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You and I
“Must I ride two horses my whole life long?”
— Act II
Opportunity knocks but once, but what if two knock at the same time? Can we embrace one and forget the other? Must we regret the road not taken? And what if a jilted opportunity just happens to come around again?
In the 1923 comedy You and I, the first hit by Philip Barry’s, author of The Philadelphia Story, a comfortable but frustrated businessman has a chance to restart his life, and his attempt to chart a new course reveals what stuff his dreams are made of.
Working doggedly for a soap manufacturer, Maitland (Matey) White has built an enviable, secure, conventional life with his wife Nancy and their two children. Yet, at 43, he is haunted by dreams of an artistic career that he forswore at 20. Encouraged by Nancy and spurred by an encounter with a novelist friend who pursued his own gift to commercial success, Matey determines to take a leave from business and pick up a paintbrush. But when their gifted son Ricky determines to follow in his father’s footsteps, giving up his own ambitions so he may marry the girl next door, and when a turn in the markets squeezes the family's resources, Matey and Nancy must face decisions they thought they'd put behind them—this time, without the naïve confidence of their youth.
You and I is partly about an ideal of personal freedom. Father and son each face a clear choice between following their artistic ambitions and fulfilling their social obligations. Meanwhile, in the traditional roles allotted them by 1920’s Society, wife Nancy and fiancée Ronny confront a complementary choice: whether to sacrifice their personal desires for another’s happiness.
Behind each character’s dilemma is an earnest, youthful conviction: that each man has something grand in him, and failure to cultivate it is to ignore the call of destiny. Yet, in the end, resolution is granted by maturity, and it is not a fulfillment of childish dreams. Matey and Nancy, owning the fruits of their own youthful choices, negotiate their own and the children’s irreconcilable desires from the perspective of experience. The affirming and loving outcome—an unexpected sacrifice of a whole new order—is tragic even as it is elevating.
All that Glisters
Beyond its characters’ quandaries, the play is animated by larger questions of moment in the Jazz Age, an age of eager but anxious pursuit of material success and social status. The essential questions of the play are what to value and how to value it. The answers are complicated at best. Never cavalier about the need for a livelihood and the tenuous hold we may have on one, Barry doubts the worth of material success that is not fulfilling. Affirming the advantages of etiquette and decorum, he mocks affected social graces. Delighting in the love of well-matched spouses and admiring parents, he questions the paramount value of family. Celebrating creative expression, he impugns the merit of art that is merely marketable, handsome, or sentimental. In these conflicted allegiances, the play captures the spiritual confusion at the heart of American prosperity.
There are, however, implicit values that are never in doubt and that characterize the author’s particular optimism. Set within a moneyed class, You and I promotes an aristocracy based on traits that are independent of wealth, much as do Barry’s later comedies such as The Philadelphia Story and Holiday. Scholar Steve Vineberg names them: “wit, intelligence, education, culture, playfulness, liberality, flexibility and discrimination.”1 Barry made the distinction better than any throughout his works.
Meanwhile, the shadow that sets off his affirmation fits the era of You and I’s conception. Born the same year as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Barry was part of the so-called Lost Generation, even while he is not generally associated with its members. Having grown up to see his father’s once successful stone masonry business decline, he was well acquainted with the fragility of prosperity, and at 26, when he wrote You and I, he had witnessed two stock market crashes, the latest in 1919-21. Surging unemployment and violent labor unrest fueled the sense of instability that undermined the buoyant excess of the Roaring 20’s.
A soulful melancholy that runs through Barry’s apparently conventional comedies of manners reflects the era’s post-war doubt about the security and benignity of the world and its apparent order. He was a deeply inquisitive skeptic who showed conventionally successful people’s heartbreak, even as he infused them with brilliant wit and indomitable optimism.
You and I launched Barry's career. First called "The Jilts," the play took the Herndon Prize in George Pierce Baker's famous 47 Workshop at Harvard, securing it a Broadway production in 1923. Re-titled "You and I," the play ran 170 performances and was included in Burns Mantle's Best Play series.
Overlooked in the decades since, it shows us Barry as an idealist appraising the specter of failure. The questions and affirmations of the play are posed as only a young, gifted, and perspicacious writer can, and the youthful voice of the future master is more than a little part of You and I’s power as well as its charm. Those who know his later triumphs will hear his signature wit and distinctive articulation of the conflicts between creative spirit, social constraints, and pecuniary obligations. Every character is plainly drawn but engaged in a nuanced struggle to accept the intractable oppositions presented by life.
The play is a taste of a seminal writer’s early gift, a story of a family facing down disillusionment, and an affirmation of core values of character in defiance of compromises, temptations, and set-backs. As its bittersweet enthusiasms are particularly poignant in our own conflicted day, Metropolitan is delighted to offer You and I as the inaugural production of our 27th season, the Season of Perseverance.