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Ahead of his time?
Robert Anderson

Though it's been more than four months, I just discovered playwright Robert Anderson died earlier this year. I'm sorry about that _ that he died and that I missed it. American society probably owes him a debt, especially kids who are a little bit different, and he opened the way for a lot of writers to come.

His 1953 play ``Tea and Sympathy'' made a strong statement about individuality, or the right of a person to be different, in this case a student at an Eastern prep school, Tom, who's bright, friendly, warm but, alas, simply not ``a regular guy.''

The play's autobiographical. Anderson, in his school days, was more interested in the theater and classical music _ at least he makes Tom so _ not a ``regular guy'' thing to do in the 1950s, or earlier, when Anderson was a boy, one supposes. Tom even sews, as, years later, did the great professional football player Roosevelt Grier, but no one gave Grier trouble about it.

In the play, shunned by other students, Tom falls in love with Laura Reynolds, the wife of Tom's house master, Bill Reynolds. Is Tom gay, as other students seem to insinuate, or perhaps effeminate, or just different, an ``off horse,'' to quote another term used in ``Tea and Sympathy.''

And what about Bill Reynolds, who'd rather spend weekends on camping outings with the boys in the house than with his beautiful wife, played in both the Broadway production and the film adaptation by Deborah Kerr.

``Tea and Sympathy'' is not much revived, or if so, I've been unaware of it. It might be scoffed at now _ what was the issue, after all? Nowadays the house master might be drummed off the staff, Tom made a hero.

But for its time, in this country, it made important points and covered ground usually left untuched by other writers. Perhaps that is the price writers pay when dealing with subjects previously little explored, their work becoming passe.

But the play is gently, beautifully written. A famous scene was Tom being told by his roommate, Al (masculine name), a good kid who quite likes Tom, that Tom might work on his walk.

Tom had no idea there was anything wrong with his walk and when Al tries to demonstrate a proper, masculine walk, the scene transitions from awkward to ironically comic. (It was likely the inspiration for the hilarious Robin Williams-Nathan Lane ``how to walk like a man'' scene in ``The Birdcage.'') It's heartbreaking when Al, succombing to pressure, moves out of the room.

Anderson had some fine talent for his breakthrough play. Elia Kazan directed and Jo Mielzner designed the sets. Joan Fontaine and Anthony later took over the roles of Laura and Tom (originally played by John Kerr). There was controversy, especially in the way the play ends. The Random House dust cover for the play shows Laura unbuttoning or buttoning up _ it comes to the same _ her blouse.

In England, the Lord Chamberlain imposed a ban and the play was given at the Comedy Theatre under ``membership conditions.'' In Paris, Ingrid Bergman played the role of Laura.

The film version was, of course, softened from what the play had been, as usually happened in those days when the subject was controversial and/or sexually charged (Tennessee Williams' plays were frequent victims). Still, it was effective and did well.

I met Anderson years ago at the Squaw Valley Writerss' Conference in California. A play I'd written, ``The Late Marc Buffant,'' had been selected for inclusion in the conference, and the day after it was given a staged reading, Anderson asked me for a drink to talk about the play.

We sat at a bar and leaned over our beers. Anderson was slim, gray, nice looking, a touch preppy in V-neck and loafers. Anderson was known for the open emotion of his plays, such as the also autobiographical ``I Never Sang for My Father.'' I found that fit his personality.

He talked about his career, his personal life, his wife (Theresa Wright, the only actor to be nominated for an Oscar in her first three films, winning it for ``Mrs. Miniver''), domestic problems, even how he wrote.

When he got an idea for a play or story, he said, he usually outlined it, then placed the outline in a desk drawer. A month or two later he'd withdraw the outline, read it, and if he liked it, perhaps write a scene; then, if that worked out, reading satisfactorily after a lapse in time, he'd start working on the play.

I liked him a lot. He'd had a painful, misunderstood youth, and he made art out of it, no doubt giving strength to, and understanding of, other kids who happened to be ``off horses.''

Robert Anderson was not prolific, but he left a half dozen fine plays and screenplays and one play that was very important in its time.