A little bit ago, I mentioned Philip Barry’s play The Philadelphia Story, and Cubeland Mystic allowed as how he thought well of the play, or at least the movie version of the play.  Anyway, last night I was reading a bit more of New Yorker theater critic Brendan Gill’s memoir A New York Life:  Of Friends and Others, and I found these paragraphs about Barry:

“Given the ease and agreeableness of Barry’s life in the late 1920s, it is at least superficially ironic that he spent the last summer of that decade in Cannes writing the sombre Hotel Universe.  It is a play beautiful as well as sombre; many students of Barry consider it his best work.  The setting, borrowed from the Murphy’s Villa America, is a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean.  On the terrace are gathered half a dozen attractive men and women of varied backgrounds; at first glance, they would seem to be among the most fortunate people alive, but one soon perceives that something dreadful has happened:  a malignancy no more palpable than air has put them in jeopardy.  Death hovers all around them, not so much a threat as a temptation.  Only recently, death seduced a delightful young acquaintance of theirs, who smilingly dove into the sea and committed suicide.”

Change the setting to the American South, and this could be a paragraph about Walker Percy, what with his great themes of death-in-life and the lure of oblivion in the face of material happiness.  And it goes on:

“Barry has given the play the appearance of a drawing-room comedy, and it is no such thing.  On the contrary, it is a fantasy, whose theme is existential despair and whose subject matter concerns the grim fact that people’s lives often come to an end before they die.  All those nice people on the terrace in Hotel Universe – like all those nice people on the Murphys’ terrace at Cap d’Antibes?  the Scott Fitzgeralds, the Robert Benchleys, the Ring Lardners, Dorothy Parker? – are engaged in a desperate struggle to find themselves by finding meaning in their lives, or, failing that, by finding meaning in the universe.  This was a struggle that Barry remained a party to until his death.  Despite the skepticism that he felt in regard to the church and its conduct in the world, he was never not a Catholic; he was bound to the church by emotional ties that no reasoning could loose.  Once, when long after Barry’s death I was talking about him with his old friend Katharine Hepburn, she told me of an occasion on which he had confessed to her that he would find it impossible to get up out of the chair in which he was then sitting if he weren’t able to believe in some sort of God – some divine principle, however little aware of man – at work somewhere beyond us.  Hotel Universe was one of the several attempts he made to give philosophical speculations a dramatic form; that he was able to provide the play with a happy ending is a tribute not only to his ingenuity as a playwright but to his courage:  he would live with his doubts as other men live with an incurable malady.”



  1. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

    In my tux on the terrace,
    I felt existential dread.
    I knew my life was over though
    I was not clinic-al-ly dead.
    As the waves rolled in darkness,
    I could not help but believe…
    I’d been checked in my entire life…

    But I could always leave!

    • Matthew Lickona says

      Welcome to the Hotel Matt Lickona
      Such a lovely place, but without the grace
      Drinking all night at the Hotel Matt Lickona
      Any spirit, dear…but you can’t have beer

  2. Jonathan Webb says

    Philadelphia Story is one of my favorite movies. Need to check this out.

    Thanks Matthew.

  3. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

    Down long days, he continued to plod
    Toward extinction, perdition, or… God?….
    On the brink, he would stand
    (With a drink in his hand)
    Every night, thinking: ‘Komm, süßer Tod….’

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