Maxwell Anderson was among the most famous and popular American playwrights of the first half of the 20th Century. One of several children born to an itinerant Baptist preacher, Anderson aspired to write poetry and chafed at his father’s religious beliefs. Though he rejected traditional Christianity, he later professed a humanist faith in an individual’s personal freedom and the importance of democracy as a safeguard against tyranny. He won the Pulitzer Prize and several other awards, wrote Hollywood screenplays and is remembered today for the historical dramas Elizabeth the Queen, Mary of Scotland and Anne of a Thousand Days, which, with the more contemporary Winterset, were written in unrhymed blank verse.
Unlike Eugene O’Neill, the greatest American playwright of that era, Anderson did not attend Ivy League schools or have any significant exposure to the stage beyond English courses at South Dakota University and student theatricals. He got a masters degree from Stanford University and, after several failed teaching positions, became a journalist and editorial writer in New York City, where he saw enough plays in Manhattan’s thriving theater district to want to write them.
With the exception of some military reportage during the Second World War, Anderson gave up journalism after the resounding success of the second of his 40 plays and musicals, What Price Glory, a collaboration with Army veteran Laurence Stalling about Americans fighting in World War I.
He claimed he only wrote for money. He also wanted to inspire his audiences with stories of mostly sympathetic characters who, like the ancient Greek anti-hero Oedipus, discover a hidden or tragic flaw in their natures, or in their relationship to others, and then struggle toward a moral or socially redemptive resolution.
The single work that brought him the most money was “September Song,” composed with Kurt Weill for the musical Knickerbocker Holiday. The song was written at the insistance of actor Walter Huston, who wanted a solo number that would humanize his otherwise gruff and dictatorial role as the musical’s antagonist. Though the musical is now forgotten, and some of the song’s original lyrics have been changed, “September Song” has become a staple of the great American songbook.
Anderson despised the lucrative work he did in Hollywood, because actors, directors and producers made significant script changes without consenting him. He revised many of his plays for films. His many screenplays include an uncredited rewrite of Ben Hur.
He did most of his writing inside a roughly finished shack behind his house in New City, New York. Visitors described it as lined with books, with a desk and chair and iron stove. In warmer months, the cabin reeked of mildew from an exterior sprinkler system that splashed water on the rear window, giving rise to a theater legend that Anderson did his best writing when it was raining, or appeared to be.
Like many American writers of his time, Anderson had a difficult emotional life. Infamously dour, shy and short-tempered, he was married three times and maintained a careless disregard for the money he made. He tended to give away fortunes to friends and family who did not always repay his generosity.
He was, without question, a superb writer and, though he suffered when his plays flopped, dooming him to went several months in which he could not write a word, he found ways to rally his spirits and write more. He wrote this “to the young people of this country”:
If you practice an art, be proud of it, and make it proud of you. If you now hesitate on the threshold of your maturity, wondering what rewards you should seek, wondering perhaps whether there are any rewards beyond the opportunity to feed, sleep and breed, turn to the art which has moved you most readily. It may break your heart, it may drive you mad, it may betray you into unrealizable ambitions or blind you to merchantile opportunies with its wandering fires. But it will fill your heart before it breaks it; it will make you a person in your own right; it will open the temple doors to you and enable you to walk with those who have become nearest among men to what men sometimes may be.