Robert Anderson, Playwright of ‘Tea and Sympathy,’ Dies at 91

Posted on February 11, 2009. Filed under: Anderson Robert |

MGM, via Photofest

Robert Anderson, right, with Deborah Kerr and John Kerr, stars of the film “Tea and Sympathy.”

By BRUCE WEBER, The New York Times: February 10, 2009

Correction Appended

Robert Anderson, a playwright whose intimate emotional dramas like “Tea and Sympathy” and “I Never Sang for My Father” attracted big names to the Broadway stage if not always substantial audiences to Broadway theaters, died Monday at home in Manhattan. He was 91.

© Jill Krementz

Robert Anderson in 1988.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said Nevin Terence Busch, Mr. Anderson’s stepson.

Mr. Anderson was a contemporary of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and though his reputation never ascended to the artistic heights that theirs did — his plays often walked a tightrope between realism and sentimentality — he was among the theater’s most visible, serious playwrights of the 1950s and ’60s.

Mr. Anderson also wrote screenplays, including those for “The Sand Pebbles” (1966), with Steve McQueen, and “The Nun’s Story” (1959), with Audrey Hepburn. But he thought of himself as a playwright who wrote movies for money.

He had six plays on Broadway between 1953 and 1971, beginning with “Tea and Sympathy,” the story of a sensitive, artistic boy who is ostracized by his prep school classmates as a supposed homosexual but who is befriended — and ultimately sexually initiated — by the housemaster’s wife.

“Tea and Sympathy,” directed by Elia Kazan, starred Deborah Kerrin her Broadway debut, fresh from her steamy role as an adultress in “From Here to Eternity.” The play, which later became a film, ends with a scene considered salacious at the time and a famous final line. The housemaster’s wife, after leaving her husband, draws the student into her arms and says, “Years from now when you talk of this, and you will, be kind.”

“Tea and Sympathy” ran for nearly two years and made a name for Mr. Anderson as a writer who tackled serious subjects with sensitivity and accessibility, qualities that, as the years went by, drew both praise and scorn.

“Tea and Sympathy,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times, “restores our theater to an art again with a fine play put on the stage with great skill and beauty.” A contrary view was expressed, in 2004, by another of Mr. Anderson’s contemporaries, the playwright and director Arthur Laurents.

“That play?” Mr. Laurents said in a Times interview. “That play is a fraud.”

Mr. Anderson followed “Tea and Sympathy” with a series of works that were also emotionally high-pitched but nowhere near as successful. They included “All Summer Long,” with Carroll Baker and Ed Begley, adapted from a novel by Donald Wetzel, about a family so absorbed in its own acrimony that it ignores the rising river that is a threat to the family home; “Silent Night, Lonely Night,” which starred Barbara Bel Geddes and Henry Fonda, as lonely strangers with marital woes who are placated by a night of adultery; and “I Never Sang for My Father,” which was about a middle-aged man (played by Hal Holbrook) and his unthawable relationship with his mean-spirited father (Alan Webb). The play was made into a better known film, also written by Mr. Anderson, starring Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas.

Mr. Anderson’s final Broadway play, “Solitaire/Double Solitaire,” was an odd mix of one-acts, one an ironic science-fiction fantasy, the other a grimly realistic portrait of a disintegrating marriage.

Mr. Anderson’s plays attracted not only top-flight actors but first-rate directors as well. “Summer ” and “I Never Sang” were directed by Alan Schneider, a leading interpreter of Edward Albee, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett; “Solitaire,” which closed in October 1971, was directed by Arvin Brown, who was artistic director for 30 years of the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven and would go on to direct “The Gin Game, “The Shadow Box” and “The National Health” on Broadway.

In 1967, Mr. Anderson scored his second Broadway hit, a series of four one-act comedies (also directed by Schneider) about a playwright who is having a hard time reconciling his own prudishness with his desire to write honestly about sex. Titled “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running,” it ran for more than 750 performances from 1967 to 1969, and aside from drawing enthusiastic reviews, it anticipated what became a trend: nudity onstage.

In the play, the playwright has imagined a scene in which a character delivers the title line as he emerges nude from a bathroom while shaving. An actor, desperate for a part, begins to strip to prove he will play the role, embarrassing the playwright. As eventually staged, the actor Martin Balsam played the scene in the not-entirely-altogether, but shortly after the show closed, the critic Walter Kerr, writing in The New York Times Magazine, credited (or blamed) Mr. Anderson for a spate of shows (including “Hair”) that had turned the exposure of flesh onstage from a provocation into a yawn.

“Today the preposterous is simply commonplace, and if Mr. Anderson’s little conceit is still playing anywhere it must seem quaint indeed, fud-duddy-ish even,” Kerr wrote. “All that fuss about no feathers? Silly.”

Robert Woodruff Anderson was born in New York City on April 28, 1917. His father was a business executive whom he drew on for his intractable male characters. He was sent to Phillips Exeter Academy, which he described as a lonely experience and where he fell in love with an older woman, all of which was grist for “Tea and Sympathy.”

Mr. Anderson received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Harvard, and he served in the Pacific in the Navy during World War II. On his return he adapted plays, movies and novels for radio and television and taught playwriting for the American Theater Wing.

He was married twice, first to Phyllis Stohl, a director and playwright’s agent. She died of cancer in 1956, and his care of her over several years was the material for a 1973 novel, “After.”

Mr. Anderson married the actress Teresa Wright in 1959. They divorced in 1978. Mr. Anderson had no children. In addition to his stepson, Mr. Busch, who lives in Indianapolis, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Mary-Kelly Busch, of Clinton, Conn.

  • Correction: February 11, 2009
  • Because of a production error, the obituaries page was omitted in some editions on Tuesday. An obituary about the playwright Robert Anderson, known for his drama “Tea and Sympathy,” and an article about a Broadway memorial tribute to the theater owner and producer Gerald Schoenfeld can be found at nytimes.com/obituaries.

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