Jerome Lawrence’s Big 100: A Celebration of the Individual
by Cecelia Bellomy
In an interview with Jerome Lawrence and long-time writing partner Robert E. Lee, conducted by head of Thompson Library Special Collections, Nena Couch, Lawrence quotes a line from John Donne’s famous poem, “No Man Is an Island.” “I am involved in mankind,” Lawrence recites, and it is clear from the legacy he has left behind on the 100th anniversary of his birth, that this author’s involvement with humanity has left an indelible stamp on the stage, screen, airwaves, and most importantly, the hearts and minds of multiple generations of theatregoers.
Jerome Lawrence “always wanted to be a writer,” as he confesses in the same interview for Studies in American Drama (Couch). Born Jerome Lawrence Schwartz, he grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. His father Samuel owned a printing press, his mother Sarah wrote poetry, and his sister Naomi was an actress. Based on their occupations alone, it is easy to see that Lawrence’s upbringing encouraged creative and intellectual expression.
He received a bachelor’s degree from the Ohio State University in 1937. While attending OSU, Lawrence was involved in many theatrical productions as an actor. He was also a writer for the student newspaper and the student radio station. He even published his first play during his undergraduate career: Laugh, God!, published in the timely Six Anti-Nazi One Act Plays (1939).
After graduating, Lawrence worked as the director of summer stock for multiple theatre companies, a reporter, and editor for multiple small-town newspapers and one radio station. It wasn’t until after earning a graduate degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, that Lawrence really began breaking into the writing world. He began working in New York and Los Angeles, writing for CBS and Paramount.
Though Lawrence and Lee were born and educated approximately thirty miles apart (Lee was born in Elyria, Ohio and attended Ohio Wesleyan University), and their similar careers writing for the radio brought them both to New York, the two men didn’t meet until January, 1942. Their partnership was immediate. They collaborated on several radio plays, the first of which, “Inside a Kid’s Head,” aired on the experimental Columbia Workshop. Lawrence and his partner Lee’s burgeoning writing careers were put on hold, however, as the partners turned their focus toward the War effort.
Lawrence and Lee became Expert Consultants to the Secretary of War during World War II and co-founded the Armed Forces Radio Service for which Lawrence was a correspondent in North Africa and Italy. Additionally, Lawrence and Lee wrote and directed official Army-Navy programs for D-Day, VE Day, and VJ Day.
After a few halting post-war years, the collaboration between Lawrence and Lee began to truly soar. The musical Look Ma, I’m Dancin’!, for which the duo wrote the book, opened in 1948 with good reception. Lawrence and Lee also continued collaborating regularly for the radio, writing “299 broadcasts of notable musical theatre works for the weekly series, The Railroad Hour” (Woods xiii). And that is just one program for which the pair wrote during this time.
It was during the next several years in which Lawrence, with Lee, wrote the plays and musicals for which he is still remembered today. The partners showed a true knack for versatility from the light-hearted comedy musical Mame (1966) to the serious, topical, straight drama, Inherit the Wind (1955), which used the famous Scopes Monkey Trial to address the individual’s right to think freely. Other famous plays and musicals written by the duo include Shangri-La (1956), The Gang’s All Here (1959), and First Monday in October (1975).
On their writing technique, the duo claimed they oftentimes could not remember who wrote what. They also employed a “UN veto” in which either had the power to veto a creative idea but only if the dissenter could come up with a better replacement.
Despite their critical success on Broadway, Lawrence and Lee co-founded the American Playwrights Theatre, based in Columbus, Ohio, to attempt to bypass the ever-more stringent rules and regulations of Broadway. By connecting new scripts by new writers to theatres outside New York, the APT was instrumental in the regional theatre movement of the second half of the twentieth century. Lawrence and Lee’s Vietnam War-commentary, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (1970), made its debut through APT.
In 1972, Lawrence and Lee wrote a play on the life of Columbus playwright and humorist James Thurber. Jabberwock: Improbabilities Lived and Imagined by James Thurber in the Fictional City of Columbus, Ohio premiered at the opening of the Thurber Theatre at Ohio State. The duo also founded the Margo Jones Award, now administered by OSU Libraries’ Lawrence and Lee Theatre Research Institute, to honor citizens-of-the-theatre who have demonstrated a significant impact, understanding, and affirmation of the craft of playwriting, with a lifetime commitment to the encouragement of the living theatre.
Though Jerome Lawrence is most known for his work with Robert E. Lee, he did some solo work throughout his career, including the play Live Spelled Backwards (1966) and the book Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni (1975).
Always interested in expanding theatre education for young people, Lawrence taught at universities across the country, including the University of Southern California. Lawrence passed away at the age of 88 on February 29th, 2004 from complications of a stroke.
Through his life, with the help of Lee, Jerome Lawrence encouraged people to think. Though his body of work is diverse in tone and content, one string stretches throughout—the power and importance of the individual. Throughout Lawrence’s life, from his upbringing in a creative home, to his commitment to expression during World War II, to his varied and provocative playwriting career, he has championed and proven the importance of individual expression for the person and their larger society. With his passing, the world lost a true individual, but on his 100th birthday, we celebrate the legacy he left behind in his work.
Couch, Nena. “An Interview with Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.”Studies in American Drama 7.1 (1992): 3-18. Web.
Woods, Alan. “General Introduction.” The Selected Plays of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Ed. Alan Woods. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1995. Ix-Xxiii. Print.