I Never Sang for My Father | Encyclopedia.com (2024)

by Robert Anderson


A two-act play set in New York City and a town in Westchester County, New York, in the mid-1960s; written in 1966 and first performed in 1968.


An elderly father and son struggle with the deaths of their wives and their own lifelong animosity toward each other.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

The Play in Focus

For More Information

Born in New York in 1917, Robert Woodruff Anderson graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University before serving in the U.S. Navy. He afterward wrote radio and television scripts, taught playwriting, and endured the death of a wife before writing some of his best-known works. I Never Sang for My Father was originally conceived as a film script, and, after a brief Broadway run, it made its screen debut in 1970. At heart a drama about survival, I Never Sang for My Father pits father against son in the struggle to live independently in the face of death and aging. Reflected in the relationship are conflicting influences of the two characters’ times.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

Old West

Midway through Act 1 of I Never Sang for My Father, Gene Garrison, the hero, steps forward and addresses the audience, confiding to them his father’s lifelong addiction to television Westerns: “[W]e hurried through [dinner] to rush home to one of my Father’s rituals … [t]he television Western.... He would sit in front of them hour after hour … falling asleep in one and waking up in the middle of the next one … never knowing the difference …” (Anderson, I Never Sang for My Father, p. 19). The Western, always a popular American film genre, found a new home on television in the 1950s after falling out of favor somewhat among film audiences, who by then had come to prefer star-studded Hollywood extravaganzas.

On television the genre developed into the Western-themed series, whose shows differed from their film counterparts in several respects. Violence, for example, had to be kept to a minimum on television, and the characterization of the hero differed too. On film, the Western hero was a loner, an outcast, the mysterious stranger; on television, the hero was often a family man.

In the mid- to late 1960s, the most popular television Western series were Bonanza and Gunsmoke, both of which starred a distinctly paternal hero. Gunsmoke began as a radio drama in 1952 and appeared as a television series in 1955; within three years, 17 million homes tuned in weekly to the show, which ran until the early 1970s. Gunsmokes main character, Matt Dillon, is the heroic, paternal guardian of the town of which he is the marshal. Bonanza (1959-73),

which traces the fortunes of the Cartwright family and their Ponderosa ranch, located in Nevada near Lake Tahoe, is also at heart a family drama. Bonanza was headed by Pa (Ben) Cartwright, who governed the Ponderosa as well as his own three sons with intelligence and good-heartedness. The actor Lome Greene, who played Pa, suggested that it was this essential “happy family” quality that made Bonanza so successful: “The Cartwrights happen to be a family that other families want to be like. [Everybody] … wants to love and be loved. The Cartwrights love each other” (Greene in Parks, p. 149). In I Never Sang for My Father, the manipulative and sometimes cold father, Tom Garrison, ignores his real family to share in the fantasy family life proffered him by television Westerns.


The play’s Tom Garrison is a member of the Rotary Club International, a service club for businessmen (and later, businesswomen) and professionals. The Rotarians meet each week to discuss and implement community projects in education, citizenship, and social programs, as well as to participate on the international level in encouraging peace between nations. They are called “Rotarians” because originally their meetings would rotate between members’ places of business week by week. The first Rotary Club was started in 1905 by a Chicago lawyer named Paul Harris; today, the Rotary Club International has members in nearly every country in the world. In 1967, the Rotarians celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Rotary Foundation, a fund that was designed to promote understanding and friendship between people of different nations through charitable, educational, or otherwise philanthropic projects. At the time of the play, the Rotary Foundation sponsored overseas travel, study, and work for approximately 450 people per year.

The graying of America

It was in the 1960s that people started to take note of the general aging of American society; as one textbook on aging from 1960 notes, “there will soon be … almost 50 million of us beyond 50 years of age” (Tibbits and Donahue, p. xiv; original emphasis). Sociologists and economists began to speculate on the profound changes that a significant population of seniors might have on the American way of life—the changes, more specifically, that might transpire in employment patterns, pension benefits, recreational facilities, health care, and family life. Researchers recognized that American notions of social usefulness and status stem from roles as parents and breadwinners; when these roles are no longer serviceable, problems of identity and self-worth arise. I Never Sang for My Father dramatizes just such a crisis, as Tom Garrison struggles to maintain a sense of usefulness and dignity by insisting upon his role as father and provider to his children who no longer require such things of him. To further complicate matters of generational adjustment in America, a new burden of obligation began to settle upon the shoulders of the middle-aged (represented in the play by the characters Gene Garrison and his sister Alice), who suddenly were going to be responsible not just for children and their welfare, but also for the welfare of parents who could now be expected to live perhaps twenty-five years beyond retirement.

Golden years?

In I Never Sang for My Father, it is not just the father-son relationship between Tom and Gene that has broken down, but also in many respects the marital relationship between the older Garrisons themselves. Tom’s wife, Margaret, reflects sadly on the fact that she was often abandoned for a golf game or Tom’s buddies, or an entertaining television show. Many sociologists in the 1960s and early 1970s suggested that such a deterioration in the perceived quality of marriage was not uncommon among older couples. A study conducted in 1960 of just over nine hundred women in Detroit, for example, showed that less than 10 percent of them were satisfied with their marriages twenty years into them, and that couples still married after the retirement of the husband were especially unfulfilled. The researchers pointed at the husband’s loss of power and sense of identity following his retirement as a major cause of marital discontent.

Generation gap

The conflict between the father and children in Anderson’s play can be traced at least in part to shifting tendencies in the nation as a whole. In the play the father expels his daughter from the family for marrying a Jewish man. His anti-Semitism is a holdover from previous decades rather than a typical attitude of the 1960s era in which the play is set. In fact, anti-Semitism in the United States diminished in the 1950s and early 1960s, and relations between Christians and Jews improved. This was partially a result of sympathies for the survivors and victims of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s effort to eliminate Europe’s Jewish population through systematic murder during World War II.

Occupational barriers to hiring Jews in various businesses began to disappear in the 1950s, a trend that continued into the next decade. At the same time, the overt social discrimination by which Jews were excluded from certain resort areas and so-called “restricted” (non-Jewish) neighborhoods also began to decrease. Jews started moving to suburbs that had formerly been closed to them. However, social discrimination lingered in some areas and in the attitudes of people like the play’s Tom Garrison. In real life, some employment agencies continued to write “no Jews” on job applications, and a number of private housing developments still refused to sell to Jews. Behind such policies was a stubborn set of Christian-biased prejudices dating back to medieval times that regarded Jews as untrustworthy outsiders.


One of the compelling features of television’s Bonanza is the sense of security and calm offered by the Cartwright family’s Nevada homestead, the Ponderosa. Regardless of what might be taking place in the real world, at the Ponderosa there is security, peace, and tradition. This sense of calm must have been reassuring to Americans made anxious by the urban sprawl and inner-city problems that rose to new heights in the 1960s. One writer compares the two environments: “The Cartwright ranch is surrounded by a world of chicanery, violence, and treachery in almost the way the harmonious American middle-class suburb is threatened by the explosive forces of the expanding city. But the cohesiveness, mutual loyalty, and homogeneous adjustment of the Cartwright family always turns out to be capable of throwing back, or blunting the edge of, the invading forces” (Cawelti, p. 76). In Anderson’s Never Sang for My Father, the once-quiet New York town of which the father was formerly the mayor has degenerated into a grimy urban landscape. The sense of decay and loss that Tom expresses over and over again may also explain his fascination with the Western dramas played out on his television.

Tom Garrison, the father, who grew up in an environment less accepting of Jews than the one in the play, may have been influenced by anti-Semitic views more common in his youth. His daughter, on the other hand, a product of the newly tolerant post-World War II era, goes so far as to break the ultimate social barrier by marrying a Jew. Along with changing prejudices, attitudes in the play reflect newer thinking about the role of the American family. The 1960s was a decade of rebellion in which notions about the ideal family—breadwinner father, mother, and dutiful children—were called into question and self-fulfillment became a major concern.

Even in the early 1960s, marriage and family ties were regarded by the “human potential movement” as potential threats to individual fulfillment as a man or a woman. The highest forms of human needs, contended proponents of the new psychologies, were autonomy, independence, growth, and creativity, all of which could be thwarted by “existing relationships and interactions.”

(Mintz and Kellog, p. 206)

In the play Tom’s forty-year-old son refuses to sacrifice his own desires—to marry and move to California—for the sake of his father. Yet, having grown up in an earlier era, when the family still took priority over the individual, he nevertheless feels tempted to step into the self-sacrificing role of the dutiful son who gives up his own happiness to please his father.

The Play in Focus

The plot

Act 1 opens at a train station, where forty-year-old Gene Garrison has come to pick up his aging parents, Tom Garrison (nearly eighty) and Margaret Garrison (seventy-eight) who have returned from Florida to their New York State home. Tom is a domineering man who believes that he is the only one who has a sense of what is really happening around him; he has a terrible cough, is more or less deaf, and obviously ill. He feels concerned for his wife rather than himself, however; she needs a wheelchair from time to time and has a bad heart.

The three go out to Westchester County, to the once-elegant town where Gene’s parents live that has become part of the urban blight surrounding New York City. Tom tells Gene that he and Gene’s mother are a little upset that Gene has been seeing a woman in California, only one year after his wife, Carol, has died. They are worried that Gene will move out to the West, which would break his mother’s heart. The three of them eat dinner at a local restaurant, where the men have a little argument about who will pay for the meal. Gene is on sabbatical from his teaching job and his father wants to pay for his own dinner rather than accept the night out as a gift from his son.

It becomes clear that money is a point of tension in the family—Tom has been reluctant to see a doctor in Florida because he is certain that he will be overcharged; he has his diamond ring appraised habitually, and orders dinner according to what is cheapest on the menu. His wife accuses him of being interested only in watching Westerns on television and of rehashing his own tragic childhood over and over again. Tom’s father abandoned the family when Tom was nine; a year later, when his mother died, the father showed up drunk at the funeral. Tom threw his father out and continued to hate him vehemently right up until the old man died of alcoholism. The memories kill Tom’s appetite and he starts flirting with the Irish waitress, another old habit, which irritates Margaret. They leave the restaurant in a rush so that Tom can get home in time to catch a Western on TV that night.

Gene’s mother recalls memories from their life together, praising Gene for being so attentive to her at parties when Tom was off dancing and carousing with other people. She abruptly brings up the subject of the California woman whom Gene now loves. Contrary to what Tom has suggested, Margaret encourages Gene to take the big step into another marriage, and, with considerable embarrassment, the two talk obliquely about sex and whether or not they have been happy in their marriages. Margaret impresses upon Gene how grateful she is to have had such a good son and hopes that she has been a good mother. She also tries to impress upon her son what a good father Tom has been, a subject that the two have addressed countless times before. Gene clearly remains unconvinced, but his mother continues in this vein. She confides that Tom makes a great fuss about his relationship with his son, boasting that the two are very close. This stretching of the truth saddens Gene. As he prepares to leave them to return home, Margaret tells her son to go ahead and marry in California; she and Tom will be fine together and they can all keep in touch over the phone. Tom, however, reiterates his earlier statement, that Gene’s move west would surely kill his mother.

As he leaves, Gene reminisces about his father’s controlling nature, which manifested itself most devastatingly in his expulsion from the family of Gene’s sister Alice for marrying a Jew. When Gene arrives home, his father telephones him with some bad news—Margaret has had a heart attack and is in the hospital. The two men visit her the next day but do not stay long, since she needs rest. They eat some supper at the Rotary Club to which Tom belongs and have an argument about whether or not Gene should spend the night with his father or go back home. Gene insists on going home, but Tom makes him feel guilty for wanting to do so. They part on awkward terms and, the next morning, Gene learns his mother has died.

Act 2 opens with Gene in conversation with Dr. Mayberry, his parents’ physician, who tells him frankly that his father should not be living alone. Gene takes his sedated father to talk to Mr. Scott, the mortician, and the two of them wander through a showroom of coffins. Gene is agitated by his father’s businesslike analysis of costs and expenses. Tom quibbles with the mortician over how much coffins cost and how well they stand up to things like seepage and intrusive tree roots. At one point Tom comes to stand before a tiny child’s coffin, which brings back his mother’s funeral—she was “a little bit of a thing”—and he rehashes the old story of throwing his father out at her funeral (I Never Sang for My Father, p. 40). Finally he settles on the coffin he wants—making sure that the tax is included in the price tag.

The action shifts to a bar where Gene is sharing a few drinks with his older sister Alice. The two of them discuss their father, his sterling reputation in the town, and also his selfishness; Gene also acknowledges that his father’s famous fighting edge, though dulled, remains a part of the deaf, forgetful old man’s character:

Still, wait till you see him. There’s something that comes through … the old Tiger. Something that reaches you and makes you want to cry.... He’ll probably be asleep when we get home, in front of television. And you’ll see. The Old Man … the Father. But then he wakes up and becomes Tom Garrison.

(I Never Sang for My Father, p. 43)

The scene shifts to the graveyard, in which Margaret has just been laid to rest in the family plot where Carol, Gene’s wife, was buried a year earlier. Irate, Tom walks away, to find the caretaker and complain about the state in which the plot is being kept. Gene and Alice discuss what to do as a memorial for their mother, and also what to do about their father, who clearly should not be left alone, but who, equally clearly, cannot come to live with either of his children. Alice sees her father as a selfish old man who neglected their mother, beat Gene, and threw her out of the house because of her choice of spouse. His frailty does not wring much compassion from her, but for Gene matters are more complicated. He feels an enduring sense of obligation and guilt because his father has done well for the family, and because he has never been able to love the old man.

The two later broach the idea of getting a live-in housekeeper for Tom, but he resists, insisting that Gene can look in on him a couple of times a week. Tom still refuses to understand that Gene wants to move to California, or to acknowledge that his own health is so bad that he might need constant supervision. The three of them have a terrible fight, in which Tom’s hatred and jealousy of his children appears nakedly. He hates their freedom and independence. Alice bluntly tells Tom that Gene wants to move away and Tom receives the news with chilly sarcasm, insisting that he doesn’t want to ruin anyone’s life. After the old man has left the room, Alice remarks that he already has ruined people’s lives and that if Gene is smart he’ll cut himself loose from the weird bonds of guilt and compulsion that tie him to his ungrateful father. Gene and Alice reconcile before she leaves; he knows that what she says is true, that the image of the eternally bereaved husband and the dutiful son—and the pull to live up to it—is hard to overcome.

Alone again, Gene goes to his father’s bedroom, where the old man kneels and prays, as he does every night. The two men share some tender moments as the father reveals that he has saved a drawerful of keepsakes from Gene’s childhood, including a Glee Club program. Tom remembers that he was always coming into rooms just in time to hear Gene finish singing (hence the title of the play). Gene is softened sufficiently that he invites his father to move to California to live near him and Peggy, his fiancée. Tom refuses, preferring that Peggy and her children move into Tom’s house and they all live together. Gene refuses this option and Tom’s tone becomes chilly; he informs his son that from this moment on he can consider his father dead and never bother another second about him. Gene leaves, never to return, with his father screaming “GO TO HELL” behind him (I Never Sang for My Father, p. 62). At the end of the play, Gene tells the audience that his father did come to California and had to be put into a hospital there because of his hardening arteries and the onset of senility. The play closes with the sight of Tom in a wheelchair, as Gene states that his father died watching television:

Death ends a life … but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind … towards some resolution which it never finds. Alice said I would not accept the sadness of the world.... What did it matter if I never loved him, or if he never loved me? … Perhaps she was right.... But, still, when l hear the word Father.... It matters.

(I Never Sang for My Father, p. 62)


“’[G]o through [obstacles] or over them, but never around them.’ Teddy Roosevelt said that, I took it down in shorthand for practice.... Any young man in this country, who has a sound mind and a sound body, who will set himself an objective, can achieve anything he wants within reason” (I Never Sang for My Father, p. 38). Teddy Roosevelt is one of Tom Garrison’s heroes, a model of behavior to which the old man has clung for his whole life. During Roosevelt’s presidency (1901-1908), the United States enjoyed unparalleled prosperity and the comfort of living under a president who was a hero, a social reformer, and an inspired motivational speaker to boot. More to the play’s point, however, Theodore Roosevelt—an intellectual from a wealthy and powerful Eastern family—was indelibly associated with the lure of the West in America’s imagination. In 1884, after the death of his wife and a major political disappointment, Roosevelt packed up and moved to the Dakota Territory, to try and prosper in the burgeoning beef industry there. He wrote three books about his experiences, books that were to a large extent responsible for the creation of the “Old West” myth of rugged individualism and vast open spaces that became part of American popular culture. Naturalist notes on bighorn sheep, tips on hunting grizzly, and character sketches of the wild and wonderful people that Roosevelt encountered made his books immensely popular. He also wrote a four-volume series called The Winning of the West. Upon his return to New York City, he ran for mayor. The “Cowboy Candidate,” as he was popularly known, experienced a sound defeat in that particular election, but he would, of course, rise eventually to the presidency.


I Never Sang for My Father began as a film script entitled The Tiger, which was completed in the summer of 1962. It was then sent upon a convoluted journey in an attempt to bring it to stage or screen, a process so arduous it seemed unlikely to ever see production. Anderson first offered the film script to Fred Zinneman, who praised it and stated that he would love to work on the movie as long as Spencer Tracy would play the role of Tom Garrison. Tracy declined the offer and meanwhile another director, Elia Kazan, expressed the desire to perform The Tiger as a play. Months passed, and Kazan finally admitted that he could find no suitable actor to take on the difficult part of the bitter old man. Producer after producer turned down the play—now entitled I Never Sang for My Father—and then, in a climactic moment of confusion and competition, Anderson had two offers at the same time. It turned out that Spencer Tracy would do the movie after all, on television, and could probably be counted on to bring Katherine Hepburn along with him to play the role of the mother. Simultaneously, another television producer, who had never done any performance on Broadway, expressed an interest in attempting the play in the theaters. Just as Anderson gave permission for the Tracy-Hepburn production, Zinneman called to say that CBS found the play too grim and that they wouldn’t run it after all. Finally, on January 25, 1968, almost six years after the original script was finished, I Never Sang for My Father made its debut with a different cast at the Longacre Theatre in New York City. On the success of the play, a Hollywood production was launched; the film version premiered in 1970, starring Gene Hackman as Gene, and Melvyn Douglas as Tom.


I Never Sang for My Father ran for a mere 124 performances as a stage play in New York, then went to London where it was hoped it would fare better. Clive Barnes reviewed the play in the New York Times, commenting that “the poignancy of the situation, real enough and believable in all conscience, is constantly betrayed by the over-obviousness and sentimentality of the writing” (Barnes in MacNicholas, p. 43). One of the reviewers in London called it “sensitive, intelligent, patently honest—and very stale and familiar”; “we have met these people before,” said another (Adler, p. 133). Still I Never Sang for My Father was held by some to be one of the best Broadway plays of the season: “[N]ot only a powerful experience of theatre, it was also a triumph of American playwriting combined with Broadway stagecraft” (Guernsey, p. 20). In 1970 Anderson won the Writers Guild of America Award for the screenplay, which he adapted from the stage version of 1968.

For More Information

Adler, Thomas P. Robert Anderson. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Anderson, Robert. I Never Sang for My Father. New York: Dramatists’ Play Service, 1968.

Brubaker, Timothy H., ed. Family Relationships in Later Life. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1983.

Cawelti, John G. “The Gunfighter and Society.” The American West 5, no. 2 (March 1968), 30-5, 76-7.

Guernsey, Otis L., Jr., ed. The Best Plays of 1967-68. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1968.

MacNicholas, John. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 7. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.

Miller, Nathan. Theodore Roosevelt: A Life. New York: William Morrow, 1992.

Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellog. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: Free Press, 1988.

Parks, Rita. The Western Hero in Film and Television. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982.

Tibbits, Clark, and Wilma Donahue, eds. Aging in Today’s Society. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1960.

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