Though he would go on to have a broad-ranging career as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and an internationally-bestselling science writer, Robert Ardrey started his career in the theater, and throughout his life we would return to the creative wellspring of Drama. From his first play, Star Spangled, about the working class Poles he encountered in Northwestern Chicago, to his last play, Shadow of Heroes, which resulted in the release of two political prisoners from Soviet custody, Ardrey steadfastly promoted the tradition of a théâtre engagé, or a theater engaged with its times.
His plays, including the international classic Thunder Rock, are still widely available. Originally published in 1968, Plays of Three Decades collects some of Ardrey’s most significant plays, together with an autobiographical introduction that contextualizes the social commitments of the work.
“I tend, myself, nevertheless, to believe that even though it be decades from now, when on some bright accidental morning playwrights of stature again come streaming out of every side-street, and when the indulgent pastimes of sensation and self-pity will long ago have outworn their welcome, then the temptations of a theatre engaged with its times will be one that few audiences, few playwrights, can long resist.”
After graduating from the University of Chicago, Robert Ardrey, under the mentorship of Thornton Wilder, wrote a novel, several plays, and many short stories. Wilder’s rule, however, was that “A young author should not write for market until his style [has] ‘crystallized’.” As such his efforts remained unpublished, until Ardrey and Wilder agreed that he had written a mature play. This play, written as House on Fire, was produced on Broadway in 1936 as Star Spangled.
Ardrey had spent a Chicago winter canvassing neighborhoods for the WPA, and had fallen in love with the culture of a Polish-American enclave on the Northwest side of the city. He decided that the people he met should populate a play, and in short order he wrote one for them. Wilder read it with enthusiasm and sent it to his former classmate Jed Harris, who had just had a string of Broadway smash hits. Jed agreed to produce it, and Ardrey travelled to New York to work with the production.
Star Spangled concerns a family living in the Polish-American district Ardrey had visited. The mother, an immigrant, has four Americanized children, a son who plays baseball in the Texas league, another son who is pursuing politics, a daughter who is a Hollywood hopeful, and, at the center of the plot, a son who has escaped from the State Penitentiary to kill the politician who set him up eight years earlier. He plans on returning to prison before anyone notices he’s gone.
The play received largely negative reviews and closed after a short run. It did, however, catch the attention of the influential playwright Sidney Howard, who helped arrange for Ardrey to be awarded a Guggenheim grant for his promise as a playwright. The award gave Ardrey the financial independence to be able to focus solely on writing his next two plays.
"If humorous implications were enough, 'Star Spangled' ... would be the comedy of the season. ... [Ardrey's] sense of the ridiculous is unhackneyed and keen."The New York Times
"Strange and oddly comical play—the kind of play that gets remembered."Brooklyn Daily Eagle
In his second play, Casey Jones, Ardrey continued to develop his portrayal of working class Americans and his presentation of their dialect. Much of the praise around the play focused on the language. Christine White, for example, wrote that “Ardrey had a genuine affection for ordinary human beings, whose language he loved and captured beautifully in his dialogue. He wanted to write about them because they were the essence of America, and he had his own ideas about the proper way to do it.”
After Star Spangled was produced Ardrey signed Harold Freedman as his agent; Freedman placed the script of Casey Jones with the radical Group Theater, who would later produce Ardrey’s most famous play, Thunder Rock. The Broadway production, which opened on March 1, 1938 at the Fulton Theater, starred Charles Bickford in the title role. It was directed by Elia Kazan and featured a much-praised set by Mordecai Gorelik.
Casey Jones, which took its inspiration from the folk ballad of the same name, concerned man’s relationship with machines. The title character, a railroad man, desperately loved his train engine, to the neglect of himself and his family. When Casey starts to lose his sight the railroad company forces him into retirement, and Casey refuses his pension, saying, “the company owes me nothing.” He moves into a cramped boarding house where he eventually realizes he has been a slave to the company for his entire life.
Casey Jones received far better reviews than Star Spangled. Notable positive reviews came from Burns Mantle, Richard Watts, Jr., and, especially, Brooks Atkinson (writing for The New York Times). The play did not, however, meet with more commercial success, and closed after only 25 performances. By that time, though, Ardrey’s third play, How to get Tough About It, had already opened.
"It has never been an American tradition to speak truly of the people. Always we have thought of them wishfully, according to our own ends. A social evangelist, in a far-away temple, shouts loudly of the people and class solidarity. Are these Americans class conscious? I can only show them to you and say, judge for yourselves. ... It would seem to me that an unschooled man who is aware and puzzled is frequently more intelligent than a man with an educated mind, convinced and closed. But that's merely my judgment, so don't accept it. Accept only my people and judge for yourself."Robert Ardrey
"Robert Ardrey has extraordinary Flair. He has chosen a fresh subject and populated it with pungent characters; he has also worked at it with drollery and excitement. Casey Jones is written with humorous insight into the character of odd and muscular men; the dialogue is spontaneously original; the scenes are comic and sympathetic."Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times
How to Get Tough About It, Ardrey’s third play, opened at the Martin Beck Theater the Friday after and at the same theater as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and only ten days apart from Casey Jones going up at the Fulton. It was presented by Guthrie McClintic, who had bought the script after a single reading, and starred Katherine Locke and Myron McCormick, who were both praised for their acting.
The play, which Ardrey describes as “a proletarian love story of pleasant dimensions,” concerns Kittie, a midwestern waitress, torn between her boyfriend, a labor union racketeer, and Dan Grimshaw, a commercially unsuccessful boat builder.
The play received enthusiastic notices, especially from Robert Benchley, the critic for The New Yorker. Due in part to a crowded Broadway season (Our Town and On Borrowed Time, both of which opened during the week before How to Get Tough About It, had become quick hits) and a theater audience shrinking amidst the height of the Great Depression, Ardrey’s play again failed to find an audience and closed after a short run.
Ardrey writes in his autobiography that the proximity of two such prominent failures caught the attention of the Hollywood studios. His agent, Harold Freedman, received offers from Metro, Twentieth Century, and RKO. Ardrey decided to accept an offer from Samuel Goldwyn and moved to Hollywood to start his film career.
Thunder Rock is Robert Ardrey’s most famous play. After an unsuccessful debut on Broadway it moved to wartime London, where it became the iconic play of World War II. The British government found it so important to the morale of its citizens that Her Majesty’s Treasury secretly funded an expanded production at the Globe Theatre. Harold Hobson called its opening night “one of the greatest evenings … in the entire history of the theatre.” Thunder Rock has since been produced all around the world, and remains a popular play.
For more information, refer to the story of Thunder Rock page.
"I think, however, I caught (Heaven knows if I shall keep it!) the infection of a better kind of courage from Thunder Rock."New Statesman
After the international success of Thunder Rock and between feature-length film scripts, Ardrey decided to write a one-act play. The result, God and Texas, was a critical success set during the Battle of the Alamo.
In 1943 God and Texas was one of five plays made available royalty-free for Armed Forces members to produce without special bureaucratic clearance. The script has been published in several editions: it was first published in a 1943 issue of Theatre Arts Magazine; in 1944 it was collected in the volume The Best One-Act Plays of 1943; and in 2004 it was collected in a volume edited and introduced by Glenn Young.
Ardrey’s next major play was Jeb, a drama that dealt with race in post-WWII America. In it a black soldier returns from the Pacific with an aluminum leg. He is not perturbed by his disability, though, as to his great pride he has acquired the ability to run an adding machine. Back in his small southern town, where running an adding machine is a white man’s job, he struggles against personal and institutionalized racism. The end of the play finds Jeb, in Ardrey’s words, “ in northern Harlem, physically beaten yet undefeated, prepared to return to the South in a larger cause.”
Jeb was notable for its time for being one of the only Broadway plays to provide significant roles to black actors. The original production starred Ossie Davis, one of the most acclaimed black actors of his generation and a favorite of Spike Lee. It also starred Ruby Dee, who would go on to co-star in Raisin in the Sun. Davis and Dee met and fell in love during the production, and were eventually married.
Jeb met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Billboard wrote that “Robert Ardrey has scripted a drama that has the guts and the power to make you angry… Jeb is absorbing from curtain to curtain,“ and Howard Barnes of The New York Herald Tribune called it "A play which I would not have missed… Drama of high eloquence and indignation… Robert Ardrey has considered the subject squarely and savagely.” However, due in a large part to its pioneering social theme, Jeb closed after a short Broadway run. Albert Wertheim, reflecting on the play in 2004, gives this explanation:
“Indeed, Jeb shows how the participation of African Americans in World War II and the occupational training they received in the armed forces prepare them in the postwar period to dress for battle in a new war to end racial discrimination and oppression at home. This is heady and unsettling stuff in 1946 for Broadway audiences and for society trying to return to prewar ‘normalcy’ and to put returning white soldiers back into the work force. It is no small wonder that Jeb, with its incisive unveiling of racism’s economic underpinnings and with its militant ending, closed after six performances.”
“A more dynamic play than any recent exhibit dealing with the Negro’s difficulties in a country dominated by whites.”George Nathan
Ardrey wrote Sing Me No Lullaby in 1941 while living for a year in San Antonio with his wife Helen. It wasn’t produced until 1954, and in the meantime Ardrey had written two plays (Jeb and God and Texas), two film scripts (A Lady Takes a Chance and The Green Years) and a novel (Worlds Beginning), and he’d joined the Office of War Information to write propaganda materials. By the time it was finally produced, Ardrey had lost enthusiasm for the script.
Sing Me No Lullaby centers around four former college friends who come together for a countryside reunion at Christmas time. Though they had been, in college, idealistic, their idealism has been broken since the Stalin-Hitler pact. One of them, due to his college political faith in Soviet Russia, has found himself unemployable, socially ostracized, and unable to rent an apartment.
Despite Ardrey’s waning enthusiasm for the play, Sing Me No Lullaby garnered very positive reviews. Brooks Atkinson, writing for The New York Times, said of it that “The third act of Sing Me No Lullaby constitutes the most forceful statement anyone has made in the theatre for ages,” and went on to write that Ardrey “has performed the function of a writer. He has found the words to describe something that is vague and elusive but ominous. And he has got far enough away from political recriminations to state it in terms of character and the life of the spirit.”
"After the triviality of a theatre that normally aims low and is satisfied with technical competence, it is heartening to see a play that is as adult, if not more adult, than the world outside the theatre."Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times
Robert Ardrey’s final play was a fitting finale to a career dedicated to socially-engaged theater. A documentary drama about the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956, Shadow of Heroes resulted in the release from custody of two political prisoners. It is also praised as an early example of Verbatim Theater, and was notable for giving a non-romantic leading role to a woman, played originally by Dame Peggy Ashcroft.
The play follows two members of the anti-Nazi Hungarian resistance, Lászlo Rajk and his wife, Julia. They are both arrested and tortured. Lázslo is betrayed by his former friend János Kádár and then killed. Julia works tirelessly to rehabilitate his name, and insists on a state funeral. When the soviet-backed Kádár succeeds to the head of the government, he promises Julia amnesty, and then arrests her. The play ends with the announcement that Julia Rajk is still a prisoner of the Russians.
Shadow of Heroes premiered in London at the Piccadilly Theatre. It opened on October 7, 1958, and inspired outrage; only eleven days later Julia Rajk and her son were released from prison.
The play was successively produced in New York and Germany, and was broadcast to acclaim on television by the BBC in 1959, with Dame Ashcroft reprising her role.
"This is one of those rare pieces of theatre which commends itself ... for what it has to say and teach, and for the honesty which it says it ... [It] is a bold, challenging and moving drama which strikes hard at the human conscience."The Age
"In Shadow of Heroes Robert Ardrey has recalled one of the shameful horror stories of our time. Because he has done so with control, his anger burns all the more compellingly. Because he has made an intensive study of the history of self-serving men who dominated Hungary and abused its people after the war, he has composed a work that is more like a sworn affidavit than a conventional play."Howard Taubman, The New York Times