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 As such his efforts remained unpublished, until Ardrey and Wilder agreed that he had written a mature play.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