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Maxwell Anderson believes "with Geethe that dramatic poetry is man's greatest achievement on his earth so far" and that "the theatre is essentially a cathedral of the spirit" and whatever one's opinion of these postulates may be, it must be admitted that they are noble concepts. In predicating his "Winterset" upon these premises Mr. Anderson has set himself a task of heroic proportions. He has attempted to build a play of fundamentally modern themes and modern personages upon the foundation of epic structure and to articulate these characters through the trying medium of verse. To an extent he has succeeded and "Winterset" is clearly among the most compelling and powerful dramatic studies of the season.
Based obviously, if not candidly, upon the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the play has an absorbing story to tell. Mio Romagna's father has been executed for a murder which he did not commit. He was considered a dangerous radical and all the potent forces of conventionalized prejudice united to convict him of a crime which was actually performed by a gangster. The injustice which society foisted upon the father makes an outcast of the Hamlet-like son, forces him into a relentless, selfless pursuit for revenge; not for the joy of revenge itself but for the vindication of his faith in the truth and justice which must be if existence is to justify the struggle. His quest leads him to the tenement home of the Esdrases cowering beneath the symbolic shadow of the East Side New York skyline. The exotic beauty and youthful freshness of the young daughter, Miriamne, hypnotize him but he cannot give himself to love for the crushing burden of his disillusion and the gnawing vacuum of unfaith make life impossible. Track, the guilty gangster, has fallen into the customary, neurotic madness of killers; everybody connected with his crime must be silenced before he can feel safe. Mio and Miriamne are hopelessly entangled in this web of social injustice and human madness and for them there is but one moment of ecstatic communion before the staccato beat of the machine gun snaps their bonds.
Under almost any circumstances this would be a story of unusual dramatic power but Mr. Anderson has sought to make his contribution to the theatre by framing it in what he calls verse but which might more aptly be characterized as cadenced prose. Reactions to this device have been various and it is impossible from this example to judge of the possibilities of the verse technique in the modern drama. The verse of "Winterset" is not outstanding verse; its images are tired and unsatisfactorily Biblical. Mr. Anderson has attempted the epic and if he has fallen short of his goal he has certainly achieved a stimulating work of impressive stature.
In the difficult role of Mio Burgess Meredith plays with great skill and strength; Margo portrays Miriamne with gentle and compelling simplicity. Myron McCormick makes Trock a vivid incarnation of humanity reduced to the ruthless. Lee Baker as the broken judge and Austole Winogradoff as the some what Old Testament Esdras Pere contribute excellent characterizations.
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