“A lot of promising projects get sideswiped in the traffic of activity. I think every creative career leaves some abandoned vehicles along the side of the road.”
Writer Robert Edwin Lee (1918-1994)
Since I’ve been kicking around Oberlin, Ohio on this blog all week I thought I’d slide over and talk about a writing team with roots not far from Oberlin. Jerome Lawrence was from Cleveland (less than an hour from Oberlin) and Robert E. Lee (the writer, not the General) was from Elyria, Ohio—just about 10 miles from Oberlin. And though Lawrence and Lee grew up just 30 miles from each other and would later team up on 39 productions together—and become known as “The Thinking-Person’s Playwrights”—they did not meet until they were both in New York. Lee attended Ohio Wesleyan and Northwestern, and Lawrence did his undergraduate work at The Ohio State University and his Master’s at UCLA.
Below is an exchange from a 1991 conference call with the writers who wrote the plays play Inherit the Wind and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail and Auntie Mame, and received a Primetime Emmy for writing the screenplay for Actor (1978). In 1984 both were also recipients of Writers Guild of America Valentine Davies Award “whose contributions to the entertainment industry and the coummunity-at-large have brought dignity and honor to writers everywhere.”
Lawrence: During my high-school and university years, I literally read every published play in the Cleveland and Ohio State libraries. from Greek drama in translation through Moliere and Dumas, fils (in French!), right down to the then-current Kaufman and Hart comedies. We advise our students to do the same, reading and seeing as many plays of the past and of the present as possible. And we suggest that they read these plays aloud, so they can “taste the dialogue in their mouths.” I used to hitch-hike to New York every chance I had to see live theatre, during the days when there was damn little in the hinterlands of Ohio.
Lee: Of American dramatists, I think we were both affected by playwrights Thornton Wilder, Robert Sherwood . . .
Lawrence: Clifford Odets, Sidney Howard, Lillian Hellman, many others. Early on, I suppose I was most directly influenced by the, alas, almost-forgotten Maxwell Anderson, particularly by his fictionally-historical plays. I worked on a master’s thesis, comparing his poetic Winterset with his far less effective and too-documentary-like Gods of the Lightning, (written with Harold Hickerson). Both plays were about Sacco-Vanzetti, but with Winterset, Anderson used poetic and dramatic license to fictionize, extrapolate, combine characters, to make the past relevant to the moment and to the future.
Lee: Jerry and I have tried to do all these things, not only with Inherit and Thoreau, but with as many of our plays as possible. Of course we’ve had a wider dramatic inheritance: certainly Shakespeare, certainly Shaw, O’Neill, Ibsen, Chekhov, O’Casey, in fact all down the line from Aeschylus to Noel Coward and beyond.
Lawrence: That “beyond” consisting of Beckett and Brecht. Ionesco and Anouilh. No working, breathing playwright can ignore their tremendous influence.
Lee: However, awareness of the power of other writers doesn’t mean we want to emulate them. We don’t want to be imitation O’Neills. But we can take courage from him to wear both the theatre masks, comedy as well as drama.
Lawrence: We are also privileged to rub shoulders with our colleagues-in-craft in the inestimable Dramatists Guild. They also became our cherished friends: Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Arthur Miller, Garson Kanin. . .
Lee: . . . Paddy Chayevsky, Robert Anderson, Lindsay and Crouse, John Patrick, Edward Albee, Marsha Norman . . .
Lawrence: . . . Wendy Wasserstein. Arthur Kopit. John Guare, Lanford Wilson, many others.
Lee: And in England: Peter Shaffer, Alan Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker. From South Africa, Athol Fugard; from the USSR. Rozov. Aitmatov, the late Arbuzov
Note: The Ohio State Department of Theater houses the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute in Columbus.
P.S. Two interesting connections— Lee’s wife, Janet Waldo, was the voice of Judy Jetson on The Jetsons and according to Wikipedia at age 89 Waldo is “the last surviving main cast member of The Jetsons series.” On Monday we’ll look at two classmate of Lawrence’s at Glenville High School in Cleveland who happened to be the original creators of Superman.