(James) Maxwell Anderson (15 December 1888 – 28 February 1959) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, author, poet, reporter and lyricist, and a founding member of The Playwrights' Company (which included, at various times, Maxwell Anderson, S. N. Behrman, Elmer Rice, Robert E. Sherwood, Sidney Howard, Roger L. Stevens, John F. Wharton, and Kurt Weill, and produced many notable plays of the 20th century).
He was born in Atlantic, Pennsylvania, the second child of William Lincoln Anders, a Baptist minister, and his wife, formerly Charlotte Perrimela Stephenson. His family initially lived on his maternal grandmother's farm in Atlantic, then moved to Andover, Ohio, where his father became a railroad fireman while studying to become a minister. They moved to Jamestown, North Dakota in 1907, where Anderson attended Jamestown High School, graduating in 1908.
As an undergraduate, he waited tables and worked at the night copy desk of the Grand Forks Herald, and was active in the school's literary and dramatic societies. He obtained a B.A. in English Literature from the University of North Dakota in 1911. He became the principal of a high school in Minnewaukan, North Dakota, also teaching English there, but he was fired from this job in 1913 because he had made pacifist statements to his students. He then entered Stanford University, obtaining an M.A. in English Literature in 1914. He became a high school English teacher in San Francisco: after three years he became chairman of the English department at Whittier College in 1917. He was fired after a year for public statements supporting a student seeking conscientious objector status.
He next became a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, then moved to New York, where he wrote editorials for the The New Republic, the Evening Globe, and the Morning World.
In 1921, he founded Measure, a magazine devoted to verse. He wrote his first play, White Desert, in 1923, which ran only twelve performances, but was well-reviewed by the book reviewer for the New York World, Laurence Stallings, who collaborated with him on his next play What Price Glory?, which was successfully produced in 1924 in New York City. Afterwords he resigned from the World, launching his career as a dramatist.
He wrote many well-known plays, of widely-varying styles, and was one of the few modern playwrights to make extensive use of blank verse. Some of these became movies, and Anderson wrote screen adaptations of other authors' plays and novels (Death Takes a Holiday, All Quiet on the Western Front), as well as books of poetry and essays. The only one of his plays that he himself adapted to the screen was Joan of Lorraine, which became the 1948 film Joan of Arc, starring Ingrid Bergman, with a screenplay by Anderson and Andrew Solt . Anderson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for his political drama Both Your Houses, and twice received the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, for Winterset, and High Tor.
Anderson was, above all, a strong believer in the dignity of man (although humanism might be too strong of a word), and many of his plays focus on the concepts of liberty and justice. Anderson can probably be credited with popularizing the use of poetry in modern drama. He chose to write in solitude, preferring to write longhand in a wire-bound notebook, and refused to attend the opening nights of his plays.
He enjoyed great commercial success with a series of plays set during the reign of the Tudor family, who ruled England, Wales and Ireland from 1485 until 1603. One in particular, Anne of the Thousand Days - the story of Henry VIII's brutal marriage to Anne Boleyn - was a hit on the stage in 1948, but did not reach movie screens for twenty-one years, perhaps due to censorship (there is much use of the word "bastards" in the play, and frank discussion of sexual relationships). It opened on Broadway starring Rex Harrison and Joyce Redman, and, in 1969 became an Oscar-winning movie with Richard Burton and Geneviève Bujold. (Margaret Furse won for her costume designs, but in a year that the costume drama might have been seen as old-fashioned, that was the only Oscar out of several nominations that the film actually won.) The play is still occasionally performed today. Another of his Tudor plays, Elizabeth the Queen, was adapted as The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, starring the legendary actress Bette Davis and Hollywood pin-up, Errol Flynn. And still another of his plays involving Elizabeth I, Mary of Scotland, was turned into a film, albeit an unsuccessful one, in 1936, starring Katharine Hepburn as Mary, Queen of Scots, Fredric March as the Earl of Bothwell, and Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth. The play had been a hit on Broadway starring Helen Hayes in the title role.
He married Margaret Haskett, a fellow classmate, on 1 August 1911 in Bottineau, North Dakota. They had three sons, Quentin, Alan, and Terence. Margaret died of cancer on 22 February 1931. Anderson then resided with Gertrude "Mab" Higger starting in about October 1933. A daughter, Hesper, was born 2 August 1934. Gertrude ("Mab") committed suicide on 21 March 1953. Her daughter Hesper (who was screenwriter for the movie Children of a Lesser God, wrote a book South Mountain Road: A Daughter's Journey of Discovery about her unearthing, only after the suicide, the fact that her parents had never married. Maxwell Anderson did marry once more, to Gilda Hazard, on 6 June 1954.
Honorary awards include the Gold Medal in Drama from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1954, an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from Columbia University in 1946, and an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from the University of North Dakota in 1958.
Two of Anderson's other historical plays, Valley Forge (about George Washington's winter there with the Continental Army) , and Barefoot in Athens, about the trial of Socrates, were adapted for television, but not for the cinema. Indeed, Valley Forge was adapted for television three times - in 1950, 1951, and 1975.
Maxwell Anderson died in Stamford, Connecticut, on 28 February 1959, two days after suffering a stroke.
Plays and Musicals
(Worked with composers Kurt Weill and Arthur Schwartz)