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Love Life and Married Life in the 1940s

© 2020 by Joel Galand. All rights reserved.

By Joel Galand

One reasonably prominent sociologist of the day, David Fulcomer, thought Love Life was spot on.  Here he is writing to Weill:

[Love Life] presents in a very accurate way…the theme of a very prevalent and important problem of American life….The artistic sense with which important points in the theme are made is truly outstanding, in my estimation. The only discouraging thing about it to me is that I am afraid that it will be so good, so subtle, and yet so to-the-point that many people will miss it and others will dislike it.[1]

The sociological aspects of the work that sparked Fulcomer’s interest suggest adopting a broader, cultural perspective when assessing Love Life’s reception. As Kim Kowalke has observed:

[Love Life] challenged rather than affirmed traditional values. Its premise that free enterprise and personal ambition had caused the American dream to self-destruct would not appeal to a postwar audience snatching up Dr. Spock’s first books and magazines featuring Norman Rockwell covers. Divorce, disillusion, disenchantment, and the show’s acidic argument lost it public favor in the rosy glow of post-World War II America.[2]

The thing is, when audiences resist a work of art—provided it is not truly poor—it may be gesturing towards some uncomfortable truths. Musicals during the war and its aftermath had mostly steered clear of the politically engaged theater that had emerged in the 1930s, Finian’s Rainbow being something of an exception. Adjectives like “sour” and “acid” abound in the reviews from Love Life’s original production. When Theatre Arts (January 1949) dubbed it “a Kinsey Report in a lace-paper binding,” it was not a compliment. The quip suggests that although its subject matter transcended the horizon of expectations for a musical play and was to that extent ahead of its time, Love Life was also timely (an “untimely meditation,” as Nietzsche might have put it). For those same postwar years saw an idealization of the nuclear family, reflected in academic and popular culture alike. In the “Radio Night” sketch, the Coopers’ radio has broken down because they failed to maintain it; they were saving for a television set. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet premiered on ABC exactly four years after Love Life opened. An unrealistic image of the nuclear family, embedded in aspic by this and many similar shows, informs American expectations of family life even today, and it provides a context for Love Life.

                Weill and Lerner’s Magician returns the Coopers to a society on the verge of industrialization, a Connecticut in which furniture shops are still domestic enterprises. Sam and Susan look back on this time as a point of perfection: “We had it then.” But the pre-industrial marriage, as Weill and Lerner present it, already displays trappings of the love-based marriage that capitalism itself would at once produce and make difficult to sustain. On the one hand, as market production separated from household production and outside wages allowed the male to provide solely for his family, marriage came to depend less on economic bonds and more on affective ones. On the other, companionate marriages based primarily on emotional compatibility were easier to leave. By placing a premium on individual desire, the love-based marriage contained the seeds of its own dissolution. These ideas were being bandied about around the time Lerner came up with his concept. It was certainly how Joseph Schumpeter, the economist and one-time Austrian Finance Minister who taught at Harvard (Lerner’s alma mater) from 1932 until 1949, viewed things. For Schumpeter, the decline of the family was a touchstone example of capitalism’s “creative destruction”:

To men and women in  modern capitalist societies, family life and parenthood mean less than they had before and hence are less powerful molders of behavior….As soon as men and women learn the utilitarian lesson and refuse to take for granted the traditional arrangements that their social environment makes for them, as soon as they acquire the habit of weighing the individual advantages and disadvantages of any prospective course of action—or, as we might also put it, as soon as they introduce into their private life a sort of inarticulate system of cost accounting.[3]

And so, following the “disintegration of the bourgeois family,” a “different kind of homo oeconomicus” emerged (160). The love-based marriage, in a grim dialectic, was a consequence of those same economic forces that gradually undo it over the course of Love Life. Elia Kazan seems to have understood this, for in his marginal notes on his copy of the script, he comments that the 1821 scene, with industrialization already underway, actually marks “the high moment of their love together,” and not the earlier, pre-industrial scene.  “In scene 2 [i.e., 1791] they are not aware of being in love…. They are simply necessary to each other.”[4] Schumpeter’s point exactly!

                Love Life resonates with an emerging consensus among professional economists and sociologists in the years surrounding its premiere, with writers on both left and right making similar points about the American family’s decline. Leftists tended to blame capitalism. Others (of the conservative Chicago School, for example) blamed social change, especially urbanism and the concomitant loss of traditional communities like Mayville.[5] Marriages faced additional challenges when the couple’s relationship alone had to provide the sense of purpose and satisfaction formerly assumed by communal ties, extended kinship, and domestic production. Lerner and Weill lean leftward in regarding social change as supervening on economic circumstances (e.g., urbanism and women’s suffrage both somehow resulting from the decline of domestic industry). To be sure, in the first two sketches, Weill and Lerner show the Coopers enmeshed in a community, and that sense of belonging to a larger social order dissipates over the course of the show. Still, even in the early scenes, they focus on the couple. In “I Remember It Well,” details are forgotten, the one certainty being that “I did love you so.” The model family appears to be the nuclear one, bound primarily by the faintly eroticized, companionate marriage—in short, the post-war ideal in which men were the sole economic providers and women faced the challenging, and often unfulfilling, dual roles of nurturing mother and wife-mistress. That is perhaps why Lee Newton of the leftist Daily Worker thought that “Mr. Lerner’s main points [are] strictly from MGM and MC—Metro-Goldwyn Mayer and Male Chauvinism.”[6]

                This vision of the family came at a cost, especially for women who, having joined the work force during the war years, now found themselves pressured to renounce their recently acquired independence. No wonder Susan Cooper feels “sawn in half!”  When Sam, whose daughter has shamed him for having a working wife, angrily tells Susan, “You don’t have to work and you know it,” she bitterly replies, “Oh! Now I don’t have to! A couple of years ago, they said it was patriotic.”[7]  By 1948, Susan Cooper would have been among the mere 17% of married women who were still employed. Public opinion about employed wives had shifted. In January 1947, Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg published Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, where they attacked the notion of the independent working woman; women seeking employment equality were guilty of nothing less than the symbolic “castration” of their husbands.[8]  Modern Woman quickly became a best-seller, widely cited in the popular press. One theater critic even felt compelled to reassure readers that Farnham and Lundberg did not have a hand in Love Life’s script![9]  But they may have indirectly, since their ideas were in the air, whether or not Lerner read their book. Love Life’s protagonists share these anxieties: the men in “The Locker Room” are afraid of their working wives, and also apparently unable to perform with them as well:

We’re the sexiest men you can find
But all of it’s here in the mind.
With our own wedded mate
Our average is naught.
But, boy, are we great
With women we’ve bought!
We’re the sexiest men women know.
We pay them to say it is so.

In his annotated script, Kazan even suggested that Middleton play up the gender inversion in the modern apartment scene, after Susan comes home from work: “He stands in apron holding coffee as she bawls him out! Like scolding a servant! [He] wants to chatter like a woman…should remind audience of wives.”[10]

                According to Lundberg and Farnham, women were relatively fulfilled when industry was home-based, and they had a more direct economic role to play. They lost their bearings when men went off to work and home became merely a place to raise children, eat and sleep. They become unbalanced and sought outlets as feminists and suffragists.  “Mother’s getting Nervous,” indeed!  In the trapeze act that precedes and (in hindsight) serves as a commentary number for Susan’s suffragette scene, three tots sing about Mother’s nervousness and boredom.  The trapeze artist represents Mother:  she’s “up in the air” in a “world of her own,” they sing—on top of everything else she is undersexed. Mother will need an outlet for all those pent-up urges.  The trapeze artist’s last stunt tells us what that outlet will be. While swinging, she opens a large book: Susan B. Anthony’s Women’s Rights. In the following sketch, Susan’s “Women’s Club Blues” continues to treat women’s suffrage as a substitute for marital satisfaction:

I toss and turn in bed alone at night,
My body aching for the right
To vote….

I’ve got an urge, a powerful urge
For someone to squeeze me,
For someone to squeeze me in line at the polls.
I’ve got a desire, a mounting desire
For someone to seize me,
And make me free and equal as a male!
I’m sick of my domestic jail!

The saucy humor depends on techniques like enjambment (“My body aching for the right/to vote”); Fabray recalled making a special effort not to make the song sound not “too dirty.”[11]

                Like Farnham and Lunderberg, Lerner and Weill seem to suggest that the female’s search for parity with the male arises from psychological maladjustment (shades of Lady in the Dark). Indeed, Susan’s words in the opening Magic Act about being sawed in half are practically a gloss on Like Farnham and Lunderberg’s summary of “Women Today”:

But no matter how great a woman’s masculine strivings, her basic needs make themselves felt and she finds herself facing her fundamental role as wife and mother with a divided mind…. Thus she stands, Janus-faced, drawn in two directions at once, often incapable of ultimate choice and inevitably penalized, whatever direction she chooses. (241)

                The most dated aspect of Love Life is surely that it seems to draw—directly or indirectly—on theories that seem misogynistic from today’s perspective. But Sam doesn’t come off any better. The song “My Kind of Night,” which frames Susan’s “Women’s Club” number, shows Sam as the very picture of the self-satisfied, mid-level businessman, contentedly puffing on his pipe as he sings about the “Nicest little fam’ly a fellow ever had.” But when the kids actually show up, craving his attention, he sends them off for ice cream. (“Tomorrow, Johnny. I want to relax tonight.”)  Lundberg and Farnham describe the overworked, undersexed, “wayward male,” in almost the same terms that Kazan characterized Sam the businessman in his marginal notes: “No connection now at all.  He finds his only peace in ‘nature’ and he needs ‘peace’ now, not love. The kids are wandering around unconnected too.”

                The critic for the Wall Street Journal offered an unusually lucid summary of the show: “The Coopers are shown breaking up housekeeping under dismally convincing circumstances….The reconciliation was on the sound note of skepticism, reversing the normal musical comedy formula, a point very much in its favor.”[12]  Ultimately, Love Life may have been too “dismally convincing” for comfort. After all, many audience members had surely fallen off tightropes of their own.

[1] This letter is transcribed, without a date, in a typescript located in the David Drew Collection, housed in the Weill-Lenya Research Center. The original has not been located.

[2] From the article, “Today’s Invention, Tomorrow’s Cliché,” p. 183

[3] Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1950), 157. First published 1942. Schumpeter was no Marxist, but some of what he writes echoes Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).

[4] Kazan’s annotated script is housed in the Wesleyan Cinema Archives (Wesleyan University), Elia Kazan Papers, Box 18, Folder 7. The annotation cited here is on the recto of an inserted sheet, on which Kazan typed up ideas about the various scenes.

[5] For a summary of the Chicago School’s and other sociological approaches to the American family in the postwar years, see Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992). A Chicago School analysis of the family came out shortly before Love Life: Ernest Burgess and Harvey Locke, The Family: From Institution to Companionship (New York: American Book Company, 1945). The very title says it all!

[6] 12 October 1948.

[7] This dialogue was performed during tryouts, as part of a sketch, “A Ticket to the Fight,” that was replaced in New York by the two sketches “Radio Night” and “Farewell Again.”

[8] Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia Farnham, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (New York: Harper & Bros., 1947). Lundberg was a sociologist and Farnham, a psychiatrist associated with the New York Psychiatric Institute.

[9] John Beaufort, Christian Science Monitor, 16 October 1948.

[10] Post-war attitudes about impotence are explored in chapter 8 of Angus McLaren, Impotence: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[11] Nanette Fabray, transcript of oral history interview with Peggy Sherry, 1 October 1991, Weill-Lenya Research Center, Ser.60, 2.

[12] Richard P. Cooke, “Great Goings On,” Wall Street Journal (11 October 1948).

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