to squeeze him into the family firm, but he resists, and eventually abandons her to pursue his dreams.
In Paris Bound, a young, rich, newly married couple embrace liberal ideas about a free marriage, but find their bohemian attitudes are soon challenged. In The Philadelphia Story, a young heiress discards one husband and chooses another she believes is more suitable, only to discover that her first husband is in fact the right man for her.
Barry died at age fifty-five from a heart attack. His reputation as a fine writer of American comedy remains solid, and has been bolstered by the continuing popularity of both the stage and film versions of his best play, The Philadelphia Story.
The play opens with an intimate family scene between the long-suffering Margaret Lord and her two daughters, Tracy and Dinah. The three women are busy planning Tracy’s wedding to George Kittredge. She is marrying in style, with a pre-nuptial party and a stylish reception for five hundred people.
When Tracy briefly exits, Dinah tells her mother that Dexter is in town. Dinah is clearly fond of Dexter, and seems to regret her sister’s divorce. Later in the scene, Dinah telephones Dexter and issues him an invitation to the festivities.
Tracy’s impending marriage and her past alliance are discussed in light of the failed marriage of her parents. Tracy despises her father for his poor treatment of her mother, but her mother tends to blame herself. Their disagreement seems to parallel Tracy’s attitude towards her own failed first marriage. Was her first husband, Dexter, at fault? Or was she? Should she be more forgiving, like her mother? Tracy dismisses the idea of shared blame, commenting that she and her mother “just picked the wrong first husbands.”
Tracy exits. Dinah has been proofreading; she now reveals that the proof sheets are a magazine story about her father’s adultery. Dinah innocently
believes the story is false; Margaret inadvertently reveals that the story is true.
Sandy, Tracy’s elder brother, arrives. He works as an editor at The Saturday Evening Post. Margaret asks him whether the story can be stopped. Tracy learns about the story. Sandy announces that he has “fixed” the problem: instead of printing the story, the magazine will instead cover Tracy’s wedding. Tracy is furious with this “trade” to “save” her “Father’s face,” pointing out that he doesn’t deserve it. Yet she agrees to cooperate.
Tracy realizes that the reporters will suspect something is suspicious when her father is not present for the wedding. (Tracy has refused to invite him.) Sandy responds by saying that he already thought of this possibility and arranged a telegram announcing that their father cannot attend the wedding due to illness. This is not good enough for Tracy: she decides to pretend that her Uncle Willie is her father and that her family is a bunch of pretentious snobs.
Liz Imbrie and Mike Connor arrive to write the story. Dinah greets them, speaking in French and singing ditties. Mike concludes that she is “an idiot... They happen in the best of families, especially the best.”
Tracy enters and dismisses her sister, then proceeds to play out the even more ridiculous part of charming, flattering hostess. When Mike says, “I’m ‘Mike’ to my friends,” Tracy replies, all sweetness and light, “Of whom you have many, I’m sure.” Her interrogative manner takes Liz and Mike by surprise.
Tracy reenters with Kittredge and introduces him. Uncle Willie arrives, and Tracy pretends he is her “Papa!” Unexpectedly, Dexter arrives. The charade is further complicated when Tracy’s real father, Seth, arrives. She promptly pretends that he is Uncle Willie.
As Act II opens, Mike and Liz provide another perspective on Lord family history. After Liz leaves with Uncle Willie, Tracy enters and strikes up a conversation with Mike. She has read Mike’s books and enjoyed them, and they soon realize they understand each other in unexpected ways.
When Mike explains that he is a reporter in order to support his career as a writer, Tracy generously offers him the use of her country cottage, but he ungraciously refuses. “Well, you see—er—you see the idea of artists having a patron has more or less gone out [of fashion].”
Suddenly, Dexter appears. The atmosphere becomes tense as Dexter jokes about his poor treatment of Tracy in the past and then criticizes Tracy in front of Mike. He accuses her of being insensitive to his alcoholism and impatient with “any kind of human imperfection.”
Obviously uncomfortable, Mike exits. Continuing his conversation with Tracy, Dexter criticizes Kittredge, arguing that “he’s just not for you.”
Kittredge enters and Dexter leaves. Their conversation makes it clear that many of Dexter’s statements are true. Kittredge views Tracy as “marvelous, distant... cool” and feels she possesses “a kind of beautiful purity.” He wants “to build” her “an ivory tower with my own two hands.”
It seems that Kittredge may indeed not be the right man for Tracy, who wants to be “really loved,” not “worshipped.” This is even more apparent when Kittredge voices his approval for the Destiny magazine article.
Kittredge exits, and Margaret and Seth enter. Tracy confronts her father about his infidelity. Her mother insists that the only person it concerns is Page 295 | Top of ArticleSeth, who then responds, “That’s very wise of you, Margaret. What most wives won’t seem to realize is that their husband’s philandering—particularly the middle-aged kind—has nothing to do with them.”
Incredulous, Tracy questions her father’s statement. Seth replies that he was reluctant to “grow old” and wishes he had “the right kind of daughter... One who loves him blindly.” Without such a daughter, he claims, “he’s inclined to go in search of it...” In short, he blames her for his affair.
Liz and Mike try to reveal that they are in fact from Destiny magazine. Their attempt is foiled by the arrival of the telegram announcing Seth’s sickness. The subsequent confusion makes clear to Mike and Liz that the Lords have been duplicitous.
Uncle Willie and Seth resume their correct identities, and the entire group leaves for the pre-nuptial party. As they exit, however, Tracy gulps down a glass of champagne, and pours herself another.
Act II Scene II takes place in the early hours of the morning after the pre-nuptial party. Sandy and Tracy, both drunk, scheme to write an expose of Destiny’s publisher, Sidney Kidd, in order to blackmail him into stopping the story about the wedding.
During the course of their conversation it becomes clear that Tracy is very drunk and that she has already spent two hours alone with Mike that evening. Mike, who imagines himself in love with Tracy, then enters, and Sandy exits to write the article on Kidd.
Tracy and Mike flirt. Mike delights Tracy by proclaiming that he sees her as “made of flesh and blood. . . full of love and warmth.” She is pleased and relieved that a man finally sees her as warmly human rather than as a remote goddess. They kiss, then run off to the swimming pool for a naked dip.
Sandy and Liz enter. Sandy has already guessed that Liz is in love with Mike, and asks her why she doesn’t marry him. Liz replies that “he’s still got a lot to learn, and I don’t want to get in his way yet.” Liz leaves, and Dexter enters.
Sandy hints that there may be “complications” to the wedding. Kittredge enters and Dexter hints that Tracy and Mike may be interested in each other. Mike enters, with Tracy in his arms. Kittredge is horrified to realize that “she—she hasn’t any clothes on!” Mike carries her up to bed then returns. Dexter knocks him down before Kittredge can.
Uncle Willie and Dinah misinterpret Mike’s presence in Tracy’s bedroom. At first, she does not remember her escapades, but starts to recall her behavior. Tracy, forced to realize that she has “feet of clay,” apologizes to her father for her unforgiving attitude.
Mike enters and Tracy explains that she is not interested in him. She mistakenly believes that they have slept together. Tracy confesses her misbehavior to her ex-husband. He reveals that Kittredge left a note for her; Tracy is relieved to find out that he has broken off the wedding.
Kittredge appears and says that he will go ahead with the marriage if she can offer him an explanation. Tracy refuses and contemptuously dismisses him. However, a wedding does go ahead: the play ends with Tracy, who finally feels “like a human being,” remarrying Dexter.
Mike (Macauly) Connor
Mike Connor is the author of a novel and a collection of short stories. Yet because creative writing does not earn enough money, Mike is reduced to writing “cheap stuff for expensive magazines,” such as his present assignment to cover the Lord-Kittredge wedding.
Although he is initially hostile to the Lord family, his feelings soon change. He warms to Sandy, who joins forces with him in attacking Sidney Kidd, and he is attracted to Tracy’s charm and beauty. At play’s end, Mike even offers to marry Tracy, who gently but firmly rebuffs him. Although his future is left uncertain, it seems plain that Mike will leave his job at Destiny and perhaps become involved with Liz.
C.K. Dexter Haven
Dexter is a young, good-looking man. Wealthy and privileged, he has a passion for designing and racing yachts. He is still in love with his ex-wife, Tracy. At one point in the play, Dexter harshly attacks Tracy for her judgmental and unforgiving attitude when he was battling alcoholism, and criticizes her choice of Kittredge for a husband.
However, these attacks do not really resolve the unspoken question, which is never adequately addressed in the play: how abusive was Dexter to
Tracy? Nonetheless, with some skillful targeting of his rival’s weak points, Dexter manages to get rid of his rival for Tracy’s affections; consequently, he proposes to her for a second time, and she promptly accepts.
Liz Imbrie is the photographer who accompanies Mike to do a story on the Lord family. A young career woman, she provides a contrast to Tracy Lord’s privileged but somewhat vacant existence. She is in love with Mike.
George Kittredge is a handsome, industrious self-made millionaire. His fiancee, Tracy, admires him because she views him as “a great man and good man; already he’s of national importance.” Tracy is attracted by the qualities that made him so newsworthy in the past: his “rags to riches” life history, his popularity, and his charismatic speaking power. Yet she fails to see that Kittredge’s rapid rise through the ranks owes much to his own ambition and class aspirations.
Tracy represents high society for Kittredge, and he believes that his marriage to her will signal his acceptance by upper-class society. His subsequent rejection of Tracy, on the most pompous terms possible, suggests that he still has much to learn about love and perception.
Dinah is the younger of the two Lord sisters. She is a precocious young woman, prone to occasional malapropisms, and rather assured of her own maturity—when she is in fact, at times, quite strikingly innocent. Dinah is fond of her brother and sister as well as Dexter. She clearly wishes that Tracy and Dexter had remained together, and she impulsively invites Dexter to come over, hoping that his presence will remind Tracy of past happiness.
Dinah joins Tracy in pretending to the Destiny reporters that the Lord family is eccentric and pretentious. Her most entertaining moment, however, comes at the play’s end when she misinterprets Mike’s presence in Tracy’s bedroom and melodramatically marshals the family’s resources in order to save Tracy from her “illikit passion” and marriage to Kittredge.
Margaret is the mother of Tracy, Dinah, and Sandy. An attractive woman, she has put up with her husband’s philandering for many years. They are separated at the time of the play.
Sandy is Tracy’s younger brother. A newspaper editor working for the Saturday Evening Post, he is light-hearted and witty. Unlike Tracy, he has made a happy marriage; in fact, his wife has just given birth to their first child. Sandy, like Tracy, is concerned about the family’s reputation, and arranges a deal with Destiny editor Sidney Kidd: the magazine will suppress its planned expose of Seth Lord’s affairs and instead print a story about Tracy’s marriage.
However, Sandy decides to write an expose on Kidd with Mike and Liz. In part, the expose is intended as revenge for the intrusive prying into the family business; in addition, it is meant as punishment Page 297 | Top of Articleto the man who has sold out Liz’s and Mike’s creative talents for a few dollars.
Seth Lord is Tracy’s father. A wealthy and successful man, he has long been involved with a colorful dancer named Tara Maine. This seems to have been the cause of his separation from his long-suffering wife, Margaret. However, Seth has other explanations for his adultery and for the collapse of his marriage: he blames Tracy’s critical attitude for his pursuit of the youthful dancer, and argues that the “ideal daughter” would be one who “blindly” loves her father and believes that “he can do no wrong.” Tracy and her father reconcile by the end of the play.
Tracy Lord is the eldest daughter of Margaret and Seth Lord. Her beauty, wealth, wit, and cleverness hide a somewhat static interior. As a young woman, she eloped with her childhood friend, the equally wealthy and leisured C.K. Dexter Haven. They divorced after just ten months because of his excessive drinking and abuse. As the play opens, she is just a day away from marrying a self-made and industrious man named George Kittredge.
However, the situation is not as rosy as it seems. Tracy still has feelings for her ex-husband, and is deeply hurt by his bitter criticism of her as unfeeling and intolerant. Furthermore, she is profoundly alienated from her philandering father, Seth Lord. She starts to believe that she has made a mistake with Kittredge; she realizes that he has views and dreams that are strikingly different from her own. Lastly, Tracy finds herself attracted to the attractive, liberal writer Mike Connor, who sees past her brittle facade and tough manner. Tracy’s final decision—to remarry her ex-husband—represents an attempt to recapture the happiness they once shared together.
Mac is the night watchman.
Uncle Willie is Tracy’s good-natured uncle. He is a philanderer and pinches women’s bottoms when he has the chance.
Prejudice and Tolerance
Tracy Lord believes that her uncompromising morals are part of her strong character: she expects “exceptionally high standards for herself” and “lives up to them.” She is disappointed when others fail to live up to her standards. In fact, her father’s behavior caused a deep schism in their relationship, as she was unable to forgive him. Also, her husband’s alcoholism led to their estrangement; instead of trying to help him, she had rejected him for his weakness.
Tracy’s brief fling with Mike, which becomes the source of many comic misunderstandings in Act III, enables her to break free of her own self-imposed moral straitjacket and become more sensitive to human weakness. By the end of the play, she has cast off her prejudices and embraced a more Page 298 | Top of Articletolerant standard from which to judge herself and others.
Public vs. Private Life
The stimulus for much of the comedy in The Philadelphia Story is the impending revelation of Seth Lord’s adulterous affair with Tina Mara. The forthcoming article in Destiny horrifies the Lord family, for they value their reputation highly, particularly Tracy.
Moreover, they value their status as members of the Philadelphia elite, and members of this group were expected to be discreet. Thus much of the original impetus for the comedy of manners hinges upon the Lord family’s attempt to cover up past misdeeds.
The Lord family’s concern about their public reputation is cleverly emphasized in their playful decision to act out a stereotype in front of reporters. Tracy acts the part of simpering hostess, while Dinah acts like an eccentric and pretentious “idiot.” In fact, the entire Lord family presents a false facade of their private life to the reporters: each member wants to maintain the illusion that the Lords are still happily married and that the family is fully functional.
The tension between public reputation and private behavior is of course the source of much of the play’s comedy, but it also represents a growing concern among the leisured classes about the tabloid frenzy for scandal and gossip. Barry portrayed this increasing tension through his presentation of the lives of the rich and famous.
Detailed stage directions are a very noticeable feature of The Philadelphia Story. There are three simple reasons for this. First, although the dialogue was strong in itself, it depends upon staging. Imprecise staging and inappropriate gestures detract from the impact of the dialogue.
Second, Barry was a consummate producer of plays: he understood much about stagecraft, and knew that if he wanted to replicate the success of one play all over the country, he had to give directors of amateur companies precise guidance.
Third, The Philadelphia Story is written realistically, and Barry worked hard to give the audience the impression that the action unfolding in front of their eyes was, indeed, an accurate representation of “the real thing.”
Also, Barry’s stage directions enable the actors to add nuance to their characterizations. For instance, when Mike strikes a match, Tracy offers him a light from her lighter. The action is amusing because of Tracy’s pretense, but, because it is also a classic gesture of attraction between men and women, it is also a nice hint to the audience that Mike and Tracy may be interested in each other.
Comedy of Manners
By and large, the great American playwrights of the twentieth century are dramatists such as Arthur Miller, August Wilson, and Eugene O’Neill. Drama often appears more resonant and universal; in contrast, comedy is invariably limited to themes such as marriage, adultery, and sex, and reflects contemporary society. These qualities can date comedy faster than drama.
The comedy of manners, a distinct sub-genre within the light comic tradition, is better able to survive the vagaries of time and fashion because its humor depends upon character foibles and upon situation humor, such as misunderstandings and identity switches.
The great nineteenth-century master of the comedy of manners was Oscar Wilde, whose plays included the masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). In this popular play, comedy is created not only by Wilde’s dazzling wit, but also by numerous confusions of identity and revelations of double lives. Philip Barry owes a great debt to Wilde in his use of intricate plots, confused identities, and comic misunderstandings.
World War II
The rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan during the 1930s tipped the scales toward a world war. These dictatorships—known as the Axis alliance—began to forcibly expand into neighboring countries. For instance, in 1936 Benito Mussolini’s Italian troops took over Ethiopia, which gave them a strong foothold in Africa. In 1938 Germany annexed Austria; a year later, German
forces occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy took control of Albania in 1939.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. On September 3, 1939, a German U-boat sank the British ship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Another British ship, Courageous, was sunk on September 19. All the members of the British Commonwealth, except Ireland, soon joined Britain and France in their declaration of war.
The Great Depression
Contrary to popular belief, the stock market crash of 1929 did not trigger the Great Depression of the 1930s; rather, many economic analysts attribute the depressed economy to problems within the Page 300 | Top of Articleinternational stock market and investment banks. In fact, it seems that Great Depression owed more to the legacy of the First World War (in particular Britain and America’s punitive reparation policy) and to technological advances that increased profits but made many workers redundant. Agricultural, mining, and textile markets, traditionally the source of great profit, were also depressed.
From 1929 to 1932, unemployment in America rose from about 1.5 million to about fifteen million. This extraordinarily rapid rise in unemployment placed tremendous strains upon social services. Farmers were also suffering. By the mid-1930s, drought and bank foreclosures had driven farm prices down by more than 50% and many tenant-farmers were forced off their land.
In the face of this unprecedented social and economic crisis, the American president, Herbert Hoover, held out for the upswing in “market forces” that he felt sure would put an end to the escalating crisis. The voters were not so confident, and in 1933 they elected the Democratic presidential candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to office. He immediately began implementing his “New Deal” reform plan: relief for the unemployed, fiscal reform, and stimulating measures to boost economic recovery. With the escalation of arms production in the late 1930s, America finally began to recover from the Great Depression.
The Philadelphia Story was well received when the play first premiered on Broadway at the Shubert Theater on March 28, 1939. The New York Times praised the playwright and the Theater Guild company for their “top form” and called the play a “gay and sagacious comedy.” That review was typical of the critical response.
The play has remained popular for several decades. It was made into a successful movie in 1940, which starred Katherine Hepburn. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, American critics were more interested in social protest drama and tended to overlook Barry’s writing as light entertainment. When they did turn to Barry with a serious eye, they explored several elements of his work.
Francis Wyndham, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, focused on the father-daughter relationship that figures as a background theme in some of Barry’s plays. His somewhat unusual argument hinted at “incestuous undertones” in Barry’s writing.
Moreover, Wyndham evidenced a prejudice against Barry’s style of light comedy: “Barry was himself prouder of his serious flops than of his tailor-made successes, but... the verdict of Variety and the Broadway public has been sadly justified by the passage of time... the frankly artificial framework of drawing-room comedy was necessary to preserve the frail but genuine spark of Barry’s talent.”
Unable to appreciate Barry’s mastery of the comedy of manners, he chose to concentrate on the more obscure and unconventional elements of Barry’s writing and to dismiss the very things that were Barry’s strengths.
Albert Wertheim, writing a few years later in Educational Theatre Journal, was able to appreciate Barry in his own right. He recognized Barry as “one of the few masters of the American comedy of manners,” and contended that Barry had surmounted the inherent challenges in the genre: “As all comedies of manners do, Philip Barry’s demand a great sense of style from actors and actresses who must demonstrate the wit and urbanity that wealth and social position can foster, yet at the same time show the foibles and failures that exist despite social prominence and material well-being.”
Wertheim praised the play mainly because of Barry’s compelling characterization of Tracy Lord and in particular because of her development as a character. He asserted that the major “business of Barry’s play [is] to bring Tracy Lord a comic insight that will enable her to harmonize her social poise with her inner humanity... to produce, in short, something akin to Barry’s idea of true human grace.” Tracy must soften her “morally uncompromising” attitude towards people’s behavior, and she does this through her own personal experience of a fall from grace.
Wertheim’s essay, written after the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, virtually ignores the question of whether the play was still relevant in such changed times. Why, for instance, should Tracy’s journey of self-discovery end in a return to her abusive ex-husband?
Wertheim also emphasized the more conservative representation of class in the play: “Barry’s aim was at least in part a revaluation of the merits and basic humanity of the upper class after the
flogging it received at the hands of the social revolutionary playwrights of the Depression years.” Yet, he did not discuss Barry’s representation of the Depression era in the play, nor offer an explanation of precisely what the supposed “merits” of the upperclass were.
In 1988 Gary Green echoed Wertheim’s praise of the play. Green maintained that beneath the “wittily and elegantly presented portrait of Philadelphia’s mainline society,” Barry questioned “class mores and conventional ideas about marriage” and advocated “the value of tolerance.”
Also like Wertheim, Green accepted the play’s surface representation of class, particularly Barry’s apparent redemption of the alternately despised and idolized upper class. Mike and George are Tracy’s “social inferiors.” Mike is crippled by “the inverted snobbery of the proletarian intellectual” and perceives “the rich as non-productive, social parasites.” George is a “parvenu who has embraced the restricted conventionality of the moneyed upper class to which he aspires.”
Yet some critics assert that the “moneyed upper class” in The Philadelphia Story, just as in other Barry comedies, have a remarkably flexible set of moral standards, and George’s problem is that his moral standards are out of kilter with the Lord family values. Moreover, although Barry celebrates the Lords’ urbanity and wit, he does not present them as productive members of society.
Although Barry is considered one of America’s best writers of comedies of manners, the true complexity of his writing is underappreciated. The best comic writers can speak to their own times and to later generations: it is this rare skill that makes their work enduring. Barry is one such writer.
Ifeka is a Ph.D. specializing in American and British literature. In this essay, she analyzes Barry’s treatment of class issues in The Philadelphia Story.
Barry’s comedies are almost all set in the world of “high society” and feature characters who are rich,
privileged, and educated. This does not mean, however, that he sets out to celebrate the upper-class; in fact, Barry subtly explores class conflict in many of his comedies, including The Philadelphia Story.
Barry is no radical, however, and while he presents his audiences with hints of the conflicts that underscored the myth of American egalitarianism, he never moves beyond this gentle thematization of class conflict. In fact, his endings usually reinforce rather than challenge the status quo.
The Lords, as their surname boldly asserts, are so firmly entrenched as leaders of Philadelphia society as to almost be American aristocrats. Pennsylvania, the home of so much revolutionary activity during the American Revolution, is home to an established social hierarchy that would have made the American Loyalists proud.
Barry emphasizes this ironic twist of history in a tense exchange between Sandy and Mike early in the play. The two men discuss the present Democratic Roosevelt administration, and Mike asks—assuming the Sandy is a conservative—“I suppose you’re all of you opposed to the Administration.” Sandy wittily responds, “No—as a matter of fact we’re Loyalists.”
Sandy’s word play hints that the Lords may be liberal supporters of the Roosevelt Administration, but also suggests that their sympathies would have been “Loyalist” (or pro-British, anti-Revolutionary) during the American Revolution.
The same exchange between Mike and Sandy is critical to Barry’s development of the theme of class conflict. In it, Sandy reveals himself to be sensitive about his family’s wealth and privilege: “I think you ought to give us a break... in spite of certain of our regrettably inherited characteristics, we just might be fairly decent.” Mike, however, is not so quick to set aside his suspicions.
These suspicions are confirmed when Sandy admits that although he, like Mike, does work in the Page 303 | Top of Articlenewspaper industry, the two men are on opposite sides of the divide: Mike, a journalist, represents the working man, whereas Sandy, an editor, organizes and dictates policy and is therefore management. Mike announces brusquely that he is “opposed to everything” Sandy represents, but Sandy responds coolly that Mike’s magazine “is hardly a radical sheet,” and asks him snidely, “what is it you’re doing—boring from within?”
A moment later, he adds that Mike’s idol, Thomas Jefferson, was never a man of the people, but rather, like the Lords, came from a background of wealth and privilege: “Have you ever seen his house at Monticello?”
The two men’s opposing interests and perspectives are only reconciled in their joint—and somewhat underhanded—decision to collude in the blackmailing of Mike’s editor, Sidney Kidd. Sandy acts in the interests of the Lord family to reveal Kidd’s own dirty past; Mike, only half-aware of what he is doing, reveals the necessary information, because he believes that Kidd is degrading his creative talent. Their action is hardly one of class resistance: rather, each man is inspired to strike out at Kidd for his own reasons, and each man joins forces with the other only in order to achieve this goal. However, it suggests that they have reached a rapprochement.
Barry’s ambivalent attitude towards class difference is most apparent in the characterization of George Kittredge. George, whom Tracy describes as an “angel,” was once a dirty angel: a coalminer who worked in the mines and rose through the ranks to the head of the company. Early in the play, Sandy asks Tracy whether George was “sore” about a recent newspaper article about him, in which he was identified as a “former coal miner.” The audience never hears Tracy’s response to this question, but they are alerted to George’s nouveau riche status and to the possibility of tension arising in the family about his recent shift from miner to boss.
Mike seems to share Sandy’s somewhat snide attitude to George’s social elevation, albeit in a different way. He describes George as “up from the bottom,” a word choice that perhaps inadvertently links the low depths of the mine shafts with poverty’s negative associations. Sandy’s response shows that he, for once, is aware of the word’s dual meanings: “Just exactly—and of the mine.”
Mike then makes plain why he is suspicious of Kittredge: “National hero, new model: makes drooping family incomes to revive again.” Kittredge may
well have done a tremendous job of reorganizing the failing mines, but at what cost? The mine may well run better in its “new model,” but the only people whose fortunes seemed to have revived in the wake of its reorganization are the owners, “the drooping family.”
No mention is made of the workers—the miners themselves—and the question hangs in the air: who suffered, who benefited, who was laid off in order to revitalize the mines? This ominous question is answered a short time later, when Kittredge announces that his plans to reform the mines extend to reforming the unions: there is a lot, he says, that is “yet to be done with Labor relations.”
Kittredge is crucial to the overall plot development—in particular to Tracy’s developing ambivalence about her impending marriage—and it is worth examining his character in more detail. The first time he appears on stage, Tracy introduces him as “my beau,” Liz compliments him on his appearance, and Kittredge himself announces that “I’ve shaken quite a lot of coal-dust from my feet in the last day or two.” Tracy, who firmly believes her fiancee is angelically handsome, responds to Kittredge’s self-conscious attempt at a joke with one herself, but one that comes out sounding a little Page 304 | Top of Articlepatronizing: “Isn’t he beautiful? Isn’t it wonderful what a little soap and water will do?”
This early suggestion that Kittredge is self-conscious and perhaps uncomfortable about his recent rise from rags to riches, and that their different backgrounds could cause problems between the couple, is evident later in the play. Kittredge, in a long conversation with Tracy, displays a concern about appearances and good taste that marks him as nouveau riche: as aspiring to the respectability and status of the upper classes. Dexter, on the other hand, who is born to wealth, “never concerns himself much with taste.”
The difference between the two men comes down to being born into a certain class, and consequently being certain of one’s station in life. For Kittredge, this means cutting certain “unimportant people” out of his social calendar, and establishing a circle which others will aspire to join, just as he, too, once longed to join Tracy in her golden shadow. “Our little house on the river up there... I’d like people to consider it an honor to be asked there We’re going to represent something, Tracy—something straight and sound and fine.—And then perhaps young Mr. Haven may be somewhat less condescending.”
Kittredge’s social insecurity leads him inevitably into the disastrous trap of comparing himself with someone who is inherently secure and confident. While this study in contrasts might be of interest simply in itself, it becomes significant because Kittredge has pursued and won someone who is from Haven’s background, and who consequently shares his easy confidence and contempt for such nouveau riche concerns.
The play’s ending is foreshadowed in these early scenes. It is also, however, something of a foregone conclusion that the couple are not suited, for in Barry’s somewhat conservative worldview, like must marry like, and the great, the talented, the creative, must join forces with their equals.
The conclusion that like must marry like is inherently a conservative one. No one could fault Barry’s characterization of Tracy Lord or Dexter Haven: both are charismatic, smart, witty people, and are clearly suited. But Haven’s merits are contrasted with those of two working-class men: one of whom labors industriously in a socially acceptable (and hardly radical) profession, writing, and the other of whom rises from dirt to wealth.
The first, Mike Connor, seems at first glance the more radical and challenging of the two men: he identifies himself as a liberal in the Jeffersonian tradition, and is hostile to upper-class interests. Yet Mike’s threat is considerably softened as a result of his romantic entanglement with Tracy: he proves himself a “true gentleman” by refusing to “take advantage” of her and offering, with an almost Victorian attitude, to marry her since he has been implicated in her damaged honor. Finally, he makes the “funny discovery” that “in spite of the fact that someone’s up from the bottom, he may be quite a heel. And that even though someone else’s born to the purple, he still may be quite a guy.”
Kittredge, the “heel,” may have raised himself by his bootstraps, but he disturbed Philadelphia’s tranquil social hierarchy by aspiring above his class, and, moreover, by clinging to what are essentially middle-class moral values, rather than embracing the more accommodating liberal values of the upper class.
Barry’s The Philadelphia Story is for the most part a frothy social comedy, but its sweet exterior masks darker themes—not least of all amongst them the tensions between the social classes in the 1930s. Barry explores this tension firstly through the presence of Mike, an intruder with a chip on his shoulder, and secondly through the play’s central event, the impending marriage of Tracy Lord and George Kittredge.
The lesson that affects Mike—appearances can be deceiving—conceals a real undercurrent of conservatism in Barry’s plot. Tracy’s rejection of Kittredge for Haven is certainly a rejection of idealization and of constrictive middle-class morality, but it is also a rejection of the social infidel, and a confirmation of the rigidity of the existing class hierarchy.
Source: Helena Ifeka, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Christian H. Moe
Calling The Philadelphia Story “one of Barry’s most accomplished works,” Moe offers an overview of the play and discusses its place within the genre of class comedy.
Philip Barry’s social comedy in three acts is set in the house of a rich, high-society Philadelphia family in the 1930’s. Tracy Lord, the mercurial, oldest daughter of the family’s separated parents, is a divorcee who will, on the morrow, embark on a second marriage to a stuffy, self-made millionaire Page 305 | Top of Articlenamed George Kittredge. Puritanical about the frailties of others, Tracy has recently divorced a childhood friend, Dexter Haven, for his past alcoholic weakness, and holds no sympathy for her father, whose escapades with a dancer are to be made the feature of a popular magazine. To avoid public disclosure of a family scandal, Tracy’s brother has persuaded the magazine’s editor to suppress the story in return for letting two reporters do an inside story on Tracy’s wedding. The journalists soon arrive: Mike Connor, an idealistic writer unafraid of venting disapproval of mainline society, and a young woman journalist clearly in love with her colleague. To render their observations harmless, Tracy assumes a deceptive facade and falsely identifies her uncle as her father, whom she has not asked to the wedding. Equilibrium tumbles when the father arrives along with her uninvited first husband, Dexter. When both men are reprimanded by Tracy for showing up, each accuses her of being coldly unforgiving of others’ frailties. Disturbed by the accusation, the heroine gives way to a mutually shared attraction with Mike, leading to a kiss and a champagne-inebriated, midnight swim without suits. In realizing that she too is capable of lapses which demonstrate warm, human feelings, Tracy gains a truer measure of herself and a larger tolerance of others. Her bridegroom-to-be learns of the incident, suspects the worst, and demands an explanation on the wedding morning. Fully recognizing his pompousness, Tracy breaks off the engagement and happily accepts Dexter’s offer of remarriage, and the wedding takes place with a new bridegroom.
One of Barry’s most accomplished works, The Philadelphia Story belongs to a small group of his social comedies, Holiday among them, dealing with the nature of marriage and the life of the upper classes—the stratum of society from which the author sprang and which he knew well. These refined comedies represent the most successful category of Barry’s work, departing from his larger group of plays treating serious religious, moral, and psychological questions often developed in symbolic or fantastic form as in Hotel Universe. However, moral concerns remain essential ingredients in his comedies, including The Philadelphia Story.
Underlying the wittily and elegantly presented portrait of Philadelphia’s mainline society, there is a theme which questions class mores and conventional ideas about marriage, advocating the value of tolerance. Tracy, the focal character, only has the possibility of self-fulfillment and hope for a happy marriage if she fully realizes that her nature is
humanly frail and her lack of tolerance (and that in others) reprehensible. Having been quick to condemn the human frailties of her former husband and her father, she is shaken when told by them individually that her intolerance of weakness renders her a cold “Virgin Goddess” whose sinless high standards only spur on transgressions by others. When, however, she recalls her affectionately intoxicated, unrestrained “skinny-dipping” escapade with Mike on the eve of the wedding, from which she had emerged chaste owing only to Mike’s gentlemanly behavior, she learns that she too is capable of the same lively, hedonistic impulses she has condemned in others.
Embodying the thematic thrust of the play, Tracy’s growth forms the spine of the action. The intolerant heroine is surrounded by several people committed to their prejudices and a refusal to accept ideas or behavior that differ from their own. Together with her class and family, she shares a suspicion and dislike of reporters, whom she sees, initially, as spying intruders with no manners or sensitivity until she realizes Mike’s dimension as a writer and human being. Yet Mike, who like her fiance George is her social inferior, has the inverted snobbery of the proletarian intellectual who perceives the rich as non-productive, social parasites. George is a parvenu who has embraced the restrictive conventionality of the moneyed, upper class to which he aspires, and he expects the unconventional Tracy to fit his image of a wife. Upon discovering his fiancee’s behavior with Mike, and shocked by it, his nasty reaction and demand for explanation reveal him to Tracy as the Page 306 | Top of Articlestuffed shirt he is. She then breaks off the engagement and kindly rejects a marriage proposal from Mike to accept that of Dexter, her tolerant first husband who has always understood and loved her. Her final decision reflects the central character’s culmination of a journey toward self-understanding, tolerance, and humanity.
A fine example of its genre, The Philadelphia Story demonstrates its author’s skilled craftsmanship in creating the milieu of high society peopled by three-dimensional, interesting characters within a well-structured and highly polished comic plot. The plot, whose humorous action arises from an attempt to keep a private scandal from exposure by the press, richly provides comic complications, confrontations, and revelations typical of an effective comedy of manners. In terms of characterization, the figure of Tracy Lord (which was written for, and was the springboard to fame for, Katharine Hepburn, both in the original and successful Broadway production and the subsequent motion picture version) remains a stunning portrait of an intelligent young woman who discovers tolerance and humanity. Reversing a typical pattern of the genre, the author shows in George Kittredge a man risen from the ranks who turns out to be a prig, and in Dexter Haven a man from society’s upper crust who proves himself to be gallant and understanding. Also interestingly drawn are such characters as reporter Mike Connor, Tracy’s unpredictable and hoydenish younger sister, and an uncle fond of pinching ladies’ bottoms.
A successful 1980 Broadway revival gave proof of the play’s durability, as have its frequent productions in regional theatre. With The Philadelphia Story, Barry has earned a firm place in American letters as an elegant writer of social comedy.
Source: Christian H. Moe, “The Philadelphia Story” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 604–06.
John Mason Brown
Focusing on the charms of Katherine Hepburn, the actress playing Tracy in the original production, Brown offers a mixed, though mostly favorable appraisal of Barry’s play.
That there have always been two Philip Barrys has long since been well known to those who have followed Mr. Barry’s double life as a dramatist. One of these has been the cosmic Mr. Barry who has fought an anguishing, often arresting, inner struggle as he has gone searching for his God in such scripts as John, Hotel Universe, The Joyous Season, and this winter’s Here Come the Clowns. The other Mr. Barry, the first to be heard from and the one his largest public has always doted upon, is the dramatist who has shown a genuine flair for badinage and written such perceptive tearful comedies as You and I, White Wings, Paris Bound, In a Garden, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and The Animal Kingdom.
It is this second Mr. Barry, the smiling one with a lump in his throat, who has tossed off The Philadelphia Story, that play, so pleasant at times but so unimportant throughout, which can boast as its truest and most commanding virtue the fact that it brings Katharine Hepburn triumphantly back to our stage. Although Mr. Barry’s new script is not in his best comic vein, through it shine those qualities, literate and ingratiating, which have distinguished his better comedies. It is the work of a man, sensitive and witty, who, even when he has embarked upon what proves to be something of a dramatist’s holiday, turns up bearing his special gifts.
As he relates how a rich young Philadelphia divorcee, a chill perfectionist, a married virgin who has no understanding in her heart, is awakened to love and life by a drunken incident with a writer the night before she is to marry another man, Mr. Barry has difficulty starting his fable and nods at times, in the best Greek fashion, while keeping it going. Yet when once he has established his wealthy family, and abruptly indicated that they are supposed to be on their best behavior because their country home is being invaded by a writer and a lady photographer representing a magazine thinly disguised as Destiny, Mr. Barry’s play begins to show agreeable signs of his authorship.
If his comedy is not a good one, if it forces one to think back to the superiority of Paris Bound which it often brings to mind, it has its commendable points. At least it passes the time, often very pleasantly. It bristles with amusing lines. It has scenes which indicate Mr. Barry’s surety as a comic dramatist. It makes clear what a gay and intuitive mind is his and how polished can be his gift for dialogue. Even at its feeblest and most aimless, it is warmed by a winning sense of tolerance. Once again Mr. Barry may be turning Congreve into a cardinal, and advancing his old argument that a single transgression is no justification for divorce between two people who really love one another. But to this he adds a welcome and timely plea to the Page 307 | Top of Articleeffect that people, not classes, are what matter; that poverty does not spell virtue any more than riches necessarily spell meanness.
At its best Mr. Barry’s play is no more than a rich cloak which Mr. Barry, in a moment of Raleighesque gallantry, has spread wide for Miss Hepburn to walk upon. Miss Hepburn is not an actress easy to describe. It is difficult to distinguish between what she is and what she does. It is more than difficult; it is irrelevant. To an almost unmatched extent what she is, is also what she does.
What she is, as playgoers came to know in The Warrior’s Husband, and as movie-goers realized in such films as Morning Glory, Little Women, and Alice Adams, is one of the most beautiful young women on our stage and screen and also one of the most fascinating. That on the screen she has wavered between performances of high excellence and those which have been said to be downright embarrassing by people who have had the heart to see them, only indicates, as does her more recent stage record of failure in The Lake and triumph in The Philadelphia Story, that Miss Hepburn is a performer who, more than most, needs to find the right script, to be protected by expert direction, and to have her very special gifts displayed to equally special advantage. As an actress she bears a greater resemblance than the majority of her rivals to the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. Certainly when she is good, she can be very, very good indeed.
That she is blessed with uncommon endowments no one can deny who has seen her at her best or at her worst. She has intelligence, breeding, fire, a voice which in its emotional scenes can be satin, a body Zorina might look upon with envy, and a personality of such compulsion that, without meaning to do so, she can make the center of the stage wherever she happens to be. There is grace—a lovely and arresting grace—about her very awkwardness; about the tomboyish attitudes she strikes from time to time; and, most especially, about that free-limbed quality of hers which can turn her very crosses into the poetry of motion.
Most of all, there is Miss Hepburn’s beauty. Dramatic critics, of course, have a way of pretending that an actress’ beauty is of no importance either to them or to her art. What has led them to do this is at once a desire to seem judicial when appraising technique, and the fact—the melancholy fact—that
so many of our actresses have had to get along (and done very nicely, thank you) unaided by beauty.
Miss Hepburn is not one of these. Beauty is decidedly in league with her. Nor is her loveliness of that languid, bovine sort so dear to the elder Edward with his well-known fondness for Lilys who, though eye-filling in their serenity, were apt to be more Jersey than Lily. Miss Hepburn’s face is as interesting as it is pretty, as flexible as it is well-modeled. It has strength no less than temperament behind it. Above all, its decisive modeling enables Miss Hepburn to project her expressions onstage with the clarity of a close-up. With its high cheek bones, its almost equine spread, its generous mouth, and its sculptured features, it is the mask of a Bryn Mawr Garbo whose visual fascinations are endless. Moreover, Miss Hepburn can act. And act she does with agreeable results, not only by being what she is but by doing very nicely what she is called upon to do in Mr. Barry’s script when, in the last act, he gets around to asking her.
Source: John Mason Brown, “Miss Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story” in his Broadway in Review, Norton, 1940, pp. 127–31.
Moe, Christian H. “The Philadelphia Story” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992.
Wertheim, Albert. “The Philadelphia Story,” in Educational Theater Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2, May, 1978, pp. 273–74.
Wyndham, Francis. “Dreams and Drawing Rooms,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 19, 1975, p. 1507.
Brown, John Mason. “The American Barry,” in Still Seeing Things, McGraw-Hill, 1950, pp. 30–7.
Brown includes reminiscences of Barry.
Gross, Robert F. “Servants of Three Masters: Realism, Idealism, and ‘Hokum’ in American High Comedy,” in Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition, edited by William W. Demastes, University of Alabama Press, 1996, pp. 71–90.
Contends that scholars have overlooked the realism of American high comedy and have focused too much upon drama and social realism at the expense of American comedy.
Meredith, George. Essay on Comedy, Chapman and Hall, 1877, 99 p.
British poet and novelist George Meredith was also known as a literary critic. His Essay on Comedy was one of the most influential critical texts on high comedy during the late nineteenth century and continued to influence critics and writers during the first decades of the twentieth century.
Wolfe, Thomas. Of Time and the River, C. Scribner’s, 1935, 892 p.
Wolfe attended the infamous 47 Workshop of George Baker Pierce in the 1920s. His semi-autobiographical novel includes a portrait of Baker in the character of Professor Hatcher.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693400023