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End of Summer

“You don't think like that too, do you, Will— that
because I'm rich I'm just not worth bothering about”
— Act I

With great wealth comes great … irresponsibility?

A lot of money can certainly buy a lot of license. But S. N. Behrman’s plays often asked what our shared responsibilities are, and they did so by staging the quandaries of very wealthy people. In the exceptionally rich he found for our age what Classical dramatists found in heroes and royalty: comic and dramatic articulation of challenges that define us all.

In End of Summer, charming and radiant oil heiress Leonie Frothingham whiles away the summer of 1936 at the seaside, where cocktails flow with the tides, and lovers come and go like mosquitoes. But with the Great Depression ravaging the country, even Leonie’s idyllic retreat is not protected from the tremors of the times. Her just-come-of-age daughter cultivates misgivings about capitalism’s inequities. Her long-indulgent husband now seeks a divorce so that he may marry a career woman. And Leonie’s latest flame, a magnetic psychoanalyst, insinuates himself into each relationship with an awfully self-serving “disinterest.”

This summer, Leonie might be shaken enough to come down to earth, but the status quo has some powerful protectors. Breaking away is harder than it seems, and living among the wreckage may not be so appealing as it appears from a lofty summer retreat.

Filling this playful tale with subtle and penetrating insights, Behrman exposes the forces that build fortunes, tear apart families, buttress the society of American haves and have-nots, and foment the revolution waiting in the wings.

Sweet goes down better than sour, and S.N. Behrman’s particular gift was to offer social analysis as breezy comedy. His urbane characters, young and old, speak the clever repartee of many a Depression-era “society” comedy. (Ina Claire played Leonie in the play’s debut.) The play is very funny, and its wit helps underline its thrust: that chilly truths lurk within even the most summery lives.

Nonetheless, End of Summer captures a time of brutal transition. The title could not be more explicit in this respect, and the theme repeats in Leonie’s breezy (if hardly deeply considered) avowal of her affection for the Victorian Age, when her oil-rich family’s wealth was founded, or in her estranged husband’s simple observation that he and she belong to a Romantic era, while their child belongs to a Realistic one.  (That he will prove to be the most realistic of them all is quite beside the point.)

As it captures its changing era, within its compass are social concerns of the 30’s that sound meaningful echoes today.  The play explores its public themes by focusing on the personal. With the Depression in the background, the disposition of the wealthy relative to the rest of society is a personal preoccupation for each character: some hope to redistribute riches; some to preserve them; while still other simply seek to seize them for themselves. One character’s indictments of Capitalism could be quoted on the campaign trail today, while another observes simply that 'Money means responsibility,' and a third condemns the young Socialist, his romantic rival, as 'sniveling about a system he's not strong enough to dominate.' (The more things change!)

Anxiety over technology’s role in changing the world is likewise intriguingly current. A physicist loses his position because his discoveries in more efficient steel production threaten manufacturing jobs. The specific concern over technological unemployment is familiar enough to us, 80 years on. So is the resonance of his son’s observation—“in your day, you put a premium on invention—we declare a moratorium on it”—questioning the protective, populist impulse to resist both science and change of any sort.

The threat of an actual political upheaval is figured in the droll character of an exiled Russian count, one of Leonie’s lovers who has reached his expiration date. Son of a famous author and guru—clearly evoking Tolstoy—this count is wrathful and impotent, disconnected from his own family and his home country, a refugee from a revolution that some of the young characters dream will come to America. The comedy of this character belies the real menace to which his presence and predicament refers. The world followed the rise of Stalinism in the 30’s just as we mark the rise of authoritarianism in 2016.

And then, there is Leonie’s new flame, the psychoanalyst Dr. Rice. We may be less compelled today by the mysteries of Freudian analysis than was the smart set of the 30’s, but the Machiavellian doctor personifies political machinations we know all too well. Presenting himself as a frank speaking genius, he manipulates the aspirations and resentments of all those around him with a con-artist’s acuity, flattering, provoking, and shaming them into satisfying his own rapacity. A Tartuffe for the modern age, Rice is formidable, not because his science is so powerful—the play makes clear that analysis is insufficient to explain or define human beings— but because others are so willing to rise to his bait.  There may well be unseen forces manipulating our behavior through our wants and fears…in this case, one of them is called Dr. Rice.

Behrman’s own appraisal of psychoanalysis might best be voiced by a character in his earlier play, Brief Moment:  “A wonderful discovery, psychoanalysis. Makes quite simple people feel they’re complex.”  But If End of Summer mistrusts psychoanalysis, perhaps it is because the play is so feelingly concerned with the same territory.

On one hand, much of the tension driving the story lies in adult children defining themselves through or against their parents—a time-honored theme in theater and analysis both, and one that creates the most poignant and comic moments in the play.

Then, out of those generational tensions, the play suggests that its characters’ greatest challenge is the one that  psychoanalysis also heartily embraces: to live an authentic life.  For the Frothinghams, insulated by riches, a dispiriting and present hazard is the temptation to live detached, either passively removed from the world or only vicariously connected to it through other people’s endeavors.  But evading that hazard invites its own perils: engaging whimsically in wasteful philanthropy; espousing a sham solidarity with the common man; or making a vain sacrifice of one’s privilege for only a doubtful outcome.

These specific problems belong to the very rich, but on stage, they articulate a sense of detachment characteristic of our modern age that has become only more common and poignant in the 21st century. If the rich are, as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, “different from you and me,” their rarefied circumstances make them all the better a model by which to understand ourselves. In the realm of the personal, the yearning for authenticity is starkly illuminated by one insulated from the experience of most of the world. In the realm of politics, the assertion that there are powerful, even sinister forces operating beneath the surface of day-to-day civil life is clearly illustrated by a portrait of a woman who is able to remain oblivious to practical challenges and obstacles, subject to machinations of unscrupulous others.

In the final moments of the play, its interweaving of the personal, political, and social earns its greatest reward. Having shown powerful ideological movements played out in the whims and frailties of its characters, the play steps through a looking glass to suggest those movements themselves may be no more than the results of private foibles in the first place. The curtain brings a laugh with the chill of winter.

Metropolitan begins its 25th season with End of Summer. In a year devoted to plays about Prosperity, we’re delighted to bring back to the New York stage a penetrating comedy about the challenges and promises of getting everything one wants.

-Alex Roe

S.N.BehrmanS. N. (Samuel Nathaniel) BEHRMAN was born to Lithuanian immigrants in 1893, and raised in a tenement in Worcester, MA.  An undergraduate at Clark College and then Harvard, where he studied with the renowned George Pierce Baker, Behrman went on to obtain a Masters from Columbia in 1918, and as a student called for the “progressive…theatre of ideas” that he was later to realize in his work.

Beginning his career writing short fiction and criticism, he published in The Smart Set, The New York Times, and The New Republic.  Though he wrote stories and plays throughout the 20’s, it was not until The Second Man opened in 1926 at The Theatre Guild starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne—a six month run followed by a tour and then a London staging with Noël Coward in the lead—that he rose to public prominence. Sophisticated comedies followed: Serena Blandish (1928), Brief Moment (1931), Biography (1933, revived by The Pearl Theatre in 2007), End of Summer (1936), No Time for Comedy (1939, revived by The Mint in 2002). In the 30’s and 40’s, he collaborated on numerous screen plays in Hollywood, while he also joined writers Maxwell Anderson, Sidney Howard, Elmer Rice, and Robert E. Sherwood to found The Playwrights’ Company in 1938.

His later plays included I Know My Love (1949), Fanny (1954), and The Cold Wind and The Warm (1958), and But For Whom Charlie (1964). At the same time, he continued to write short stories and criticism, and drew distinctive notice for biographical sketches, first appearing in The New Yorker. His latest works were the novel The Burning Glass (1968), and a memoir People in a Diary (1972).

Behrman died in New York City in September of 1973.

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