State of the Union

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2004
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 19. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 27
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 183

State of the Union


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Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse first staged their Pulitzer Prize–winning play, State of the Union, in 1945, and published it a year later. The play was inspired by events of the time. Following World War II, which ended in 1945, global politics became a concern of many American citizens, as the play indicates. Issues of declining relations with the Soviet Union, atomic weapons, and America's inclusion in the newly formed United Nations are mentioned at various points in the play, which explores the various underhanded and dubious political methods that candidates use to get elected president of the United States. The two playwrights wrote the work after a friend, Helen Hayes, suggested they write a play about a presidential candidate.

In the play, that candidate is Grant Matthews, a self-made businessman who is very popular with the public for his strong and controversial views—and who at least one critic feels is molded after the real-life 1940 presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie, a person who is mentioned in the play. A politician, James Conover, and a host of other politically influential supporters convince a reluctant Grant to run for president, and he agrees, thinking that he can do so without compromising his plan to be an honest candidate. Unfortunately, as Grant makes more and more concessions, he—and his wife, Mary—realize that in order to be honest, he must risk alienating special interest political groups, which could cost him the election. Ultimately, the playwrights, through Grant's final speech, Page 184  |  Top of Article encourage the American people to take a more active role in the political process. Although the playwright team wrote many popular plays during their partnership, State of the Union is arguably their most well-known. The play is available in a 1998 paperback edition from Dramatists Play Service.


Howard Lindsay was born on March 28, 1889, in Waterford, New York. Russel Crouse was born on February 20, 1893, in Findlay, Ohio. Unlike many writing collaborations, Lindsay and Crouse both became successful in their own careers before joining forces. Lindsay was introduced to writing early, through his uncle's newspaper in Atlantic City, The Daily Union. Lindsay's mother worked there, and at the age of eight or nine, Lindsay began working there, too, selling newspapers. Since his uncle's paper had a number of nonpaying advertising clients, the family often traded ads for services. As a result, Lindsay was given free elocution lessons and theater tickets, both of which helped prepare him for a career in the theater. In 1913, after graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Lindsay joined a theater troupe, where he honed his acting, writing, and directing skills. Gradually, Lindsay began to focus on playwrighting.

By contrast, Crouse's writing experience was mainly as a reporter. His love of newspapers grew out of his experience as sports editor of his high school newspaper. In 1910, after graduating from high school, he joined the staff of the Commercial Tribune in Cincinnati. From there, he worked at various newspapers as a general news reporter, sports columnist, and political reporter. Crouse became interested in playwrighting and had his first play, Mr. Currier and Mr. Ives, produced in 1930. This successful production led to others and attracted the attention of Lindsay, who at this point in 1933, was sick with the flu and in need of another writer to help him finish Anything Goes (1934), a rewrite of the book adaptation of the Cole Porter musical. From this beginning, the writing partnership took off.

Over the next three decades, Lindsay and Crouse produced a number of hits, including 1939's Life with Father, which ran for more than seven years (3,213 performances)—their longest-running play. It was State of the Union (1946) that won the pair the Pulitzer Prize in drama. In addition to plays, the team also contributed librettos to musicals, the most famous of which is the 1959 libretto for The Sound of Music. Crouse died on April 3, 1966, in New York City. Lindsay died on February 11, 1968, also in New York.


Act 1, Scene 1

State of the Union starts out during a meeting in the Washington, D.C., home of James Conover, a politician who is searching for a Republican presidential candidate popular enough to win the 1948 election. Kay Thorndike, a newspaper publisher, thinks that Grant Matthews, a wealthy, self-made businessman who has become very popular for his speeches, is the right candidate and encourages James to consider him. Spike McManus, one of Kay's reporters, is also at the meeting. Although he is a reporter, his political abilities make him more of a strategist. Grant is reluctant about the idea of being a presidential candidate, and so is James. They agree that the best way to figure out if Grant is the right man is to follow him on a speaking tour that he is doing at his various airplane manufacturing plants around the country. Unfortunately, word of Grant's affair with Kay has started spreading, so James suggests that Grant invite his wife along for the tour, as a very public statement that their estranged marriage is still okay.

Act 1, Scene 2

The next night, Grant is encouraged by James to take some of the passion out of his speeches. Grant works with Spike to change his remarks. Mary arrives, and, due to the lack of space in the house, she agrees to stay in the same room as Grant. While Grant is downstairs meeting some politically influential people, James lets Mary know that Grant is thinking about running for president. Mary correctly guesses that she has been invited along on the speaking tour to quell rumors about Grant and Kay—a relationship that she is aware of. James also lets her know that he is aware of Mary's own affair, with an Army major. Mary is pleased at the rumor and encourages James to let Grant know about it, so she can make him jealous, as he has made her jealous of Kay. Mary also recognizes right away that, although Grant says he wants to be an honest politician and not play any games, Grant is being manipulated by James and the others. When the Page 185  |  Top of Article maid brings a pair of Kay's glasses to Grant's room and asks him what address to send it to, Mary realizes that Grant has seen Kay recently, and it changes her mood. In a huff, she creates a makeshift bed on the floor and forces Grant to sleep there while she takes the bed.

Act 2

Several weeks later, Grant and Mary arrive at a hotel in Detroit to make his final speech at a banquet, both excited about the response that Grant has been getting on his other presentations. James and Spike, however, are not thrilled. While the speeches have excited the general population, the special interest groups and other political entities that sway the course of an election are not happy with Grant's statements—many of which come out in favor of the common citizen, at the expense of industry. Before the speech, in the Matthews's hotel suite, Spike lines up several quick meetings for Grant with various special interest groups. In between meetings, James, worried about the content of Grant's Detroit speech, tries to get Grant to take out some of the more radical statements, but Grant refuses.

While Grant is out of the room, James tries to coerce Mary to get Grant to change his speech, but this fails, too. James and Spike are also dismayed to find out that, without their knowledge, Grant has set up a New York meeting with the foreign policy association, a politically important meeting that will cause Grant to announce his candidacy—an announcement that James and Spike have been trying to postpone. James tries one last time, telling Grant not to alienate his Detroit audience, which is a good source of silent (illegally filtered) campaign contributions. Mary is dismayed to hear that Grant thinks it is okay to take silent money, as long as it goes to James, and not directly to him.

In the middle of their discussion, Spike comes in to announce that Grant has one more delegation to meet with. While he is gone, James says that, in order to kill off the rumors of Grant and Kay once and for all, Mary's upcoming dinner party, which was for one old political friend, should be expanded to include several prominent Republican supporters, including Grant's mistress, Kay. Mary is outraged because the party is on the night of their wedding anniversary, and she refuses. James says they should talk about it after the banquet. Grant, Mary, and Spike leave for Grant's speech. After they have gone, Kay appears, revealing that she was the last, unnamed "delegation" who met with Grant.
Howard Lindsay Howard Lindsay She talks with James, telling him that all is well and that she set Grant's mind straight about the things he needed to say in his Detroit speech.

Act 3, Scene 1

Mary relents, and she and Grant host a number of people, including Kay, at their New York apartment two weeks later. At first, everything seems to be going fine. Mary is upset that Grant changed his speech in Detroit at the last minute, but she agrees to be civil for the night. Mary has even agreed not to drink, because she does not want to slip up, say something about Kay or about her disapproval over Grant's being manipulated, and spoil Grant's night. But when the guests start arriving, things start to unravel. Sam, the only dinner guest with whom Mary is friends, does not realize that Kay's presence in Detroit was meant to be kept a secret. When Grant starts talking to Kay about the Detroit banquet in front of Mary, she realizes that Kay is the one who met with Grant right before his speech and who got him to change it. Mary's mood immediately changes. She starts drinking and interjects catty comments into the political conversation, much to Grant's dismay. She continues drinking until just before dinner, becoming very drunk. Grant takes her aside and asks her to support him during the dinner, and they walk in together.

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Act 3, Scene 2

An hour later, Mary sits in the living room with Lulubelle, the wife of one of the guests. While Mary frantically drinks cup after cup of coffee, Lulubelle continues to drink alcohol. As the two women talk, it is revealed that Mary made a scene during dinner and that she cannot remember all of the ways she insulted her guests. Lulubelle goes into another room, and James comes in to talk to Mary. He tries to convince her that if she does not help Grant to see that he needs to compromise his morals to get votes, then he will not get elected. Furthermore, he tells her that the White House is the only place that Mary and Grant can hope to remain married, because otherwise, Grant will probably leave Mary for Kay—something Grant could not do if he was in the public eye. As the party breaks up and guests start to leave, they all try to manipulate Grant in different ways and talk about the political ploys they will need to use to win certain votes. At James's urging, Mary tries to go along with this, but she can only take so much. Mary finally explodes, sober this time, saying that they are trying to take away everything that is good about Grant and that nobody is looking out for the American people. Her comments affect Grant, and he tells James, Spike, and Kay that he is not going to be a presidential candidate anymore. They all leave, and when Grant and Mary are alone, he suggests that they take a trip back to the place where they honeymooned, a good sign that their marriage is going in a positive direction.


Judge Jefferson Davis Alexander

Judge Alexander is the husband of Lulubelle Alexander and a prominent Southern Republican who attends the Matthews's dinner party. He spends much of the time before dinner fixing drinks for his wife, Lulubelle, and Mary Matthews. The judge has been stuck in the same state judicial appointment for years, and he hopes that if Grant gets elected, he will appoint the judge to a federal position. In fact, he goes so far as to give Grant a list of the major decisions that he has made in his time on the state bench, to try to sway Grant's mind.

Mrs. Lulubelle Alexander

Lulubelle is the wife of Judge Jefferson Alexander and a guest at the Matthews's dinner party. Because Lulubelle does not trust anybody else to make her Sazaracs—potent cocktails—she has her husband do it. Lulubelle and Mary Matthews spend most of the night drinking together, and Lulubelle tries to console Mary after she makes a scene at dinner.

James Conover

James Conover is a Republican politician who tries to coax Grant Matthews through the beginning part of his campaign. In the beginning of the play, James is desperate to find a strong Republican candidate who can win the presidential election in a few years. Even with Kay Thorndike's urging, James is not sure that Grant is the right man, so the two postpone that decision until after Grant's speaking tour. During this tour, James, along with Spike MacManus and Kay, attempt to mold Grant into a politician by forcing him to compromise his beliefs and morals. At James's suggestion, Grant also invites his wife, Mary, along for the speaking tour, to quell the rumors of Grant's and Kay's affair. Inviting Mary turns out to be James's downfall, because she sees right through his intentions and works hard to encourage her husband to speak the truth, even if it means that he will not get as many votes. James is frustrated at this fact, and also at the fact that Grant is making political decisions—such as agreeing to speak at a politically charged meeting in New York—without consulting James first. James tries to regain control by having Kay talk to Grant, which works for a little bit. After Mary makes a scene at the Matthews's dinner party, James takes her aside and tells her that, if she does not want her husband to leave her, she should play along with James and help the Matthews get into the White House. Otherwise, he says, Grant will not have any motivation to stop his affair with Kay. Even with this coercion, however, Mary refuses to go along with James, and in the end, he is wrong. Grant decides to stick by his beliefs and by his wife, and decides not to run for president.

Mrs. Grace Draper

Mrs. Draper is a member of the Republican National Committee and a foreign affairs expert who attends the Matthews's dinner party. She proves to be one of the toughest people Grant Matthews has to deal with, since she believes that, now that the United States is part of the United Nations, it should use this membership as a tool to get each individual ethnic American group riled up and earn their votes. Grant has a hard time going along with this.

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William Hardy

William Hardy is a labor representative who attends the Matthews's dinner party. He is sullen at first, because he is dressed up, while everybody else is not. His biggest issue is to keep labor's financial books closed, because if management knew how much money labor had, then the company could predict how long labor could hold a strike for.

Senator Lauterback

Lauterback is a Republican senator who attends the Matthews's dinner party. The senator's biggest constituent group is farmers, whom he thinks should have special exceptions to the trade policy that Grant Matthews is suggesting.

Spike MacManus

Spike MacManus is one of Kay Thorndike's reporters, who also serves as Grant Matthews's political strategist and advisor along with James Conover and Kay. Spike is famous in Washington for his investigative reporting, but as Kay notes, Spike never writes a thing; instead, they give him six telephones. By using all of these phones, Spike is always in the know on the political scene. As a result, many people are wary around him, because they never know when he might dig up information on them that he can use. At the beginning of the play, Kay gives Spike a two-week leave of absence from his newspaper job so that he can follow Grant on his speaking tour and help him rewrite his speeches so that they are less inflammatory. Spike also lines up meetings with special interest group delegations and takes care of other logistical arrangements on the trip. He is also aware of everybody's drink preferences at the Matthews's dinner party and makes arrangements beforehand with the butler to have specific drinks served.

Grant Matthews

Grant Matthews is Mary Matthews's husband and a self-made business tycoon who considers running for president. In the beginning, Grant is reluctant when his mistress, Kay Thorndike, encourages him to run for president. He warms up to the idea quickly, however, even though it means spending two weeks on a speaking tour with his estranged wife. Grant tries hard to stick to his beliefs, but almost immediately, he begins to bow to pressure from James Conover, Spike MacManus, and Kay. It starts out small, with Spike rewriting certain sections of Grant's speeches. As the play goes on, the concessions that Grant must make become larger. He tries to comfort himself, and justify his actions to Mary, by saying that he is not responsible for these things—such as illegal campaign contributions—since James is handling it. Mary sees through these types of statements and tries to get her husband to be true to himself. In Detroit, on the last engagement of his speaking tour, Grant and Mary are excited by the reception that Grant gets from the audience.

As Grant learns from James, the popular vote does not matter; it is only the special interest groups that can bring in the votes that Grant needs to get nominated as the Republican Party's presidential candidate. Still, Grant refuses to be browbeaten into changing his Detroit speech. Then, unbeknownst to Mary, Kay meets with Grant right before his speech, and he decides to change it so that it is more politically safe. At the Matthews's dinner party two weeks later, Mary is still upset that Grant caved and changed his speech. When she finds out it was Kay who talked him into that change, she is even more outraged and gets drunk at the party, insulting everybody else in the process. Grant smooths things over but realizes that to continue appeasing the special interest groups, he is going to have to compromise his beliefs. After Mary's final outburst, Grant is thoughtful, and ultimately tells James, Spike, and Kay that he no longer wishes to run for president. At the end of the play, the relationship between Grant and Mary has been healed, and they both look forward to the future.

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State of the Union was adapted as a feature film in 1948 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, directed by Frank Capra. The film is available from MCA/Universal Home Video.

Mary Matthews

Mary Matthews is Grant Matthews's wife and the one who ultimately talks him out of selling out Page 188  |  Top of Article his beliefs to get elected president. In the beginning, Mary is at home in New York taking care of the couple's two children. But when James says that Grant needs Mary by his side on his speaking tour, to quell rumors of the affair between Grant and Kay Thorndike, Grant invites her. James is the one who tells her that Grant is thinking about running for president, and she correctly guesses that she is only on the tour to keep rumors about the affair quiet. Although she knows about the affair, and she has had one with a military man in retaliation, it still irks her. While she is not happy about the affair, Mary still loves Grant, and over the course of the speaking tour, the couple begin to show signs that they are still in love. Mary is the only one of the cast who encourages Grant to speak his mind, regardless of the political consequences, and James, Spike, and Kay realize too late how strong of an influence Mary has on Grant.

Both times in the play that Mary finds out Kay has been visiting with Grant without her knowledge, her mood abruptly changes. During the first instance, she makes Grant sleep on the floor at James's house. During the second, when she finds out that Kay visited with Grant and got Grant to change his Detroit speech at the last minute, Mary decides to get back at everybody. She drinks heavily before their dinner party and then tells off Grant and all of her dinner guests. When she sobers up later, she regrets being an improper host but does not regret speaking her mind. When James takes her aside and says that she could be jeopardizing her marriage if she destroys Grant's presidential chances, Mary tries to go along with James and the political maneuvers that he is proposing for Grant. It becomes too much, and she ultimately blows up again. This time, however, Grant is moved by her speech and decides to call off his election plans. At the end of the play, their relationship is on the road to being healed, and they both look forward to the future.


Norah is James Conover's maid. When she finds Kay Thorndike's glasses and shows them to Grant Matthews, Mary Matthews realizes that Kay and Grant have been seeing each other again.

Sam Parrish

Sam Parrish is a businessman and friend of the Matthews, who attends their dinner party. Although Sam and Grant Matthews are friends, they have often clashed in the past about their views on the responsibility of industry to their labor forces. When Grant starts to cave on this issue, at the urging of Kay, Sam is very happy.

Kay Thorndike

Kay Thorndike is a newspaper publisher who is having an affair with Grant Matthews. She is also one of the people who strongly encourages Grant to run for president, and who, along with James Conover and Spike MacManus, helps to run Grant's campaign. For Kay, this also includes telling Grant what to do and say. As she notes to James, she can handle Grant. Kay's affair with Grant is noticed by some, and James gets wind of this fact. Worried that this scandal could hurt Grant's chances to get elected, Kay stays away from Grant for most of the play to help quell the rumors. But in Detroit, before Grant gives his speech, she shows up unexpectedly. In a secret meeting that is only later revealed to Mary, Kay gets Grant to change his mind about what he is going to say in his Detroit speech. Yet, since Grant and Mary have the opportunity to grow closer in their marriage again during the speaking trip, Kay ultimately begins to lose her control over Grant. At the end of the play, she refuses to believe that she has lost her edge over Grant and that their affair is over.


Election Politics

As is clear from the beginning of the play, State of the Union is about politics in the United States, specifically the presidential election process. The main plot concerns the Republican Party's desire to win back the White House in the 1948 election. As Kay notes to James in the first scene, "If we get a strong candidate in '48 we've got better than a fighting chance." Kay feels that Grant would be the right candidate, because the buzz from her newspapers tells her that "The party's best chance in '48 is to put up a candidate who's never been identified with politics." Kay, as well as James and Spike, knows that image is everything when a candidate is trying to win a presidential election. Because of this, as soon as Grant has said that he is considering the run for president, they all start working on his image, trying to make him look like the best candidate to the largest possible group of voters. This Page 189  |  Top of Article leads to some ludicrous suggestions. For example, when Grant says offhand that he was a premature baby, Spike seizes on that fact. "Say, drop that into an interview sometime. There may be some votes in that. There are a lot of people who think they were seven-month babies." They also work on Grant to try to get him to tone down his speeches—the same speeches that have made him popular in the first place.

Although Grant resists this idea, he soon begins to cave. His reluctance about running gives way to a desire to be president, so that he can do good. On the few occasions when he does not listen to James and Spike and instead listens to Mary and speaks his mind during his speeches, he gets a good response from the American public—a fact that becomes evident in the play when Grant and Mary arrive at their Detroit hotel for the last speech and are mobbed by admirers. Grant also receives several telegrams congratulating him on his speech. "Just look at these, Mary—it shows how hungry the American people are for leadership." Yet, when Grant tries to defend the controversial content of his speeches to James by using the telegrams as proof that they worked, James notes that applause means nothing in election politics. "Mary, if applause elected Presidents, William Jennings Bryan would have had three terms." Like Grant, William Jennings Bryan—a real-life person—was a charismatic candidate and popular speaker, who ran for president but was never elected. When Grant and Mary push the issue about winning over the public, James gets angry and says that the people will have nothing to do with Grant's nomination. "You're not nominated by the people—you're nominated by the politicians! Why? Because the voters are too damned lazy to vote in the primaries! Well, politicians are not lazy." Grant begins to realize that if he wants to get enough votes to win the primary, he is going to have to cater to politicians. Spike helps enforce this concept by lining up meetings with Grant and several special interest groups. As he notes to James, "He wants to be President, all right. So what I keep throwing at him is votes—get those votes—don't lose those votes."

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  1. Write a one-page description indicating how you would direct the play's second act, which takes place entirely in the Matthews's hotel room. Feel free to explore creative alternatives such as set or prop changes.
  2. Research the major political issues discussed in the play, as well as the current hot political issues in the United States. Plot both sets of issues on a chart. Include a capsule description for each issue, including its historical background, the arguments given by the issue's supporters and opponents, and the side that you support.
  3. Research the controversial United States presidential election of 2000. Plot the major events of this election on a timeline.
  4. Research the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States and write a short report comparing the two political orientations. Choose one prominent person from each party and write a biography about each, including specific aspects that led to this person choosing to be a member of his or her party.
  5. In the play, one of the characters notes that the general American public does not vote in primary elections, and so they do not have as much political influence as special interest groups, who do vote in primaries. Research the concept behind the primary elections and discuss whether or not you think this system is necessary. Feel free to suggest other alternatives to the primary system, using your research to support your claims.


In the beginning, Grant notes that he wants to run an honest campaign. When James and the others Page 190  |  Top of Article tell him that he might have to compromise on that issue, Grant abhors the idea. "I'm not going to pull any punches! I want that understood!" But as the speaking tour gets rolling, Grant thinks that maybe he can compromise a little and be okay. It starts out with the speeches, which Spike tells him are too fancy. The next night, James comes in to Grant's room, where he is changing his speech. "What Spike said last night had me worried. I'm trying to unfancy it a little bit." After this first concession, Grant travels a slippery slope, first of all changing his speeches, then agreeing to take illegal campaign contributions as long as James is the one who accepts them, and finally agreeing to compromise his beliefs and make tentative promises to several politicians at the Matthews's dinner party.

Grant's only salvation is Mary, who recognizes right away that her husband and even Mary herself are being manipulated. When James tells Mary that Grant is thinking about running for president, she correctly guesses why she has been asked to come along on the speaking tour. "These public appearances that Grant and I are to make together—are they designed to kill off any talk about my husband and Mrs. Thorndyke?" Mary insists on keeping things out in the open and being honest. When she finds out about Grant's presidential bid, she says she is proud of him. "It isn't only that you have the brains for it.—The important thing to me is, Grant—you've always tried to be honest." Of course, as she notes, he has cut corners in business to get where he is, but she says, "you always had the decency to be unhappy about it."

Mary is the only one who tries to protect Grant's sense of honesty, starting with the speaking tour. At her urging, he speaks his mind during some of his speeches, which makes James very nervous that Grant is turning off potential primary voters. Mary picks up on this. When they arrive in Detroit for the last speech, Mary encourages Grant to avoid talking "to Jim about what you're going to say tonight." Grant attempts to do this, and James gets frustrated and starts asking Mary if she knows what is in the speech, starting out with a gentle probe into the matter: "You've probably read Grant's speech anyway, haven't you?" James says to Mary, who neatly deflects the question by saying "I'm sorry you won't be there." Since James's presence in Detroit would indicate Grant's intention to run for president, he must stay hidden and so will not be able to hear Grant's speech.


Political Drama

State of the Union is a good example of a political drama. While many literary works touch on issues of political importance, they are not always central to the work's message and may just serve as a theme or means to generate additional conflict in the work. In political dramas, however, the commentary on political issues is the message. In the case of State of the Union, the playwrights touch on several political issues that were being discussed in the mid-1940s when the play was first being performed. For example, in the beginning of the play, Kay notes that President Harry Truman is "strong with labor," because of a veto that the president made. In the 1940s, conflict between labor unions and business was a major political issue, and earning both votes was a big deal. Kay says that Grant is a good candidate to win both of these votes, because "No employer in the country's got a better labor record. And business is bound to go along with him."

This is a big issue throughout the play, because the aspects of Grant's personality—namely his honesty—that make him popular with both camps, do not work in a political sense. Grant wants to be totally honest and advocates radical changes that fire some people up, but which are too radical to fire up the greater majority of voters. At the end of the play, Grant appears about to compromise on the issue with Bill Hardy, the labor representative who comes to the Matthews's dinner party. "Just keep in mind what I said. Our funds are our secret weapon. If an employer knows how much we've got in the bank, he knows just how long we can stay out on strike." Grant, smiling, tells Hardy that "As an employer I can understand that." Earlier, however, Grant was adamant to James about the necessity of opening labor's books: "Some of the biggest and best unions in the country had already opened their books." There is a hidden issue here, which goes beyond whether labor is better off with open books, as James indicates in a response to Mary about looking at labor's funds: "Well, some of that money went into campaign contributions." In other words, as long as the books are closed, then politicians can get some of these hidden funds as contributions. If the books are opened, it might be easier to track this illegal, "silent money"—which is a huge source of campaign contributions.

Conflicts between labor and management are just one issue that the play addresses. Lindsay and Page 191  |  Top of Article Crouse also address a laundry list of other topics, including the farming industry, America's inclusion in the United Nations, and even the dubious methods by which some judges are appointed. As the example of Judge Alexander shows, sometimes the judicial and executive branches scratch each other's backs. Right after Alexander gives Grant a list of his most important judicial decisions, he lets Grant know that, in the primary, he thinks he "can safely promise you the votes of five Southern States." In the end, the playwrights' message goes beyond all of these individual issues. The true issue is the fact that the political process, as illustrated by all of these examples, is not truly democratic. Instead of representing the individual American, politicians have turned issues into bargaining chips. Politicians play the biggest chips, manipulating the emotions and desires of the largest and most influential special interest groups, which in turn help these politicians get elected, through both campaign contributions and votes. In the end, Grant refuses to do this, and in his speech to James, he says that the president is the one person who should not get caught up in party politics. Yet, even though he is not running for president, Grant tells Mary that he is still going to remain involved in politics. His speech, and the main message of the play, is that people should get involved in politics, if they want to change the system and give political power back to average Americans:

I'm going to be yelling from the sidelines; you've got to be yelling; everybody's got to be yelling. I'm going to be in there asking questions, and I'm going to see that the people get the answers.


As noted above, the time period in which the play takes place affects the action greatly. The post-war period in the United States was very volatile and gave politicians many issues to use to further their political agendas. Besides the time setting, the many locations in which the play is set are also important to the plot. The play starts out in Washington, D.C., the political center of the United States. Here, Grant is surrounded by politically savvy supporters,—such as Kay, James, and Spike—and here Grant seriously considers a bid for the White House. But then, in between the end of the first and the beginning of the second act, Grant and his entourage travel around the country to the speaking engagements at his various airplane manufacturing plants.

By the time the second act starts and all of this action has happened offstage, there is a noticeable change in Grant's demeanor. As he gets away from Washington—and from Kay's influence—and interacts with regular Americans in these cities, Grant, with the help of Mary, feels right at home and is able to get in touch with his honest side and speak his mind. In Detroit, Grant is planning on speaking his mind again, but Kay shows up at the last minute and talks him out of it. By the end of the play, Grant, who has felt at home at his various plants, is literally at home, and here, away from the lure of Washington, he has the hometown advantage. After a frantic outburst from Mary, Grant sees that he would have to change his values to get to Washington, and he is not willing to do that. He chooses Mary and home over Kay and Washington, and at the end, he even says to Mary that they should take a trip to their honeymoon location.


Political Causes of the Two World Wars

Although the play takes place in 1946, a year after World War II ended, the monumental war affected politics on a global scale, a fact noted several times throughout the play. In fact, the historical context for the play dates back even further, since World War II ultimately began as a consequence of post–World War I political events. At the end of World War I, the Allied forces and Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, which included a war guilt clause stating that Germany caused the war and should therefore pay for the Allies's losses and damages. After several years of German payments that gradually increased in size, the British and French governments started renegotiations with Germany for their final reparations payments. Yet, the political situation was too volatile in Germany for this kind of move. Germans, inspired by Adolph Hitler and frustrated over their rising unemployment, became increasingly hostile on the issue of war reparations payments. Using this issue as one of his main campaign focuses, Hitler and his Nazi Party gained popularity and ultimately gained power in Germany.

World War II and Atomic Power

In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and began attacking other European countries, prompting a Page 192  |  Top of Article global response that ultimately included many countries. The Axis powers (which included Germany, Japan, Italy, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria) faced off against the Allies (which eventually included the United States, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and more than a dozen other countries), in a bloody war that lasted several years. In August 1945, in an effort to end World War II quickly and decisively, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The immediate explosive and long-term destructive forces were unlike anything that humanity had ever seen. These two events, which led to the rapid surrender of Japan and the end of World War II, also served to usher in the atomic age—and the threat of atomic war. In the play, Mary Matthews notes the

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  1. 1940s: The United States and much of the rest of the world attempt to re-adjust to life after the horrors of World War II. While the Allies's victory is militarily decisive, the fallout from the war creates new political tensions between certain countries, most notably the United States and the Soviet Union.

    Today: The United States and many other countries are mired in an ongoing conflict in Iraq and other regions of the Middle East. Due to the guerrilla and terrorist tactics used by insurgents, some wonder if the war can ever be decisively won. Tensions between the United States and some of its allies increase when a Bush administration report indicates that America will only award Iraq reconstruction contracts to allies that supported the United States's largely unilateral decision to go to war.

  2. 1940s: Following the American decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, the world enters an atomic age. Both the United States and the Soviet Union use suspicion of the other government to justify a massive arms race, developing enough weapons of mass destruction to blow the world up several times over. Many American citizens live in fear of such an apocalyptic nuclear war.

    Today: Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as reports by the Bush administration that Iraq is one of the nations that may possess weapons of mass destruction, many Americans initially support military action in Iraq. As the search continues in vain for these weapons, the administration is accused of inflating the actual threat of the weapons of mass destruction in order to justify going to war.

  3. 1940s: In 1945, in response to the horrors of World War II, 51 countries, including the United States, form the United Nations as an attempt to engage in a unified effort to support global humanitarian missions and prevent future aggressions.

    Today: There are currently 189 countries in the United Nations. Following the ongoing refusal of Saddam Hussein to let United Nations inspectors search for weapons of mass destruction, American President George W. Bush appeals to the United Nations to authorize a United Nations–backed force to attack Iraq. When the majority of the United Nations delegates oppose this course of action, the United States and its few allies attack Iraq anyway. Some political commentators note that this course of events calls into question the effectiveness and authority of the United Nations.

  4. 1940s: In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt defeats Wendell Willkie to serve an unprecedented third presidential term. Roosevelt is elected to a fourth term in 1944, but dies in office a year later.

    Today: As a result of the 22nd Amendment (1951) to the United States Constitution, which is enacted largely as a results of Roosevelt's four consecutive terms, presidents may now serve a maximum of two four-year terms in office.

public's fear about atomic weapons, when she discusses the need for humane politicians to wield this power. After the Matthews's dinner party, she asks James: "Are you willing to trust the people you brought here tonight with atomic power?"

Strained Relations with the Soviet Union

Although the United States and the Soviet Union fought on the same side in World War II, events near the end of the war and in the years immediately following quickly drove a wedge between them. In February 1945, as Nazi Germany was getting ready to fall to the Allied powers, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin—the respective leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—had a historic meeting at Yalta, a Russian city. Here, they discussed how Europe should be divided after the war. Stalin wanted to instill communist governments in Poland and Germany and wanted Germany—its biggest foe—disbanded as a nation. Churchill and Roosevelt feared the spread of communism, however, and wanted to maintain Germany's status as a nation. They negotiated a compromise, but Stalin did not abide by the agreement. Following the war, Stalin capitalized on the weakness of many Eastern European countries, using the Soviet Union's military prowess to quickly place communist governments across much of Eastern Europe. As Caspar Nannes notes in his 1960 book Politics in the American Drama, New York city residents who went to see State of the Union were aware of these political machinations and were concerned "with the atom bomb and relations with Russia." As a result, the play's discussion of current events resonated with them.

The United Nations Is Formed

Following the horrors of World War II, which also witnessed a Nazi-supported extermination of an estimated six million Jews, 51 countries agreed to form the United Nations, a unified, peacekeeping body that replaced the League of Nations—a similar body that was formed during the peace treaties that had ended World War I. The United Nations hoped to prevent further aggressions among countries by giving them a forum through which to discuss and resolve international issues. While this was a good idea in theory, in practice, the growing tension among nations like the United States and the Soviet Union undercut the intended purpose of the United Nations. While some politicians in the United States resented America's inclusion in the United Nations, they were not above using this membership as a political tool, as Mary witnesses at her dinner party. In Mary's impassioned speech at the end of the play, she angrily sounds off on this concept:

Now that we're in the United Nations let's use it!—use it to get the Italian votes and the Polish votes—lets use it to get the votes of those who hate the Russians and those who hate the British! How long is it going to be before you ask us to forgive Germany to get the German vote?


When it was first performed in 1945, State of the Union was a wildly popular play. It also received rave reviews. Both positive responses were largely due to the current events at the time. As Caspar H. Nannes says in his 1960 book, if the play had been performed in the nineteenth century, it "probably would not have lasted a week." Produced in the politically charged mid-twentieth century, however, Nannes notes that "its 765 consecutive performances made the play the forty-fifth longest running show in the history of the New York stage." Nannes notes that, following World War II, the American populace was more versed in politics and that the play, "national in theme and international in implications, was written for an audience presumed familiar with important political names and situations on a world basis." Indeed, the play's main themes address several issues that were of political importance, the most important of which was the developing rift with Russia, which would eventually spark the Cold War. As Thomas P. Adler notes of this "mildest of comedies of manners" in his 1994 book American Drama: 1940–1960: A Critical History, the protagonist, Grant Matthews, "maintains belief in the best instincts of the American public, refusing to prey on either the emerging Cold War hatred of the Russians or on the easy solution of lower taxes."

But the play addressed other realities besides the post-war international situation. It also addressed the perils and dishonesties of the modern political process itself. And it did so more boldly than other plays had done in the past. Nannes notes that early reviews give the play high marks for not pulling any punches. In the past, political dramas had failed to mention specific political parties or candidates, for fear of offending them. State of the Union mentions both. As Edmond M. Gagey notes in his 1947 book Page 194  |  Top of Article
Frank Capra, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy in the 1948 film State of the Union Frank Capra, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy in the 1948 film State of the Union Revolution in American Drama, the play, despite its "light satirical treatment, had a serious intent." Nannes, who is the critic that suggested the character of Grant Matthews was modeled after real-life presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, underscores the play's "sophisticated approach, clever dialogue, and outspoken study of the contemporary political scene." Nannes cites the scene where it is noted that Grant's charisma has caused him to be mobbed by supporters on his speaking tour. As Nannes says, "When Willkie toured the country in the months preceding the Republican convention of June, 1940, he produced similar reactions."

Other critics have discussed the play, and specifically the character of Grant Matthews, in terms of similar political dramas. As Jane Bonin notes in her 1975 book Major Themes in Prize-Winning American Drama, "Like most other political heroes in these plays, Grant, afraid he does not have the qualifications to lead the country, is at first reluctant to consider running." Bonin says that, as is the case with other similarly themed political dramas, "State of the Union implies that the only decent politician is a man who does not really want the job." Such a person, of course, also does not want to play the political game and will insist on being honest, as Grant does. Nannes points to this as the play's main theme, saying the drama "insists that the American people will respond to a candidate who tells them what he stands for, regardless of the consequences."

In the end, this is exactly what Grant chooses to do. As Adler notes, this optimistic ending, in which Grant refuses to play political games but still vows to be involved, "underscores the playwright's message that if a society wishes to be truly democratic, no one of its citizens can hide from responsibility in an apolitical stance." Likewise, Nannes says that the play "called upon Americans to take politics away from the politicians and into their own hands." Not every critic thought that the ending totally achieved its purpose, however. As Bonin says, several plays in this genre, including State of the Union, "issue a clarion call for people to wake up, but wake up and do what, exactly, is never quite clear."

Gagey notes in 1947 that "It is the fate of drama to become more rapidly dated than other literary types," since drama tends to deal with specific, contemporary issues that may not be relevant in later years. However, fifty years after State of the Union was first produced, it was still in the public consciousness. So much so, in fact, that in 1997, a very odd charity benefit performance of the play was produced, in which current politicians occupied many of the roles. As Kevin Chaffee notes in his Washington Times review, the play "was played for laughs with a good bit of self-deprecating humor from the all-star cast. So much so that it was hard to tell who had the most fun, the audience or the players."


Ryan D. Poquette

Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette explores the relationship of Grant and Mary Matthews in the play.

When State of the Union was first performed in 1945, it struck a chord with the American public, who kept it on the stage for 765 consecutive performances. The play tapped into the American public's frustration with politics as usual, as well as Page 195  |  Top of Article the widespread fear over atomic power and tensions with the Soviet Union; the play also suggested that the public take back politics for themselves. Through the use of the character Grant Matthews, Lindsay and Crouse chronicled the campaign of a man who wants to be good and honest, but who, once he is in the modern political system, starts to compromise his morals to gain votes. Yet, while this main story drives the play, Lindsay and Crouse also included a subplot about Grant's marriage with Mary, through which the playwrights explore the politics of relationships. As Thomas P. Adler says in American Drama: 1940–1960: A Critical History, "The word 'union' in its title refers to both the public and private arenas … with the romance plot almost superseding the political."

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  1. Life with Father, Lindsay and Crouse's 1939 stage adaptation of a 1935 book by the same name, is one of their most popular plays. Unlike conscientious businessman Grant Matthews, the main character in this play is a tyrannical stock broker, who only gets worse as the play progresses.
  2. Sidney Kingsley was one of the most well-known political playwrights in America. Sidney Kingsley: Five Prizewinning Plays (1999) collects some of his better-known plays that were produced from 1933 to 1950, including The Patriots, whose protagonist, the real-life Thomas Jefferson, is, like Grant Matthews, reluctant to enter politics.
  3. In Deadlines Past: Forty Years of Presidential Campaigning: A Reporter's Story (2003), Pulitzer Prize–winning Associated Press reporter Walter Mears offers his reflections and observations from forty years of working the election beat. Mears discusses the dirty tricks used in some campaigns, the physically demanding aspects of conducting a presidential campaign, and various other aspects of political journalism in the last half of the twentieth century.
  4. Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize–winning 1938 drama Abe Lincoln in Illinois follows the life and career of one of America's most popular presidents. Like Grant, Lincoln realized that he would have to make political compromises as president.
  5. In the play, Grant Matthews does not want to play politics as usual because he abhors the injustices he sees in government. In his essay "Civil Disobedience," which was first published in 1849 as "Resistance to Civil Government," Henry David Thoreau also advocates rebelling against traditional government. The essay was reprinted with Thoreau's other major essays in Civil Disobedience and Other Essays (1993).

It is clear from the beginning of the play that the relationship between Grant and Mary is very impersonal. When Grant calls Mary from James's house to invite her on the speaking tour, his tone and their conversation is businesslike, as he informs her he is in Washington, asks her about how their daughter is recovering from an illness, and then invites her on the tour. With the exception of a few exclamatory remarks, which are quickly stifled, there is very little emotion, and it is almost as if Grant is following a prescribed list of tasks that he needs to accomplish during the phone call. Mary confirms the emotional distance of their relationship when she arrives in Washington and has a private conversation with James. He lets her know that the public appearances of Mary and Grant are his idea. Mary says, "I don't know whether you know— (She stops and looks at him sharply.)—or perhaps you do—that Grant and I haven't been very close for the last year or so!" It is in this scene that Mary first shows her aptitude and political savvy. She recognizes right away that she has been invited along on the trip solely to quell the rumors of Grant's affair with Kay Thorndike.

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She also demonstrates that she can exploit another person's weaknesses. In this case, that person is her husband, and the weakness is Grant's hypocritical jealousy over Mary's affair with a military man. James says he knows about the affair with the major, who Grant thinks is in the United States. Mary encourages James over to talk about the affair with Grant, and, for good measure, tells him: "But when you tell Grant about him, don't let him know the Major's out of the country." Mary knows that, if her husband knew her lover was in another country, Grant could rest easier, and she does not want that.

While these types of examples could simply be taken as the actions of a jealous wife, they go deeper than that. Instead, Lindsay and Howard frame the Matthews marriage so that it mimics a political relationship. In a different conversation with James, Mary comes right out and says "let me straighten you out about Grant and me. Our personal relations are strictly political." This is not the only time that the playwrights mix discussion of relationships with politics. For example, when Mary first hears that Grant is going to run for president and realizes that James has started to influence Grant's thinking, Mary calls Grant on it. Grant gets flustered in an attempt to say that he is going to be honest in his campaign, and Mary responds, "Take it easy. I'm going to vote for you."

In fact, when it comes to politics, relationships or otherwise, Mary proves to be far superior than Grant or even James. Mary is the variable that James and Spike do not see coming, and the one that sabotages all of their efforts to mold Grant into a politician. Kay tries to warn the others about the Mary factor in the beginning, by telling them, "the more important her husband becomes the more determined she is to make him feel unimportant." James thinks that this criticism is a good thing, and Spike agrees, saying to Grant: "Yes, your wife might be good training for you. Toughen you up." But after Mary's presence on the speaking tour helps Grant ignore the political advice that James and Spike give to him, Spike changes his tune. When Spike calls James to Detroit to help him rope Grant back in, James asks why things have gotten out of hand. As Spike notes, "She— (He points to R. bedroom.)—knew he was planning to talk about labor in Denver and when he didn't, she spent the rest of the night tossing harpoons into him." So Mary's criticism, which both James and Spike thought would help them by keeping Grant tough, turns out to be an effective tool at undermining their efforts.

Again, Kay is aware of the danger Mary poses to the group's political goal of getting Grant into office. But Kay also thinks that she has the upper hand when it comes to manipulating Grant. For example, although Grant tells James and the others in Detroit that he is not going to change his speech, at the last minute, Kay shows up and has a secret meeting with Grant. Her influence is enough to undo Mary's protective efforts and get Grant to change his speech. As Kay notes to James, "I told you in Washington I could handle him." When Mary overhears later that Kay was in Detroit, Mary realizes that it was Kay's influence that caused Grant to change his speech. It bothers Mary that Kay has this kind of power over Grant, and James taps into Mary's emotions about Kay to try to convince her to support Grant. As James says, "the White House is the one place where she can't be with him." In other words, if Mary continues to sabotage Grant's chances of winning by trying to get him to run an honest campaign, then Mary might lose Grant to Kay. But in the White House, and in the public eye, Mary would get to keep Grant.

But James underestimates the underlying strength of Mary's and Grant's relationship, and it is this factor that ultimately helps Mary win the relationship power struggle with Kay. The crucial turning point comes at the Matthews's dinner party, when the guests are beginning to leave. After James's speech to Mary about losing Grant, Mary tries her best to go along with everything the politicians are saying and all of the political promises that Grant is making to the guests—even though she knows that Page 197  |  Top of Article they go against Grant's nature. Finally, she cannot take it anymore. She lashes out at the politicians who are trying to coerce her husband, "throwing harpoons" at them as she did during the dinner, an act that only served to make Grant angry. But her anger soon subsides into sorrow about the future that they are proposing by making political compromises to win the election, and she breaks down: "Well, it's time somebody began thinking of the next generation. (She covers her face with her hands, sobbing as she runs upstairs. There is a pause.)" The others try to blow it off, and turn to Grant to continue the conversation, but as the stage directions indicate, "GRANT is standing in thought, without moving. There is another pause." The compassionate pleas of Mary, coupled with her breaking down, moves Grant and are the wake-up call that he needs to see that he does not want to be president if it means selling out the American public and his own morals. Grant tells James:

The President of the United States is the one man elected to protect the welfare of this country as a whole. You want a candidate who will make deals with every special interest just to get votes. I can't play that game, Jim, so I'm afraid I can't be of any interest to you.

The play ends with Grant smacking Mary's bottom and calling her by her old nickname, "Maizie." When she was speaking with James in the Detroit hotel room, Mary noted that these were two things that Grant used to do when their relationship was good. The fact that he does them now is a clear sign that their relationship, which has been political for many years, is now becoming personal again.

In the end, this subplot, the Matthews's relationship, helps to support the main message that Lindsay and Howard are trying to convey. Without compassion and selflessness, any relationship—whether it is as personal as husband and wife or as broad-reaching as a president and the American populace—is doomed to be more about the empty games of politics than about mutual progress.


Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on State of the Union, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2004.

Jean Gould

In the following essay, Gould provides background on the partnership of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the creative team behind State of the Union.

Sam and Bella Spewack

In the twenties and thirties, the tendency to pool their talents flourished among the writers of comedy to bring forth a number of notable collaborators. Two of these whose intellectual merriment did much to lift the gloom of the depression were a pair of witty young newspaper people who collaborated in life before they began to add to the comedic literature of the theater. At the time of their meeting they were Bella Cohen, pert petite columnist of the New York Daily Call, and Samuel Spewack, cub reporter on the New York World. It was the crucial period just after the United States' entry into the First World War, and the Call was being threatened with a shutdown on charges of sedition by the U.S. Post Office Department because of its pacifist policy. Bella, whose column, "Pippa Passes," was one of the most intelligent ever to grace a women's page, could hardly depend on the paper for a living in normal times, and now it seemed she would have to turn to one of her other sources of income—acting or publicity writing. (She was to be national publicity director for the Campfire Girls at one point!) The small brunette, with her bright brown eyes and brisk manner of speaking, was a bundle of energy, and could handle three jobs at once if necessary.

As if to prove the point, the Spewacks' next play, My Three Angels, which opened on Broadway in the spring of 1953, was a decided hit. Based on Albert Husson's La Cuisine des Anges, it was written in close collaboration, and caught the fanciful spirit of the French comedy to perfection. In the matter of short stories and a novel or two, the Spewacks have been independently successful; but when it comes to plays, they have proved that two heads are better than one.

Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

In 1959, a special "Tony" award, never before offered, was created to honor "long, successful collaboration in playwriting." The two authors who received this unique medal were Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, then celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary. A significant fact regarding their relationship is that each had carved out his own career before they began to collaborate.

The senior member (by four years), Howard Lindsay claims to have been a "confirmed wincer" all his life, which began on March 29, 1889. His father was a German immigrant with charm and imagination but little practicality, and his mother an upstanding "down-easter" from Maine. More Page 198  |  Top of Article mismated parents he could hardly have found, and since he inherited his mother's New England conscience along with his father's fertile imagination, he was inclined to flinch at difficult situations from the time he was a youngster. (He never could enter into boyhood pranks or prevarications without a twinge or two of conscience; not that this kept him from participating, but it prevented him from thoroughly enjoying the mischief.)

When Howard, the youngest of four children, was about four years old, his mother, who decided she could not tolerate his father's "inveterate lying" any longer, packed up her brood and took them to live in Atlantic City, where her mother and brother had been living for some time. The latter gave her a job on his struggling newspaper, The Daily Union; and "Grandma Lindsay," from whom Howard took his stage name, presided over the household. They were barely able to make ends meet. As soon as he was old enough, Howard, like the other children, was expected to help out with any odd jobs to be found.

He early showed both ingenuity and theatrical ability when, at the age of eight or nine, he started selling his uncle's newspaper on the Atlantic City boardwalk. He would holler at the strollers:

"The Daily Union—one cent,
To help my mother pay the rent!"

The day of the sinking of the Maine (February 15, 1898), he ran up and down the length of the boardwalk shouting, "Extra, extra!" in great excitement. He kept selling and selling without stopping for hours, and when he finally got back to the printing office, he found he had wet his pants. He soon invented easier ways to augment his income.

His uncle's paper had a number of small advertising accounts that were always lagging behind in their payment, and frequently the family took it out in trade. For one such bill, long past due, Howard was given free elocution lessons. After he had memorized—with gestures—a number of stirring pieces, he would go up in front of the big hotels on the boardwalk and recite them before the guests sitting on the verandas. He would take off his cap, make a low bow, and launch into a ballad or lengthy ode. At the end he would pass his cap, and pennies, nickels and dimes would plink into it. On a fine day, when the rocking chairs were filled with patrons, he might come home with a capful of coins.

On another such deal, he was supplied with free coaching by a mathematical wizard to write the correct answer to very difficult problems on a blackboard in front of an audience. Howard never did find out how his tutor arrived at these answers, nor did he care. He loved to perform, and used to recite poetry at family gatherings in the parlor, at meetings he attended with his grandmother—for sheer pleasure as well as profit. It was only logical that this experience should lead him into the theater; or, as he himself has put it, he "became an actor on a due bill."

He also enjoyed being a spectator, again through his uncle's newspaper. There were usually a few extra passes for shows lying around the office, and Howard was always ready to make use of them. The first play he saw was Richard III, with Creston Clarke, a nephew of Edwin Booth, in the lead, a performance which held the future actor-playwright enthralled. He also frequented the Wilbur Opera Company, which put on light operas on Young's Pier. These musicals filled him with such delight that he not only attended performances, but he used to sneak into the balcony and watch rehearsals. He seemed to be drawn instinctively to show business. A rather stocky boy, with traces of his German ancestry showing in his muddy blond hair and strong square jaw, he was hardly the type for a matinée idol, but he realized even at that early age that he was happiest when he was watching others perform or exhibiting his own talents.

A third influence, also theatrical from a slightly esoteric standpoint, was the number of Spiritualist meetings Howard Lindsay used to attend with his grandmother. (His mother and Grandma were "free-thinkers": they believed in God, but had no formal religion; and the séances filled his grandmother's need for communion with heavenly powers.) It was from these sessions that young Howard first observed the art of sleight-of-hand. His natural curiosity prompted him to find out how the medium "divined" the name written on a slip of paper Page 199  |  Top of Article pulled from a bowl, a device he used to good effect nearly fifty years later, when he and Russel Crouse were writing The Great Sebastians for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

Both Howard and his sister, the next above him in age, felt that the freethinkers were sadly lacking in prestige among their schoolmates, and so began to shop around for a Sunday school. They chose the one that had the highest social standing—and the best pot-luck suppers—the Episcopal. Howard joined the choir, and thoroughly enjoyed the pageantry of dressing up, marching down the aisle, and "performing" for the "audience" of worshipers. His freethinker background and native curiosity combined to make him a doubting Thomas in Sunday-school class, and he argued with the teacher on various points, an unheard-of effrontery which led to the question of his baptism. When the Sunday-school teacher learned that he had never been baptized, she was shocked. He was given the cold shoulder by everyone until he finally, of his own volition, chose to be baptized at the age of eleven. This chapter in his life rose up before him in Life with Father, where the business of getting Father baptized (against his will) forms most of the action.

The following year, his mother took her family to live in Dorchester, a suburb of Boston, where Howard attended the Edward Everett grammar school and the Boston Latin School. Away from the entertainment center of Atlantic City and the lure of the theater, Howard drew closer to the church, and began to consider becoming a minister. He won a scholarship from the Boston Latin School to Harvard, but he was most unhappy there. He hated the class distinctions, the snobbery of the clubs, and left after one semester.

He had been going with a girl in Dorchester whose sisters were chorus girls. One weekend they brought back from New York a catalogue of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which caught Howard's eye immediately, and in so doing changed his destiny. The catalogue stated that the course consisted of two semesters, six months each, covering every phase of dramatic art. He decided to become an actor then and there.

His mother opposed the idea, but Grandma spoke up promptly: "I think Howard will make a good actor," she said. "He's so fond of staying up late nights." Her reasoning was logical enough for Howard, and moreover, she offered to help him pay for the course, so the matter was settled. He had no trouble graduating from the Academy, and went on tour at once. He played the vaudeville circuits as well as in road companies of Broadway shows. In 1913, he joined the company of Margaret Anglin as a "super," glad of the chance to be anything at all in the organization of the great actress-manager. She and her husband both served as managers of the actors who were associated with them. Although she could see that Howard Lindsay had amazing talent for writing as well as acting, and raised his position in the company to "sub-director," a post which gave him the opportunity of rewriting plays with her and broadened his knowledge of the theater considerably, she and her husband were not very generous with their pay raises. When the time came around for a raise in salary, no mention was made of it.

At the time of the First World War, Howard was due for a second raise, but again there was no sign from Miss Anglin or her husband. Mr. Lindsay held his peace. After the war, he returned to find the actors on strike, prior to forming Equity. Like many actor-managers, Miss Anglin was anti-Equity; Howard Lindsay was definitely "pro." It was a bitter strike, with much hard feeling on both sides. Howard could not stay with a company unwilling to get rid of the many abuses that had gone on for years in the theater. He parted from Miss Anglin without tears, in spite of his deep respect for her ability. He went with the George Tyler Agency, and started on a career as a director. (George Tyler had staged one of the Anglin shows a few years before, and had told Howard then that he would be glad to have him in the agency at any time.)

He had done everything in the theater from acting to stage managing and directing, but the first play to carry his name as "director" was Dulcy. One of the prominent actors in the cast was Elliott Nugent, who had been writing plays with his father, who was J. C. Nugent. The two became friends, and before long Howard received an offer to stage The Poor Nut, a comedy the Nugents had just completed. After its success, he collaborated with them in writing Kempy, this time on a percentage basis, as a bona fide author. (He received 24 per cent; Elliott, 25; and the elder Mr. Nugent, 51 per cent.)

It was not till a few years later, however, that he became "co-author" of a play he called Tommy, written with Bertrand Robinson. The plot was based on his own experience with a girl in Dorchester, whose parents had liked him so much and tried so hard to promote him that their daughter would have none of him. It was lucky for him that she refused him, Howard decided, or he probably would not Page 200  |  Top of Article have gone into the theater. In the play, he added a kindly uncle who advised the boy, Tommy, to act in such a way that his girl's parents would dislike him, which would probably make her rush to get the marriage license. It was produced in 1926, and the following summer he was directing a stock company in Skowhegan, Maine, when he met a girl who knew her own mind. This was Dorothy Stickney, who was the ingénue in the company. They were married on Friday the thirteenth (ever since his lucky number), in August, 1927.

Now a playwright as well as actor-director, he began to concentrate on the first. He had visited his father one summer, and had discovered that the parent who had always been described as a liar and ne'er-do-well was something of an artist when it came to exercising his imagination. He had married a woman who enjoyed and encouraged his tall tales, so they got along famously. Howard, although only thirteen at the time, realized that his father was an amiable fellow, and that he—Howard—must have inherited his father's gift for fabrication. He would put it to good use, however, especially since he had his mother's conscience to keep him from being an outright liar. He had begun writing stories for the Boston Latin School Register. From the day he began studying to join the theater, he continued to create everything from dialogue (with Margaret Anglin) and vaudeville skits, to plays.

His first comedy that could be called a hit was Your Uncle Dudley, which ran for three months in spite of the depression. The title became a familiar phrase to denote a kindly and wise old fellow, universally used, even by people who never saw the play. She Loves Me Not, a dramatization of Edward Hope's novel, had been well accepted in New York, but a failure in London in 1934, and he was feeling rather low, weak from an attack of the flu, when Vinton Freedley, the producer, called. He needed a rewrite of the book for the Cole Porter musical. Anything Goes, and needed it fast—within ten days, to be exact. The playwright's spirit was willing, but his flesh was still weak from the flu; he could not do a rush job like this without some help.

In recalling the incident for a reporter thirty years later, he said, "I agreed, provided he got me a collaborator. He went down the available list and I said 'No' to this one and 'No' to that one until he came to Russel Crouse and I said 'Yes!"'

At that particular point in his life, Mr. Crouse was writing a column for the New York Evening Post in addition to having four plays to his credit, all of which had been written within three years. (The first, a period piece, Mr. Currier and Mr. Ives, had been one of the hits of 1930.) Before then, Russel Crouse had been principally a newspaperman. He was an Ohioan, born in Findlay, in 1893. His parents, both of German extraction, had moved north from the densely populated German colony around Cincinnati, but had found Findlay too small a village. A few years after Russel's birth, they moved to Toledo, a middle-sized city at the top of a middle-sized state. He and his sister attended Monroe grade school and the "Old Central" high school. He was not a brilliant student by any means, but he took great interest in sports, and became sports editor of the high school paper. He had an easy way with words and with people; and right after graduation, in 1910, he went to Cincinnati, where he became a cub reporter on the Commercial Tribune. After a year of various assignments, including sports events, he received an offer from the Kansas City Star to join the staff as a sports columnist in addition to reporting. He grabbed it, mostly for the chance to write his own column, and stayed for four years, until 1917, when he returned to Cincinnati as a political reporter for the Post.

He served as an enlisted man in the Navy during World War I, and, like the other writers who survived the war, was disillusioned by the false patriotism, and the shambles that followed the so-called victory. On his return to civilian life, he decided to stay in New York, which was much more to his liking than the Midwestern cities. With the experience behind him, he had no trouble landing a reporting job on the Globe, where he found other writers, notably Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings. It was a common saying around the office that every newspaperman had at least one play in him, and Russel Crouse meant to find out if it was true. His anti-war feelings were serious enough, but he knew his expression would be in the form of comedy. He was a frightful punster, who could not refrain from a play on words, no matter how many copy-pencils came flying at him. A middle-sized man, with a large nose and a broad smile that highlighted his friendly brown eyes, he was well-known in newspaper circles for his bright quips and outrageous puns.

He went from the Globe to the New York Mail, and by 1923 had his own column in the New York Evening Post. On St. Patrick's Day of that year he married Alison Smith, whom he had known for some time. He began experimenting with playwriting, but had nothing produced until 1930. Mr. Page 201  |  Top of Article Currier and Mr. Ives was so successful that he followed with It Seems Like Yesterday, in 1931, and two offerings the following year.

Howard Lindsay, who had admired Russel Crouse's work and felt akin to his wit, decided he could not have made a better choice for the rewrite of Anything Goes. The job was done in ten days, and the show was a hit. The two men worked well and easily together. Both were in their forties, and had seen enough, worked enough, and experienced enough to have the same outlook on life. They rejoiced together over the smoothness of the completed script for Anything Goes, and immediately started on a new effort, a musical called Red, Hot and Blue, which brought Bob Hope to stardom.

Both Lindsay and Crouse preferred to write comedy that had "some comment to it," as Russel put it. He had not forgotten his idea for an anti-war vehicle, and their next attempt was Hurray for What? The idea was sound enough, and the satire on the glory of battle was keen; but Ed Wynn, who starred, was "not a book comedian," as Lindsay said. He was used to acting in revues, and was not able to put over a satirical idea-play like Hurray for What?

At about this time, Dorothy Stickney began having trouble with her eyes. When it became difficult for her to read, Howard began the practice of reading the paper aloud to her in the evening. Clarence Day was writing his famous Life with Father columns, a favorite with the Lindsays. They laughed over Day's reminiscences every evening, remembering incidents in their own family past that brought out the flavor of the nineties; and when the columns included Mrs. Day's maneuvers to get Father baptized, Howard, recalling his voluntary, and, indeed, calculated entry into religion, felt moved to turn Mr. Day's column into a play. He and Dorothy could play Father and Mother Day out of their own backgrounds, their own empathy with a bygone era. (Both Lindsays liked to collect antiques, and in their house in the country, had a good deal of period furniture.) The more they thought of the idea, the better it appeared, and when Howard suggested it to Russel Crouse, the script was started.

They had no trouble in securing permission from Clarence Day, but when the production began, certain problems arose. They had trouble finding four boys of the right size and age—and coloring. (It was said that all the young boy or juvenile actors in New York were dying their hair red during initial tryouts, and at times during the next eight years when one had to be replaced. During the war years, the older boys were drafted; the younger ones got too old for the parts after a year or two.) The play was an instant success; Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney were universally hailed for their delightful performances. They usually took a cab home from the theater at night; and on the way they would often discuss the performance, catching each other up on various slips they made. One evening, after Life with Father had been on the boards about two years, Dorothy said thoughtfully on the way home, "You know, Howard, 'Father' was a hot-tempered man; he wasn't mean-tempered." It was a nice distinction, and her husband realized that he had let his performance slide until it was all in one key. There were advantages, he decided, in a husband and wife acting together.

For about six months, Russel played the bit part of the doctor in the matinee performance—"just to see," he quipped to a reporter, "if there's a doctor in the Crouse." It was this kind of joke that made Howard Lindsay shudder, yet he was ready to acknowledge that his collaborator was never at a loss for a "gag" line when one was needed. From then on, the two have had some production on Broadway nearly every year. (In 1941, they turned co-producers to stage Arsenic and Old Lace; and subsequently two more hits, The Hasty Heart and Detective Story. ) Always they worked on some play of their own.

The method they worked out for the script of Anything Goes suited the situation so well that they have continued to follow it to the present day. They talk out an idea thoroughly before starting to write, as a rule. When both have had their say, they make a few notes. Crouse, accustomed to turning out newspaper copy on a typewriter, starts pounding the keys, while Lindsay paces up and down the study where they work. "After that we outline all the scenes in the play—all before we put down a single line of dialogue," Mr. Lindsay told an interviewer in 1964. "Finally, we dialogue it, and that work goes very quickly. But we know just how the play is going to end before we start writing. Generally when a play has failed it's because the author didn't know where he was going. The conception is all-important."

The Lindsays and the Crouses were close friends, congenial in recreation as well as work, who often made a foursome at Sardi's or some other haunt of theater people. They spent weekends together in the country, working and relaxing at the same time. Page 202  |  Top of Article When Mrs. Crouse died early in January of 1943, the Lindsays shared Russel Crouse's sorrow, and did what they could to help him over a difficult period. Two years later, he was married to Anna Erskine (on June 28, 1945). When their second child, a daughter, was born, they called her Lindsay Ann, a gesture of affection in which the Lindsays took great pride.

Shortly before her birth, the two collaborators received the Pulitzer prize for one of their most brilliant and entertaining satiric comedies, State of the Union, which held up to ridicule the machinations and foibles of the democratic process, the snarls of political campaigns, and the bumblings of bureaucracy. The script was checked by Thomas Stokes in Washington beforehand to make sure the details were correct. Tom, whose syndicated political column was one of the clearest and most objective, had been a friend of Crouse since his newspaper days, and had known Lindsay from the first year of the collaboration. Following the opening night success, the play had to be rewritten and rechecked frequently as events occurred or situations altered. One night they had to rewrite eleven pages and the actors had to memorize the new lines before the next performance. Another time, in reading the headlines of a newspaper onstage, the actor gave the actual results of a close gubernatorial election that had been held that day. (Some of the audience heard it in the theater before they read the voting results in a real newspaper.) When the show went on tour, the authors consulted with politicians in various cities to make sure their facts and details were correct. (In Pittsburgh a seasoned politician gave them a tip on the business of tipping that took place in one scene: no politician, he said, would give a dollar bill to a bellboy unless there were other people in the room. Otherwise, he would hand out a coin, preferably a dime.)

There were other hits. Call Me Madam, starring Ethel Merman in 1950, and most recently, The Sound of Music, the story of the famous Trapp family of singers, which, in spite of its rather cloying "book," was enormously popular, responsible for the biggest of their box office receipts.

In addition to writing, producing, and acting in plays and musicals, these two remarkable collaborators started the New Dramatist Committee to help budding playwrights get the all-important initial break; Paddy Chayefsky and Robert Anderson were among those who benefited from the Committee's work. Perhaps even more significant was the establishment of the Dramatists' Play Service, which put an end to the monopoly of Samuel French in printing bound copies of plays for rehearsal use. Both Lindsay and Crouse have been active in the Dramatists Guild of the Authors League (Russel Crouse was president for several years) and both have belonged to the Players' Club—of which Mr. Lindsay has been the fifth president for ten years. Both served on the War Writers' Board in the Second World War. The Antoinette Perry (Tony) special citation they received on their twenty-fifth anniversary read: "For distinguished achievement in the theater in collaborating with" (here each document bore the other's name) "over a period of twenty-five years."

In 1964, the two celebrated their thirtieth anniversary in typical fashion: the Lindsays and the Crouses attended a performance of a current comedy hit, Luv, by a somewhat younger colleague, Murray Shisgall; afterwards they went to Sardi's, where a festive candlelit cake was sent around. "We're the longest collaboration since Sodom and Gomorrah," Russel Crouse told Stuart Little of the Herald Tribune at that time, "but for different reasons." Inside of those thirty years they had presented fifteen shows. They still work every afternoon in the study of Lindsay's home on E. 94th Street. (The foyer of the house has two seats from the Empire Theatre screwed into the floor, mementos of their longest-run hit, Life with Father; "E, 101," and "E, 102," fifth row, center aisle, "the best seats on the floor," Mr. Lindsay explained. Across the room are two straight chairs from Daniel Frohman's box at the Empire.) Sometimes, if the playwrights "strike a big vein," they are likely to push ahead right straight through the evening, and, on the road, keep at it until dawn, if necessary.

Theirs has been the longest, most profitable, and most pleasant writing partnership in theatrical history.


Jean Gould, "Some Clever Collaborators," in Modern American Playwrights, Dodd, Mead, 1966, pp. 135–50.

Caspar H. Nannes

In the following essay, Nannes compares State of the Union to an 1890 political play—The Senator —to explore differences in the two worlds.

Two men streaked across the political heavens fifty years apart, and in so doing inspired plays expressing the ethos of their times. One was Senator Page 203  |  Top of Article Preston B. Plumb of Kansas. The other was Wendell Willkie.

Both were political mavericks who flouted party lines on important occasions. Senator Plumb, a Republican, supported Horace Greeley in the presidential campaign of 1872. Willkie had been a committeeman at the Democratic convention of 1924 before becoming a Republican during the New Deal era. Each man had personal charm, color, and crowd appeal. Senator Plumb satisfied the easterner's conception of a western Congressman. He was raw-boned, open-hearted, and outspoken. He acted naturally and modestly in the Nation's Capital and quickly became popular with official and unofficial Washington. Plumb was also a serious-minded senator, intent on proving that his 1877 election was not a mistake. His re-elections in 1883 and 1889 were earned by hard work, wholesome enthusiasm, and real accomplishment. Willkie skyrocketed out of Indiana to steal the 1940 Republican nomination for president from the party professionals by unorthodox, but effective tactics. There was something about the rugged Hoosier that inspired intellectuals and working men alike to rally around him.

Senator Plumb was a national figure; Willkie a world personality. The times had something to do with the difference. The plays each man inspired, The Senator and State of the Union, reflected their periods and revealed a partial reason for the somewhat limited reputation of the Kansas Senator and the global recognition of the Indiana industrialist. The Senator opened at the Star Theatre on January 13, 1890. State of the Union gave its first Broadway performance November 14, 1945, in the Hudson Theatre. The headlines in the New York Times for those two days suggest the radical change in outlook that had taken place in our country. The 1890 headlines read:






The 1945 headlines read:





Playbill cover from the 1946 production of State of the Union, performed at the Hudson Theatre Playbill cover from the 1946 production of State of the Union, performed at the Hudson Theatre






Only one headline in 1890 was concerned with overseas controversies, and that dealt with the violent reaction of Portuguese mobs to an English ultimatum demanding that the Iberian country leave certain parts of Africa. The other headlines were all domestic, with the fight between Chicago and New York for the 1893 World's Fair featured. The change by 1945 is evident. A British prime minister appeals to Congress for a strong United Nations to save civilization "in the terrible light of the atomic bomb." His appeal is underlined by headlines indicating trouble in China, Russia, Palestine, Indonesia, Hawaii, and France. Domestic difficulties are added to this roll call, with Secretary of Labor Schwellenbach trying to bring peace to the United States Steel Corporation and its employees.

Page 204  |  Top of Article

There was obviously more than a half-century date difference between 1890 and 1945. During those years a way of life had died, and a new one had been born. The world, without shrinking physically, had become immeasurably smaller. Improved means of communication and transportation had succeeded in making one continent's political headaches the political headaches of every other continent. No longer could a nation worry only about its own troubles. The difference was apparent in both plays. The Senator was a provincial play meant for an insular audience. State of the Union, national in theme and international in implications, was written for an audience presumed familiar with important political names and situations on a world basis.

This assumption on the part of later dramatists was a valid one. The American of 1890 was far removed from international concerns. His newspapers, the chief source of information for the general reader, gave niggardly space to foreign events. It was only the educated person who turned to the periodicals for more detailed explanations. But by 1945 the ordinary citizen could hardly escape national and international news—in the newspapers, on the moving picture screen, over the radio, and on television. Current history was ever present, and the humblest citizen could speak with authority about names and places and situations thousands of miles away. In addition, Washington had become the key city of the world. "World War II made Washington two cities," Charles Hurd in Washington Cavalcade observed. "It became the actual ruling center with an unassailable power over the entire United States. It became, too, with all the reluctance imaginable, the first city of the world."

The enormous difference in political awareness between the audiences of 1890 and those of 1945 was reflected in the tone, language, and plot of The Senator and State of the Union. Not only was the former written for an insular audience, but it had only one aim—to amuse. State of the Union sought to instruct as well as to entertain.

The Senator was written by David Demarest Lloyd and Sydney Rosenfeld. For some years critics debated which author deserved more credit for the play. Scholarly accounts differed. One view held that Lloyd, who died before The Senator was produced, had completed the work except for minor details. A different explanation claimed that Lloyd wrote the first two acts and Rosenfeld the last two. The latter's account is the only one available, but it does seem to be an honest one. Asked "What portion of The Senator is your work?" he answered:

Well, it would hardly be fair for me to point out, as Mr. Lloyd is not alive to corroborate my statement. I will say, however, that I did what I should have done under any circumstances. I rewrote the entire play, in order to avoid anything like patchwork. Consequently, the dialogue is in my own vein, and a number of new characters were introduced by me.

The plot suggests what political knowledge audiences in 1890 were supposed to possess. Senator Rivers, in love with Mabel Denman, undertakes to help her father receive compensation for a ship his father had lost seventy-three years earlier while fighting the British. Subplots include Rivers' fight against unnamed railroad interests, several minor love affairs, and maneuvers by second-rate politicians for political preferment.

Perhaps the sharp transition from the New York of 1890 to the Washington of 1945 may be best measured by an interchange between the real life Senator Plumb and William H. Crane, who, as Senator Rivers, was impersonating Plumb on the stage.

"Mr. Crane," Plumb said, "I never wore a silk hat in my life, and my creditors wouldn't know me for myself in a headpiece like that."

The actor impulsively threw the hat into a corner, but immediately hastened over and picked it up.

"Senator," Crane explained, "people in New York wouldn't recognize the Senator without his stovepipe. When I go to Washington, the Senator will appear in a plain felt hat."

The Senator was an instantaneous hit. It ran for more than a hundred consecutive performances on Broadway and attracted large audiences elsewhere Page 205  |  Top of Article for many years. In 1910 a sequel by Miss Martha Morton, The Senator Keeps House, also proved popular. Crane took the leading role in this play.

Lloyd's death at the age of thirty-eight was a real loss to the American theatre. He wrote four highly successful plays within six years, each showing marked improvement in technique and understanding. His first play, For Congress (1884), was a satire on district nominating conventions and on Congress. Rosenfeld rewrote and produced it in 1895 at the Columbia Theatre, Brooklyn, as The Politician. A friendly, kindly man of serene manner and grave conduct, Lloyd died in September, 1889 of a heart attack. The New York Tribune, where he worked intermittently for twenty years, called him "an accomplished man of letters, a constant and faithful friend, a serene, unsullied and noble soul."

Writing political drama was a natural evolution for Lloyd. He lived twice in Washington, the first time in 1871 as secretary to Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase of the United States Supreme Court and the second time, ten years later, as correspondent for the New York Tribune. These periods of residence gave him the necessary background and inspiration to write political plays. Those he wrote read easily and act naturally, but a friend observed, "Audiences which have been convulsed with merriment over his bright dialogue and grotesque situations could have no idea of the toil and mental anxiety which had been involved in the creation of his plays."

Lloyd's partner, Sydney Rosenfeld was the George S. Kaufman of his day. The Virginia-born writer served a newspaper apprenticeship in New York. He became editor of the English magazine, Puck when only nineteen years old. By the time he died at seventy-six, Rosenfeld had written forty-one plays and numerous musical comedies.

But the real attraction for the socially elite opening night audience was William H. Crane. "There was a large contingent of intimate friends of Mr. Crane [present]," the New York Tribune critic observed the next day:

The part of the Senator is a capital one for Mr. Crane. His incessant spirit carried the piece last night. Mr. Crane has fine power, acute knowledge of character, great comic vim and an adroit faculty for comic inflection of the voice and for quiet satire. All these good gifts are shown in his new character, and therefore he will much augment his popularity in the play.

Two others contributed greatly to the play's success. They were Mrs. Georgiana Drew Barrymore, mother of Ethel, Lionel, and John, and Miss Jane Stuart. Mrs. Barrymore was an outstanding hit, one critic describing her as "handsome as a picture, exquisitely dressed, brimming over with fun and an actress to the tips of her fingers. She captured her audiences and kept them in roars of laughter." Miss Stuart, daughter of the Commissioner of Public Works of New York, had the sprightly role of Josie Armstrong, daughter of the Secretary of State. As Josie, her word coinages anticipated those of Walter Winchell. "Love is all a delusion, a scootlum of the brain," she tells an admirer. "A scootlum is a limpgoggle," she explains, adding later that her hectic home life makes "existence simply one cross jigger." Something wonderful is "thrilloquent."

These were the things that pleased the 1890 audience. The Senator also included a Chinese character, conventional on the stage of that period. He was another of the popular one-dimensional foreign characters frequently portrayed in those days: the fat Dutchman, the brogue-ridden Irishman, the long-nosed Jew, the excitable Frenchman, the humorless Englishman. The Chinese character in The Senator always carried a notebook, into which he promptly recorded his impression of America. "The American government consists of four departments," he wrote. "The rolling of logs, the pulling of wires, the laying of pipe and the pulling of legs." He had good reason to record the "rolling of logs," for the Senator was rolling plenty to get the Denman claim passed. "Just make a memorandum," Senator Rivers told his secretary:

The next session I've got to vote for a new court house for Senator Griffin, two new granite roof houses for Senator Allen and a new court house with mansard roof for Senator Dooley … talk about log rolling. I've rolled enough logs since I've been pushing the Denman claim to build a new railroad.

New York of The Senator still recalled the "Little Old New York" of song and legend. The theatrical district had its center around Broadway and Fourteenth Street. Uptown was Forty-second Street and way uptown where the substantial burghers lived was Harlem. Brooklyn was the home of churches and cemeteries, and civic and other doings there were recorded by the New York Tribune in a column called "Affairs in Brooklyn."

The theatres, the plays, and the players of those years have gone, and most of them have been forgotten. The Senator was housed in the Star Theatre at Broadway and Thirteenth Street. The theatre was torn down long ago to make way for office buildings. On the day The Senator opened, Robert Mantel was thrilling audiences in The Page 206  |  Top of Article Corsican Brothers at the Fourteenth Street Theatre, Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue. A rising young actress, who had gained quite some renown within a comparatively short time, was performing in Ingomar at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, Broadway and Twenty-eighth Street. Her name was Julia Marlowe. Charles Hoyt's A Midnight Bell was enjoying a successful return engagement at the Bijou Theatre, Broadway and Thirtieth Street, and the popular operetta, The Brigands by Offenbach, was the feature at the Grand Opera House, Eighth Avenue and Twenty-third Street.

Hugh J. Grant was Mayor of New York. Tammany Hall boss Richard Croker was having his troubles with insurgent leadership rows in several districts and with the sermons of the Rev. Dr. Charles Henry Parkhurst. Tammany Hall, which in 1945 was staging an uncertain comeback with the election of William O'Dwyer as mayor, was, in 1890, at a low ebb. Recent state elections had gone overwhelmingly against the Hall, and committee memberships announced by the New York State Senate and Assembly Republican leaders on January 13 did nothing to assuage Tammany's unhappy state.


The Broadway of State of the Union was quite a different street from that of The Senator. New York by now had become the leading metropolis of the nation and perhaps of the world. Skyscrapers made canyons of the city's streets; rapid transit was living up to its name with fast-moving street buses and underground subways replacing the slow-moving trolleys of the earlier day. The "horseless-carriage" had come to stay; streamlined autos had replaced the pleasure carriages, and quick-starting auto trucks, the plodding dobbins of the milk-wagon.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia—he of "the hat," the diminutive barrel build, and the fire-chasing enthusiasm—ruled New York with a temperamental and capable hand. He was soon to give way to Mayor-elect William O'Dwyer and a newly organized Tammany Hall. But the city residents were less concerned with municipal affairs than with the atom bomb and relations with Russia. The theatre district had also changed. The entertainment world had moved into the Times Square area, and new faces, new plays, and new theatres had taken the place of the old. Life with Father, a period piece of "Little Old New York," was in its seventh year at the Empire Theatre at Fortieth Street and Broadway. I Remember Mama, The Late George Apley, Up in Central Park, and The Red Mill also recalled the earlier days, each with a modern touch. New York was jerked rudely into the war period with The Rugged Path, and closed its eyes somewhat by enjoying The Voice of the Turtle, Oklahoma, Carousel, and Bloomer Girl were entertaining those who fifty-five years earlier would have gone to a minstrel show.

Moving pictures, unknown to entertainment seekers in 1890, were helping make Broadway "the Great White Way." They brought with them huge and palatial theatres: the Paramount, Roxy's, Strand, and Capitol among others. Sound pictures had long ago replaced silent films, and technicolor was no longer a curiosity. Shirley Temple, a child star more than thirty years after The Senator opened, had grown up and was being kissed on the screen for the first time—jolting the middle-aged into the realization that they were no longer young. The change in singing techniques from 1890 to 1945 was personified by Frank Sinatra, whose engagement at the Paramount Theatre was marked by numerous "bobby-soxers" swooning in the aisles as he sang, "Nancy," "Falling in Love with Love," and "It All Depends on You."

State of the Union also emphasized the passing years by its sophisticated approach, clever dialogue, and outspoken study of the contemporary political scene. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, authors of Life with Father and other hits, wrote the play. They had met in 1934 after Crouse had written a musical comedy about doings on a pleasure ship. But before the show went into rehearsal the "Morro Castle" fire disaster had occurred, and the musical was shelved. Crouse and his backers were reluctant to lose the fruits of months of work. A mutual friend introduced Crouse to Lindsay. The two men rewrote Crouse's book, which was produced as Anything Goes and became a smash musical comedy hit.

The two writers came to the theatre by devious paths. Lindsay, an experienced actor, had left Harvard to go on the stage. He studied one year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, spent four years touring with a road company, and five years with Margaret Anglin's repertory company in New York. During World War I he served overseas and returned to write successful plays, the most popular before his partnership with Crouse being She Loves Me Not (1933). Crouse was a former Ohio newspaperman who served in the Navy during World War I. On his discharge he decided to try his luck on Page 207  |  Top of Article Broadway, writing three books and two musicals. One musical was Hold Your Horses, written for the popular comedian, Joe Cook.

Lindsay and Crouse were started on State of the Union in 1944 through a suggestion from Helen Hayes that they write a play about a presidential candidate. The idea took root, and after eighteen months of work, the writers brought State of the Union to New York. Two well-known moving pictures stars were featured in the play. Ralph Bellamy, who appeared on the New York stage before going to Hollywood in 1931, played the role of presidential candidate Grant Matthews. Matthews' sharp-tongued and idealistic wife, Mary, was portrayed by Ruth Hussey, a Pembroke College graduate who had also been on the Broadway stage before going to Hollywood in 1937.

State of the Union was inspired by Wendell Willkie, just as Senator Plumb had furnished the inspiration for The Senator. But the resemblance ended there. State of the Union, critical, though not cynical, had a message for its audiences. It called upon Americans to take politics away from the politicians and into their own hands. Matthews tells Mary after deciding to withdraw from the race for president that his withdrawal "doesn't mean I'm out of politics. Nobody can afford to be out of politics. I'm going to be yelling from the sidelines; you've got to be yelling; everybody's got to be yelling. I'm going to be in there asking questions, and I'm going to see that people get the answers."

The play charged politicians with preventing candidates from doing what they want to do and from saying what should be said. Political boss James Conover warns Matthews as the latter sets out on a preliminary speaking tour to "keep whatever you have to say pretty general. Don't be too specific." A cartoon in a Washington newspaper during the 1948 pre-Republican convention period indicated how most candidates followed this advice. The sketch has a Senator Snort telling two newspapermen, "What other candidate can match my fearless record—just name an issue that I've been afraid to dodge."

The professional politician also advises Matthews to avoid Minneapolis. "I wouldn't speak there," Conover suggests. "You might stir up trouble. That's Stassen territory. The local boys would resent it and you might start a backfire." When Stassen announced in 1947 that he was going into Ohio for delegates, followers of the late Senator Robert Taft charged the former Minnesota governor with "splitting the party's unity."

State of the Union insists that the American people will respond to a candidate who tells them what he stands for, regardless of the consequences. "Don't kid yourself," newspaperman Spike Mac Manus says. "This guy does something to people. I've been on a lot of campaigns. They don't shake hands with Grant to say they've shaken hands with him. They're up there with a light in their eyes—they practically mob him." When Willkie toured the country in the months preceding the Republican convention of June, 1940, he produced similar reactions. "Willkie Clubs" spontaneously sprang up everywhere. They weren't the carefully nurtured clubs professional politicians organize for their candidates. They were closely-knit groups manned by amateurs who had a crusading light in their eyes.

The plot revolves around Grant Matthews, a self-made wealthy business man who has caught the imagination of the people and the attention of the political bosses by his outspoken comments on current domestic and foreign issues. Influential James Conover sees Grant as a potential presidential candidate and enlists the help of other important political leaders in the drive to nominate him. He appeals to Kay Thorndyke, newspaper publisher who is having an affair with Grant, and Mary, Matthews' estranged wife, to bury their rivalry and take part in the campaign. Conover urges Mary to make the speaking tour with her husband, pointing out that Americans insist on their presidential candidates being happily married and taking their wives along on these trips. He tells Mary the most important thing is to kill the gossip about Matthews and Kay Thorndyke. "We haven't got a chance unless we do," Conover declares. "The American people like to think of a married candidate as happily married. They want to see him and his wife together. They like to see them make the campaign together. It's an American tradition."

Conover's move proves a mistake, for Mary not only blasts the politicians for their self-seeking motives but finally opens Matthews' eyes to the degree he has deteriorated in pursuing the nomination. Grant eventually rebels against the continual demands that he compromise his principles, and he tells Conover that he is going to speak out and that he is no longer a candidate for president:

I promised myself when I went into this that I'd appeal to the best in the American people. The only advice Page 208  |  Top of Article I've ever had from any of you was to appeal to their worst.… We have some damn good men. There are some wonderful men in the Senate and in the House, too—Democrats and Republicans. But damn it, Jim, there aren't enough of them to shape party politics. So, to get votes, both parties are out to buy the American public. I can't do that, Jim. So I'm afraid I can't be of any use to you.

State of the Union, which later became a popular moving picture, was called by the New York Herald Tribune critic Howard Barnes "a literate and amusing comedy which speaks out loud about things that need stating." He adds that the authors "have written wisely and well" and have "fashioned a political satire which is as good humored as it is pertinent."

Professor Quinn observed that the playwrights had taken an important step by the "breaking down of a cliche concerning political plays.… Heretofore producers had been afraid to mention the actual names of parties for fear of offending someone. How much more reality was given to the use of 'Democrat' and 'Republican'—and no one was offended."

Before 1890 there were comparatively few plays dealing with political subjects. Professor Quinn, widely regarded as one of the country's leading authorities on the American drama, in his A History of the American Drama from the Civil War to the Present Day observed, "We have not had many serious studies of our politics, largely because of managerial dread of controversial subjects." But there were enough plays before 1890 to provide a base upon which later dramatists could build. Such productions as J. Horatio Nichols' The Essex Junto (1802); Penn Smith's The Eighth of January (1829); George L. Aiken's popular dramatization of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852); Edward Harrigan's The Mulligan Guard Nominee (1880); and Charles Hale Hoyt's A Case of Wine (1882), were forerunners of the twentieth century political drama.

The building of such a genre was helped immensely by the numerous sources of information available to the public after 1890. Newspaper circulations zoomed to incredible figures during the decade in response to the flamboyant methods pursued by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Working men and women who had never read a newspaper before snatched eagerly at the spectacular journalism provided by Pulitzer and Hearst. Then, in the first ten years of the twentieth century, came equally colorful articles in popular magazines exposing unsavory phases of American life. These skyrocketed magazine sales. When newspaper and magazine circulations began to level out, the moving picture brought a new impetus. This was especially true of newsreel shorts, with their visual information about happenings in foreign lands. Then followed the radio, which brought news from distant lands into the home and shop. And now there is television to bring a pictorial presentation of world events into the living room.

"Sharpening news emphasis kept everyone at least a little informed on the trend of events, brought establishment of news theatres in some large cities and became a prime instrument for influencing public opinion," the historian Jeannette Nichols observed in her Twentieth Century United States survey of American life.

These sources of information naturally gave the average man a knowledge of world affairs his forefathers did not possess. They inevitably raised the level of his interests and undoubtedly influenced dramatists to write plays having political plots. Before 1890, with notable exceptions such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, political plays were a managerial gamble for the prospective audience was sharply limited. But after that date the many new sources of information added an ever increasing number of people conversant with political affairs, and playwrights and producers were anxious to take advantage of this fact. A State of the Union produced in the nineteenth century probably would not have lasted a week. Brought to Broadway near the mid twentieth century, its 765 consecutive performances made the play the forty-fifth longest running show in the history of the New York stage.


Caspar H. Nannes, "Two Worlds: Past and Present," in Politics in the American Drama, Catholic University of America Press, 1960, pp. 1–14.


Adler, Thomas P., American Drama: 1940–1960: A Critical History, Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 14–18.

Bonin, Jane F., "Politics," in Major Themes in Prize-Winning American Drama, Scarecrow Press, 1975, pp. 93–111.

Chaffee, Kevin, "Pols Legislate a Wacky 'State of the Union,"' in the Washington Times, June 4, 1997, p. 10.

Gagey, Edmond M., "State of the Theatre," in Revolution in American Drama, Columbia University Press, 1947, pp. 266–83.

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Lindsay, Howard, and Russel Crouse, State of the Union, Dramatists Play Service, 1946.

Nannes, Caspar H., "Two Worlds: Past and Present," in Politics in the American Drama, Catholic University of America Press, 1960, pp. 1–14.


Bike, William S., Winning Political Campaigns: A Comprehensive Guide to Electoral Success, Denali Press, 1998.

Bike, a communications consultant, offers a guide to campaigning from his experience in advising political candidates. The book covers every subject that a potential candidate should consider, including advertising, fund-raising, and even personal grooming. The book also features a number of anecdotes showing successful or failed approaches, checklists, legal advice, a media glossary, and direction to further resources.

Boller, Paul F., Presidential Campaigns, Oxford University Press, 1996.

In this engaging history of political campaigns, Boller examines everybody from Washington to Clinton. Every election from 1789 to 1992 is covered in its own brief essay, and the book also includes a number of interesting anecdotes, as well as songs, poems, slogans, and miscellaneous other things inspired by these elections.

Keegan, John, The Second World War, Arrow, 1989.

Keegan's history of World War II is viewed by many as the best one-volume coverage of this monumental conflict. The author examines the war chronologically, including providing vivid descriptions of the battle scenes. Throughout the book, he also includes carefully placed discussions on specific themes, such as war production, resistance, and espionage.

Neal, Steve, Dark Horse: A Biography of Wendell Willkie, Random House, 1986.

The character of Grant Matthews has been compared to the real-life political candidate, Wendell Willkie, who is also mentioned briefly in State of the Union. Neal's biography examines the meteoric rise of political newcomer Willkie, whose engaging personality and insight into the danger of Nazi Germany helped him to win the Republican Party nomination in 1939.

Schumaker, Paul, and Burdett A. Loomis, eds., Choosing a President: The Electoral College and Beyond, Chatham House Publishers, 2002.

Published in the wake of the controversial 2000 election in which Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote, this book examines how the current electoral college works and proposes six alternatives to it. For each one, contributors examine how each reform would affect the government and the national two-party system, as well as what effect reform would have on campaigning itself.

Skinner, Cornelia Otis, Life with Lindsay and Crouse, Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

Skinner, a noted theatrical personality herself, takes readers through a guided tour of the lives of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, including their partnership. The book also includes several photos of the playwrights.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420300020