The Shrike

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Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 2002
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 15. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 13
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Shrike


When The Shrike, penned by Joseph Kramm, opened on Broadway on January 15, 1952, it received accolades from the public and the critics, which helped guarantee a successful run for 161 performances. Later that year, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The Shrike chronicles the experiences of Jim Downs, a middle-aged man who has been placed in a mental hospital after a failed suicide attempt, brought on by a stalled career in the theater. His severe depression and feelings of hopelessness are alleviated, however, when an opportunity presents itself for Jim to revive his career. He insists that he is strong enough to leave the hospital and to live a productive and happy life. The doctors, however, disagree. They are convinced that his mental instability has been caused by the failure of his marriage and not because he fears that he is losing his creative energies. The play traces Jim’s desperate struggle with the hospital authorities to regain his independence and retain his autonomy. His battle is complicated by his wife, Ann, who in her desperation to hold onto their marriage, becomes an effective accomplice to the hospital’s autocratic system. As Kramm documents the power plays Jim must endure as he attempts to gain his release from the hospital, he presents a compelling portrait of repression and resistance.

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Joseph Kramm was born September 30, 1907, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Shrike is Kramm’s ninth play and the first to be published or produced. Kramm spent most of his time working on amateur theatricals while he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, which caused his grades to suffer. After enduring psychological intelligence tests and evaluations by psychiatrists to determine the cause of his poor grades, he came away with a critical view of the psychiatric field, a judgment that would reappear in The Shrike.


Act 1

The first act of The Shrike opens at a city psychiatric hospital. Ann Downs arrives with her husband, Jim, who has just swallowed a number of pills in a suicide attempt. Eventually, Jim regains consciousness and admits what he has done. Dr. Kramer, the attending physician, tells Miss Hansen, one of the nurses, to order extra care for Jim during the next forty-eight hours. When Miss Hansen shows her concern that Ann won’t be able to pay for this, Ann insists that Jim get “anything that’s needed.” Ann tells the doctor that she found him in his apartment and admits that they are separated.

The next morning, Miss Cardell notes that Ann has stayed by Jim’s side all night and so tells her to go home, but Ann refuses. Ann discusses Jim’s case with Dr. Barrow, one of the hospital’s psychiatrists. She tells him that when Jim regained consciousness, he asked her, “why didn’t you let me die?” Barrow tells her to get all the information she can from Jim, explaining that what he says now will express “what he really thinks and feels. As he regains consciousness, he will begin to build the walls again.” In an effort to help determine Jim’s motivation for the suicide, Ann notes that Jim once directed a Broadway show that got good notices, but he has not been able to get work since.

During a conversation with Dr. Barrow, Jim admits that he wants to die because he feels that he is “no good,” that he has “gotten nowhere,” and that he is too old now to be a success. When Ann tells him she loves him, Jim warns her that he does not want her love. In a private conversation with Barrow, Ann insists that Jim still loves her.

Two days later, Jim is sitting up in bed, focused on getting out of the hospital as soon as possible. He asks Grosberg, an attendant, to mail a letter for him to Charlotte, his girlfriend. Ann arrives and tells Jim that he got a call about a job in the theater. The news excites him and prompts him to speed up his recovery. Ann worries that he is pushing himself too much. When Jim tells Barrow that he wants to leave in a few days so that he can interview for the position, the doctor decides to consult with the hospital’s other psychiatrists.

In a private moment, Jim tells Ann that when he gets out, he will not be coming back to her, but she refuses to discuss it with him. Dr. Kramer tells him that medically, he will be well enough to leave soon and that he could not have gotten better so quickly without Ann’s help. Later, when Dr. Barrow and Dr. Schlesinger discuss Jim’s case with Ann, she admits that she is not sure Jim is ready to leave. She tells the doctors that Jim’s eyes do not always focus and occasionally he says “something wild and incoherent,” although when pressed, she does not remember exactly what. When she wonders aloud what would happen if he did not get the job, Schlesinger concludes that Jim would be in worse shape if he failed.

Schlesinger tells Ann that a woman named Charlotte has been calling and has been trying to get in to see Jim. When Ann reveals who she is, Schlesinger decides that it would be too great a strain for him to see her. Dr. Kramer tells Jim that he will be healthy enough by Monday to leave.

Ann has further conversations with Dr. Schlesinger about her relationship with Jim. Later, when Jim speaks to the doctor, he admits that he tried to kill himself because he thought his life was “hopeless.” Jim tells him that he has no plans to return to Ann when he gets out. When the doctor’s questions about Ann and Charlotte get too personal, Jim refuses to answer. The doctor then tells him that his release may have to be postponed and that he will be transferred to a convalescent ward for a few days. Jim becomes dazed at this news, and later, when he expresses his fears about being made to stay in the hospital, Ann tries to reassure him that it will only be for a few days. Jim, realizing that she is in agreement with the doctors, feels a chill run through him when he looks at her.

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Act 2

Jim arrives in Ward One the next day and meets the other patients. During an interview with Jim, Dr. Bellman tells him that he has acquired a reputation for being “belligerent and nasty,” which shocks Jim. They discuss Jim’s relationship with Ann, and then Jim takes a standard psychological test, which he criticizes. When he asks when he can go home, the doctor tells him not for a while.

After two men on the ward fight, one is sent to Ward Seven, where the violent patients are kept. Miss Wingate, one of the student nurses, gives Jim a telegram from Charlotte and warns him that if he does not break off his relationship with her, he will never get out of the hospital. She explains that his release depends on Ann.

The next day, during a conversation with Ann, Jim begins to suspect that she is trying to keep him there. He asks her to contact a psychiatrist friend in an effort to get himself released. She agrees and then asks him to sign over his paycheck to her so she can pay his bills. Later, she tells Dr. Bellman that she is worried about Jim being committed and insists that she will assume responsibility for him if he is released. She admits, however, that she is not sure he is ready. Days later, when an increasingly frantic Jim explodes at the other patients, an attendant threatens him with Ward Seven.

Act 3

Two days later, Harry Downs, Jim’s brother, arrives with Ann to visit the embarrassed patient. Ann admits that she has had Jim’s phone disconnected and has the calls forwarded to her. She tells Jim that she tried to contact his psychiatrist friend but that he did not want to get involved. Harry explains to Jim that he has said and done things since he has been there to make the doctors think he should remain in the hospital.

In a private conversation, Harry informs Jim that the only way he can get out of the hospital is to tell the doctors what they want to hear, including that he loves Ann and wants to go back to her. He tells Jim that Ann has rented his apartment to someone else and that all of his things have been moved to Ann’s. Jim suggests that he could move back with Ann only temporarily, but Harry tells him that he will be in her custody and so she could have him recommitted at any time.

Four days later, Jim has become the model patient. When he meets with the doctors, he convinces them that he loves Ann and wants to reestablish their relationship. Later, Jim tells Ann and his brother that he loves Ann and is sorry for the way he has treated her. Ann insists to the doctors that Jim is telling the truth. They agree and decide to release him. When Jim is told, he calls Ann, asking her to pick him up. After he hangs up, he sobs, knowing that he is “trapped.”


John Ankoritis

A patient at the hospital, John Ankoritis is proud of his Greek heritage and his intellect. He is friendly to Jim when Jim first comes to the hospital.

Dr. Barrow

Dr. Barrow, one of the psychiatrists at the hospital, discusses Jim’s case at length with Ann. He allows her opinions to influence his decisions on Jim’s treatment and length of stay.

Dr. Bellman

Another psychiatrist at the hospital, Dr. Bellman appears interchangeable with the other doctors in that he also tries to get Jim to conform to their notion of sanity. He tells Jim that he has acquired the reputation for being “belligerent and nasty.” He, like the others, allows Ann to manipulate Jim. In his final interview with Jim, he tries to catch Jim in a lie, but when Jim calmly and passively answers questions in a way that he knows will show his submission, he decides that Jim is ready to leave the hospital.

Miss Cardell

Miss Cardell, a student nurse, works on Ward One. She maintains a tough, condescending tone toward the patients. The play opens with her chastising Mr. Fleming, one of the patients, for smoking and with her threatening to write him up. While she feels herself above running errands for the doctors, she does try to get information from the patients to give to them. As she tries to console Ann, she reveals her prejudices when she insists, “no man is worth it.”

Frank Carlisle

Frank Carlisle, an elderly black patient, is “the gentlest man in the world” and expresses his desire to be left alone.

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Charlotte never appears in the play but she plays a crucial role. She and Jim have formed a romantic relationship that impedes Jim’s attempts to be released from the hospital. When he wakes from his drug induced stupor at the beginning of the play, Jim repeatedly calls her name, and she continually tries to see him at the hospital. The doctors refuse to let the two meet, insisting that their relationship is an indication of Jim’s mental instability. By the end of the play, Jim reluctantly agrees to break off his relationship with Charlotte and return to Ann to gain his release from the hospital.

Ann Downs

At the beginning of the play, Ann appears to be a concerned, loving wife. She is quite worried about her husband’s condition and determined to do everything she can to guarantee his recovery. Her true motives, however, emerge as the play unfolds. Ann conspires with the doctors to keep Jim in the hospital until he agrees to come back to her.

Ann reveals her manipulative nature as she discusses Jim’s condition with the doctors. She insists to Dr. Barrow that it would help Jim “immensely” to get treatment for his depression and to take things slowly, and that as a result, Jim will eventually realize that leaving her was a mistake. She takes complete control of Jim’s life while he is in the hospital, renting his apartment, telling his students that he will not be back in the classroom, forwarding his mail to her, and asking him to sign over his paychecks to her.

Jim explains to the doctors that the reason he left Ann was that he did not have a stable life with her. He recognizes her controlling nature, explaining that it took him a long time to “get out of her clutches.” When the doctor reminds Jim what she has done for him since he has been in the hospital, Jim insists that she is an unreasonable person and is continually angered by inconsequential things.

Harry Downs

Harry Downs, a small-town businessman, becomes very uneasy at the sight of his brother at the hospital. When he warns his brother Jim that Jim’s attempted suicide and stay in a state mental hospital is not good for Harry’s business or his family, he reveals his self-centeredness. Harry gets defensive when Jim expresses his anger that Harry has not come to visit him sooner, insisting, “I’m not a free man.... I’ve got things to do.” His lack of freedom

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  • A film version of The Shrike was produced by Universal Studios in 1955. The film was directed by José Ferrer, who starred along with June Allyson.

becomes apparent during a conversation with Jim about cooperating with the doctors. Harry explains that there is nothing Jim can do to win his release unless he fully cooperates with the authority of the hospital. He instructs Jim to tell the doctors what they want to hear, just as Harry does to the police or to business clients who make passes at his wife.

While he understands that Ann has been manipulating Jim’s situation and that she has made her husband completely dependent on her, Harry insists that she loves him and that Jim should decide he is in love with her to get out of the hospital. When Jim maintains that he cannot love her, Harry warns that Jim will face permanent incarceration if he does not give in to her. Harry explains, “I know it goes against the grain,” and that “no man is better for selling himself,” yet Harry is not strong enough to fight for Jim’s, or his own, freedom, and so he suggests that Jim give up the fight.

Jim Downs

At the beginning of the play, Jim’s mental condition is unstable. After his failed suicide attempt, he stays in the same depressed state that prompted him to try to take his life. He quickly finds the will to live, however, when Ann tells him of the possibility of a job in the theatre. Jim has not been able to find fulfillment in his life through his work or his marriage. Years ago, he had a successful experience directing a play, but since then, he has not been able to find work in the theatre, his first love. The teaching and odd jobs he has accepted since have not assuaged his artistic desires.

Faced with the possibility of working again in the theatre, Jim gains enough strength to try to pull Page 272  |  Top of Articlehimself out of his depression and begin his life again. He determines to convince the doctors that he is capable of leaving the hospital and carrying on a “normal” life. Jim reveals his intelligence as he patiently and thoughtfully answers the doctors’ questions, often challenging their reliability and value.

Still, the doctors, with the help of Ann, thwart his attempts to leave. Jim fights nobly to gain his freedom, trying calmly and truthfully to answer all of their questions, but to no avail. At the end of the play, Jim finds no alternative but to go back to Ann. In the last scene, he is a broken man, as he recognizes that he has forever lost his autonomy.


Fleming is the first patient Jim meets at the hospital. His opening scene with one of the student nurses reveals how little freedom the patients have there.

Don Gregory

Don Gregory is an attendant in Ward One. Most of the time, he is friendly with the men in the ward, often getting them lights for their cigarettes, but when they do not follow the rules, he threatens them with a transfer to Ward Seven, the violent ward.


An attendant at the hospital, Grosberg is relatively friendly with the patients, trying to soften the blow when others threaten to send them to Ward Seven. However, he, like the rest of the hospital staff, will not allow the patients any liberties. For example, when Jim gives him a letter asking him to mail it to Charlotte, he turns the letter over to the doctors.

Miss Hansen

Miss Hansen, one of the nurses at the hospital, shows her penchant for following the rules when the doctor tells her to provide extra care for Jim and she wonders where Jim will get the money to pay for it. The stage directions note that Miss Hansen “has been soured rather than mellowed by her contact with illness.”

Dr. Kramer

Dr. Kramer, the resident physician at the hospital, appears to be more rational than the psychiatrists. While the other doctors determine to demonstrate that everything Jim says proves that he is unstable, Dr. Kramer insists that it is normal for someone to declare that he will try to kill himself again right after he has made an attempt. He continually encourages Jim to work hard to improve his health and declares Jim physically fit to leave the hospital a few days after he gets there.

George O’Brien

George O’Brien, a young patient, shows his passivity when he admits that he came to the hospital looking for someone to give him a physical and they kept him there instead. His fragility becomes apparent in his emotional responses to the slurs Schloss throws at him. During one of these events, he threatens to break Schloss’s neck; as a result, he is dragged off to Ward Seven.

Dr. Schlesinger

Dr. Schlesinger, the head psychiatrist at the hospital, deals with Jim in a cold, clinical manner. He continually pries into his personal life as he assesses his mental condition. His responses during his interviews with Jim reveal his notion that a sane person is one who conforms to society’s norms.

William Schloss

William Schloss, the toughest patient at the hospital, initially appears friendly, offering to read to the others from the book he is writing. He admits that he has served time in jail for defrauding the government and that he was sent to the hospital after he hit his wife and children. More evidence of his cruelty, along with his racism, emerges in his constant taunting of O’Brien, which eventually causes O’Brien to be sent to the violent ward.

Sam Tager

Sam Tager, another patient, provides firsthand information about Ward Seven, which fills the others with fear. He explains that he was put in a straightjacket on Seven after trying to throw himself in front of a subway train and subsequently fighting with the police.

Miss Wingate

Miss Wingate, a student nurse, exercises her control over the men by continually threatening them with Ward Seven. She is the one who reports O’Brien after his fight with Schloss. She reinforces the power structure of the hospital when she informs Page 273  |  Top of ArticleJim that he will never get out of there if he tries to hold onto his girlfriend.


Repression and Resistance

Throughout the play, Jim resists the hospital’s attempts to dictate his morality. The doctors continually test Jim in an effort to establish his mental instability, yet he often proves himself to be keenly perceptive of their practices. On one occasion, when his psychiatrist asks him general questions about history and current events, Jim provides all the correct answers and argues that the questions prove nothing except “that institutional practice and honesty are not compatible.” He adds, “we should be treated as individuals, but we’re handled in categories, the same routine for everyone.” Finally, he inquires whether the treatment the patients receive is due to the doctors’ inexperience or lack of time. Yet, while Jim has clearly shown his mental acumen in his accurate assessment of hospital procedure, he does not win his freedom. When at the end of this session, Jim asks when he will be allowed to go home, his doctor tells him, “not for a while.”

Jim also struggles to resist Ann’s control over him. Before his suicide attempt, he had successfully broken off his relationship with her, but in the hospital, she regains her power under the guise of helping him to regain his sanity. She continually couches her motives in her seemingly selfless concern for his well being. During his stay in the hospital, she has in effect, taken over his life. She removes all of his belongings to her home, forwards his mail, tells his students that he will not be returning, and convinces Jim to sign his paychecks over to her so that she can pay his bills, all done in an effort, she insists, to alleviate any pressures on him. As a result, she has guaranteed that Jim has nowhere else to go when he is eventually released from the hospital.

As Jim tries to resist the hospital authority and his wife’s manipulations, he becomes understandably upset. Yet his honest emotions are used to entrap him further. When Harry tells Jim that he “showed a great deal of antagonism and resentment” in their interviews, Jim wonders, “what do they expect? They probe and pry and get you upset and then expect you to behave like a normal human

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  • Kramm does not closely examine Ann’s motivation for her treatment of Jim. Write a scene for the play in which Ann explains to Jim’s brother, Harry, the reasons for her behavior.
  • Read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and compare its themes to that of The Shrike.
  • Research passive-aggressive behavior. How do psychiatrists treat this type of personality?
  • Investigate state mental hospitals in America in the first half of the twentieth century. Does the play offer a realistic depiction of the operation of these hospitals?
  • How do the minor characters reinforce the play’s themes?
  • One of the characters suggests that the film The Snake Pit presents a similar depiction of a mental institution to that in the play. View the film and either support or refute this opinion.

being.” Jim sees the consequences of an honest display of emotion as George O’Brien, one of his fellow patients, is dragged off to the violent ward after his emotional, yet justifiable, response to another patient’s racist taunts.

Gender Roles

In the play, the audience does not get a clear picture of Ann’s motivation for her cold manipulation of Jim’s predicament. Kramm does suggest a possible cause, though. During one of her interviews with Dr. Barrow, Ann admits that after she married Jim, she gave up her career in the theater. When Dr. Barrow asks her whether she regrets her decision, she pauses, and then responds with “a bitter smile, ’We all have our vanity, Doctor.’” In this scene, Ann suggests that her desperate desire to hold on to Jim, even against his will, stems from her giving up her profession. As many women did in the 1950s, Ann set aside her own independence and devoted herself to helping her husband succeed. As Page 274  |  Top of Articlea result, she has become understandably “bitter,” and so is not willing to give up the man who has become her entire world. Jim admits that she has nothing else in her life when he notes that she is “afraid of ending up a lonely old woman.”


Point of View

The play is written in a documentary style, focusing on the daily experiences of the main character as he tries to navigate the world of a city psychiatric hospital. Jim Down’s point of view dominates the play, as he struggles to cope with the restrictive situation in which he finds himself. The audience never gains a clear look at the motivations behind the behavior of the doctors and of Ann. Kramm places the focus instead on tracing one man’s complete loss of freedom and the effect that loss has on him. As a result, audiences get an in depth portrait of one man’s painful resignation and ultimate defeat as his autonomy is stripped away.


Kramm employs symbolism in the play to illustrate and reinforce his themes. In the opening act, he uses foreshadowing to imply Jim’s fate as one of the attendants searches for a bed for Jim. When Grosberg complains, “I don’t know where we’ll find one unless somebody dies,” he suggests that death is the only escape from the hospital. In another scene, Jim is tied to the bed after he is brought into the hospital, ostensibly to ensure that he will not try to further harm himself. Eventually, Jim will in effect be prevented from exercising any free will concerning his future.

The title of the play becomes a symbol of its main action. Shrikes are robin-sized songbirds with keen eyesight and sharp beaks. Since their delicate feet prevent them from holding onto their food while they eat it, they use tools to assist their appetites. The birds skewer their prey by impaling them with thorns, barbed wire, or anything available. This habit has given them the nickname “butcher birds.” Ann serves as the shrike in the play, as she impales Jim with tools provided by the psychiatric establishment. She effectively prevents him from escaping her grasp by manipulating the system to the point where she has full control over him.


A Woman’s Place

Women’s struggle for equal rights in the Western world gained slow momentum during the middle decades of the twentieth century. During World War II, women were encouraged to enter the workplace where they enjoyed a measure of independence and responsibility. After the war, they were expected (and required) to give up their jobs to the returning male troops. Hundreds of thousands of women were laid off and expected to resume their place in the home.

Training began at an early age to ensure that girls would conform to the feminine ideal—the perfect wife and mother. Women who tried to gain self-fulfillment through a career were criticized and deemed dangerous to the stability of the family. They were pressed to find fulfillment exclusively through their support of a successful husband. Television shows (such as Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best), popular magazines (Good Housekeeping), and advertisements all encouraged the image of woman-as-housewife throughout the 1950s. The small number of women who did work outside the home often suffered discrimination and exploitation as they were relegated to low-paying clerical, service, or assembly-line positions. Women would have to wait until the 1960s and 1970s to gain meaningful social and economic advancement.

Social Realism

In the late nineteenth century, playwrights turned away from what they considered the artificiality of melodrama to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. Their work, along with much of the experimental fiction written during that period, adopts the tenets of realism, a new literary movement that took a serious look at believable characters and their sometimes problematic interactions with society. To accomplish this goal, realistic drama focuses on the commonplace and eliminates the unlikely coincidences and excessive emotionalism of melodrama. Dramatists like Henrik Ibsen discard traditional sentimental theatrical forms as they chronicle the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult social problems, like the restrictive conventions under which nineteenth-century women suffered. Dramatists who embrace realism use settings and props that reflect their characters’ daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.

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  • 1950s: The Cold War induces anxiety among Americans, who fear both annihilation by Russians and the spread of communism at home. The fear that communism will spread to the United States leads to suspicion and paranoia, heightened by the indictment of ex-government official Alger Hiss (1950) and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1951) for passing defense secrets to the Russians.

    Today: The Cold War ended after communism was overthrown in the former Soviet Union, yet suspicion and paranoia are still prevalent in America due to the threat of terrorism.

  • 1950s: Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy conducts hearings from 1950-1954, intended to detect communist penetration of American government and academia; for his recklessness, he is censured by the U.S. Senate in 1954.

    Today: Racial profiling is being considered as a tool to help combat the threat of terrorism.

  • 1950: David Riesman, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, and a colleague, Nathan Glazer, argue in The Lonely Crowd(1950) that Americans have been coerced to conform to social dictates set by politicians, religious leaders, and the media. Although this conformity often results in surface unity and serenity, it could also produce underlying feelings of alienation and frustration, thus creating the sense of being alone in a crowd.

    Today: Americans embrace diversity in religion, politics, lifestyles, and the workplace.

Realism remained a dominant form in twentieth-century drama. In the 1930s and 1940s, a group of playwrights, known as social realists, brought drama to American audiences that reflected the political and social realities of the period. Dramatists like Lillian Hellman, Sidney Howard, Sidney Kingsley, and Clifford Odets examined political institutions like capitalism, totalitarianism, and socialism along with social issues like lesbianism and poverty. This trend continued in the 1950s, as reflected in The Shrike’s examination of mental institutions.


When The Shrike opened on Broadway on January 15, 1952, it received praise from the public and critics alike. Most reviews focused on the compelling nature of the drama as well as the outstanding staging and performances, most notably, that of José Ferrer as Jim. Newsweek praised its “racking tension and suspense” while Time noted its “scary blend of theatricalism and truth” and proclaimed it to be a “relentless, gripping theater piece.” Richard McLaughlin, writing for Theatre Arts, argued, “the story of a man trapped in an asylum by a carnivorous wife has its grim appeal in a time when social tensions make almost all of us potentials for the psychiatric ward.” Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review proclaimed that one of the play’s “finest moments is a stripping bare of our society’s norms.” Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times raved, “the production and performance are superb,” and “Mr. Ferrer has staged it with relish, and he plays it with power and dexterity.”

Some critics, however, found fault with the script. The Time review, for example, determined the playwriting “flawed,” suggesting the improbability of hospital psychiatrists not picking up on the true relationship between Jim and Ann. McLaughlin claimed that “the writing was workmanlike and uninspired.” Most reviewers, though, echoed New York Times critic Atkinson, who praised the play’s documentary format and its “sharp and austere” story. The play received the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

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Playbill cover for The Cort Thearte from the 1952 production of The Shrike Playbill cover for The Cort Thearte from the 1952 production of The Shrike


Wendy Perkins

Perkins is an instructor of twentieth-century literature and film. In this essay, Perkins examines the theme of repression and conformity in Kramm’s play.

Published in 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith’s book The Affluent Society chronicles the political, cultural, and social transformations that occurred in America in the 1950s, characterizing the period as a time of unprecedented affluence. Galbraith notes that in this “age of plenty” Americans enjoyed a higher standard of living as the American economy prospered. Tensions, however, boiled beneath the successful surface of American suburbia. Galbraith noted that the rapid changes Americans were experiencing often left them confused and anxious. As a result of their eagerness to fit into the emerging community of the middle class, Americans allowed themselves to be coerced by political and religious figures to conform to social dictates instead of maintaining individual values and beliefs.

Another impetus for conformity emerged during the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States, which ushered in a new age of warfare and the fear of worldwide nuclear destruction. The cold war induced anxiety among Americans, leading to suspicion and paranoia that communism would spread at home. This paranoia was fed by a determined and often hysterical witch-hunt for communists, led by Senator Joe McCarthy and the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). As a result, many Americans felt safety could be ensured only by submitting to the traditional values of church, home, and country.

In The Shrike, Joseph Kramm reflects this spirit of the 1950s in his focus on the pressure Americans felt to conform to conventional notions of morality. As he chronicles the experiences of one man’s struggle to gain his release from a mental institution, he examines the methods employed by a repressive system to force individuals into relinquishing their freedoms.

The play opens with an illustration of the hospital’s autocratic structure, which foreshadows what is in store for Jim as he struggles to retain his individuality. In the first scene, Miss Cardell, one of the authoritarian student nurses, accuses a patient of smoking, chastising him for endangering his weak heart. When Fleming refuses to admit that he has been smoking, Miss Cardell invades his privacy by looking under his covers for the cigarettes. Finally, when she tells him that she will have to call one of the attendants, he gives in. In an effort to guarantee that he will never again disobey orders, Miss Cardell tells him that she will report him.

This opening vignette presents, in miniature, what Jim will experience during his stay in the hospital. As the officials there try to get him to conform to their notion of mental health, they invade his privacy and threaten him with physical restraint, first in the hospital’s violent ward, and then through transfer to a state institution from which he would have little chance of escape. His psychiatric evaluation will go on record to guarantee his compliance to their view of proper behavior.

The psychiatrists base their assessment of Jim’s mental health on his willingness and ability to conform to social mores. Initially, they consider him to be a potential murderer, as they do all those who attempt suicide. Since they determine that he is a threat to himself as well as others, they tie him down in his bed, which foreshadows the complete loss of freedom he will experience by the end of the play. The doctors eventually replace the ties on his hands and feet with psychological restraints as they

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  • The Bell Jar(1963), written by Sylvia Plath, focuses on a young woman’s mental breakdown in New York City in the early 1950s. The novel is based on Plath’s own experiences with depression and suicide attempts.
  • In Girl, Interrupted(1993), Susanna Kaysen chronicles the author’s harrowing experiences in a mental hospital in 1967. Kaysen challenges notions of sanity and insanity, concluding that the definitions of each are culturally determined.
  • In the short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (1936), Ernest Hemingway offers a searing portrait of the power plays that can develop between a husband and wife and their destructive consequences.
  • Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest(1962) explores the harsh realities of mental institutions in the 1950s and early 1960s, including the practice of lobotomies, a surgical procedure that involves severing the nerve fibers in the brain that connect the frontal lobes to the thalamus.

investigate Jim’s past and evaluate his present emotional state.

When Jim’s psychiatrists discover that he has left his wife and has become involved with another woman, they try to convince him to return to a more traditional lifestyle, suggesting that his actions have caused his present mental instability. They ignore Jim’s complaints that his unrealized artistic goals prompted his suicide attempt. Jim tries to explain that he felt “hopeless” not because his marriage had broken up, but because he became convinced that he was losing his creative energies. The doctors, however, insist that his depression stems from the destruction of his relationship with Ann, a position articulated by Miss Wingate when she accuses Jim of trying “to break down the sanctity of marriage.” She warns him that if he continues to try to contact Charlotte, the doctors will not let him out of the hospital. Unbeknownst to Jim, they have refused to allow Charlotte to see him, determining that a meeting with her would be too much of a strain for him.

Dr. Schlesinger’s discussion with Jim about his relationship with Ann illustrates the hospital’s authoritarian system. When Jim admits that he would not return to Ann if he were to be released, the doctor reminds him of Ann’s love and devotion. Even after Jim explains Ann’s need to control him and details evidence of her erratic temper, Dr. Schlesinger counters that Jim’s life would be more “stable” with her. Jim’s rejection of this option results in the extension of his incarceration in the hospital. When he refuses to answer questions about his feelings for Charlotte, determining them to be an invasion of his privacy, the doctor tells him that he will not be released in time to attend his theatre appointment and would instead be transferred to another ward.

Ann aids hospital authorities during each step of their program to strip Jim of his autonomy in an effort to gain control over him and thus to force him to return to her. She ensures her constant presence in the hospital, and so her influence over Jim, by insisting that she remain at his bedside and thus aid in his recovery. She regularly meets with Jim’s psychiatrists to discuss his past and present behavior. The doctors depend on her to provide personal information about Jim that they can use to help them assess his condition and “cure” him.

During her initial meeting with Dr. Barrow, he asks her to press Jim to divulge his inner thoughts, explaining that what he says in these early stages of recovery will express “what he really thinks and feels.” In later conversations with the doctors, Ann continually misrepresents his behavior, insisting that he is “frequently wild and incoherent.” She blames Charlotte for his suicide attempt and determines that he will not be ready to leave until he

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breaks off all ties with the woman—opinions that the doctors wholeheartedly support since they reinforce their sense of normalcy.

Throughout most of the play, Jim cannot understand why he is being kept in the hospital, noting that he has expressed his true feelings to the doctors. That, however, is the crux of the problem. Jim’s steadfast refusal to allow the doctors to dictate his sense of morality and to outline his future extends his incarceration.

Harry, Jim’s brother, tells Jim that he will never get out of the hospital unless he tells them what they want to hear, that he has decided to return to his wife. When Jim decides that he could return to her for a short while, and then leave her and so gain his independence, Harry warns that if he is released, Jim will be in her custody and so she could have him recommitted at any time.

Seeing no way out of his dilemma, Jim takes Harry’s advice and tells the doctors that he made a mistake when he left Ann. He convinces them that he is still in love with her and that he has now acquired a different set of values, the one forced on him by the hospital’s psychiatric establishment. As a result, the doctors determine that he is well enough to go home under Ann’s care. The play closes as Jim receives the news that he has been released. Understanding that he has been trapped into giving up his freedom and autonomy, he collapses and sobs.

John Mason Brown, in an article on the play for the Saturday Review, complained that Kramm’s development of Ann is “hazy,” and that “it is the husband’s weakness rather than the wife’s strength which is stressed.” In Kramm’s artful construction of the play, Ann’s motivations for helping to strip Jim of his identity are only suggested. However, Kramm’s focus is on the effects of her machinations, as well as those of the hospital, not the causes. In his representation of the harrowing experience of Jim Downs, Kramm has created a compelling portrait of the interplay between dominance and submission and the devastating consequences that can result.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on The Shrike, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Josh Ozersky

Ozersky is a critic, essayist, and cultural historian. In this essay, Ozersky describes some of the ways in which Kramm’s play expresses the politics and fears of the early 1950s, when it was written.

Joseph Kramm’s The Shrike is a powerful play, even nearly fifty years after it was written. It tells a familiar story: an unhappy man is institutionalized when he attempts suicide, and finds himself a prisoner of his doctors’ notion of who is “sane.” While this remains a compelling scenario even today, readers will understand The Shrike better if they look at the play in the context of the times it was written. Like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, The Shrike meant something very different to its cold war audience than it might to a reader encountering it for the first time today.

Contemporary readers of The Shrike, however, are more likely to be reminded of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Although there have been many plays and movies featuring protagonists trapped in asylums, from The Snake Pit to Girl, Interrupted, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the most famous, and parallels Kramm’s play very closely. Both Jim Downs and Randall Patrick McMurphy are sane men caught under the arbitrary authority of a mental institution, and both find their primary victimizers not in their doctors, but in women.

The resemblance, though superficially strong, ends there, however. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a product of the 1960s, and it identifies freedom with sex, the life force, and creativity. Authority is repressiveness, coldness, power for its own sake. McMurphy is a kind of stand-in for Kesey himself, a countercultural guru of great renown. The Shrike, by contrast, sees freedom as delusional, or at best conditional. Authority is a vast, forbidding force that the hero barely tries to resist.

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More importantly, The Shrike is a product of the early 1950s—a period when American political and intellectual life was at an all time low point. This was the time of the “red scare,” the communist “witch-hunt” pursued by the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that resulted in the Hollywood “blacklist.” Worse still, it was during this period that Senator Joseph McCarthy dominated the public mind with his groundless but devastating accusations of treason. For Kramm, what is objectionable about the hospital is not its purpose or values, or the larger values of the society that created it. On the contrary, Downs only wants to get a job directing stage plays again; his major despair was his failure in his profession. Even the specific decision to kill himself is unsubversive—like Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman, who wants to kill himself for the insurance money.

The fact that Downs doesn’t rebel at society in no way prevents the play from reflecting the times though. Broadway audiences surely must have recognized the situation Jim finds himself in. The blacklist had ruined the careers of many directors and playwrights, a number of whom had attempted suicide. The cause of Jim’s failure is that he has served his country in World War II, and returned older and out-of-touch with the times. But other possibilities could surely be inferred by the audience. Moreover, the general power of unquestioned authority, justified by a cold war that seemed to have no end in sight, made many Americans uneasy. It was a time when saying something unpopular might cause one to be branded as a “pinko” (a communist) or worse. Once Jim is inside the hospital it is up to his doctors and his wife to decide when he should be released, but neither his doctors nor his wife share his values or opinions. Jim is now in the position of having to prove to the group, which he doesn’t belong to, that he shares their arbitrary values, and believes what they believe. It is the ultimate nightmare for the individual: he has no rights nor freedom except what is granted to him by society, which is represented exclusively by highhanded authority figures.

The Shrike is far from unique in positing this sinister scenario; in postwar America, it was a recurrent nightmare. Films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, sociological best sellers such as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, and popular novels like Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit all look at the horrors of conformity, of

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the individual man squashed by the tyranny of the many. For Kramm, Jim’s position in the hospital was not merely analogous to the injustices suffered by a few screenwriters or intellectuals; it cut right to the heart of social life in an intensely stressful time.

Consider this speech, one of the key passages in The Shrike. Jim’s brother, Harry Downs, visits him, and manages to get a few minutes to communicate freely with him. With the urgency of a fellow prisoner, Harry communicates to Jim the essential thing he needs to know.

Downs: If you want to get out of here—you’ve got to play ball.
Jim: How?
Downs: Jim—I have never paid a fine in my life. Because I know that I never know more than a cop. He’s the smart one—not me. And it’s ’Yes, officer,’ and ’No, officer’ and ’I’m sorry, sir.’ Don’t try to know more than these people. If you want to get out of here, you’ll have to swallow everything. Well—what’s being proud going to get you. Don’t I have to compromise every day of my life? I’ve got a lousy insurance business, so I get drunk with a client, watch him make passes at Helen—and flatter the hell out of him.... It’s no different in here. It’s no different out there. Try it. What can you lose?

This is not just Harry speaking: it is Miller’s Willy Loman, Wilson’s Tom Rath, the beleaguered men of C. Wright Mills’s White Collar, William S. Whyte’s The Organization Man. Kramm, and presumably his audience, understood just how representative Jim’s problem really was—just as, ten years later, Ken Kesey would create a quintessential sixties hero in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s McMurphy. The power of The Shrike comes in Kramm’s ability to show how the hospital is essentially a form of social coercion—conformity at figurative gunpoint. The power of conventional morality, of social expectations, and of science are all of a piece: Miss Wingate, in letting Jim know that giving up the girl he loves will be the cost of his freedom, doesn’t even bother to coat it with medical euphemism. “What are you trying to do,” she asks. Page 280  |  Top of Article“Break down the sanctity of marriage?” Jim has to renounce Charlotte, whom he truly cares about, and return to his wife to get out of the hospital. He understands, as he weeps at the final curtain, that this is merely exchanging one prison for another.

For Kramm, however, the horrors of conformity are not purely personal. He goes to some pains to show how they infect society. The small community of patients Jim comes to live with all live in fear of the horrible Ward Seven—the “snake pit” where violent psychotics are kept. Because any accusation is enough to condemn a patient to Ward Seven, every patient has the power to exile any other patient. This is a clear allegory of the witch hunt, when any accusation of disloyalty, no matter who the source, was enough to land you on the blacklist. Everyone dislikes Schloss, but has to fear him, since the weakest and most ruthless members of society are, in this topsy-turvy world, now in the positions of greatest power. O’Brien and Schloss dislike each other intensely, but there is nothing either crazy or violent in their quarrel; nonetheless, when Schloss informs on O’Brien (“He threatened me, Miss Wingate”), O’Brien must suffer the consequences. Because Schloss is utterly opportunistic, and authority, in the form of the stern and stupid Miss Wingate, so all-powerful, men like O’Brien and Jim are prisoners whether in the hospital or out of it.

Contemporary readers will underestimate the force of what Jim is up against unless they remember how nearly limitless the authority of psychologists were in the early 1950s, and how unquestioned were the moral norms of the day. Although the disruptions of the 1960s have made the cold war years ripe for nostalgia, these were not “happy days” by any means; some measure of their unhappiness can be taken from the violence of the subsequent reaction against them in the following decade. The Shrike speaks to some universal truths about human life, about society, about marriage and free will. But it speaks to them specifically in the language of the early 1950s. For men such as Jim and so many other literary protagonists, the world was run by the animalistic by-laws of business, by dirty pool in politics, and by the repressive hand of female morality on the home front. A play like The Shrike goes much farther than some of the literary benchmarks of the 1960s in explaining how much America has changed—and why.

Source: Josh Ozersky, Critical Essay on The Shrike, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.


Atkinson, Brooks, Review of The Shrike, in New York Times, Vol. 20, January 16, 1952, p. 2.

Brown, John Mason, “The Amazing Mr. Ferrer,” in Saturday Review, Vol. 35, February 9, 1952, pp. 22-23.

Hewes, Henry, “Drama Notes,” in Saturday Review, Vol. 35, May 17, 1952, p. 28.

McLaughlin, Richard, Review of The Shrike, in Theatre Arts, Vol. 36, July 1952, p. 4.

Review of The Shrike, in Newsweek, Vol. 39, January 28, 1952, p. 83.

Review of The Shrike, in Theatre Arts, Vol. 36, March 1952, p. 71.

Review of The Shrike, in Time, Vol. 59, January 28, 1952, p. 43.


Review of The Shrike, in America, Vol. 90, December 12, 1953, p. 306.

This piece praises the play’s thematic focus.

Review of The Shrike, in Commonweal, Vol. 55, February 1, 1952, p. 422.

This review explores the play’s themes and critiques its Broadway debut.

Review of The Shrike, in New Republic, Vol. 126, February 4, 1952, p. 23.

This review praises the play’s Broadway debut.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2694000025