One of this country’s greatest playwrights, Maxwell Anderson, lived and was educated in North Dakota. He graduated from Jamestown High School and the University of North Dakota and was the principal and high school English teacher in Minnewaukan.
From 1923 to 1958, he wrote 55 plays, and 32 of them were performed on Broadway. Anderson believed he never would have been a successful playwright had he not lived in North Dakota.
After his contract at Minnewaukan was not renewed in 1913, Anderson moved with his wife and young son to Palo Alto, Calif., to work on his master’s degree in English literature at Stanford University. From 1914 to 1917, he taught high school English in San Francisco and wrote editorials for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin.
Back when Anderson was coming of age in North Dakota, a large portion of the adult residents were immigrants from northern Europe, many of whom had grown tired of the frequent wars in their home country and came to the U.S. to avoid armed conflict. Pacifism became prevalent among many of the state’s citizens, and Anderson became a vocal opponent of war, speaking out against America getting involved in World War I. Nevertheless, on April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany.
Soon after, Anderson received an offer that must have appeared to have been a dream that came true. His application to become head of the English Department at Whittier College was accepted. Whittier was a Quaker school, and the Quakers were traditionally a peace-loving, nonviolent people who were opposed to war. To top it off, Whittier was the only college in America named after a poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, and at the time, Anderson considered himself a poet, not a playwright.
During the academic year of 1917-1918, a student named Arthur Camp wrote a letter to the college newspaper outlining his reason for refusing to register for the draft. The paper did not publish his letter, so Anderson wrote a letter in the student’s defense. He did not attempt to argue that Camp was morally right, but that “he deserves to be heard on the subject which seems important enough to him so that he is willing to sacrifice reputation, friends, and future to uphold his views.” Anderson was asked by the dean of the college to “back down from his letter,” but he refused and then resigned from the college in April 1918.
Anderson moved back to Palo Alto to resume writing editorials for the Bulletin, but he was soon fired for criticizing the Allies for imposing “impossible war reparations on Germany” after the war was over. Years later, it was the reparations issue that primarily led to the rise of Hitler, which precipitated World War II.
Alvin Johnson, the co-editor of The New Republic, convinced Anderson to move to New York City and write about politics for his liberal magazine. However, soon after joining the magazine, Anderson was asked by Herbert David Croly, the editor-in-chief, to moderate his views. When Anderson refused, he was fired in 1919.
Anderson worked for two years with the New York Evening Globe newspaper and then joined the New York World, a newspaper that offered him more money. While writing for the World, he founded and became editor of a magazine called The Measure: A Journal of Poetry, which attracted young poets such as Robert Frost, Langston Hughes and Conrad Aiken, who submitted their poems for publication.
Early in 1923, Anderson was invited to hear the reading of a new play, "Roger Bloomer," written and narrated by John Howard Lawson. “Anderson was unimpressed by the play,” but when he learned that Lawson was paid $500 for it, he became very interested. “He felt that if such a play could be sold, then he could write one himself.”
The setting Anderson chose for his first play, "White Desert," was an isolated, one-room farmhouse in eastern North Dakota during a severe winter. It was a tragedy involving a newlywed couple who were visited by their newest neighbors, and mistrust and jealousy began to manifest itself. The play was first performed in Stamford, Conn., on Oct. 12, 1923, in front of a packed audience.
Broadway theatrical producer Brock Pemberton then brought it to Broadway, where it debuted on Oct. 18. The reviews from the primary Broadway critics were favorable: Heywood Broun wrote, “an interesting play, fine and rich”; George Jean Nathan wrote, “a thoroughly interesting play”; and Alexander Woolcott wrote, “(the play) is like a shining sword brandished bravely thrust forward.” However, the play closed after only 12 performances.
Two people who really enjoyed the play were George Abbott, one of the stars of "White Desert," and Laurence Stallings, a theater critic for the New York Herald, and both men wanted to collaborate with Anderson on future plays. Anderson was disappointed with the short run on Broadway of his first play, but he now knew that playwriting was his destiny. He wrote, “having got a taste of the theater, there was no stopping me,” and he immediately began writing another play with Abbott.
We will continue the story of Maxwell Anderson next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.