The Petrified Forest
ROBERT E. SHERWOOD
The Petrified Forest, first performed in 1935, is one of the frequently performed plays of Robert E. Sherwood, one of America's best-known playwrights, winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1936, 1939, and 1941. One of the reasons the play is so well known is that the 1941 movie adaptation is considered a classic of the gangster genre. Like the Broadway production, the movie starred Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart. The role of Duke Mantee, a bitter and complex sociopath, made Bogart a movie star, and his performance helped define how Hollywood was to portray gangsters ever after.
The story concerns three characters who move between love and despair: Alan Squier, a penniless intellectual who has come to the desert to die; Gabby, the cafe waitress who believes that her life would be rich with meaning if she could leave the cultural wasteland of America and go to France to study art; and Mantee, a desperate criminal who stalls his escape to reunite with a woman he never talks about. Sherwood uses them, along with the other characters who are held hostage by the gangsters at a small diner on the edge of the desert, to explore the American myths of the sensitive artist and the gangster, finding that they are not as different as they might at first seem.
Because of its blend of lively dialog, colorful characters, and psychological understanding, The Petrified Forest has remained a perennial favorite and has continuously been revived since it was firstPage 193 | Top of Article written. It is often included in anthologies of American drama and is available from Dramatists Play Service of New York.
Robert Emmet Sherwood was one of the most well recognized and prolific writers of the mid-twentieth century, winning awards in several major fields. He was born in 1896 in New Rochelle, New York, and educated at Milton Academy in Massachusetts and then at Harvard. In 1917, he left Harvard to join the Canadian Black Watch and fight in World War I. He was gassed twice and injured in both of his legs. Like many writers who found their worldview changed by participating in World War I, Sherwood came home disillusioned and virulently opposed to war. He earned his bachelor of arts degree from Harvard in 1918. After college, he worked for several important magazines, as a drama critic for Vanity Fair, as editor-in chief for Life, and as a literary editor for Scribner's.
Sherwood's first venture into writing for the movies came in 1925, when he was hired to rewrite the title cards for the silent film version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His first professionally produced play, The Road to Rome, was a success on Broadway in 1927, allowing him to quit his magazine work and support himself with writing. There followed a series of plays, nearly one every year, that focused on the futility of war and stressed Sherwood's faith in individual moral action. These plays were critical and financial successes. The best-known of the plays from this period is The Petrified Forest, which was produced in 1935.
Following The Petrified Forest came a stretch of plays that established Sherwood as one of the most important dramatists of his time. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Idiot's Delight in 1936, another Pulitzer for Abe Lincoln in Illinois in 1939, and yet another Pulitzer for There Shall Be No Night in 1941. During this period, World War II began in Europe, with America holding back from involvement as Hitler's army followed a program of expansion. Sherwood's antiwar position changed as he became increasingly outraged at Nazi aggression. He spent huge amounts of his own money to finance a media campaign to raise American consciousness about what was going on across the ocean. One result was that President Franklin Roosevelt brought Sherwood into his administration, first as a
speechwriter in 1940, then putting him in charge of the overseas branch of the Office of War Information. After the war, Sherwood wrote a biography, Roosevelt and Hopkins, about the relationship between the president and Harry Hopkins, his most trusted advisor; it won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1949. He also won the Academy Award for best screenplay in 1946 for The Best Years of Our Lives, a drama about veterans readjusting to civilian life.
Sherwood's literary output declined in the years after the war. He wrote a few plays, but they were not well received. In his later life, he was recognized more for his political achievements than for his dramas or screenplays. He died in New York City in 1955 of a heart attack.
The Petrified Forest takes place in the diner of the Black Mesa Filling Station and Bar-B-Q in the desert of eastern Arizona on an autumn day in 1934.Page 194 | Top of Article As the first scene opens, two telegraph linemen who are eating lunch at the diner discuss political theory. The First Lineman believes that the Russian Communist revolution is destined to spread to the rest of the world, and the second is skeptical. Jason Maple, the proprietor of the Black Mesa, enters and tells Boze, his employee, that there is a car outside waiting for gas. Gramp Maple, Jason's father, enters the linemen's conversation, telling about when he came to the desert fifty-six years earlier and about the interesting historical figures he has met, including Billy the Kid. Jason becomes annoyed at the First Lineman's support of Communism. As he leaves, the First Lineman mentions a massacre in Oklahoma, referring to Duke Mantee's escape from jail; throughout the rest of the scene, the approach of the Mantee gang is mentioned often.
Jason talks with Gramp about selling the Black Mesa so that he can use the money to open a motel in Los Angeles. When he goes to change for his American Legion meeting, his daughter Gabby is left alone with Boze. Boze is a former football star, and he is brash and cocky. He tries unsuccessfully to flirt with Gabby. He looks at the poetry she reads and is not interested; he shows her newspaper clippings about his college football glory, but she does not care.
A dusty hitchhiker, Alan Squier, enters the diner and orders food. Gramp talks to him about Mantee and about Billy the Kid. Gabby tells Squier about her ambition to go to France to study painting, after he notices her reading the poetry of a French writer. He tells her his story—that he wrote one novel and then lived in France for eight years trying to write another—with the wife he stole from his publisher— and Gabby begins to trust him enough to show her paintings, which she will not show anyone else. As they talk about their lives, she asks if he would like to run off to France with her, asking, "Wouldn't you like to be loved by me?" He admits his attraction but says he must leave. Gabby arranges for Squier to get a ride with the Chisolms, a wealthy couple with a chauffeur who have stopped for gas.
Before he leaves, Squier asks Gabby for one kiss, which is interrupted by Boze's entrance. Boze becomes threatening when Squier cannot pay his thirty-cent tab, but Gabby tells Squier to just leave and, in addition, gives him a dollar. When he is gone, Boze propositions Gabby again. Remembering the way Squier encouraged her to embrace life and upset about being rejected by him, she agrees to go out into the field with Boze, but they are stopped when Duke Mantee and his gang force them back into the diner.
Mantee is described in the stage directions as having "one quality of resemblance to Alan Squier; he too is unmistakably condemned." The workers are rounded up: Boze is hostile and threatening, while Gramp Maple tells the gangsters how Old West marshal Wild Bill Hickock filed down the trigger catch on his gun so he could kill five men in quick succession. Mantee tells the cook to make some food, and he orders drinks for everyone— even Gramp, over Gabby's objections. Act 1 ends when Alan Squier reenters, saying that the Chisolms' car was hijacked by the Mantee gang. When he sees that he is in the middle of a hostage situation, he is excited: "It's pleasant to be back again—among the living…. Hooray!"
Act 2 begins about a half hour after the end of act 1. It opens with Gramp telling stories of some more obscure killers he has known. They listen to a radio broadcast, which describes the search for Duke Mantee as "the greatest manhunt in human history." It mentions a second getaway car, populated by three men and a woman. They have stopped at the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q to rendezvous with the other members of the gang and specifically with the woman, Doris.
When Boze calls Squier to task for the liquor he has been drinking, Squier says that he can pay for it. Boze questions this, since he had no money to pay for his meal earlier, and Squier eventually admits that Gabby gave him a dollar. Angry, Boze starts to tell Squier about how she was prepared to go off and have sex with him before Mantee arrived, but Gabby stops him. Boze professes his love for her, and she, in turn, professes her love for Squier. Squier tells her that she should lavish her love on Duke: "There's your real mate—another child of nature." When she points out that he has been drinking too much, he explains that both he and Boze are suffering from impotence because the gangsters have taken control of their actions.
Mr. and Mrs. Chisolm and their chauffeur, Joseph, walk up, having waited for Squier to come back with help after the Mantee gang stole their car. Boze dives on a machine gun and gets the drop on Mantee, but Mrs. Chisolm enters and, seeing men with guns, screams. Her scream distracts Boze enough for Mantee to draw his pistol and fire,Page 195 | Top of Article hitting him in the hand. He is led into the back room to be bandaged, but his heroic action makes Squier want to do something just as notable. Squier takes out a five-thousand-dollar life insurance policy from his bag and makes it out to Gabby, asking the Chisolms to act as witnesses, to make it legal. He then asks Mantee, who is already sentenced to die for multiple murders, to kill him before leaving the diner, and Mantee agrees.
There is tension when Pyles, the black member of the Mantee gang, offers a drink to Joseph, the Chisolms's black chauffeur. Joseph asks Mr. Chisolm if it is all right to accept the drink and Pyles finds his attitude degrading: "Ain't you heard about the big liberation?" he asks. "Come on—take your drink, weasel." Joseph drinks it, but only after Mr. Chisolm nods his permission.
As she becomes slightly drunk, Mrs. Chisolm turns against her husband. She responds to Gabby's idealism by recalling how her own family squelched her dreams of becoming an actress and how she married Chisolm, a boring banker, in order to be respectable. She openly propositions Duke Mantee: he is uninterested, and her husband is embarrassed.
Jason Maple arrives at the Black Mesa with members of his American Legion post, and the gangsters capture them. They bring the news that the other part of the Mantee mob has been captured and that the woman, Doris, has become an informer for the federal agents who are hunting Duke. Mantee's associates tell him that they have to flee, quickly. He hesitates, and Squier encourages him not to let himself become wrapped up in thoughts of revenge but, instead, to run and be free. The local sheriff and his deputies surround the diner and have a shootout with the gangsters. Some members of the gang are killed. Mantee and the rest take hostages with them to ride on the car's running board as human shields. As he is leaving, Mantee turns and shoots Squier. The sheriff's men commandeer Jason's car to chase them, and the other characters, including Boze and Gramp, surround Squier and pronounce their respect for him as he dies.
Mrs. Chisolm is a society lady who seems, at first, to be very concerned with being proper. Her stuffiness misleads audiences, who are shocked when, later in the play, she propositions Mantee openly in front of everyone, including her husband. She spends a long time drinking liquor and listening to Gabby's frustrated dreams of being an artist and then tells Gabby about her own plans to be an actress when she was Gabby's age. She says that her dream was dashed by her family, who wanted her to remain respectable. "And before I knew it, I was married to this pillar of the mortgage loan and trust," she says, indicating her husband. After encouraging Gabby to run off to France, she compliments Mantee on being a "real man," and when someone notes that it sounds as if Mantee has had an offer, she says, "He certainly has! And it was made with all sincerity, too." In the end, she and her husband are taken as hostages, as the gangsters escape.
Chisolm is a wealthy, cautious, somewhat cheap man. He arrives at the Black Mesa with his wife in a chauffeured car. Inquiring about the cigars for sale, he hears the price of one kind and opts for the less expensive brand. Before he is willing to take Squier, a hitchhiker, across the desert in his car, he has his chauffeur check him for weapons. Still, his precautions do not protect him from the Mantee gang, who steal his car. When the Chisolms walk back to thePage 196 | Top of Article Black Mesa, he offers Duke Mantee money to let them go; Mantee just takes the money from him without bargaining. Later, he is further humiliated when his wife tells everyone about what an unsatisfactory life she has led and offers herself sexually to Duke Mantee.
The Sheriff runs onstage with two deputies at the end of the play, while they are pursuing Mantee. The first deputy never speaks.
Pursuing the Mantee gang at the end of the play, the second deputy calls out from offstage that his car has been disabled because the tires have been shot out.
First Telegraph Lineman
Of the two telegraph linemen who eat at the Black Mesa in the beginning of the first act, the one labeled First Lineman talks of the good things that are being done in Communist Russia for the cause of social equality. The Second Lineman calls him "Nick." Jason Maple threatens him for being critical of America, and he calls Jason "Mr. Tin Horn Patriot."
Herb is a regular customer of the Black Mesa, who comes in early in the play to buy moonshine liquor and beer because he is going to be in a posse that the sheriff has sworn in to capture Duke Mantee. In the end, when Mantee is pursued, Herb is enthusiastic about shooting him.
Boze is a gas station attendant and former football player who represents physical virility in the play. He played football for Nevada Tech, and in his wallet he carries an old clipping of a newspaper article that praised his athletic ability. He tries to sweet-talk Gabby into giving up her virtue to him, trying to convince her that he loves her and that she just may, deep in her heart, love him too. She is on the verge of giving in to him when the Mantee gang shows up. While they are being tied up, Boze tells Gabby he loves her. When he finds out that she loves Squier, though, he starts to tell the people in the diner how close Gabby came to giving in to him. To prove his love for her, he makes a daring leap to grab a shotgun but ends up being shot in the hand by Mantee. He is led offstage to have his wound bandaged and does not come back until the end of the play.
A member of Mantee's gang, Jackie makes suggestive comments to Paula, the cook, as he leads her out back to tie her up. Later, during the shootout, Jackie is supposed to be defending the rear of the building. It is when he hears that Jackie has been shot that Duke knows he has to flee.
The Chisolms' chauffeur Joseph is deferential to his employers, and Pyles is angry with him. Pyles is also black, but because he is a gangster, he does not have to act subservient. Even when Pyles controls the situation by holding a gun on the Chisolms Joseph refuses to take a drink until he has Mr. Chisolm's permission. During the play's final gun battle, Joseph cries out in prayer.
The Legion Commander is the Commander of the Ralph M. Kesterling post of the American Legion, and is leading his men in a search party. The stage notes describe him as "a peppery little man." When they are caught by the gangsters at the diner, he gives Duke the news that his comrades have been captured.
Mantee is a famous gangster who is on the run from the law and ends up at the Black Mesa. His escape from prison and subsequent crime spree is the subject of gossip and media coverage long before he arrives. When he does show up, near the end of act 1, he turns out to be more courteous and soft-spoken than the ruthless killer that he's been described to be. He offers the diner's food and drinks freely to his hostages. He also steals from the rich Chisolms without any hesitation, even showing a sense of amusement.
Even though it delays his escape to the Mexican border, Duke insists that his companions must wait at the Black Mesa for another part of his gang, which includes a blonde woman, Doris. He is almost cheerful about agreeing to kill Squier when Squier asks him to, indicating that Mantee might notPage 197 | Top of Article take the request seriously. In the end, though, Mantee finds out that he has been betrayed by Doris, and the cold-blooded killer in him comes out. He shoots Squier on his way out, indicating either his frustration at the world or his sympathy for Squier's disillusionment.
The female lead of the play, Gabrielle "Gabby" Maple reads and writes poetry and paints pictures. She is faithful to her father and kind to her grandfather, but she is also tough and uses coarse language. Her mother was French and divorced Gabby's father when Gabby was young. Each year when she was young, Gabby received a book from her mother, but the books were in French, and she could not read them. Gabby feels her life would be fulfilled if she could just go to France to study art. She is mildly interested in Boze's flirtations until she meets Alan Squier, who embodies all of the artistic sensibilities that she admires: he is the only one she will show her paintings to, and they are so abstract that he has to ask her, "Is—this a portrait of someone?" When he leaves, she is bitter enough to give in to Boze, just for the experience of it, but is stopped by the gangsters' arrival. When Squier comes back to the diner, he becomes more and more drawn to Gabby's idealism, until he eventually declares his deep love for her.
Gramp owns the Black Mesa Diner and refuses to sell it, even though his son and granddaughter would like to leave Arizona. He is something of a rebel in that he has fond memories of the time he met Billy the Kid, who once shot at him, and he is a fan of Duke Mantee and follows the gangster's exploits in the newspaper. When Gramp came to Arizona from Virginia in the 1870s, the area was Indian territory, and he and men like him took their lives into their own hands, running the first telegraph cable. He considers himself a pioneer and feels that life in the modern world has lost the pioneering spirit. "The trouble with this country is, it got settled," Gramp tells Gabby. During the course of the play, Jason is disrespectful to him, telling him to not talk to the customers, and Gabby follows Jason's command that Gramp cannot have a drink. When Duke arrives, he returns Gramp's respect at first by telling the others to give him what he wants, but later he becomes protective and says that Gramp should not drink, because Gabby says so.
The manager of the Black Mesa, Jason Maple is a patriotic American and a loyal member of the American Legion. Jason proves to be crude, telling his father to "shut up," and vain in the ornate uniform he wears to his Legion meeting. Jason is a veteran of the war, although he did not see combat: he drove a truck, which is a point he is very defensive about when Gramp ridicules his American Legion uniform. He plans to move to Los Angeles when Gramp sells the diner. Jason leaves for a Legion meeting early in the play and shows up later with a posse of Legionnaires that is looking for Mantee. They are taken hostage, and Jason feels betrayed when the troops that he was helping to hunt Mantee shoot up his restaurant and then commandeer his car to chase after the fleeing gang.
The Other Legionnaire
When the American Legion troops enter the diner with Jason and are captured by Mantee, the Other Legionnaire (referred to by the stage name "Other") alternates with the Legion Commander in telling of the capture of Doris and the other members of Duke's gang. He is introduced in the stage notes as "burly and stupid."
Paula is the Mexican cook at the Black Mesa.
Pyles is the African-American member of the Mantee gang. When he offers a drink to the Chisolms' chauffeur and the chauffeur asks for Mr. Chisolm's permission before drinking it, a stage direction tells performers that Pyles is "ashamed for his race." Later, when he interrupts Squier's declaration of love because he is worried for his life, Mrs. Chisolm tells him, "Be quiet—you black gorilla." Instead of standing up for Pyles, Mantee tells him, "She pegged you, all right, Pyles."
A member of Duke Mantee's gang.
Second Telegraph Lineman
The Second Lineman is an instigator. He encourages Gramp to tell his stories of the Old West and the First Lineman to talk about Communist principles, and he seems just as amused by each.
At the end of the play, the Sheriff and his deputies enter the diner in pursuit of Mantee's gang. They take Jason Maple's car, over his objection, to chase the gangsters who have fled in the Chisolms' Duesenberg.
Squier is a disillusioned intellectual who eyes other people's concerns with ironic humor but who ends up dying for love. Squier was born in 1901, and when he was twenty-two, he wrote a novel that was "very, very stark." It sold poorly, and the publisher lost money on it; then the publisher's wife divorced him and married Squier. For eight years he lived on the Riviera, trying to write another book, with his wife paying the bills, which he describes to Gabby as being "a gigolo." He defines himself as a member of a vanishing breed, intellectuals who have conquered nature and now have no purpose to their lives. After his meal, he admits that he has no money to pay, showing no concern or embarrassment. When Gabby offers him a dollar, he accepts it from her. When he ends up back at the Black Mesa, Squier is happy to be part of the hostage situation. He drinks liquor and encourages Duke Mantee and his gang to run from the law. Although he is without ideals himself, Squier tells Mantee to be true to his plan: "Don't betray yourself," he tells him. "Go on, run for the border—and take your illusions with you!" Boze's heroic act of defiance spurs Squier to his own heroic act: he makes Gabby the beneficiary of a five thousand dollar life insurance policy and asks Mantee to kill him, which Mantee does as he is leaving in the end.
The Petrified Forest raises questions about the prevailing social order from the moment the curtain rises. The first person to talk is a Communist sympathizer, and his first line is, "Certainly it's Revolution!" This character explains what he thinks about capitalism and its flaws. Throughout the course of the play, readers can see that Robert Sherwood is not endorsing communism. He does, however, recognize that there is something wrong with the existing social order, and so he is open-minded about different ideas about how society should run.
The current social order is represented in the play by Jason Maple, who wears an ornate uniform to his American Legion meeting and opposes things that he finds un-American. Jason's own father mocks his uniform and points out that he was not even involved in active fighting while he was in the service, which shows Jason's patriotic fervor to be based more on appearances than on substance. Gramp finds the American Legion's militaristic attitude to be a sign that they are soft, or too refined. "The trouble with this country is, it's got settled," Gramp explains.
Gramp favors gangsters, who fight to disrupt the social order, over Legionnaires, who fight to maintain it. He speaks glowingly of killers with whom he has associated, fascinated by their deeds. The mystique of the gangster is that he rejects society's laws and places himself above them, which makes him more free than those who accept the law.
Mrs. Chisolm proves the attraction of lawbreakers by choosing the gangster Duke Mantee, whom she calls a "real man," over her socially powerful husband. Sherwood has her recall how the established social order made her turn away from her heart's desire, which was to be an actress, showing how being socially acceptable has led her to eye her husband with contempt.
Although the play raises doubts about the prevailing social order, it is that social order that triumphs in the end. Duke Mantee, the social misfit, is hunted down; Squier, the lone traveler, ends up dead. The only one to benefit is Gabby, from the insurance money she will inherit.
The main element for change in the lives of this play's characters is their awareness that their lives are in danger. The threat of death makes them give up all pretensions. For instance, in the early part of the play, Boze puts on an act of arrogant overconfidence. When Gabby notes that he thinks a lot of himself, he responds, "Who wouldn't, in my position?" But when the gangsters hold him at gunpoint, Boze mutters vague, barely coherent threats that are easily laughed away. In the same way,Page 199 | Top of Article Squier tries to keep up his carefree attitude while being held hostage, but his good humor is strained and can only be maintained with drinking. As he drinks, he becomes more depressed and filled with self-loathing, telling Gabby that his problem is "the same disease that's affecting Boze! Impotence!" He is not talking about sexual impotence but rather the inability to take action in the face of mortal danger.
Things change when Boze faces the danger they are in directly: he grabs a shotgun and turns it on Mantee. His move fails, but at least he has broken the sense of doom. Alan Squier is not the type of man to handle a gun, but seeing Boze face death encourages him to face death in his own way, by asking Mantee to shoot him, which Gramp, in the end, calls "a hero's death."
One other character whose life is affected by peril is Duke Mantee himself. He does not talk about Doris, who is supposed to meet him at the Black Mesa, but audiences can tell that he loves her, because he seems blind to the danger that he is in, needing the members of his gang and Alan Squier to shout it at him. As the play progresses, Mantee finds himself paralyzed, torn between the instinctive desire to keep himself out of peril and the desire to wait for her or, later, the desire for revenge once he finds out she has betrayed him.
Man versus Nature
This play presents a clear view of the way that man's intellectual ability separates him from his natural, instinctive functions. It assigns each human tendency, intellect and instinct, to the two main male leads, who are physically linked, according to Sherwood's stage direction, by the fact that they are both "unmistakably condemned." Squier feels a loss of meaning in his life because he has become alienated from nature. He describes himself as having "brains without purpose. Noise without sound. Shape without substance." He is one of the intellectuals who felt that they had subdued Nature, only to find that nature is fighting back with neuroses. Gabby, who has been raised in a difficult land and has never had a real chance to express herself intellectually, is impressed with Squier's intellectual ability and finds him much more interesting than Boze, who is earthy and physical.
Squier, in turn, admires Duke Mantee, who is able to act unself-consciously in a way that hePage 200 | Top of Article himself never can. He calls Mantee a "child of Nature," suited to be Gabby's "mate." It is a great disappointment when, in the end, he finds that Mantee does not act instinctively to save his own life by running but, instead, complicates his action by thinking about going to Doris to take revenge for her betrayal. Squier tells him that going for his revenge would be a betrayal of himself: he would be overriding his instinct for self-preservation with a complex, purely human emotion.
Morals and Morality
Alan Squier arrives at the Black Mesa empty of any morals. He defines himself as a gigolo, who made his living for years taking his wife's money in exchange for being her sexual plaything. He turns down Gabby's offer to travel with him, happy to have the opportunity to remember her and to think that he might have been able to sin. He lists all of the philosophical and religious systems he can think of and proclaims that they are as dead as the trees in the Petrified Forest. The play represents Squier's moral growth. Through some combination of jealousy for Boze's grand gesture that got him shot and the shadow of his own lost values that he sees in Gabby, he builds a rudimentary sense of morality. It is not very complex and has only one level—all that he does for the rest of his short life is done in order to assure her ability to go to France, as she has always dreamed. Still, it is a moral system in that it gives him something to live for beyond immediate pleasure or pain.
It is ironic, then, that Squier almost makes Gabby give up her own morality. She comes away from their first conversation together with his assurance that there is nothing very magical about France, which she has pinned her hopes on. She later tells Boze that she was willing to have sex with him (Boze) because she thought, "I'd better get rid of all the girlish bunk that was in me, like thinking so much about going to France, and Art, and dancing in the streets." Having learned from Squier that only experience counts, regardless of whether it is in France or the American desert, she nearly gives in to Boze's vulgar propositions, just to see what sex is like. Later, she looks in horror at what she almost did, realizing what a violation of her own sense of morality it would have been. As Squier is rebuilding his own moral sense, which has been worn down by years of abstract intellectualism, Gabby is learning to defend her own morality from the same intellectual void.
The Petrified Forest uses an age-old dramatic convention which takes a set of diverse characters and creates some reason why they have to remain together in some confined space, in order to keep the actors on stage together throughout the performance. Plays have used such conventional devices as a social gathering, such as a wedding, birthday party, or poker game; or a closed method of transportation, such as a lifeboat or elevator. In Robert Sherwood's next play, Idiot's Delight (1936), travelers are forced to remain in a hotel in Europe when bombs start dropping at the start of World War II. In his play Key Largo (1939), a Florida hurricane makes it impossible for anyone to leave the premises of a hotel. (Another reason they are unable to leave is that, as in The Petrified Forest, the hotel staff and guests are being held by gangsters who are waiting to join others from their mob.) Because the traditional stage is a rectangle at the front of the theater, audiences have become accustomed to conventions that bring strangers together into one confined space, and they tend to accept them even when such gatherings would seem highly improbable in the real world.
Denouement is a French word meaning "the unknotting." In literary criticism, it is used to refer to the part of the story that comes after the climax, when the various plot complications are resolved.
In The Petrified Forest, the climax comes when Duke Mantee shoots Alan Squier. It is the one definitive moment at the end of the play, the one action that settles issues that had been left open. Once Squier asks Mantee to shoot him, early in the second act, the situation is out of his hands. It is no longer his decision about whether Mantee goes through with it; it is Mantee's decision alone. Audiences are given several clues to make them believe that Mantee might not kill Squier even after he has said that he will. First, the fact that he only wounds Boze, who is trying to kill him, indicates that his reputation as a cold-blooded killer might be exaggerated. He seems to find a soft spot in his heart for people, particularly Gramp Maple, and so one could easily believe that he never really intended to shoot someone who poses no threat to him. In addition, the whole play seems to be a test of Squier'sPage 201 | Top of Article character, so that once he has found meaning in his life by professing his love for Gabby, there is no dramatic reason why he has to die. Still, in spite of all of the indicators to the contrary, Mantee shows himself to be the murderer that his friends and the newspapers say he is.
After the climactic moment when Squier is killed, several interesting, but not necessary, things happen in the denouement. Boze, who had been his rival for Gabby's affection, pronounces him "a good guy"; Gramp says he was "a hero," raising a question of what it really means to be heroic; and Gabby deals with her grief courageously, reciting a poem that gives her comfort in her time of need, which signifies that her artistic ideals have not been shattered by the day's proceedings. These are all aspects of the characters that might have gone differently, but the play's denouement is showing audiences what the future holds for them.
What the denouement does not give is the fate of Duke Mantee. There are hints that the manhunt is closing in on him and that the chase will only last as long as it takes radio-alerted policemen to pull him over. There is, however, just as much evidence that the same cunning and ruthlessness that has helped him escape before will serve him again and that he will always be on the run.
An antihero is a main character in a play that does not have the traditional qualities that a hero possesses, such as courage, strength, or idealism. In The Petrified Forest, Alan Squier is very honest about the fact that he does not have any of these traits. He tells Gabby when he first meets her, "I've been hoping to find something that's worth living for—and worth dying for." He wants to be buried in the Petrified Forest because it represents "the world of outmoded ideas." When he is taken prisoner, he asks for whiskey and passes drinks around to the others. He even tells Mantee that he is no threat to the gunman's "superiority," saying, "[i]f I had a machine gun, I wouldn't know what to do with it." Despite the fact that he does not have the traditional qualities of a hero, audiences can take interest in how Alan Squier comes out of this situation because they care for him. They admire his honesty, even though it does replace courage and ideals. When Gramp says that he died "a hero's death," he is giving new meaning to the word "hero," expanding it to mean someone who has done a supremely selfless act, even though he is not technically a hero.
A new era for crime in America arose in the 1920s when the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution ushered in Prohibition. For decades, temperance groups had fought to outlaw alcohol, citing clear and overwhelming evidence of its negative effect on society. Sale and consumption of liquor was prohibited in the United States from January 1, 1920, until 1933, when the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed.
An unanticipated result of Prohibition was that it gave rise to a criminal class that had previously been scattered. Even though it was illegal, people still wanted liquor and were willing to pay for it, which meant that there was a handsome profit to be made for anyone willing to flout the law. In small towns and rural areas, moonshiners, who made their own product in stills put together out of copper kettles and tubing, often provided liquor. Local people, sometimes even those involved in law enforcement, knew who had the stills, and they went to them for moonshine. Prohibition, therefore, served to blur the line between criminals and law-abiding citizens. Instead of making alcohol socially unacceptable, it often ended up making it socially acceptable to ignore the law.
The effect of Prohibition on organized crime was even more powerful in urban areas. In cities, people could not operate stills with open fires, at least not to provide as much liquor as was required. Criminal syndicates rose up to illegally import alcohol from other countries, usually Canada or Cuba. The benefits gained from unity, from pooling resources of transportation, offshore connections, and political influence, made it worthwhile to combine forces, creating larger mobs, while the competition from different mobs going after the same customer base gave rise to violent gangland wars. The image of gangsters firing Thompson submachine guns ("Tommy guns") that is commonly evoked as an element of the Roaring Twenties comes from the public's full awareness of the turf battles that were being played out in city streets by gangsters whose names were becoming nationally familiar, such as Dutch Schultz, "Bugs" Moran, and Al Capone.
While Prohibition made public personages out of criminals, it was the Great Depression that made them popular. The depression began after the stockPage 202 | Top of Article market crash of October 1929: within two years, U.S. stocks lost around $50 billion, which had a rippling effect on the economy. Banks that lost money from investments had to call in loans; businesses that had borrowed from the banks had to lay off workers; unemployed workers had to draw what money they had out of banks and then default on their mortgages, causing even tighter financial conditions.
A certain class of criminal arose, one that realized that the only way to get money was to go to where it was kept, the banks, and steal it at gunpoint. They targeted banks in small towns, generally, where the security would be lax. Different career bank robbers were known for their different approaches: Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, for instance, were polite to their victims, whereas George "Baby Face" Nelson gained a reputation as a ruthless homicidal maniac. John Dillinger was recognized as the most important of them all, having been named by J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, as "public enemy number one." Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Dillinger were all killed in shoot-outs with authorities in separate incidents in 1934, the year before this play was produced.
As opposed to the urban mob figures, the bank robbers found a place in the imaginations of the American people who, like Gramp Maple in The Petrified Forest, idealized them as folk heroes, much as an earlier generation had done for thieves like Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Those who werePage 203 | Top of Article made suddenly poor by the depression found a sense of empowerment by watching the bandits rob the banks they felt had cheated them out of their money. The majority of Americans were poor, and many found the direct criminals more sympathetic than the ones who made their fortune manipulating the system. As folk singer Woody Guthrie put it in his song "The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd," which lionized the notorious criminal as a modern-day Robin Hood, "Some will rob you with a six gun, / And some with a fountain pen." A later line from the same song notes: "And as through your life you travel, yes and through your life you roam / You won't never see an outlaw drive a family from their home."
During the depression, Hollywood, and in particular the Warner Brothers Studio, made a series of films that focused upon criminals. The first was Little Caesar, in 1930, starring Edward G. Robinson as Rico, a small-time hood who rises to wealth and power through sheer ruthlessness. The film makes grand drama out of the inherent complexities of the criminal lifestyle: in the end, Rico, having decimated his enemies, is betrayed by a man that he could not bring himself to kill, out of friendship. The film was a huge success, and Warner Brothers quickly followed it with Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, who surprised audiences who were used to seeing him act in sophisticated comedies. Like Rico, Cagney's Tom Powers starts small and ends big, losing his humanity along the way. What these films had, and what the dozens of gangster films that followed tried unsuccessfully to copy, was strong central performances by actors who could hold audiences' sympathies while frightening them with their machine-like determination. The film-gangsters' mastery of their worlds allowed victims of the depression to imagine that success was available to anyone but that the moral cost was not worth it.
The gangster film cycle burned itself out quickly. By 1933, America had elected a new president, and the optimism of Roosevelt's New Deal edged out the nation's panic over a free-falling economy. Protests over the gangster films' excessive sex and violence made studio executives realize that public tastes had changed, and escapist musicals became the new trend. Still, the American archetype of the doomed, machine-gun-wielding bandit had been established, and it remains with us today.
The Petrified Forest is generally considered to be the start of Robert Sherwood's most prolific period as a playwright, during which he won three Pulitzer Prizes for drama within five years. Even when The Petrified Forest was first produced, it was recognized as a sign of a major literary career. Brian Doherty, writing in the magazine Canadian Forum, noted that this play and the one Sherwood wrote before it, Reunion in Vienna, "definitely establish Sherwood's right to be ranked as one of the leading American dramatists." Many critics found the play to be technically complex and intellectually challenging in its structure. One was John Howard Lawson, who used it as an example in his 1936 essay, "The Technique of the Modern Play." Lawson observed how Sherwood's approach to his material was "as static as the point of view of the hero," identifying only one real action in the entire production, when Mantee kills Squier at the end. "From a structural point of view," Lawson wrote, "the deed is neither climactic nor spontaneous, because it is a repetition-situation." This acknowledgement of the play's lack of traditional dramatic action in its structure is not a criticism, just an acknowledgement of the style Sherwood used to capture Squier's intellectual condition.
Edith J. R. Isaacs, on the other hand, was openly critical of the way Sherwood handled the situation in The Petrified Forest. In her essay "Robert Sherwood: Man of the Hour," which was written near the height of Sherwood's dramatic career in 1939, she praised the craftsmanship he displayed in Reunion in Vienna but went on to say that "[t]hen, to disturb the critics' placidity, came The Petrified Forest, with one of the best first acts Sherwood has ever written … and with a second act that rides full tilt into the most specious hokum with which the playwright has ever made a compromise." Isaacs conceded that the structure of the play is meant to show the contrast between Squier's inability to act and Mantee's violent outburst at the end, but she did not think his attempt to combine structure and content was successful, nor did she find it worth doing in this case. "It is sincerely hoped that Mr. Sherwood regrets writing The Petrified Forest after Reunion in Vienna," Isaacs wrote.
Critics in general have not been as harsh in their judgment as Isaacs, but they have been willing to concede that the play may not work as well on the
philosophical level as it does on the dramatic one. What Isaacs found problematic and branded as "hokum," more recent critics have accepted as entertainment. One critic who was able to view the play at a distance of more than twenty years was Joseph Wood Krutch, who singled it out in his 1957 book, The American Dream since 1918: An Informal History. After noting Sherwood's serious intent in writing the play, Krutch explained that the author's sincerity was irrelevant in this case, because Sherwood was such a gifted craftsman that he could make the play work anyway: "The Petrified Forest could succeed on its superficial merits alone," Krutch writes, "and one has some difficulty in deciding whether or not one has been charmed into granting it virtues deeper than any it really has." Because philosophical issues have changed over time and the question of meaning and meaninglessness is not the pressing social concern that it was in the first half of the last century, recent appraisals of the play tend to focus away from its worldview and, like Krutch, to appreciate Sherwood's control of language and situation. Some critics still feel that the situation is too contrived to make The Petrified Forest the serious drama that it presents itself to be.
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature at Oakton Community College. In this essay, Kelly examines the ways in which Sherwood's play can be categorized as a comedy.
Robert E. Sherwood's 1935 play The Petrified Forest, delves into deep topics concerning love and existence, and it ends with one man shooting another in cold blood—but at its core it is a comedy. This might seem an odd idea to audiences who find few outright laughs in the play. A better way to judge it overall, though, might be for audiences to ask what effect the play has had on them when it is done. Most viewers would probably find that they are sorrier for hopeless intellectual Alan Squier's loss of ideas than they are for his actual death, and that gangster Duke Mantee being "doomed," as Sherwood describes him in a stage direction, is notPage 206 | Top of Article really such a bad thing at all. The basic distinction between tragedy and comedy, as defined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, is that in tragedy everything turns out badly, regardless of who is good and who has good intentions, whereas in comedy things turn out well. A further distinction, which derives from the first, holds that tragic characters are the ones audiences come to care deeply about and empathize with, whereas comic characters are held at an objective distance, where their successes and failures can be observed as part of one grand and generally benevolent scheme.
The characters in The Petrified Forest are passionate, sometimes; they have personality traits that most people can relate to, even when those traits are submerged in broadly painted caricatures. What happens to them, even the lead characters, is less compelling to audiences than the ways in which they interact. They operate like cardboard cutouts that are posed in interesting positions, which is not at all unusual for comedy. The play is enjoyable, and it is thought-provoking in a large, abstract sense, but Sherwood is only able to achieve its many virtues by rendering all of the characters as types.
The most obvious of these is, of course, Gramp Maple, the grizzled old-timer who wanders around the stage looking for someone willing to listen to his stories about how life used to be, when his life was vibrant and what he did and said actually mattered. His is a character type that appears in all cultures, a reminder of how times change. Sherwood makes Gramp interesting by making his values the opposite of what audiences would expect. Normally, the "cranky old man" figure will have conservative values, because he feels that the old order that he's been comfortable with is being overrun by lawless criminal attitudes. Gramp, on the other hand, is sick of order. He misses the challenges of the uncivilized frontier. But turning the stereotype around by having Gramp cheer the troublemakers does not make him less of a stereotype; he's just doing the unexpected: surprising the audience in the way that good comedy often does.
Gramp is given his nemesis in his son, Jason, who is pompous, arrogant, and devoted to the social order in an almost maniacal way. Jason, too, is a character type. Early in the play, he is rankled by the Communist lineman. Rather than revealing any further dimensions to his character as the play progresses, Sherwood proceeds to magnify this one trait of gung-ho patriotism by putting Jason in a ridiculous uniform and having him grab a gun that he is obviously (compared to the play's gangsters) unqualified to use. His foolish nature holds true to form when the posse he has joined to capture the Mantee gang is itself captured and immediately disarmed.
Boze Hertzlinger, whom Alan Squier sarcastically refers to by his jersey number when he calls him "Number 42 out there," never really rises above the stereotype of the washed-up athlete. Sherwood does try, in the second act, to add depth to Boze by having him swear true love to Gabby, but this has little effect on her or, therefore, to the audience. Boze's most notable action is in making a grab for a shotgun and turning it on the notorious killers, but this does not really say anything about him that was not already present from the beginning. Sherwood does say in the stage notes that Boze's voice is "strained" when announcing that he is not afraid to die, indicating that he actually is, but this does not mean that he is a coward, and since he is not an established coward, his courageous act does not represent the turning point that it seems meant to be. Boze starts out as a self-deluded braggart, and his claim of love and his leap for the gun do nothing to contradict that.
Any consideration of the comic elements of The Petrified Forest would be incomplete without mentioning the Chisolms. Mr. Chisolm is the kind of character who would have delighted depression audiences: though he is rich, he is not necessarily better than anyone and generally is, in fact, quite worse. His wealth is of no use to him at the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q. He is foolish enough to try to bargain with a tough guy like Duke Mantee. Like a character from Aesop's Fables, he tries to be thrifty and ends up losing all of his money. His wife openly despises him and mocks his sexual virility in public. Chisolm's final instructions to his wife are played as pure, unabashed comedy. The comic set-up—"[i]f I'm killed and you're not"—leads audiences to expect some emotional dimension that Chisolm has not shown so far, some tenderness even after she has humiliated him. The comic payoff is that she should "notify Jack Lavery. He has full instructions," showing him to be a heartless bureaucrat to the end.
Secondary characters can be comic figures without the play itself being a comedy. The focus of the play is, after all, on Alan Squier, Gabby Maple, and Duke Mantee. These characters have more problems, more issues to discuss, and they provide more for the audience to empathize with. They certainly do not seem at first to exist in a comedy.Page 207 | Top of Article There is a difference, though, between involving the audience with the character's issues and involving them with the actual character. Even these lead characters, whose ideas are explored in detail, end up functioning more as symbols of people than as convincing, rounded characters.
In the case of Duke Mantee, much of the play's emotional distance is probably intentional. He is a media-star gangster, his viciousness hyped in newspapers and on the radio and by his henchman Jackie, who precedes Duke into the restaurant announcing, "This is Duke Mantee, folks. He's the world-famous killer and he's hungry." In person, though, Mantee does not act like the heartless animal that others say he is. When Boze threatens to shoot him, he stops him by just injuring him slightly, only as necessary—hardly the sort of thing a soulless killer would do to keep his hostages in line. The fact that he changes positions late in the play and decides that Gramp should not have any liquor, because "[t]he girl says he oughtn't to have it," implies a growing concern for the old man's health. And his insistence on waiting for Doris shows him to be, at least in part, as much of a fool for romance as anyone. The structure of the script requires that audiences believe there is at least a slight possibility that Mantee will not shoot Alan Squier in the end, and so these humane touches are necessary for story construction. His contradictory actions do not really make him a complex character, though. A case could be made that Mantee finds himself going soft as he bonds with the people in the diner and that he shoots Alan to reaffirm to himself that he will not let sentiment pull him down, but that does not explain why he would let Boze off so lightly. He shoots Squier to assert his animal nature over Squier's intellectualism. This much is clear on the abstract level, but it does not fit with his actions. His personality quirks are understandable for symbolic purposes, but they are too far removed from real human behavior to consider this a tragic drama.
Alan Squier seems to be the play's focal character, the one that audiences are supposed to relate to, but under scrutiny he proves himself to be little more than a big, walking allegory. He has allegedly come across the desert without a penny on him, forging ahead, even though life has no meaning for him. The reason life has no meaning appears to be that he has read much but could not write his second novel. Still, he retains a poetic appreciation for metaphor. He lights up at the appropriateness of the Petrified Forest as symbolic of all of society's ills, and when he starts to admit to finding meaning in his life, he expresses it just as poetically: "I've found what I was looking for here in the Valley of the Shadow." It is easier to understand Squier's concerns in theory than it is to understand him. Squier himself would be the first to admit that his death is a symbolic end to a symbolic life. It is not comic in a "funny" sense but comic in that audiences feel comfortable with seeing him go.
At the end of the play, Gabby remains. She grieves for Squier, the man that she fell deeply in love with hours ago, during their first conversation. What has she lost? The company of the man who engaged her in intellectual conversation and clever talk, trying to convince her that intellectuality and cleverness are worthless. What has she gained? Five thousand dollars in insurance money. She starts out the play with romantic dreams of Villon's France and ends it reading Villon over that most romantic image of all, a lover who died young. With all of the gunplay and shouting, not much changes for Gabby throughout the course of the play except that she finds herself rich enough to leave Arizona.
The Petrified Forest is a comedy with more frights than laughs. It presents itself as an exploration of modern ideas, but, in the process of putting those ideas into the mouths of characters, Sherwood has turned them into self-fulfilling prophecies. Duke Mantee is a murderer with some kind traits, but basically he is the murderer that everyone says he is. Alan Squier shows up at the Black Mesa thinking that ideas are irrelevant and that he is obsolete, and in the end he dies, and none of the survivors seems to have registered a word that he said (a fate that he seems to wish upon himself by prompting Gabby
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with the Villon poem she reads at the end, as if he is pushing her back to the emotional place she was when he arrived). Gabby Maple dreams of France in the beginning, and at the end she has her opportunity to go there. As Alan tells her, after he has arranged his own death, "Maybe we will be happy together in a funny kind of way."
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Petrified Forest, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
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Doherty, Brian, "Footlights," Review, in Canadian Forum, Vol. XV, 1934–1935, p. 194, quoted in R. Baird Shuman, Robert E. Sherwood, Twayne's United States Author Series, No. 58, Twayne Publishers, 1964, p. 67.
Guthrie, Woody, "The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd," lyrics, Woody Guthrie, American Folksong, Sanga Music Inc., 1958.
Isaacs, Edith J. R., "Robert Sherwood: Man of the Hour," in Theatre Arts, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, January 1939, pp. 31–40.
Krutch, Joseph Wood, "Comedy," in The American Dream since 1918: An Informal History, rev. ed., Braziller, 1957, pp. 134–225.
Lawson, John Howard, "The Technique of the Modern Play," in Theory and Technique of Playwrighting, Hill & Wang, 1936, pp. 143–44.
Auchincloss, Louis, "Robert E. Sherwood," in The Man behind the Book: Literary Profiles, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996, pp. 192–98.
Written by one of the most famed biographers of the mid-twentieth century, this brief but telling profile of the playwright does not have much detail about Sherwood's life but is told by an intelligent observer.
Brown, John Mason, The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times, 1896–1939, Harper & Row, 1962.
Brown's book is considered to be the definitive biography of Sherwood, following his life up to the start of World War II and offering insight into how the playwright's ideas formed. He also wrote The Ordeal of a Playwright: Robert E. Sherwood and the Challenge of War, published by Harper & Row in 1970.
Meserve, Walter J., Robert E. Sherwood: Reluctant Moralist, Pegasus, 1970.
Meserve examines Sherwood's career in terms of his Christian social ideals.
Wiser, William, The Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930s, Carroll & Graff, 2000.
Wiser's follow-up book to The Crazy Years: Paris in the Twenties does what the play does: it links the artistic freedom that Paris was famous for to the harsh realities that lay ahead with the coming of World War II.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420100020