S.N. Behrman, the king of witty social comedies like “Biography” and “Second Marriage,” took a sharp turn with “No Time for Comedy” which premiered on April 17, 1939. Hailing from Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, Behrman was known for his insightful and often hilarious plays dissecting the lives of New York’s upper crust.

“No Time for Comedy” shattered expectations. The play starred the renowned Laurence Olivier as Gaylord Easterbrook (opposite Katharine Cornell), a successful Hollywood director wrestling with a script for a frothy comedy. Entertaining audiences was Easterbrook’s forte, but the world around him is on the brink of war. News of Nazi aggression in Europe casts a long shadow, forcing Easterbrook to confront the frivolity of his chosen profession. The play’s humor, once Behrman’s trademark, becomes laced with a sense of unease. Witty banter gives way to serious discussions about the purpose of art in a world facing catastrophe.

This tonal shift is deliberate and jarring. Imagine a scene where Easterbrook cracks a joke about a temperamental actress, only to be interrupted by a telegram detailing the horrors unfolding in Europe. The laughter dries up, replaced by a sense of impending doom. Behrman doesn’t shy away from this discomfort. He uses it to highlight the absurdity of clinging to normalcy when the world is falling apart.

The underlying seriousness of the play lies in its exploration of artistic responsibility. Can a director, in good conscience, churn out lighthearted fare while the world burns? Should art offer escape or act as a mirror reflecting the turmoil of the times? These questions resonate deeply with audiences, especially in our own era of social and political upheaval.

“No Time for Comedy” enjoyed a respectable run on Broadway, opening on April 17, 1939 and closing in June of the same year after 80 performances. Despite its shorter run compared to some of Behrman’s comedies, the play’s impact transcended box office numbers. It marked a turning point in Behrman’s career, showcasing his ability to tackle weighty themes without sacrificing his signature wit. More importantly, it sparked a conversation about the role of art in a world facing crisis, a conversation that continues to this day.

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