Robert Anderson: Playwright and screenwriter best known for 'Tea and Sympathy'

Robert Anderson was a playwright of stature in the American theatre, and though rarely mentioned alongside the country's master dramatists such as Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, he was a fine craftsman who was superb at dissecting family relationships and depicting the emotions that lie below the surface of conventional behaviour.

His best known play, Tea and Sympathy, though perhaps simplistic and naïve by today's standards, was immensely brave in its time for its challenge to conformity. The story of a young man taunted for his sensitivity and his possible homosexuality, it has one of the most famous closing lines in American theatre. When the sympathetic housemaster's wife, whose macho sports-teaching husband has latent homosexual tendencies, decides to restore the young man's self-esteem by sleeping with him, she says to him, "Years from now, when you talk about this – and you will – be kind."

He had another big hit with a collection of four one-act plays, You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running, and his other works include I Never Sang for my Father, a powerfully moving (and autobiographical) play about a fraught father-son relationship. He was also a superb screenwriter, twice nominated for an Oscar, though he preferred to think of himself as "a playwright who writes movies for money". As well as the film versions of Tea and Sympathy and I Never Sang for my Father, he wrote superior scripts for Until They Sail, The Nun's Story and The Sand Pebbles. Anderson was noted, too, for his kindness, and for the help he gave to young writers.

Born in 1917 in New York City, where his patriarchal father was a business executive, he was sent as a youth to a military academy, where he recalled being lonely and falling in love with an older woman (the seeds of Tea and Sympathy), before attending Harvard University. After serving as a lieutenant in the Pacific during the Second World War, he studied with John Gassner at the New School's Dramatic Workshop in New York and wrote plays for radio and television before being hired by the American Theatre Wing to teach playwriting at evening classes.

"Anderson was teaching evening classes at the American Theatre Wing, and I got into his class," the screenwriter Arnold Schulman recalled. "My basic diet at the time was gallons of thick, black coffee, which I had read that Balzac drank, and day-old bread that a neighbourhood baker sold for pennies. I enjoyed the fantasy of being a starving young writer, but my body didn't. One night, in the middle of Bob's class, I got so weak and dizzy I had to leave. I had no idea that Bob knew it was because I hadn't eaten for days, until about midnight there was a knock on my door and there was Bob Anderson, having walked up five flights, with two enormous paper bags of groceries. In the morning I found an envelope he had stuck into my mailbox. In the envelope were five hundred-dollar bills. There's no way I can describe the impact that this act of pure kindness had on me and no way to repay it except to pass it on, which I've tried to do ever since."

Anderson had his first work on Broadway when he contributed sketches to a revue, Dance Me a Song (1950), which featured Bob Fosse but ran for only 35 performances. Around the same time, the Dramatists Guild formed a group, The New Dramatists, and selected 30 promising writers to sponsor, among them Paddy Chayefsky, William Inge, Stephen Sondheim, Schulman and Anderson, who eventually made his breakthrough in 1953. "It restores the theatre to an art again," wrote the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson of Tea and Sympathy. "It's a fine play put on the stage with great skill and beauty."

Directed by Elia Kazan, it starred Deborah Kerr as the wife of the housemaster, and John Kerr (not a relative) as the young man, Tom. They recreated their roles (as did Leif Erickson, who played the housemaster) in the 1956 film version, skilfully adapted by Anderson to get around the censor's objections to suggestions of homosexuality. His script, the performances and Vincente Minnelli's stylish direction resulted in an enjoyable melodrama, its theme less diluted than one might expect.

London's stage censor (in the person of the Lord Chamberlain, whose power was abolished in 1968) also had strict rules about such subject matter, and banned the play, but since he had no power over a private club, a special theatre club was formed enabling three prohibited plays to be staged in the West End; the others were Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge.

Anderson's next play, Silent Night, Lonely Night (1959), starring Henry Fonda, was not a success, but a collection of four one-act plays, You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running (1967) ran for over 700 performances, and was seen in London, starring Tom Ewell. The following year Anderson wrote I Never Sang for My Father, a powerfully moving tale of an anguished father-son relationship which was turned into a memorable film in 1970, with Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas in the lead roles. Hackman and Anderson were both Oscar-nominated for their work.

Anderson's screenwriting, mostly adaptations of ambitious novels, was of a consistently high standard. His reworking of James Michener's short story Until They Sail (1957) turned what was basically a soap opera into the compelling saga of four sisters in a New Zealand town during the Second World War, describing how an influx of American servicemen affects their lives. Directed by Robert Wise, with a talented cast which included Jean Simmons, Paul Newman, Joan Fontaine and Piper Laurie, the story of the four girls was skilfully woven, with emphasis placed on the romance between the widowed Simmons and the cynical officer Newman who feels that his men are being exploited by the women.

Anderson's next film (1959), based on Kathryn C. Hulme's autobiographical novel, The Nun's Story, was another finely crafted and sincere work which won him an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. In 1966 he worked with Robert Wise again on the epic drama The Sand Pebbles, starring Steve McQueen. Adapted from Richard McKenna's novel, it focused on a little-known episode of American foreign involvement when US gunboats cruised China's Yangtze River in the Twenties. Anderson's handling of this weighty material was lauded for its intelligence and its authenticity, the dialogue faithful to the time in which the film was set.

Anderson later started writing novels, including After (1973) and Getting Up and Going Home (1978), and he wrote many television scripts. He expressed annoyance with much modern theatre, stating that "I'm tired of theatricalism for theatricalism's sake, where everything is moving around on stage, but nothing moves an audience."

For many years he had a country home near his friend Arthur Miller. "Arthur has never acknowledged the fact that I've ever written a play," he said. "We don't talk about plays when we're together. We talk about tennis." His first wife died in 1956, after which he married the actress Teresa Wright. Though they divorced in 1978 they remained close friends and Wright, who died in 2005, always talked warmly about him.



Robert Woodruff Anderson, writer: born New York 28 April 1917; married 1940 Phyllis Stohl (died 1956), 1959 Teresa Wright (marriage dissolved 1978, died 2005); died New York 9 February 2009.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
arts + entsJK Rowling to publish new story set in wizard's world for Halloween
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
i100
Life and Style
tech

Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

EBD Teacher - Food Technology Specialist

£100 - £181 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: The JobTo plan and deliver all ...

Learning Support Assistant

£50 - £60 per day + plus free travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The J...

Data Analyst/Planning and Performance – Surrey – Up to £35k

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Cover Supervisor

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education have cover su...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker