Robert Anderson died of pneumonia at his home in Manhattan on February 9, 2009. Because the 91-year-old playwright had also been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for seven years prior to his death, I feel compelled, now more than ever, to share a personal anecdote about him before it too slips from my memory.
Years ago, when I was a teenager in Manila, my friends and I saw TEA AND SYMPATHY, a movie based on the play by Robert Anderson, featuring Deborah Kerr as a sympathetic older woman who’s running a dormitory in a boys’ school in New England, and John Kerr as one of the “sensitive” boys in the dorm. At the end of the movie, because she feels sorry for the boy after he is suspected of having homosexual tendencies, Deborah Kerr goes into the boy’s bedroom and decides to help him disprove what doubts he might have about his own sexuality. She sits on his bed, begins to unbutton her blouse, takes his hands and guides them towards her opened blouse, and utters a line full of enigmatic pauses as the movie ends.
My friends and I argued heatedly about those enigmatic pauses, so we found a copy of the script. In the published text of the play on which the movie was based, this is how the line appears: “Years from now—when you talk about this—and you will—be kind.” My friends and I continued to argue about the interpretation of those pauses. Some thought she was gently asking him to forgive her in the future for what she’s doing now: “Years from now, when you talk about this, at that time, I beg you to please be kind.” Others thought she was being completely realistic, and that the line ought to be read sardonically: “Years from now, when you talk about this, and I have no doubt that you WILL talk and boast about this, when this happens, please try to be kind.”
And so, back in 1960, I took it upon myself to write Robert Anderson, care of his publisher in New York, to ask him which of these two interpretation he had intended when he wrote the line. I never really expected to hear from him but, weeks later—lo and behold!—he wrote me back. Although I no longer have the letter, even now, I remember how Robert Anderson settled our argument fifty years ago. “Both interpretations are correct,” he wrote. “If you thought I intended it, then I must have.”
In the early 1980s, when I actually met Robert Anderson at a function sponsored by the Dramatists Guild in New York, I told him this story. His eyes lit up and he said, “Yes, I remember that letter from the Philippines.”
I was astonished. “You do? Seriously, you do?”
“Yes, of course. It’s not everyday I get such intelligent letters, and from fans so young, in the Philippines!”
Another decade later, when I saw Robert Anderson again, in 1994, at the William Inge Festival in Independence, KS, it was he who came up to me this time, and reminded me about that letter which I had written him all those years ago. It was kind of him to remember, and it now makes me sad that these sort of memories were being erased from his remarkable mind the last seven years of his life.
It is my hope that, years from now—when my own time comes, if anyone talks about me—and they will—be kind.
Beautiful story, beautifully written – thanks, Paul, especially for sharing “If you thought I intended it, then I must have.”
A wonderful story! And what a fascinating and still very relevant play! Thanks for sharing it, Paul….
Years from now-when your time comes-I will talk about you-I can be nothing but kind.
Believe me, Paul, I think, like Anderson, you will find few people who would be unwilling to “be kind.” A lovely story. Much better than your tale of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
This is a lovely story. Thanks for sharing it!
I’ll do you the service of being honest. I think that a truthful telling holds more significance than any saccharine sweet recounting that’s been doctored for the sake of polite audiences. If I’ve learned anything by being in your good company these last few years, it would be to avoid romanticizing the world simply for the sake of happy endings.
That being said–to be perfectly fair–I won’t be TOO honest. 😉
I read this as my father sleeps in the other room, a little less of him here with each sunrise. I have struggled mightily over the past several months against a powerful confluence of grief-fed emotions, physical exhaustion and far too many bittersweet memories in an attempt to define what shape my spoken epitaph for him will take. Striking a balance between respectful reverence, honest remembrance and conflicted feelings is a delicate tight-rope act. I thought getting a head-start might make finding the way there a little less precarious and frightening. No such luck.
From reading Zac’s take, Paul, it’s apparent to me that you’ve apparently managed to stay firmly on message with your pupils past and present, that you’re still teaching the important things; that alone speaks very well of you. And I think you know where I stand.
P.S. It’s also apparent to me that I APPARENTLY need to practice better proofreading skills. 😉
Scott, I’m so sorry to hear about the journey you’re going through at the moment with your father. My mother in the Philippines is now in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, and I feel so guilty that I cannot be there with her and for her. I hope your father is at least subconsciously aware that you are near.
I had another entirely different reading of that line, Paul, but I’ll share that with you in person . . . .