Citation metadata

Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2005
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 20. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 27
Content Level: (Level 4)

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 261





Maxwell Anderson's Winterset (1935) is one of the most important verse dramas, or plays written largely in poetry, in the twentieth century. Produced on New York City's Broadway at the height of the Great Depression, Anderson's play is a striking tragedy that deals indirectly with the famous Sacco-Vanzetti case, in which two Italian immigrants with radical political beliefs were executed. With its combination of "low" prose and "high" poetic verse, which enables it to be sharply realistic while simultaneously commenting on universal philosophical themes, Winterset is widely considered Anderson's best verse drama. Its ambitious political and philosophical agenda, as well as its elegant poetry, earned Anderson the Drama Critics' Circle Award of 1936. The style of Winterset has inspired many critics to compare the play to a Shakespearean tragedy.

The plot of Winterset follows Mio Romagna's quest to prove his father's innocence in the years after Bartolomeo Romagna was executed for a robbery and murder he did not commit. This quest is complicated by Mio's newfound love for Miriamne Esdras and the difficult ethical decisions that result from his connection with her family. A challenging political play, with philosophical meditations on faith, truth, justice, love and duty, Winterset not only alludes to Shakespearean and Judaic philosophy; it develops a profound moral system of its own. Available in individual editions such as that published by Anderson House in 1935, Winterset is aPage 262  |  Top of Article landmark in American drama universalized by its superbly crafted poetry and its profound philosophical assertions.


Anderson was born on his grandmother's farm near Atlantic, Pennsylvania, on December 15, 1888, but he moved westward with his father, a Baptist minister, and went to high school in Iowa. After graduating from college in North Dakota, Anderson married a classmate and taught English in a high school for two years before moving to San Francisco and earning a master's degree at Stanford University. He returned to teaching, but was fired from a head-teaching job at Whittier College in 1918 because he defended a student whose antiwar articles were censored from the college newspaper. He then began writing for various newspapers and pursued his interest in poetry, which he had been writing and occasionally publishing, since he was in college.

Anderson's theatrical career began with the production on Broadway of the tragedy White Desert in 1923, and, although this play failed after twelve performances, his anti-war collaboration with Laurence Stallings entitled What Price Glory (1924), was a huge success. Continuing to write plays throughout the 1920s, Anderson developed a habit of referring to and borrowing from playwrights and authors from the past. He also expressed a desire to write plays in verse but did not do so until the 1930s, when he wrote the verse dramas for which he is most famous, including the historical Elizabeth the Queen (1930) and Winterset (1935). Anderson continued to write in various other styles as well, however, including satires such as the Pulitzer Prize–winning Both Your Houses (1933), and a musical play entitled Knickerbocker Holiday (1938).

In the years that followed the financial success of this musical, Anderson wrote a number of plays dwelling on spiritual themes that were less critically successful. Then he turned to the subject of fascism and World War II with such plays as The Eve of St. Mark (1942), which was dedicated to his nephew, who was shot down over the Mediterranean. After the war, Anderson turned back to his interest in historical drama, and he continued writing plays during a series of financial difficulties, and the suicide of his second wife. He died from a stroke on February 28, 1959, at his home in Stamford, Connecticut.


Act 1

Act 1 begins with the gangster Trock Estrella talking to his sidekick, Shadow, in a New York City riverbank tenement. Trock has six months to live. He wants to make sure none of the people in the tenement will share evidence that could send him back to jail for the rest of his life. Miriamne Esdras finds out that her brother Garth knows that Estrella is guilty of a murder for which a radical thinker named Bartolomeo Romagna was executed. After hearing that a professor is causing a new stir about the case, Trock visits Garth to threaten him.

In scene 3, Judge Gaunt of the Romagna case enters the tenement street scene and argues that he was right to give the death sentence. Then Mio Romagna enters, telling his friend Carr that he has come to the tenement to prove his father's innocence. Mio is struck by Miriamne's beauty, and they dance to the music of Lucia's barrel organ until a policeman enters and tells Lucia to stop playing it. A young radical preaches against the oppression that this represents. Mio tells the policeman that he is stupid and handled the situation badly. Mio then has a passionate discussion with Miriamne until they are interrupted by Trock talking with Shadow. While Mio and Miriamne hide behind a rock, Trock has Shadow shot by two thugs because Shadow knows too much.

Act 2

That evening, Esdras and Garth talk with Judge Gaunt, whom they have taken into their home fearing that Trock would kill him. Then Mio enters the cellar apartment, asking what Garth knows about his father. Garth denies any knowledge. Judge Gaunt argues with Mio that Romagna was guilty. Esdras then leaves with Judge Gaunt. Mio is left with Miriamne, whom Garth directs not to reveal anything. Upset by what he thinks is a dead end in proving his father's innocence, Mio tells Miriamne that a relationship between them could come to nothing because love is not for him. Garth reentersPage 263  |  Top of Article to ask Mio to leave, and Miriamne says she loves Mio. The hobo then enters to ask to stay under the pipes. Mio tells Miriamne he loves her too. Esdras enters with Judge Gaunt, followed by Trock.

After asking the hobo and Mio who they are, Trock tells Garth he is going to take Judge Gaunt for a long ride. As Trock is going to leave and kill Judge Gaunt, lightening flashes, and they wait inside. Shadow, who is bloody but still alive, then enters and says he is going to kill Trock, but he cannot see and goes instead to lie down. Mio then starts questioning Trock with Judge Gaunt acting as a judge over them until Trock, enraged, tells him that Shadow committed the murder. Judge Gaunt admits to Mio that he knew Romagna was not actually guilty but that it was better for him to die for the "common good." Mio vows to proclaim the truth. Trock threatens that it will not go far, but then the policeman and his sergeant enter, looking for Judge Gaunt. Although Mio accuses Trock of two murders, the policemen do not believe him because they do not find Shadow's body. Garth and Miriamne deny everything. Mio finally admits, at Miriamne's silent request, that he was dreaming. After they and Trock leave, Mio discovers Garth's role in the crime and accuses Miriamne of trapping him into the lie.

Act 3

When Mio leaves the apartment, Miriamne follows him out and tries to advise him about an escape from Trock. They watch Garth and the hobo bring Shadow's body down to the river, and Mio philosophizes about his situation. Esdras then tells Mio to wait inside while he calls the police, which he is willing to do even if Mio implicates Garth in the crimes. Carr arrives and offers his help. Mio refuses it and does not tell Carr what he has found because Mio does not want to implicate Miriamne's brother by telling the truth. Miriamne tells Mio that his father would have forgiven the people that actually committed the crime. They declare their love for each other.

Arriving back with a cut on his head, Esdras tells Mio that Trock would not let him pass to call the police, and he goes to look for a passage on the roof. Esdras waves from above that it is not safe. Miriamne suggests that Mio try another path, but when he does so, Trock's thugs are already waiting for him. They shoot him with a machine gun. Mio comes back and dies in Miriamne's arms. Miriamne

Maxwell Anderson Maxwell Anderson

walks out to declare to the gunners that she will tell the truth. They shoot her too. Garth and Esdras mourn her death, Esdras saying that they were noble and it is wiser to die young and pure while proclaiming the truth.



Mio's intelligent and devoted friend, Carr is an old acquaintance that Mio has not seen for many years. Carr is native to New York City and understands the danger of the tenement very well. Although Miriamne describes Carr as Mio's "angel," Carr is ultimately unable to help his friend or spread the word of Romagna's innocence, because Mio keeps his conflict to himself.

Garth Esdras

Garth is a former member of Trock's gang who saw Trock commit the murder for which Romagna was executed. A violinist who has abandoned any involvement in crime, Garth suffers because of his family's poverty but has little opportunity of advancing. He is timid, afraid that Trock will kill himPage 264  |  Top of Article or that he will be punished for his involvement in the crime. Garth refuses to tell the police anything. However, he is tormented by his role in Romagna's execution. He admits his knowledge to Miriamne and his father. At the end of the play, Garth blames Mio for his sister's death.

Miriamne Esdras

An innocent and idealistic girl of fifteen whom Mio describes as "clean and sweet," Miriamne falls deeply in love with Mio. Charmed by Mio's romantic observations about the world and his steadfast love of truth, she has a number of realizations herself, such as her awakening belief in spirituality and the mystery of life. Miriamne is torn between her lover, who must proclaim the truth about his father in order to live, and her brother, who withheld information from the court and has been threatened with murder by Trock. She refuses to give up her brother when the police are asking questions in their apartment. She changes many of her own convictions in the course of the play, and she is wracked with guilt about failing to stand up for Mio when he needs her. When she sacrifices herself for Mio, it comes too late for him to realize, and she dies in despair.

Rabbi Esdras

Garth and Miriamne's wise father, Esdras is continually providing moral and philosophical advice. His bleak view of life's struggle, in which he believes there is no truth, comes from his long experience and his reading of the Talmud, the vast collection of Jewish laws and traditions. He pleads with his children and others to let the past be and forget guilt, since it is better to live and lie, than to die trying to tell the truth. Esdras tries to provide humane advice to his children and friends. In his final speech, however, deeply affected by his daughter's and Mio's deaths, Esdras seems to come to some new conclusions by proclaiming that they were better to die young and pure than to suffer as long as he has.

Trock Estrella

Trock is a ruthless gangster just released from prison. He is the actual murderer who committed the crime for which Romagna was convicted. He runs the riverbank tenement and wants to make sure no one gives any evidence on him that could send him back to prison for the final six months of his life, which is all he has left according to the prison doctor. Not only does Trock threaten and beat the residents of the tenement, he shows no remorse over killing anyone that might be a problem for him, including his close friend and accomplice, Shadow. Anderson is careful to emphasize the darkness of Trock's personality with such techniques as making sure the gangster and his two thugs are continually lurking in the shadows. Trock's success in suppressing the truth and murdering Shadow, Mio, and Miriamne is central to the melancholy vision of the play, though Trock will die himself within six months.

Judge Gaunt

The judge in the Romagna case, Judge Gaunt is an "elderly, quiet man." He is plagued by guilt and doubt over sending Romagna to be executed. His doubt plagues him to the point where he is paranoid, desperate, and on the edge of sanity when he comes to the New York tenement, stopping people on the street to argue that his verdict was correct. Like Esdras, Judge Gaunt believes that only the young love truth and justice, although he is obsessed with the unwavering uprightness of the courts. Judge Gaunt finds the squalor of the tenement disgusting. He never admits his error in the Romagna case, although he is delusional and shattered by the end of the play.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Winterset was adapted into a film that was nominated for two Oscars. The film version significantly changed the ending of Anderson's play. Directed by Alfred Santell, it appeared in 1936 and is available in VHS format from Timeless Video.


A "gawky shoe salesman," Herman forces himself upon a girl, who gives in out of pity, and he wants to marry her afterwards.

Page 265  |  Top of Article

Professor Hobhouse

Professor Hobhouse does not appear in the play, but he is the person trying to open the Romagna case to further investigation.


The hobo who lives under the bridge is generally a silent observer of what is happening around him, although he assists in disposing of Shadow's body. He tells Trock he is called "Oke."


Lucia is a poor street vendor with a barrel organ that is operated by turning a crank. The police ban him from using the barrel organ.


The apple-woman of the tenement, Piny is Lucia's friend and lives in the shack next to his. Apple-selling was a common trade amongst the poor and unemployed during the Great Depression.


The district policeman, who is from Ireland, is bullying and slightly brutish. Mio comments on his incompetence and stupidity.


The young radical who appears in act 1, scene 3, of the play protests against the policeman's "capitalistic oppression," defends the freedom of speech, and stirs the emotions of the crowd.

Bartolomeo Romagna

Romagna is Mio's father, the Italian immigrant executed for a murder he did not commit. Romagna was a social and political radical, which is why he was blamed for the crime. Mio remembers his father's love for him.

Mio Romagna

A melancholy boy of seventeen, Mio (short for Bartolomeo, after his father) has been so thoroughly "[cut] off from the world" that his only desire is to prove his father's innocence. After his father was executed for murder and pay roll robbery, and his mother died of grief, Mio was asked to leave his hometown. Since then he has drifted around the country in despair. Mio is an intelligent, well read, and passionate person. His sleuthing does uncover the truth of his father's innocence, although Mio does not proclaim it to the world according to his original plan.

Despite Mio's profound sadness, and his inability to live and forget what happened to his parents, he falls in love with Miriamne. Their relationship is a glimmer of hope in the play, although Mio recognizes that his character is not suited for love because he cannot live without proclaiming the truth about his father. At first Mio feels Miriamne has betrayed him by refusing to tell the truth to the police, but then he forgives her and realizes that she could not give up her brother. In fact, it is out of love for her that he does not ask Carr for help in spreading the truth about his father's innocence, which would send her brother to prison.

Associated with Christ although he is an atheist and often speaking in mystical and lofty verse, Mio finds that the real world is not suited for him. He is continually making literary references from a wide variety of sources, and his romantic philosophizing reveals his view of a vengeful and evil world full of lies. This view fits with Mio's fatalistic personality, and he thinks of himself as speaking "from a high place, far off, long ago, looking down."


The sailor is part of the crowd dancing to Lucia's barrel organ.


A fairly unobservant policeman, the Sergeant enters the Esdras apartment to take Judge Gaunt home. He is suspicious about Mio's claims but fails to discover what has happened.


Shadow is Trock's gangster sidekick, who was involved in the murder for which Romagna was executed. Trock has Shadow shot because he refuses to kill Judge Gaunt. Shadow tries to convince Trock to stop killing in order to cover his tracks, andPage 266  |  Top of Article he vows never to tell the police anything, but Trock does not believe him. After Trock has him shot, Shadow manages to walk all the way to the Esdras house, but he cannot see well enough to shoot Trock himself, and he dies in the apartment. Shadow likes to joke occasionally and is a contrast to Trock's earnest, dark personality.


Truth and Justice

Mio's principal struggle in Winterset is to find proof of the injustice done to his father and publicly proclaim this truth; he is so obsessed with this one truth that he believes his life has no purpose other than to find and preach it. It is not necessarily clear in the melancholy world of the play, however, whether it is possible or desirable to achieve this revenge and approach life with the burning truth of a past injustice. The play continually tests and questions not only whether truth should be proclaimed and justice done, but whether truth exists and justice is possible.

These philosophical questions are addressed in Mio's eloquent speeches, in Esdras's wise observations, and in Judge Gaunt's obsessive self-defense, as well is in the convictions and actions of other characters and in the plot. Until he falls in love with Miriamne, Mio believes that truth is all-important. He feels so cut off from the world that he does not care if he dies proclaiming the truth. But Mio's love, and his knowledge of the consequences for Miriamne's brother if he unearths the truth, eventually cause him to abandon his original purpose. Esdras's observations about the lack of any real truth, and the fact that the world is built on lies and injustice, also seem to affect his decision. As does Judge Gaunt's questioning of whether anyone can be objective, and whether justice should actually serve not to proclaim truth but to protect society.

Anderson does not abandon the idea that truth and justice are important, however. Esdras's monologue to close the play honors Mio and Miriamne's desire for these noble ideas, and he says it would have been better to die young and pure like they do than to lie and live to old age. Also, the historical context of the play, which makes direct reference to the Sacco-Vanzetti case, suggests that it is vital to proclaim the truth about a historical injustice.

Love and Duty

Mio and Miriamne's love is the pivotal factor in the play. As Miriamne tells Garth, "the world's all changed" after she meets Mio. Love changes their basic convictions as moral duty comes into conflict with family obligations and the choices they must make become much more unclear and complex. Miriamne must choose between saving her brother from jail and supporting her lover. Mio feels he cannot carry out his revenge, fulfilling his duty to his father, without sabotaging his lover's family. Ultimately, they try to choose each other over their duties to their families and their previous moral convictions, but this choice results in their deaths.

In arranging a tragedy with such difficult choices, Anderson forces his audience to evaluate the importance of love and duty and to question how far one ought to be willing to go to uphold his/her convictions. Mio decides that protecting his lover's family is more important than his revenge, but this turns out to be as fatal, as does Miriamne's passionate declaration that she will uphold the truth. The audience, like Esdras, may admire the purity of this decision, but they also may be skeptical of whether this is the correct choice. Anderson therefore does not necessarily attempt to resolve the complex and contradictory demands of love and duty, although he provides a profound insight into the problem.


With its atmosphere of extreme opinions and desperate circumstances, Winterset is a play about radicalism. The young radical who complains about the "capitalistic oppression" of the New York mayor and the police force provides some of the politically radical ideas in the play, which might be connected to socialist thinking. Other characters such as Esdras challenge a variety of other mainstream convictions. It is Mio, however, who provides the bulk of the controversial and visionary ideas, some of which relate to the anarchism and socialism associated with his father. But manyPage 267  |  Top of Article of the ideas are Anderson's own inclusions, such as atheism, Freudian psychology, fatalism, and materialism.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Winterset has been compared to William Shake-speare's Hamlet, as well as to King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth. Read Hamlet or another of these tragedies, and compare it to Anderson's play. How would you characterize each playwright's use of language, and what do these approaches have in common? How does the use of historical material compare in each play? Discuss the elements of Shakespeare's style, themes, and plot that you find in Winterset, and share how your reading of Shakespeare affects your understanding of Anderson's play.
  • Winterset is normally considered a tragedy in a contemporary setting. Do you think it is a tragedy? Explain why or why not. Research the classical definition of a tragedy and discuss why and how Anderson uses various tragic conventions, as well as why the play is generally considered to be a tragedy. Then imagine a variety of different outcomes to the play and consider how they would have changed its meaning. Do you prefer any of your new endings to Anderson's? Would you change the play if you could, or do you think it needs to be in its current form? Explain why or why not.
  • Do some reading about the Sacco-Vanzetti case on which Winterset is indirectly based, and research the events of the trial and the history of the investigations afterwards. Do you think Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty? Why or why not? What would have been your vote if you were in the jury, or your verdict if you were the trial judge? Explain your decision. Also, discuss the results of the trial, its effect on American society, and its representation in the news media. How do you think Sacco and Vanzetti would have been treated in the early 2000s?
  • Winterset contains a variety of references to radicalism as well as a variety of radical ideas. What do you find radical about the play? Explain why you find certain ideas radical. Then make a list of all ideas that you would consider radical. How do you think radicalism has changed since the 1930s? Which, if any, radical ideas out of those you have listed do you think are important or true? Why have you chosen them? In what ways can radicalism be useful, and in what ways can it be dangerous? What do you think Anderson would have to say about this topic?
  • Some critics complain that Winterset is not realistic. Research and discuss the concept and practice of realism in the theater. Do you think Anderson's play is realistic? Why or why not? Discuss whether the play's poetry, plot, and characters are realistic, and whether you think Anderson is attempting to be realistic. Read another 1930s play, such as Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!, and describe whether you think it is more or less realistic than Winterset, and in what way you think so. Do you think realism in the theater is important or desirable? Discuss your feelings about realism and how they affect your views on Winterset.

Anderson bases his main plot on a historical case famous for the political extremism of its defendants, and he includes a variety of competing opinions and philosophies that radically depart from social norms. The play does not necessarily advocate these ideas, but Anderson does think seriously and philosophically about them, and he is certainly interested in questioning mainstream assumptions. He recognizes that the poverty of the tenement and the general desperation of many of its characters tend to make radical ideas appealing. He may bePage 268  |  Top of Article suggesting that the state of the United States during the Great Depression required a drastic change from the predominant ideology.


Verse Drama

One of the best-known aspects of Winterset is the fact that it is a verse drama, written in poetic lines whose meter and length determine the visual and auditory rhythm of the text. T. S. Eliot was one of the most important early-twentieth-century advocates of verse drama, which he considered the highest form that a play could take. But few playwrights even attempted it and fewer still have met with any success. Anderson taught William Shakespeare's verse dramas, and had a long-standing interest in poetry. It was only with this experience, and after many previous attempts, that Anderson was able to write such effective and successful dramatic poetry.

Ambitious and sophisticated in its style, Winterset often uses "blank verse," or unrhymed lines in iambic pentameter, which is a meter of five two-syllable units that was also used by Shakespeare. But Anderson varies the verse greatly throughout the play, using different meters and styles, and he often includes prose sections, which are in paragraph format. As in Shakespeare, the balance between these styles allows a great flexibility in theme, and Anderson makes full use of the "high" (poetic and universal) or "low" (common and realistic) emphasis that his poetic structure provides in order to bring out certain themes and balance the universal with the specific. Also, the combination of the play's philosophical meditations with realistic voices and a contemporary setting allows Anderson to contemplate themes of wide philosophical significance while remaining grounded in a real and immediate story. Mio's poetic monologues, for example, are balanced with his authentic speech patterns and the gritty reality of his fate.

Literary and Theological Allusions

Winterset includes allusions to a wide variety of authors and works, in specific phrases, in theme, and in the very structure of the play. Carr alerts the audience to this fact when he recognizes Mio's allusions to the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the English Renaissance writer Ben Jonson. But most of Anderson's literary allusions, from classical mythology to T. S. Eliot's poetry, are not cited. Two of the most important allusions, that are more than simple references, are to Shakespeare and to Judeo-Christian religious texts, as many critics have noticed. The theme of avenging one's father is similar to Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Mio's comment to Miriamne in act 2 that she should leave him and keep herself chaste, is similar to Hamlet's famous speech in which he tells Ophelia to become a nun. Mio and Miriamne also have many similarities with Romeo and Juliet, including their self-destructive love and their nearly dying together. Aside from Esdras's comments related to the Jewish Talmud and elements in common with Judaic lore and the Book of Job in the Old Testament of the Bible, Mio is something of a Christ figure in his transcendent view of another world, his wandering as a teacher and a beggar who is shunned by society, and his desire to preach the truth. All of these allusions add depth and significance to Anderson's themes, as well as adding substance to the play's philosophical content.


The Sacco-Vanzetti Case

In May of 1920, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants known to be anarchists and labor union organizers, were arrested in Staughton, Massachusetts and charged with the murder and robbery of a paymaster and his security guard. Sacco was found in possession of a .32 caliber pistol that, ballistics experts claimed, contained the same kind of bullets used in the crime. Several eyewitnesses positively identified them. In the spring of 1921, a jury found the two men guilty of the crimes, based largely on circumstantial evidence. The trial judge sentenced both men to death by electrocution.

Sacco and Vanzetti initially had little popular support because of their radical views and their Italian accents, but their lawyers managed to stay the execution for several years. During this time, liberals and intellectuals reevaluated the case and began to believe that the men were condemned simply because of their political views. By 1925, a defense committee formed, holding demonstrations throughout the country, enlisting the help of a new lawyer, Michael A. Musmanno.

Page 269  |  Top of Article

Public pressure eventually led to the Massachusetts governor organizing a commission to investigate the case, headed by Harvard Professor A. Lawrence Lowell, which completed its inquiries in June of 1927. The Lowell Commission upheld the validity of the verdict, despite widespread accusations of a government whitewash. The Supreme Court denied appeals from Musmanno and other defense lawyers to stay the execution. On August 23, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. There is still considerable controversy over whether they were actually guilty.

By combining characteristics of Sacco and Vanzetti into the fictional character of Mio's father, Anderson takes the stance that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent. Anderson is critical of the system that condemned them. Critics have noted, however, that Anderson was less forceful in his condemnation of the justice system in Winterset than he was in his previous play on the subject, Gods of the Lightening (1928), which was a failure on Broadway. Winterset seems less politically motivated because it is distanced from the specifics of the case and because it takes on a variety of wider moral and philosophical issues. However, it does contain numerous references to the execution and its implications, from its imagery of lightening and electricity to Anderson's choice of Bartolomeo Vanzetti's first name to that of Mio and his father.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • 1930s: The Sacco-Vanzetti case remains a controversial issue. To many people, it represents a miscarriage of justice and discrimination against racial minorities and those with radical political views.
    Today: The trial of O. J. Simpson in 1995 remains controversial, since many people believe his acquittal was a miscarriage of justice because he was guilty of murdering his wife.
  • 1930s: The effects of the Great Depression are being felt across the United States, and an attitude of pessimism about the economy is widespread.
    Today: The economy may be recovering from the economic slump that coincided with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
  • 1930s: Welfare is a new concept that has not taken effect in slums similar to the one portrayed in Winterset.
    Today: The unemployed are eligible for economic assistance from the government, but this is not a comprehensive system, and there remain areas of stark poverty in most American cities.
  • 1930s: The crime rate is high, corruption is widespread, and gangs are a major problem in inner-city New York slums.
    Today: The crime rate in New York City remains high and gangs have a significant influence, but conditions have improved in many low-income areas. Corruption has decreased, and gangs are less powerful than they were in the 1930s.
  • 1930s: Verse drama, although it is not popular or widespread, is in vogue amongst adherents of T. S. Eliot's literary theory.
    Today: Verse drama has all but disappeared from the mainstream theatrical repertoire.

The Early Years of the Great Depression

In October of 1929, the United States stock market crashed, marking the beginning of a period of extremely high unemployment and financial difficulty for many Americans. The optimism that characterized the 1920s, which was a prosperous era for the middle and upper classes, had come to an end. While the Great Depression affected nearly all aspects of society in some way, however, its specificPage 270  |  Top of Article effects varied sharply depending on social class and source of income. Members of the upper class largely remained financially secure, while lower class workers and farmers often found themselves out of work or bankrupt. Many in the working class found that their situations had not drastically changed from the 1920s. Middle class jobs were more difficult to find, and often both parents of a family would try to seek jobs in order to live comfortably.

With the financial desperation of the 1930s came increased activism on the part of socialists and union organizers, and many workers unionized to demand better conditions from employers and the government. Activism among radical groups was particularly high in the slums of big cities, such as that portrayed in Winterset, where many former workers were reduced to street peddling in order to survive. City unions asked for mandates requiring electricity and heating companies to maintain the supply when bills had not been paid. Thousands of workers marched on Washington in 1932 to demand bonuses, but the government was largely unsympathetic; President Herbert Hoover violently quashed the 1932 march by calling in the army. This reflected the upper and middle class distrust and fear of radical groups.

Most political participation came in the form of voting for the Democratic party, however, which made enormous gains in the 1932 election. Franklin Delano Roosevelt remained in power from 1932 until the end of the Great Depression, instituting the New Deal, a series of reforms meant to create jobs and institute social services and welfare. The New Deal did create jobs and had wide support in the lower class, although it is unclear whether it actually contributed to the recovery of the economy or whether it addressed the problem of extremely high rates of poverty among racial and ethnic minorities. Among the hardest hit by the depression, ethnic minority groups encountered widespread racism and economic oppression.


Winterset was a success on Broadway and was largely met with reviews that praised Anderson's ability to combine poetry with realistic contemporary drama. Some critics found the play's Shakespearean themes jumbled and its poetic voices unconvincing, but these critics were in the minority. In 1936, the play was awarded the newly created Drama Critics' Circle Award, which led to its popularity across the country for five years. Later critics, while sometimes finding fault with aspects such as its melancholy ending, tended to agree that the play was one of Anderson's finest achievements and one of the best American verse dramas of the twentieth century.

In his article, "Winterset and Some Early Eliot Poems," Perry D. Luckett characterizes the substance of the critical approaches to the play as follows:

Critics initially concerned themselves with its use of verse, a major experiment in a theater devoted largely to prose, and only later began to examine the play's theme and characters to determine whether it had anything important to say.

As Luckett goes on to acknowledge, many critics, such as Francis E. Abernethy in his article, "Winterset: A Modern Revenge Tragedy," highlight the play's many sources and allusions. Abernethy argues that the play is a revenge tragedy heavily indebted to William Shakespeare's Hamlet. However, Robert L. Gilbert states in his article, "Mio Romagna: A New View of Maxwell Anderson's Winterset" that "Winterset is not 'a revenge play."' In addition to discussing the influence of Shakespeare, Judaic lore, and T. S. Eliot over the play, later critics have explored its themes of love and justice, its view on traditional values, and its politics. The play, along with Anderson's other works, was rarely performed in the early 2000s, but it was still considered one of the most notable twentieth-century verse dramas.


Scott Trudell

Trudell is a freelance writer with a bachelor's degree in English literature. In the following essay, Trudell discusses the techniques Anderson uses to develop and test the philosophical assertions of his tragedy.

Profound and thematically ambitious, with commentaries on the nature of truth, existence, religion, love, death, and many other fundamental values and ideas, Winterset is a philosophical play. Anderson does not merely imitate Shakespeare in style; he follows the famous playwright's tendency to present and examine a number of philosophies andPage 271  |  Top of Article traditions that are represented and expressed by various characters. For example, Mio's contemplative speeches have roots in Senecan (based on Seneca, the ancient Roman writer of revenge tragedies) and Shakespearean philosophical traditions. Also, Esdras's wise commentaries owe much to Judaic lore and the biblical book of Job. As Robert L. Gilbert points out in his essay, "Mio Romagna: A New View of Maxwell Anderson's Winterset," Anderson does not rely entirely on these traditions. In fact, the philosophies expressed in Winterset are often quite original. But Anderson expresses and tests these unique ideas both in the contemporary world and in the context of a long-standing philosophical tradition.

Vital to this interaction with tradition is the play's unique verse form. Anderson's style of verse drama, which often uses the blank verse characteristic of Shakespeare and the English Renaissance, is perhaps the main feature for which the play is known. This poetic form, which recollects not only Shakespeare and the English tradition, but verse drama reaching back to the ancient Greeks, was a style advocated by one of the period's most important literary scholars and poets, T. S. Eliot. Thought to elevate the lines to a greater and even universal significance, verse had long been a means by which playwrights could declare the importance and vitality of what they wrote, and the technique was experiencing a minor resurgence in the 1930s. The language and poetic style used to express the various philosophical themes of Winterset are therefore quite useful in determining the tradition and source of various philosophies, as well as highlighting which are most important to Anderson.

With its atmosphere of desperation which tests its characters' beliefs to the extreme, Anderson's play is committed to bringing out the essence of the philosophies that each character holds and expresses. For example, Anderson was criticized for setting the speeches of gangsters into verse—many felt this was asking for an impossible suspension of disbelief—but the poetic form of their dialogue is extremely effective in establishing the true nature of their function in the play. Trock is not simply a selfish and petty crook; because his poetry connects him to the theater's greatest villains and ancient evils, the gang leader seems to have accumulated the ills of the entire world. When he says, "They've soaked me once too often /in that vat of poisoned hell," Trock gathers not just one man's misfortune but the wider significance of evil, which he comes to represent in an abstract and philosophical manner.

Playbill cast list from Winterset performed at the Lyceum Theatre in 1935 Playbill cast list from Winterset performed at the Lyceum Theatre in 1935

Each character's worldview does not necessarily remain the same as the drama progresses, however. Trock's philosophy becomes increasingly dark and destructive because he becomes increasingly unable to forgive anything or to accommodate his world view to something more meaningful than his petty fears. In fact, many characters go through a sincere change in outlook before the play is complete because this is one of Anderson's most effective methods for comparing and evaluating their philosophies. The hypocrisy of Judge Gaunt's belief system drives him insane with guilt and reduces him to a desperate attempt to convince himself, through an inconsistent muddle of philosophy, that he was right to execute Romagna for the welfare of the community.

Esdras's experience in sorting through a philosophy based on life experience and the dramatic events of the plot is perhaps a clearer example of how Anderson develops and considers philosophies through his characters, a technique made possible through the playwright's careful use of language. Esdras initially reveals his commitment to the relativity of truth, and the arbitrary nature of guilt, in a world of shadows in which "There's no guilt underPage 272  |  Top of Article heaven, /just as there's no heaven, till men believe it—/no earth, till men have seen it, and have a word /to say this is the earth." As Esdras points out in act 2, this philosophy, which maintains that "truth's a thing unknown" and justice remains undone, comes from his reading of Jewish Talmud. It seems to embody everything Esdras stands for in the play, as he tries to convince Mio and the children to expect less from the world, to recognize that there is no justice, and to survive however they can.

However, after Esdras endures the knowledge of his son's complicity in Trock's original murder, recognizes his daughter's love for Mio, is plagued by guilt for being a part of a major injustice, and realizes that he has failed to protect his family, the old rabbi is severely shaken—enough to reconsider his world view. Esdras does not entirely or unrealistically transform his character, but his final monologue reveals that he has been pushed beyond his capacity to endure injustice. Valuing Mio and Miriamne as greater than "all /a city's elders" in their wisdom, a statement that contradicts the Jewish value system, Esdras signals a conversion from the Judaic philosophical tradition as he sees it: "I wish that I'd died so, /long ago; before you're old you'll wish /that you had died as they have."

It is significant that Anderson chooses to end the play in this manner; had it come in another place, or had it not been written in blank verse, it might have signified a moment of desperation after which Esdras would return to traditional Judaic philosophy. But as the final monologue, which in a Shakespearean tragedy normally marks a return to a world of order with justice having been served, it represents an affirmation of love, truth, and justice at whatever the cost. The high style of the monologue's verse is vital to its success and believability in this regard. Its repetition of words and sounds, such as "Mio," "died," "star," and "yet," reinforces the insistent and unflinching conviction of the speech. Although the lines do not rhyme, their dramatic rhythm and meter also reinforce the sense that Esdras is rising above his background, belief system, and previous convictions in order to declare something permanent and meaningful.

Miriamne also experiences a traumatic test of her philosophical convictions, which are initially summarized by the disillusioned response she makes to Mio's question of what she believes in: "Nothing." Yet she changes her convictions to center on her love for Mio, and she comes to believe in this so strongly that she dies attempting to prove her devotion to him. This gesture comes too late, however, after Miriamne feels that she has betrayed Mio by refusing to give away her brother to the police and thus verify Mio's proclamation of his father's innocence. Anderson reinforces the inconstancy of Miriamne's convictions and the impressionability of her youth by leaving her lines short and choppy, seldom giving her any substantial speeches, and even associating her with the moral degeneration of T. S. Eliot's famous Wasteland, which is characterized by a widespread lack of faith:

Oh, Mio, Mio, /in all the unwanted places and waste lands /that roll up into the darkness out of sun /and into sun out of dark, there should be one empty /for you and me.

This darkness and faithlessness is, for Anderson, very dangerous ground, and perhaps this is why Miriamne is the one to draw Mio away from his martyr's faith in truth and justice. In his 1947 essay, "Whatever Hope We Have" Anderson reinforces this idea in a quote that Perry D. Luckett uses to associate Anderson's philosophy with that of the devout Christian T. S. Eliot: "we must have a personal, a national, and a racial faith, or we are dry bones in a death valley, waiting for the word that will bring us life." It is therefore appropriate to Anderson's philosophical agenda that Mio, by far the most substantial philosopher in the play, with his numerous monologues contemplating everything from honor and freedom to truth and enduring love, answers the above question simply, "No." There is no empty wasteland away from the troubles of the world for Mio because he is committed to wide and uncompromising justice and the public proclamation of the truth.

Page 273  |  Top of Article

Yet Mio also experiences a traumatic test of his convictions that brings him to change his initial philosophy. Ultimately, he alters his own commitment to truth and justice in order to spare his lover's brother from jail. Remaining silent about his knowledge, instead of passing it on to Carr in act 3, Mio reverses his previously exclusive desire to proclaim his father's innocence. Instead, he comes to value the "enduring love" that he previously told Miriamne exists only in books. More so than any other character, Mio is allowed to express his convictions and observations about the world in elegant and dramatic verse, but when it comes to explaining his reversal of philosophies he can only say, "it strangled in my throat" and "It stuck in my throat." It is actually Miriamne who causes her lover to understand the change in his thinking when she says, "He would have forgiven," which refers to his father but also alludes to one of the central premises of Christian philosophy: Jesus' forgiveness of sins. Once he understands this, Mio is able to provide a number of transcendent and romantic explanations of his new convictions, universalized by Anderson's carefully crafted verse.

Mio's philosophical journey therefore results in a conviction in faith and forgiveness, but it only becomes a convincing and powerful declaration after it has been tested by the desperate realities of the drama. Universal and abstract philosophies such as Mio's must always, for Anderson, be balanced with contemporary politics and the individual concerns of the character, a duality that is reflected in the playwright's language. Winterset is powerful and unique because it is able to articulate this interplay between the universal and the specific, through the sophisticated use of verse, which represents the highest philosophical convictions of a character without reaching outside that character's realistic voice and distinctive personality. Anderson ties together high and low, universal and specific, and abstract and real through his careful use of language. It is in these combinations that the play establishes a philosophy of faith and hope.

Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on Winterset, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Russell Dinapoli

In the following essay excerpt, Dinapoli examines the inappropriateness of the Elizabethan structure of Winterset and asserts that Anderson wrote the play for commercial rather than artistic reasons. This essay will focus on the verse drama Winterset, Maxwell Anderson's second play on the subject of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. It will briefly compare the drama, which I believe was inappropriately written in the style of an Elizabethan tragedy, with Gods of the Lightning, a propaganda play written in collaboration with Harold Hickerson and staged soon after the two anarchist immigrants were put to death in Massachusetts in 1927. The essay asserts that unlike his first play on the subject of the case, in Winterset Anderson exploited the Sacco-Vanzetti issue for other than artistic reasons, to wit: he knew the topic would entice audiences to see the play, which opened on Broadway in September 1935, and earned the playwright his first Drama Critics Circle Award. The drama, however, has since been virtually forgotten. I maintain that this is in large part because an issue as sensitive as the Sacco-Vanzetti case was in the 1930s, and to some extent still is, cannot be represented in arcane terms and in a tragic-verse style.

Maxwell Anderson was granted the most prestigious awards an American playwright can receive: the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Critics Circle Award (twice) and, like Eugene O'Neill before him, the Gold Medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Additionally, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. According to Buchanan, "In volume of work alone Anderson stands above most of his contemporaries, and in variety both of subject matter and dramatic form he has few if any peers" (Playwright's Progress 60). Yet the dramatist has practically been forgotten. As the playwright's son affirms, "Considering his prominence, critical acclaim, and popular success among theater audiences over a period of thirty years, it seems puzzling" ("Maxwell Who?" 171). It is my belief that Maxwell Anderson in large part lost credibility as a serious playwright in the mid-1930s in part as a result of his insistence upon writing verse plays in the Elizabethan style on current issues—most notably his use of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial as the background for Winterset (1940).

The Sacco-Vanzetti trial began on 31 May 1921 in the town of Dedham, Massachusetts, and a subsequent appeal for a new trial after the defendants were convicted lasted several years. The case captured the attention not only of the American public but of people all over the world. As Prior observes, it was an "episode which touched on some of the most serious issues of the life of our times" (324). Before the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, the "Red Scare" had swept the country in large part because of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer'sPage 274  |  Top of Article highly publicized crusade against suspected radicals in 1919 and 1920. With the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 as a basis, Palmer ordered his agents to round up thousands of suspects in cities across the country, disregarding the basic civil liberties of many of them. Aliens were especially targeted during the campaign. Thus, when Fredrick Parmenter, a paymaster, and Alessandro Beradelli, a guard, were gunned down in a robbery in South Braintree, foreign radicals immediately became the prime suspects.

The Sacco-Vanzetti trial came on the heels of two years of national hysteria, in which foreigners were believed to be trying to overthrow the government. From the very beginning of the trial it was feared that the two Italians would not get a fair trial, for they were both aliens and radicals. Judge Webster Thayer—later personified in Anderson's Winterset—presiding over the trial and subsequent hearings for a retrial, "was accused by some of 'extreme bias' in conducting the case" (Nannes 92). In addition, Avrich notes: "Outside the courtroom, during the trial and the appeals which followed, he made remarks that bristled with animosity towards the defendants. ('Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them a while"' [3–4]).

In the Transcript of the Record of the Trial, W. G. Thompson and H. B. Ehrmann, both of whom served as counsel for Sacco and Vanzetti, attest that "the state of mind and conduct of Judge Thayer made a fair trial impossible," adding, "It has been established by incontrovertible evidence that from the very beginning he entertained a strong prejudice and hostility against both defendants by reasons of their anarchistic views" (Massachusetts Dept. of Justice 1929, 5352). In order to forestall a growing belief that prejudice had informed Thayer's judgment, the Governor of Massachusetts, Alvan T. Fuller, called on a number of influential citizens to review the case. The special advisory committee sanctioned the conviction. Avrich notes, "The Lowell Committee, as it became known, though finding Judge Thayer guilty of a 'grave breach of official decorum' in his derogatory references to the defendants, nevertheless concluded that justice had been done" (4). Nevertheless, many Americans continued to believe that Sacco and Vanzetti had been treated unjustly. Significantly, sixteen years after the two anarchists were executed, the popular magazine Vogue referred to them as having been "legally killed for their convictions, not their crimes" ("Maxwell Anderson" 81).

Fraenkel asserts that Thompson, Sacco and Vanzetti's attorney, remarked about the judge that refused to allow a retrial. "I could not honestly say that I think Judge Thayer is all the time a bad man or that he is a confirmed wicked man. Not at all. That isn't so." But, Thompson adds: "his categories of thought are few and simple—reds and conservatives, and 'soldier boys.' No margin between them. No intermediate ground where people cannot be placed in the one class or the other. He knows only a few simple things; the country, the war, the reds" (546). It is noteworthy that Fraenkel's book, The Sacco-Vanzetti Case, which was reprinted in 1969, was originally published in 1931. (The two anarchists were put to death at midnight, on 23 August 1927.) This is a clear indication that the case was still a matter of public concern four years after the execution had taken place. Moreover, it seems reasonable to assume that Anderson, a man who had earlier expressed a strong interest in the case, might well have been acquainted with Fraenkel's book prior to writing the final draft of Winterset. Echoing Thompson's conciliatory description of Thayer, Anderson depicts the judge in Winterset as a man who firmly believes, if erroneously, that he is protecting society: "I have sent men down that long corridor into blinding light and blind darkness! [He suddenly draws himself erect and speaks defiantly] And it was well that I did so! I have been an upright judge!" (37–38).

Seven years after Anderson's first Sacco and Vanzetti drama, Gods of the Lightning (1928), was dismissed by critics and audiences, in large part for being too quixotic for Broadway, Anderson returned to the Sacco-Vanzetti theme in his play Winterset. The difference was patent. In the earlier drama his intentions had been clearly propagandistic. Gods of the Lightning, which relied heavily onPage 275  |  Top of Article realistic dialogue and journalistic comment, was an outcry against the injustice committed. Shivers observes, "It incurred attempts at censorship, e.g., at Boston, not because of its language but because of its supposed inflammatory subject matter" (4). In Winterset, however, the playwright handled the subject in a more complaisant manner, using verse and Hamlet-like philosophizing.

The premiere of Winterset on 25 September 1935 caused a critical stir in the United States that lasted for several years. According to Wall, "Winterset was attended by as much criticism as was Victor Hugo's Ernani" (156). Political attitudes affected the reception of the play, as Anderson, an experienced Broadway playwright, must have known they would. Woodbridge notes the effect on the reception of the play as a result of "the intense feeling which the case aroused" (59). Fraenkel observes, "The prominence accorded the case in the press becomes strikingly evident from a review of the following headlines in the New York Times" (4). The author then proceeds to list 22 case related headlines for the month of August 1927, among which the following serve as examples: "World Stir Over Decision" (August 5th); "British Labor Makes Protest" (August 9th); "Rome Relies on our Justice" (August 12th); "Boston Besieged; Scores Arrested" (August 23rd); "Paris Mobs Loot Shops" (August 24th). Furthermore, whole sectors of Boston were closed off in the days leading up to their executions; protesters were herded off to jail, and in the final hours, "outside the barred area around the prison great crowds gathered" (4).

It is hard to imagine a professional dramatist of Anderson's caliber ignoring the political uproar that the case had caused and that the staging of his play was likely to produce. Judge Thayer's home was bombed in 1932, thrusting the Sacco-Vanzetti case back into the news in the early 1930s. Avrich suspects the bombing "originated among the Needham anarchists" (215). Would a Broadway producer risk a large sum of money on a play that might fuel either an anarchist bombing spree or a conservative boycott? I do not think so. I suspect that Anderson knew that the memory of the Sacco-Vanzetti affair alone would publicize his play, and he judged that if he handled the subject in a way that did not infuse the potentially explosive event with newfound political life, a financial success might be achieved.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that, as a veteran professional playwright, Anderson would have been careful not to alienate his paying audiences. Hence, although he alludes to injustice in Winterset. "And there you see it, the perfect example of capitalistic oppression!" (35), he nonetheless avoids offending conservatives by absolving the judge, who is sympathetically depicted as a man who suffers for having done his patriotic duty by sending two anarchists to their deaths in the electric chair: "Nay, it avails nothing that you are the law—this delicate ganglion that is the brain, it will not bear these things—!" (42). Initially, the media in New York showed its approval of Anderson's depiction of the Sacco-Vanzetti affair in Winterset by awarding the playwright the Drama Critics' Circle Award. The play had 179 performances. However, during its second engagement it was only performed sixteen times. Buchanan holds that in writing Winterset, Anderson was "risking failure" ("Rules of Playwriting" 63); and even Flexner, one of Anderson's strongest critics, acknowledges, "In Winterset Anderson unquestionably set himself his most difficult task to date" (103). But as it turned out, the risk was not so much the subject matter as the way it was handled. There is nothing unusual about a dramatist catering to audiences. Shakespeare was a master at writing for both the nobility in the balconies and the groundlings in the pit. My concern with Winterset is that, unlike the historical subjects depicted by Shakespeare, the Sacco-Vanzetti case was not an appropriate topic for the sort of Elizabethan verse tragedy that Anderson wrote.

That the dramatist chose to write his first verse play on a modern theme using the Sacco-Vanzetti case as its background is troubling for two reasons: first, the issue had not been resolved by their deaths; and second, Anderson had decided to leave matters that way. Moreover (and what is more alarming), I suspect that Anderson was aware of the impact the subject matter would have on his audiences when he sat down to write the play, and that he ultimately devised it in an ethos perfectly suited both to liberals and conservatives. It is therefore not surprising that Rodell observes that in Winterset "Mr. Anderson refuses to take a chance" (274). In my opinion, Anderson played both sides of the ideological fence in his treatment of the Sacco-Vanzetti affair. He deliberately made Winterset abstruse so that the greatest number of people would leave the theater untroubled by the way the Sacco-Vanzetti affair had been handled. Hence, by swathing the Sacco-Vanzetti tragedy "in layers of poetic disguises" (Block 240), the playwright avoided dealing with some of the outstanding questions stemming from the case.Page 276  |  Top of Article (For example, was the FBI involved? Was the Jury's verdict the result of the "Red Scare"? Should Judge Thayer have been dismissed after making biased statements in public?)

Anderson attempted to modernize the Elizabethan style and thereby make it more appealing to American playgoers. Many critics applauded the dramatist's efforts in this respect. Cantor comments that during its run on Broadway, Winterset was considered an "Elizabethan East Side" drama (34). Similarly, Ferguson uses the term "East River Hamlet" to describe the play and Gabriel characterizes it as being "Shakespearean? Precisely, patently—and successfully" and he insists that even though Winterset is Shakespeare in shirt-sleeves," it is "not a jot incongruous because of that undress" (465); moreover, Hewitt remarks that the play takes a look back, "with nostalgia on the days and ways of Bill Shakespeare" (396). Finally, Prior observes, "For all its modernity of setting and theme, Winterset is an elaborate and original combination of Shakespearian situations" (321).

Anderson clearly relied on Shakespearianisms in several of the plays he wrote in the 1930s—most notably in the first two Tudor plays, Elizabeth the Queen and Mary of Scotland; and in Winterset, a play on a modern theme. Colum notes that the Shakespearianisms are "deliberate" (345). The other plays he wrote that are Shakespearean, but to a lesser degree, are Valley Forge, The Wingless Victory, High Tor and Key Largo. There is nothing unusual about authors making literary allusions in their works. Literary cross-reference, when skillfully done, can be very effective: the Elizabethans in particular borrowed extensively from authors of other periods. Nor was their use of ancient parallels and motifs random. The Elizabethan playgoer was expected to recognize the literary allusions and to appreciate them in the context of the play. So too did Anderson expect his audiences to identify the allusions he employed. In this respect, Kernodle notes, "The resemblance to the older plays gives breadth and universality to the modern figures" (331).

In Anderson's Tudor dramas, the Shakespearianisms were generally acceptable to critics and audiences alike. However, when the playwright chose to write a Shakespearean drama on a modern subject as controversial as the Sacco-Vanzetti case, critics were divided in their opinions. At first, those authors who were positive in their assessments of Anderson's Shakespearean modern drama Winterset were foremost. The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson found it "courageous" ("The Play" 19) and "overwhelming" ("Mr Anderson" 1); the drama critic for Theatre Arts Monthly called it "magnificent" (Gabriel 465); and William R. Benet, writing for Saturday Review of Literature, claims he "deeply enjoyed it" (16). Furthermore, David Burton holds that "the slings and arrows of good fortune" (2) accompanied the play, which, as I have already mentioned, won the first New York Drama Critics Circle Award ever presented. Joseph Krutch—a member of the New York Drama Critics Circle at the time—writes in The American Drama since 1918 that he approves of Anderson's "attempt to treat some of the material of contemporary life in a manner more richly imaginative than the method of realism permits" (296). He finds it agreeable that "even the lowest of his characters is, like the characters in Shakespeare, permitted to be both a poet and a philosopher" (297). Moreover, Krutch takes issue with those who would criticize the play because "'gangsters' don't speak verse," calling such an attitude "frivolous," and adds, "Neither do fourteen-year-old Italian girls, early Danish princes or, for that matter, any other persons whatsoever" (298). Contrary voices had been raised against the prospect of writing modern verse dramas even before Winterset opened at the Martin Beck Theater in 1935. Claiming that the Elizabethan verse style is out of place in modern drama, Zabel asserts, "it is one thing for an audience to attend an Elizabethan play, with its sanctions of tradition and reverence, and quite another to find the same literary process applied to the events and speech of contemporary life" (153–4).

Furthermore, the inappropriateness of a drama in verse about the Sacco-Vanzetti case was observed by several authors. They did not agree with authors like Wyatt, who praised the play for "presenting a poetic theme in a gangster setting" (600). To many, representing an international cause célèbre"swathed in poetic disguises" (Block 240) was simply wrong. Young remarks that in Winterset,"we have only verses that are sucking a sugar-teat in the Muses' nursery" (365). Similarly, Edmund Wilson states that before seeing the play he heard that Winterset was a "great American poetic drama on the theme of Sacco and Vanzetti," only to discover that "what I was confronted with when I got into the theater was a belated and disembodied shadow of the productions, so unpopular in their day—universally neglected by the critics—of the old New Playwrights' Theater in Grove Street" (193). He further remarks,

Page 277  |  Top of Article

There were the Jews out of Em Jo Basshe's 'The Centuries,' the street scene, with its agitators and policemen, out of Dos Passos's 'Airways,' and a general influence of the open-air stages of John Howard Lawson. During the first act, I became interested, as it seemed to me that the writers of the New Playwrights might have founded a school, after all, and that Mr. Anderson might have improved on his originals.

In addition, "the revolutionary social content had been extracted," and in short, what remained was simply Shakespearean form, which the playwright seemed to be forcing on a modern subject. Wilson concludes that Anderson is trying to "impose an old technique which has nothing to do with his material" (194). Along similar lines, Colum notes that though Shakespearianisms have been "imposed" on the play, "its conception is very far from Shakespearean," and the result is that, for a play about the Sacco-Vanzetti case, "Anderson did not really achieve the proper form" (345). Some authors, however, claim that the verse style is hardly detectable when spoken on stage. Remarking that it is not "the blank verse of Shakespeare's time," Arthur Hobson Quinn further observes that it is a "flexible, four-stressed measure which is quite natural in its expression and which never gets between the audience and the idea" (3).

Film versions of Anderson's Shakespearean plays were made, but the screenplay adaptations of the play scripts were written in prose. RKO/Radio released Anderson's second Tudor play, Mary of Scotland in 1936, with Katherine Hepburn and Fredric March in the title roles and under the direction of John Ford. Vanderlane asserts, "The film does not succeed," and "a good deal of the fault can be found in the material with its lack of historical balance" (1549). In 1939, Warner Brothers released the film version of Anderson's first Tudor drama—the original playscript title was changed to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex—starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. With regard to the quality of the film, Robert Morsberger remarks, "Despite the spectacle of Elizabeth and Essex, the pageantry is too often static, too often a series of tableaux" (1387). The film Winterset was released by RKO/Radio in 1936. According to Ralph Angel, the film version of the award winning drama "achieves no higher status than the general gangster melodrama" (1860). Similarly, Otis Ferguson asserts, "What we have here is little more than a sort of Hamlet of the gangster films—without Hamlet, of course" ("Hamlet I" 328). Elsewhere, while reviewing the film, he states, "The movie covers up some of the play's weak spots, manufactures some of its own, and places others in merciless focus," adding that "a stageful of corpses at the curtain does not necessarily make tragedy" ("Hamlet II"). Also, Van Doren mentions that the film "bears only the most superficial resemblance to the tragedy which won prizes" (741). The stage productions of Anderson's Shakespearean plays were successful, though the film versions, which had eliminated the Shakespearianisms, were not. Ironically, however, while in the postwar period the once popular stage versions have all but been forgotten, occasionally the film versions can still be seen on television.

I believe that as a play Winterset was a failure in the long run because the Sacco-Vanzetti case is a subject that cannot be depicted obliquely in verse. This is especially so when, as Avrich notes, "Millions were convinced of their innocence, and millions were convinced that, guilty or innocent, they had not received impartial justice" (4). Anderson tried to get the audience to suspend judgment and to accept the stoic notion that the worldly power brokers inevitably triumph on earth, while victims like Sacco and Vanzetti are truly noble. That sort of thinking may have been appropriate enough for Anderson's Tudor plays, where the events had occurred in the distant past. But it rings hollow when the subject is one that is as controversial as the Sacco and Vanzetti case was in 1935.

In "A Prelude to Poetry in the Theatre," an essay that was included in the originally published version of Winterset, Anderson wrote that a playwright "who thinks more of his job than his fame will therefore play safe by repressing his personal preferences and going all the way in the direction of what he believes the public wants." It would seem that this line of reasoning was at the core of Anderson's final draft of Winterset. That Anderson exploited the Sacco-Vanzetti tragedy is further supported by the fact that he authorized a watered down Hollywood film version of the play. Furthermore, in an article by Anderson, which the New York Times took the liberty of subtitling "Veteran Dramatist Reveals He Began Writing Plays Mainly for Money," the playwright acknowledges that Winterset did not earn enough money, and so "I went back to prose with 'Star Wagon,' another pot-boiler" ("A Confession"); and he alludes to Molière, who also aimed "at quality and perfection as well as immediate receipts."

In one of his last interviews, Anderson reflected on What Price Glory—a play which tookPage 278  |  Top of Article Broadway by storm with its strongly critical attitude toward World War I and especially American involvement in it. He called the play "'a pot-boiler"' (Nichols 5). With its fast paced and realistic language, it influenced American theater in the early 1920s. John Brown mentions that Sherwood Anderson decided "'it would be a wonderful thing to be a playwright"' after seeing What Price Glory performed (163); and Morris Freedman calls it one of the two "most successful plays in the twenties" (82). However, regarding this fairly important event in the history of the American theater. Anderson confesses, "I wrote it just because I wanted to make some money" (Nichols 5). That statement may have raised the eyebrows of more than one reader—it certainly did mine. As it stands, then, the question may well be asked, though never satisfactorily answered: how much of Winterset was just another pot-boiler?

Source: Russell Dinapoli, "Maxwell Anderson's Misuse of Poetic Discourse in Winterset," in Staging a Cultural Paradigm: The Political and the Personal in American Drama, edited by Barbara Ozieblo and Miriam Lopez-Rodriguez, P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2002, pp. 101–11.

Robert L. Gilbert

In the following essay, Gilbert reviews critical response to the subject of Mio's revenge in Winterset. He then argues that Anderson does, despite criticism suggesting otherwise, lay a logical groundwork for the concluding sequence of events in the play.

Winterset has prompted more critical comment than any of Maxwell Anderson's other attempts at tragedy. It has been described as a romance and a revenge play. The drama involves the attempt of an adolescent, Mio Romagna, to avenge his father's death. In 1928, Anderson had collaborated on a conventional protest play, Gods of the Lightning, sections of which were adapted from the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. With Winterset, Anderson again proposed to dramatize an action suggested by this event.

The drama opens about thirteen years after the Romagna trial. Romagna was executed for a crime committed by the Estrella gang of which Garth Esdras was a member. The events of the trial contributed to a national controversy which is still going on. The play is set in a tenement district near a Manhattan waterfront. Its inhabitants include Garth Esdras, his sister, Miriamne, and his father. Two principals in the Romagna case visit Garth, who has recently been implicated in the crime. Trock Estrella threatens to murder Garth, and Judge Gaunt—who officiated at the trial and has since lost his sanity—appeals for Garth's silence.

Mio Romagna doesn't meet Garth until the middle of the play and by that time he has fallen in love with Garth's sister, Miriamne. When Mio learns that Trock's gang is guilty, he can't expose them because he doesn't want to hurt Miriamne. The third act finds Mio torn by this dilemma and he turns to Miriamne for help. She reminds him of his father's last words which called for love. Mio forsakes revenge, but is machine-gunned by Trock's men when he tries to escape. Miriamne shouts Trock's guilt and is also shot. Her father, an aging rabbi, delivers a eulogy over their bodies to close the play. He begs them to "forgive the ancient evil of the earth" and praises their defiance:

Oh, Miriamne,
and Mio—Mio, my son—know this where you lie,
this is the glory of earth-born men and women,
not to cringe, never to yield, but standing,
take defeat implacable and defiant,
die unsubmitting. I wish that I'd died so,
long ago; before you're old you'll wish
that you had died as they have. On this star,
in this hard star-adventure, knowing not
what the fires mean to right and left, nor whether
a meaning was intended or presumed,
man can stand up, and look out blind, and say:
in all these turning lights I can find no clue,
only a masterless night, and in my blood
no certain answer, yet is my mind my own,
yet is my heart a cry toward something dim
in distance, which is higher than I am
and makes me emperor of the endless dark
even in seeking! What odds and ends of life
men may live otherwise, let them live, and then
go out, as I shall go, and you. Our part
is only to bury them. Come take her up.
They must not lie here.

Political attitudes affected the reception of the Broadway production of Winterset. Many critics saw in Winterset a regression from Anderson's previous treatment of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Anita Block wrote that "Gods of the Lightning should have met a response that would have sent this stirring play across the country," but she considers Winterset an "insidious" form "of escape."

Eleanor Flexner evaluated Winterset in her contemporary survey subtitled The Theatre Retreats from Reality. She notes that Esdras' eulogy "cannot hide the fact that to submit is exactly what Mio did when he abandoned the defense of his father's good name for the love of a girl he had known only a few hours." Flexner is disturbed that Anderson allows

Page 279  |  Top of Article

Burgess Meredith and Margo in a 1936 film adaptation of Winterset Burgess Meredith and Margo in a 1936 film adaptation of Winterset

Miriamne to intrude upon the drama. She quotes from the recognition scene in which Mio pleads "Miriamne, if you love me /teach me a treason to what I am and have been /till I learn to live like a man!"

These words strike one like a blow. They smack of the weakling and the renegade. It is perfectly possible that a boy who suffered as Mio might be seized with the horror of the agony which has constituted his entire life. But Anderson has taken pains to show us that Mio is no ordinary boy. He is of heroic stuff, he is hardboiled, he is a fanatic with a single obsession.

Flexner believes her assessment of Mio is based upon the text and not her commitment to social issues. She writes "it is imperative that it [Winterset] be analyzed without reference to any … external consideration, solely from the point of view of the dynamics of the play itself." She concludes:

For an act and a half Anderson is writing a play about a boy whose sole purpose in life is to clear his father's name, if not to avenge him. Suddenly, however, he allows him to abandon the purpose which is the root action of the play, and, violating every principle of character which he has so carefully established in the first act, brings about a catastrophic dénouement which he invests with a completely false aura of tragic inevitability, since dramatically there is nothing inevitable about it. Why doesn't Mio jump into the East River, always full of passing boats, and swim for safety?

Such an observation is not confined to the thirties. In 1957, Robert C. Roby compared Mio with Shakespeare's Romeo. He writes:

The playwright's problem is that of a revenge play which must meet its resolution not in the accomplishment of revenge but in willful forebearance of it…. Shakespeare's dramatic problem lay in involving Romeo in a family feud from which he wished to remain aloof; Anderson's is in separating Mio from a quarrel which he has striven to keep alive. Shakespeare's answer came in Mercutio's duel with Tybalt which involved Romeo's loyalty. In Anderson's play, however, the conflict between love and loyalty allows no simple resolution; his ethic cannot be presumed as was Shakespeare's, but must be presented through adequate exposition. Consequently, the resolution comes piecemeal, with a lack of coordination of thought and feeling. Mio reluctantly foregoes his advantage because he realizes that Miriamne wishes it; only after the opportunity for revenge has passed does she point out to him that his loyalty to his father, who loved mankind, has taken the perverted form of hate. This is resolution by rationalization: Mio has been a coward by instinct.

Roby also notes that Esdras' eulogy can't excuse Mio's failure to reveal his father's innocence to the public:

Mio dies not gloriously, but like a trapped animal…. Forgiveness and love have no perceptible effect beyond that on the two lovers…. In the interest of aPage 280  |  Top of Article mysterious higher truth, simple justice and right are forgotten…. Love is portrayed as better than hate, but in the play a just and purposeful hate bows to an impotent love which can lead only to defeat.

The critics to whom I have referred have made a similar assumption about Winterset: that Mio is capable of accomplishing the task he has set for himself, and that the obstacles which he confronts justify neither his failure, nor the alternative they feel he chooses. In other words, playwright Anderson "does not follow the logic" of his action. This is the complaint of Gerald Rabkin who, in his recent survey of political elements in American theater of the thirties, writes:

The problem in Winterset lies in the fact that the central crisis presented—the recognition scene in which the truth about the Romagna case is revealed—leads logically not to an alteration of Mio's passionate resolve but rather its affirmation. Had it been discovered that Romagna had indeed been guilty. Mio's pessimism would have made more dramatic sense. Thus Anderson asserts a fatalistic position without demonstrating it.

I shall turn to the text to prove that Rabkin and his predecessors are mistaken. The problem is that Winterset is not "a revenge play." Its conflict cannot be defined in terms of truth and justice and its central character is not made of "heroic stuff." Mio neither pursues revenge with "passionate resolve," nor makes love like Romeo. My examination of Winterset shall concentrate upon Anderson's treatment of Mio. I hope to show that there is thorough preparation for the reversal that takes place and that the critics have responded only to areas in the text that would deny its preparation.

In his first appearance (I/iii) Mio clearly indicates his desire for revenge. His friend, Carr, tries to dissuade him because Carr believes that society doesn't want the truth. Mio responds, "For my heritage /they've left me one thing only, and that's to be /my father's voice crying up out of the earth." Moments later, he adds:

I've tried to live and forget it—but I was birthmarked with hot iron into the entrails. I've got to find out who did it and make them see it till it scalds their eyes and make them admit it till their tongues are blistered with saying how black they lied.

Mio is prone to this type of rhetoric. Yet we must imagine a character not only by what he says, but also by what he does and by what other characters say and do with reference to him. It is a mistake to accept Mio's characterization of himself without considering his expression in the context of the action as a whole. As a matter of fact, there is some action in I/iii which precedes the talk about revenge and in which Anderson brings another dimension to his hero. Miriamne comes out of the tenement and Mio initiates the dialogue:

MIO. What's the matter kid?

MIRIAMNE. Nothing. Nothing.

MIO. I'm sorry.

MIRIAMNE. It's all right. [She withdraws her eyes from his and goes out past him. He turns and looks after her]

CARR. Control your chivalry.

MIO. A pretty kid.

CARR. A baby.

MIO. Wait for me?

CARR. Be a long wait. [Mio steps swiftly out after Miriamne, then returns] Yeah?

MIO. She's gone.

Mio then shifts the topic of conversation to the way in which he has been persecuted since his father's death:

MIO. It probably gave them a headache just to see me after all that agitation. They knew as well as I did my father never staged a holdup. Anyway, I've got a new interest in life now.

CARR. Yes—I saw her.

MIO. I don't mean the skirt.

I don't wish to make too much out of Carr's comment, but his assumption that Mio's "new interest" is Miriamne indicates how the text implies in small as well as large ways the presence of another drive in Mio which has little to do with revenge. For the sake of discussion I shall call it the love motif. Anderson introduces it at the same time as the revenge motif and what is more important isPage 281  |  Top of Article that he exploits it first. When a street dance begins Mio does not enter the tenement to question Garth; instead he pursues Miariamne.

The dance begins as a protest against the police who ordered Lucia, the piano man, off the streets because he had no license to play his machine. A radical climbs upon his soap box and complains about capitalistic oppression and when the policeman gets excited Judge Gaunt rebukes him. But Mio isn't satisfied with the crowd's protest. He confronts the policeman:

I have an old score to settle with policemen, brother, because they're fools and fat-heads, and you're one of the most fatuous fat-heads that ever walked his feet flat collecting graft! Tell that to your sergeant back in the booby-hatch.

I should like to contrast Anderson's treatment of Mio thus far with the work of another twentieth century playwright. In this one-act play, The Measures Taken, Bertolt Brecht deals with a hero who can't accomplish the revolutionary tactics of his party. He continually exposes himself to the enemy instead of functioning in the anonymous manner which is demanded of him. The hero is executed—a solution to which he agrees—not by the enemy but by the party whose goals he had wanted to realize.

Brecht issues no judgments about his action—in a sense he indicts the party because it uses the hero with full knowledge of his fatal idealism—nor does the playwright explore his hero's motives beyond the political and social realm. Anderson treats Mio in a more comprehensive way, but Mio's behavior in the street scene is similar to that of Brecht's hero. Mio swerves from action that might accomplish his goal and needlessly involves himself with the enemy. He must shout, even to those who cannot understand, the misery with which they are afflicted. Perhaps the deranged Judge Gaunt makes the best assessment of Mio's behavior when he tells the policeman that the crowd's "threats are childish." The love scene which follows does little to alter this assessment. The stage directions read Mio "stands at a little distance from Miariamne."

Looks like rain.

[She is silent]

You live around here?

I guess you thought I meant it—about waiting here to meet me.

[She nods again]

I'd forgotten about it till I got that winter

across the face. You'd better go inside.

I'm not your kind. I'm nobody's kind but my own.

I'm waiting for this to blow over.

[She rises]

I lied. I meant it—

I meant it when I said it—but there's too much black

whirling inside me—for any girl to know.

So go in. You're somebody's angel child,

and they're waiting for you.

And tell them

when you get inside where it's warm

and you love each other,

and mother comes to kiss her darling, tell them

to hang on to it while they can, believe while they can

it's a warm safe world, and Jesus finds his lambs

and carries them in his bosom.—I've seen some lambs

that Jesus missed. If they ever want the truth tell

them that nothing's guaranteed in this climate

except it gets cold in winter, not on this earth

except you die sometime.

Mio seems to assume that his lot is worse than anyone else's; he has the immediate need to express his bitterness. He strikes a he-man pose, yet at the same time reveals his weakness. He asserts that he asks for nothing, yet as soon as Miriamne offers herself he is moved to expose his life and purpose. Again, he speaks with characteristic invective; again, the statement that he is driven to avenge the wrong done his father, but for one who envisions himself as an avenger his behavior is strangely passive.

Act II brings Mio to a confrontation with Garth, Judge Gaunt and Esdras. Mio enters the tenement after the three men have agreed to remain silent about the Romagna case. Mio appeals:

I'll be quick and brief.
I'm the son of a man who died many years ago
for a pay roll robbery in New England. You
should be Garth Esdras, by what I've heard. You have
some Knowledge of the crime, if one can believe
what he reads in the public prints, and it might be
your testimony, if given, would clear my father
of any share in the murder. You may not care
whether he was guilty or not. You may not know.
But I do care—and care deeply, and I've come
to ask you face to face.

The three men deny Mio's plea whereupon he accuses them of perpetuating his father's guilt.

The tactic which this supposed avenger utilizes to reveal the truth actually reveals his own inadequacy. Though his rhetoric condemns the individuals whose complicity allowed his father to die, he allows himself to be seduced by their denial.

ESDRAS. If he were innocent
and you know him so, believe it, and let the others
believe as they like.
MIO. Will you tell me how a man's
to live, and face his life, if he can't believe
that truth's like a fire,
and will burn through and be seen
Page 282  |  Top of Article
though it takes all the years there are?
While I stand up and have breath in my lungs
I shall be one flame of that fire;
it's all the life I have.

Mio's speech is quoted by Rabkin to define his conception of Winterset's conflict. But in the context of the scene in which it is placed it serves to expose Mio's doubt. The speech has two parts; the first is a question and the second, an assertion. The question detracts from the force of the assertion. We imagine a character not only by what he says, but by whom he says it to—Mio is asking Esdras "how a man's to live" when the old rabbi has shown Mio how he lives by giving succor to his mortal enemy. That Mio identifies himself immediately and confronts Judge Gaunt and Garth with no support other than the appeal which has been rejected throughout his life implies his inadequacy; that he succumbs to their casuistry intensifies it.

As the scene progresses, the forces that actually drive Mio become clear. He is left alone with Miriamne who tells him "never believe them," yet for some reason Mio doesn't pursue her remark. Mio knows that she is Garth's sister, she has told him not to believe her family or the judge, yet he doesn't ask her to supply information which would clear his father. We imagine a character by what he doesn't say as well as what he does—the implication is clear—Mio has been so moved by Gaunt and Esdras that he believes his father guilty or is so afraid he might be guilty that he is immobilized by this fear. But Mio is not silent; his dialogue with Miriamne follows the pattern established in the previous act—Miriamne offers and Mio rejects—but this time he admits why:

MIO. What do you want?
Your kisses burn me—and your arms. Don't offer
what I'm never to have! I can have nothing.
MIRIAMNE. They can take away so little
with all their words. For you're a king among them.
I heard you and loved your voice.
MIO. I thought I'd fallen
so low there was no further, and now a pit
opens beneath. It was bad enough that he
should have died innocent, but if he were guilty—
then what's my life—what have I left to do—?
The son of a felon—and what they spat on me
was earned—and I'm drenched with the stuff.
Here on my hands
and cheeks, their spittle hanging! I liked my hands
because they were like his. I tell you I've lived
by his innocence, lived to see it flash
and blind them all—
MIRIAMNE. Never believe them, Mio,
MIO. But it was the truth I wanted, truth—
not the lies you'd tell yourself, or tell a woman
or a woman tells you! The judge with his cobra mouth
may have spat truth—and I may be mad! For me—
your hands are too clean to touch me. I'm to have
the scraps from hotel kitchens—and instead of love
those mottled bodies that hitch themselves through alleys
to sell for dimes of nickles. Go, keep yourself chaste
for the baker bridegroom—baker and son of baker,
let him get his baker's dozen on you!

The critics who have asserted that Mio's purpose befits an action which might define or indicate solutions to contemporary problems are blind to the conflict within the hero. This conflict is implied in the first act and all but explicit in the second. I shall phrase the conflict as it has been suggested by my examination of the text:

If my father was guilty, then I am guilty and deserve the treatment I have received. If my father was innocent, then I am innocent and deserve the love and acceptance other people receive. I hate people for putting me in this position, yet I long for their help.

The critics to whom I have referred would interpret Mio in the following manner:

My father was innocent. Society has perpetuated a fraud Society is rotten and powerful, but I will expose that fraud or die in the process for life isn't worth living if I can't.

I would suggest that the first conception of the conflict will help justify Mio's behavior throughout the play, whereas the second doesn't account for his vacillation before the reversal, nor justify the reversal itself. The critics whom I have quoted have responded only to those places in the text wherein Mio indicates his desire for revenge and have disregarded those which indicate the ambivalence that explains his passivity. In a sense, they accept Mio's fantasy as actuality and then deride him when he proves incapable of transforming that fantasy into action. Their bias allows them to respond imaginatively to only a portion of the text, whereas the complete text suggests characterization that is consistent and complete.

Of course Mio does learn the real nature of the crime for which his father was executed, but his participation in the discovery is made possible by an event far more fortuitous than the manner in which he is to die. To return to the action of the second act: Mio admits he loves Miriamne but is about to leave because he isn't good enough for her. At this point Trock enters. The gangster had shot his henchman, Shadow, at the close of the first act because he refused to murder Judge Gaunt. But Shadow, armedPage 283  |  Top of Article and bloody, fresh out of the river in which he was dumped returns to haunt his boss. Trock becomes hysterical and admits his gang committed the crime.

The steps by which Anderson created the situation which allowed Mio to learn the truth are traced by Laurence Avery:

Shadow's return from an ostensible grave is a crucial incident in the play's structure, because it establishes once and for all Mio's certainty about his father's innocence. But despite its importance, the incident was thought of no earlier than the third phase of the play's development, after Anderson had twice outlined Act II and started through it again.

In the early stages of the play's development, there was no provision "for Mio to learn the truth." Later Anderson made a notation: "Mio disc.—Trock was guilty." But it is not until a third set of notes that Anderson indicates how Mio will make the discovery: "Shadow enters—reveals the secret to Mio." The point I wish to emphasize is that at no stage in the writing of Winterset did Anderson seem to make provision for Mio to discover the truth through a confrontation which he initiates. I don't condemn the playwright for this—the point is that Mio cannot do it alone. Nor can Mio make use of the truth once he has found it.

Miriamne asks Mio to remain silent for the sake of her brother. He does so and the Judge and Trock escape. Mio wants the love which Miriamne offers and he thought that if he could prove his father innocent he would merit that love. He now realizes that his revenge won't guarantee Miriamne's love, it may destroy it. He forsakes revenge for the moment, but is unable to reconcile the turn of events and at the close of the second act rejects Miriamne:

The bright ironical gods!
What fun they have in heaven. When a man prays hard
for any gift, they give it, and then one more
to boot that makes it useless.
You ask too much! Your brother
can take his chance! He was ready enough to let
an innocent man take certainty for him
to pay for the years he's had. That parts us, then,
but we're parted anyway, by the same dark wind
that blew us together. I shall say what I have to say.

The third act finds Mio outside the tenement as Trock and his men lurk in the dark waiting to silence him. He admits to Miriamne that he cannot implicate her brother. But he refuses the help of Esdras and Carr; his dialogue suggests he would rather die than act either way. He begs Miriamne "teach me how to live /and forget to hate!" She reminds him of his father's last words:

I have only this to leave you, that I love you,
and will love you after I die. Love me then, Mio,
when this hard thing comes on you, that you must live
a man despised for your father.

Mio responds:

He'd have forgiven—
Then there's no more to say—I've groped long enough
through this everglades of old revenges—here
the road ends.—Miriamne, Miriamne,
the iron I wrote so long—it's eaten through
and fallen from me. Let me have your arms.

Anderson's supporters accept this romantic statement and those which follow as if the love motif had completely preempted the revenge motif. The temptation to do so is great. Witness these lines for example: "if I should die, Miriamne, this half-hour /is our eternity. I came here seeking /light in darkness, running from the dawn /and stumbled on a morning." Such affirmations prompt Mabel Driscoll Bailey to make the following interpretation:

When the opportunity for revenge, or for vindicating his father presents itself—it is part of Mio's tragedy that he confuses the two— … he is unable to go through with his purpose…. [Miriamne's] love re deems him from the bitterness and hate which have for so long been his daily companions. But, with true classic irony, his bitterness has already laid a snare which is to trap him just as he emerges from the shadow of despair.

Winterset does not allow such a simple resolution. Concurrent with Mio's affirmation of love is a continuation of the fatalism and resentment which characterized his behavior before the reversal. Mio calls to his "ironic gods" and Miriamne cautions him: "Oh, Mio— /if you pray that way, nothing good will come! /You're bitter, Mio."

Before Mio goes to meet his death, he asks from Miriamne the ultimate commitment: "Kiss me. You'll hear. But if you never hear— /then I'm the king of hell, Persephone, /and I'll expect you." His last words undermine the romantic quality of the lines which precede it: "You didn't want me to die, did you Miriamne—? /You didn't send me away?"

The critics who attack Anderson for sentimentality and the critics who accept the lovers' romantic testaments are equally unaware that while Anderson allows his lovers free expression, he also continues action which undermines their affirmation. Miriamne responds not to what she has taught Mio, but to what he has taught her. Mio dies questioning her love, and Miriamne dies attempting to prove it. Over his body she cries:

Page 284  |  Top of Article


I'd have gone to die myself—you must hear this, Mio,

I'd have died to help you—you must listen, sweet,

you must hear it—

[She rises]

I can die, too, see! You! There!

You in the shadows!—You killed him to silence him!

[She walks toward the path]

But I'm not silenced! All that he knew I know,

and I'll tell it tonight! Tonight—

tell it and scream it

through all the streets—that Trock's a murderer

and he hired you for this murder!

Your work's not done—

and you won't live long! Do you hear?

You're murderers and I know who you are!

[The machine gun speaks again. She sinks to her knees. Garth runs to her]

She rejects her brother, "Don't touch me!", and crawls back to Mio:

Look, Mio! They killed me, too. Oh, you can believe me

now, Mio. You can believe I wouldn't hurt you,

because I'm dying! Why doesn't he answer me?

Oh, now he'll never know!

These are Miriamne's last words in the play. It remains for Esdras to deliver his eulogy. It has been observed that its content is inconsistent with the action which has preceded it. Yet it has not been pointed out that it is perfectly consistent with what Esdras knows about that action. He was not on stage when Mio gave up his quest for revenge and justice. His assumption that Mio as well as his daughter took "defeat implacable and defiant" is easily justified.

There is no doubt that Esdras intends his speech as an affirmation; however, too much stress has been placed upon his intention and too little upon the meaning of the words he chooses. Esdras is not moved to alter his basic conception of the world in which Anderson has placed him. Man's fate is defeat, he looks "out blind," and it is only the seeking which makes him "emperor." It is doubtful that he will ever reach his goal on earth. Esdras will not discard the coward's cloak, nor will Garth; their "part is only to bury them."

It is not necessary to agree with Esdras' sentiments, but Anderson has committed no dramatic sin by ending his drama with them. The rabbi's words, as I respond to them, merely intensify the irony; even at the last man is blind. The "ancient evil" of the earth has been portrayed consistently; civilized society is dramatized in a manner which implies that the playwright considered it almost as primitive as the origins from which it grew.

Why did Anderson allow his play to end with the eulogy? It is impossible to speak for his beliefs. His essays indicate great similarity between his character's sentiments and his own. The conclusions which may be reached from this non-dramatic material are obvious: either Anderson was as blind as Esdras, or he sought to impose an affirmation, however weak, because he couldn't face the implications of the action he had created. Yet there is another alternative. Must we presume that his essays are definitive sources? These essays are public, not private, statements, in which Anderson writes of an imperfect world. It is quite possible that he was unwilling to indicate the extent of that imperfection except in his plays. Winterset demonstrates a vision of futility. Anderson wrote the play and it would be foolhardy to deny the possibility that the playwright had knowledge of his own text. His title supports this conclusion; it comes from Mio's prayer to the "ironic gods":

Now all you silent powers
that make the sleet and dark, and never yet
have spoken, give us a sign, let the throw be ours
this once, on this longest night, when the winter sets
his foot on the threshold leading up to spring
and enters with remembered cold—let fall
some mercy with the rain. We are two lovers
here in your night, and we wish to live.

Source: Robert L. Gilbert, "Mio Romagna: A New View of Maxwell Anderson's Winterset," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter 1970, pp. 33–43.

Francis E. Abernethy

In the following essay, Abernethy examines Winterset's "revenge-tragedy characteristics" and its similarity to Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Maxwell Anderson's recognition of Elizabethan England and the drama of that period needs little emphasis; to him the Age of Elizabeth was one of the "few mountain peaks of achievement," sharing this distinction with the Periclean Age and the Italian Renaissance. As a critic, especially in Off Broadway, a collection of critical essays, his major points of reference were the classics; and he consistently used the Elizabethans, especially Marlowe and Shakespeare, as touchstones of greatness. And just as Elizabethan drama was a criteria for his critical opinions, so was the Elizabethan scene an influence on much of his creative writing: for the return to poetic form in Winterset; for his following the Elizabethan practice of using the past to reflect universal concepts, as Joan of Lorraine deals withPage 285  |  Top of Article the character of heroism and The Masque of Kings with the idealist in revolutionary movements; and for the subject matter of the Tudor trilogy—Anne of A Thousand Days, Mary of Scotland, and Elizabeth the Queen. Anderson's dramatic fundamentals were derived from the Greek and Elizabethan classics, and Winterset is a result of an application of some of these classical fundamentals to a modern play.

It is the purpose of this paper to show that Maxwell Anderson's Winterset is a modern revenge tragedy with every characteristic of the classical revenge tragedy except the revenge conclusion. I wish to show that of all the revenge tragedies, Winterset is most like Hamlet, but the character of this Hamlet, the protagonist Mio, is allowed by the mores of modern society to follow a course of love instead of hate and blood revenge. The customs and mores have changed since Hamlet, and it is no longer required that a man seek his own vengeance; the state does it for him. The theater is governed by the customs of the time, and Anderson recognizes this in "The Essence of Tragedy."

For the audience will always insist that the alteration in the hero be for the better—or for what it believes to be better. As audiences change, the standards of good and evil change, with the centuries. One thing is certain: that an audience watching a play will go along with it only when the leading character responds in the end to what it considers a higher moral impulse than moved him at the beginning of the story, though the audience will of course define morality as it pleases and in the terms of its own day. It may be that there is no absolute up or down in this world, but the race believes that there is, and will not hear of any denial.

Today the "higher moral impulse" precludes the revenge violence that brought the classical revenge tragedy to such cataclysmic conclusions.

Let us now examine Winterset in some detail in order to note its revenge-tragedy characteristics and its similarity to Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Both plays have as the central problem the revenge of a son for a father. Mio is much like Hamlet; his father is killed and his mother is dishonored. In this case, however, the father, Bartholomeo Romagna was electrocuted in the 1920's after being wrongly convicted of murder by a biased judge and jury who were prejudiced against him because he was a confessed anarchist. Mio's mother was dishonored not by an incestuous marriage but by being unceremoniously interred after dying in the poor house. Like Hamlet, Mio feels that there was shady business behind his father's death, but desires proof. Unlike Hamlet, Mio does not want blood revenge but revenge in the form of public acquittal of his father. He feels that he has lost his place in society, that the event has "popped in" between himself and society and has left him an outcast. Therefore, he must regain his rightful place by disclosing his father's murderers.

A ghost crying for vengeance is characteristic of the revenge tragedy. Romagna's ghost lacks the corporeality of the elder Hamlet, but he serves the same purpose. The ghost of Romagna is his memory that is conjured out of the past by a Professor Hobhouse, who is agitating for a new investigation of the Romagna trial. Romagna's ghost haunts all of the principals and motivates the action from the first scene on. Spurred on by this ghost-memory, Mio, like Hamlet, leaves his school to return to the site of the murder. And one time when he almost forgets his purpose while talking to Miriamne, his Ophelia, the ghost returns and prompts him anew: "Lie still and rest, father," Mio replies; "I have not forgotten." Like Hamlet, also, he is not absolutely convinced of his father's innocence; therefore, Mio feels that the ghost might be evil, a "goblin damn'd," leading him to hell. From the modern point of view, the ghost at the first of the play is damned because Mio misunderstands him and is seeking revenge. The ghost is recognized as good at the climax of the play when Mio realizes that love rather than vengeance is what the ghost desires.

Necessary also to the revenge tragedy is an able and scheming villain. Trock Estrella amply fulfills these qualifications. The gun he carries and his desperation arising out of fear of further imprisonment allow him to dominate the play physically, and he gains depth and some of the reader's sympathy only because we know he is dying with consumption. The Hamlet parallel in villains is further enforcedPage 286  |  Top of Article by the presence of the "adders fanged," the two men in blue serge who assist Trock in his knavery.

Within the play there is both real and feigned insanity. Judge Gaunt, who presided at Romagna's trial and whose instructions prejudiced the jury, is driven to real insanity by the knowledge that he has violated his code of ethics by not conducting a fair trial. His failure to call an important witness is central to Professor Hobhouse's attack on the old judge. And like the deranged Ophelia, he quotes bawdy ballads in his madness. The antic disposition characteristic of Hamlet and revenge tragedies in general is represented by Mio. When Mio first visits Esdras seeking the missing witness, Esdras' son Garth, he confuses the family by stating that he is peddling magazines and collecting old papers to pay tuition fees. Later when he is under Trock's surveillance, he says that he is "a little touched in the head," is a "half wit" whose name is Theophrastus Such. Both Mio and Hamlet use the antic disposition to further their investigation and to protect their lives.

Like the Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Winterset is freighted with sensational and horrible scenes. Mio reveals the horror in his own state of mind in an early speech in which he vividly describes the electrocution, evisceration, and burial in quicklime of Old Romagna. On stage Trock steadily coughs himself to death with tuberculosis. And any revenge tragedy would be proud of the scene in which Shadow, Trock's murdered gunman, returns from his river burial, bloody and dripping, to take vengeance on his would-be killers. At Shadow's final burial his grisly corpse is displayed to the audience as he is carried back to the river on a door by a demented hobo and Garth. The catastrophe is also properly violent and sensational. Mio is machine-gunned when he tries to escape and dies bloodily onstage. His sweetheart calls the killer's gun down on herself, is machine-gunned, and dies by Mio's side. And Esdras philosophically surveys the holocaust and concludes with a statement that carries the essence of tragedy:

this is the glory of earth-born men and women not to cringe, never to yield, but standing, take defeat implacable and defiant and unsubmitting….

In the manner of the revenge tragedy, a play within the play reveals the guilty party. When all the principals gather at Esdras' basement home, the senile old Judge is trapped by Mio into staging a mock trial, during which Trock and Garth confess their part in the murder-holdup for which Romagna was electrocuted, and the Judge recognizes and confesses his own guilt. It is at this point that Mio first becomes sure of his father's innocence and the judge's guilt. The "mouse trap" works as effectively for Mio as it did for Hamlet.

Like Hamlet, Mio is not a man acting coldly and deliberately, and he hesitates and has difficulties arriving at a positive decision. He has an opportunity to kill both Trock and Judge Gaunt, the authors of his misery, but he lets them go. His original purpose was to clear his father's name by publishing the names of the true killers, but when he realizes the connection between the girl he loves and Garth, one of the antagonists, he loses some of his desire for revenge. This is the beginning of his growth as a character. He leaves Esdras and Miriamne, still determined to spread the news that will incriminate Garth. Mio's growth is furthered when old Esdras offers to help him escape Trock and his gunmen, which is the same as sacrificing his son Garth. Miriamne concurs in her father's decision, and Mio completes his growth by realizing that the force of love is still powerful in the world and is the force which motivated his father. Guided by what he concludes to be the tenets of Old Romagna, he refuses to send out word by Carr, his Horatio, word that would clear his father's name and implicate the guilty. He is finally cornered and machine-gunned by Trock, but he has grown to realize that forgiveness is "a higher moral purpose" than revenge.

Thus Old Hamlet's cryptic injunction, "taint not thy mind," becomes more understandable as Old Romagna's words of love passed on to Mio. At the climactic recognition point, Mio realizes that revenge is not necessary, that his father would not want revenge; and the audience agrees with Anderson that Mio at the end of Act III is much wiser and nobler than Mio at the beginning of the play. Hamlet and Winterset have much the same revenge-tragedy characteristics until we arrive at the climax. The theme of both is the revenge of a son for a father. There are the ghosts from the past demanding retribution. There is hesitation by the heroes, real and feigned insanity, and a play within the play to reveal the guilt of the antagonists. And there is noble philosophizing coupled with the most sensational of horrors. But the conclusion makes the difference. Hamlet expired in a holocaust of bloodshed, savagely revenged at last, and the mores of the period were fulfilled and the audience was satisfied that the proper end had been made of the affair. Mio dies justPage 287  |  Top of Article as violently and the catastrophe is just as satisfying to a modern audience, but for a different reason. Three hundred years have made the difference, and to a certain type of modern audience the Christian gospel of love and forgiveness is a higher moral impulse than the Hebraic code of an eye for an eye.

Source: Francis E. Abernethy, "Winterset: A Modern Revenge Tragedy," in Modern Drama, Vol. 7, No. 2, September 1964, pp. 185–89.


Abernethy, Francis E., "Winterset: A Modern Revenge Tragedy," in Modern Drama, Vol. 7, 1964, pp. 185–89.

Anderson, Maxwell, "Whatever Hope We Have," in Off Broadway Essays about the Theater, William Sloane Associates, 1947, p. 42, quoted in Perry D. Luckett, "Winterset and Some Early Eliot Poems," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Summer 1980, p. 36.

——, Winterset, Anderson House Publishers, 1935.

Gilbert, Robert L., "Mio Romagna: A New View of Maxwell Anderson's Winterset," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 38, No.1, Winter 1970, pp. 33–44.

Luckett, Perry D., "Winterset and Some Early Eliot Poems," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Summer 1980, pp. 26–37.


Anderson, Maxwell, Dramatist in America: Letters of Maxwell Anderson, 1912–1958, edited by Laurence G. Avery, University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

This collection of letters that span Anderson's life shed light on his working life, his relationship to the theatrical world, and his views on his own plays.

Bailey, Mabel Driscoll, Maxwell Anderson: Playwright as Prophet, Abelard-Schuman, 1957.

Bailey provides a critical interpretation of Anderson's work with a focus on the playwright's religiosity.

Clark, Barrett Harper, Maxwell Anderson: The Man and His Plays, S. French, 1933.

Although it was written before Winterset first appeared, Clark's biographical study is a useful contemporary view of the playwright.

Hampton, Wilborn, "Back to the Shadows of Sacco and Vanzetti," in the New York Times, April 23, 1999, p. B3.

Hampton reviews a production of Winterset in New York City.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420400024