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.