Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Why Marry? by Jesse Lynch Williams (1918)

Summary:  Couples in a family are each having separate issues surrounding the subject of marriage.
Main plot:  Ernest and Helen:   two scientists who agree that they love each other; and also agree that they do not want to marry.
Sub-plots:  Rex and Jean:  probably don’t really love each other but have decided that it is time to marry.
John and Lucy:  Established married couple of the family.  All of the action of the play takes place at their home.  Amidst all the marriage craziness, Lucy eventually announces that she wants a divorce because she’s never really loved John in the first place.  John dismisses this as female hysteria.
Uncle Everett and unseen wife Julia:   Everett provides comic relief throughout the play.  He and his own wife are “secretly” attempting a trial separation, but she keeps sending cute telegrams from Reno, eventually revealing that they both miss each other and she’s on her way home.
Thoughts:  This play was originally published under the title And So They Were Married, but perhaps in an attempt to not give away the ending…it was changed and The Pulitzer committee recognizes it under the title Why Marry?  I have to say that I wasn’t particularly thrilled when I received this play through Inter-library loan and noticed that the first recipient of the Pulitzer is 242 pages long; but I was actually delightfully surprised.
The text is shockingly progressive, especially for 1918.  Helen is a brilliant, working scientist whose family believes that it is time for her to get married.  She and Ernest profess their love to each other and both agree that, “those who love each other truly don’t need anything to bring them together.  The difficulty is to keep apart” (148).  Clearly, Helen’s family thinks that this idea is ludicrous.
The play contains major commentary surrounding not only the subject of family and marriage; but also the role of both the church and state in marriage and civil unions and gender bias in academia.  Though these are all weighty subjects, the comedic elements of the play are both whimsical and intelligent.  Additionally, many of William’s lines are pointedly succinct.  He clearly uses word economy to his advantage, creating snippets of dialogue that can be quoted and remembered. 
I think a fascinating paper would be a queer reading of this play, especially because many of Helen and Ernest’s thoughts about marriage are reminiscent of rhetoric currently being used on both sides of the gay marriage/civil union argument.

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