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Who is Maxwell Anderson?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Maxwell Anderson was an American playwright, best known for his play Both Your Houses. Born in 1888 in Pennsylvania, over the course of his 69 years he wrote 37 plays, and was associated with more than 30 films. He won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and two New York Drama Critics Circle Awards.

In his early life, Maxwell Anderson adopted many of the pacifist ideals of the Quakers in Pennsylvania. He received a BA in English in 1911 from the University of North Dakota, and went on to teach English, running the high-school he taught at as well. He was let go only two years after taking the job for promoting pacifism among his students. He then went on to receive an MA in English from Stanford University, and returned to teaching, first at the high school level, then at Whittier College. He was again fired in 1918 for supporting a student who was pursuing conscientious objector status.

The teaching route once again closed to him, Maxwell Anderson went on to pursue English in other avenues. He became a staff reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle, and contributed to a range of newspapers, including New York World and The New Republic. He then went on to found a magazine devoted to poetry, Measure.

Maxwell Anderson wrote his first play, White Desert, in 1923, at the age of 35. Although it saw only a short run, it was well received, and he quit his jobs as a reporter to fully pursue a career as a playwright. His next play, What Price Glory? was also well received, although not a breakout success. Throughout his career, Anderson would continue to write many plays at this level, with respectable runs at respectable theatres, but little public acclaim, in addition to a few hits.

Anderson’s best-known play is likely Both Your Houses, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933. It is a biting political satire, which retains relevance to the modern political world even some seventy-five years later. It deals with the Senate and the House of Representatives in the United States, and the premise that the only way things are accomplished in the legislature is through bribes and graft. The protagonist is a young congressman, who upon arriving in Washington discovers that a bill to fund a dam in his district, which would do some good, was overpriced substantially because of the amount of graft attached to it. He spends the play fighting the bill, even though he knows it will cost him all of the political capital he may have.

A number of screenplays were also written by Maxwell Anderson, including Saturday’s Children, which featured a young Humphrey Bogart in its first incarnation, and went on to have five subsequent versions made. He also wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man in the 1950s. Although Maxwell Anderson stopped writing plays in the late-1950s, his work continued to be adapted to the screen well into the 1980s, and in fact the 1998 movie Meet Joe Black credited him as writing an earlier screenplay which provided its inspiration.

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