Staging the Politics and Popular Appeal of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”

Katherine Anne Porter’s story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” – the titular story of Porter’s 1939 collection – was written on the eve of World War II, but the focus of the story is the last few months of the first World War. Porter was actively involved in political discourse and social protests throughout her life – notably, Porter participated in the protests against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti – but her political positions changed. Janis Stout notes, “The scholar who seeks to construct an account of her [Porter’s] political and social views is well advised to resist the urge to find, or to impose, an undue coherence.” Despite the shifts in Porter’s political thinking, scholars like Janis Stout and Darlene Harbour Unrue argue for the importance of understanding the radical politics of Porter’s literary circle, as well as the political turbulence during her career and lifetime, in reading and engaging with her work. Stout suggests that if we read the views outlined in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” as Porter’s own “testimony” – Miranda’s critique of World War I, the senselessness of the violence of war, the manipulation of the Liberty Bond system – we can see Porter as “fresh from the scene of a powerful experience in dissent.” If we view Porter’s story, like Stout, as her testimony critiquing war and United States’ political agenda, what then might a McCarthy-era experimental off-Broadway adaptation make of this source material? How can we read Porter’s response to this particular adaptation of her story?

Porter was disappointed with F. W. Durkee’s 1956 television adaptation of her story, as outlined in the previous post in this series, but she was thrilled the following year, when the off-Broadway production of the stage adaptation premiered. Porter was aware of the difference between her own reaction to the play and that of the critics, as she wrote to David Locher:

Did I tell you that my story Pale Horse, Pale Rider, has been made into an experimental play and is now running off-Broadway, and has had not altogether counting pre-views, twenty-nine performances as of tonight. The critics didn’t like it but somebody does, because the people keep coming in, and my friends seem to love it, and I saw it twice and thought it most impressively done, and such old pros as the critic on Variety, and Tennessee Williams, and William Saroyan and my dear friend Robert Penn Warren rushed to the rescue and are being quoted in the advertisements. So it goes on, but I think it will not last very much longer, the audience for that sort of thing is limited, and nobody expected it to go as far as it has! (30 December 1957)

Unrue, Darlene Harbour, ed. Selected Letters of Katherine Anne Porter: Chronicles of a Modern Woman. University Press of Mississippi, 2012. pg. 259.

Porter keeps track of the reviews of the play in her correspondence, and she also created a scrapbook of various reviews and coverage of the play, including both positive and negative press.

Porter saved a clipping of Frank Aston’s December 10, 1957 review for the New York World Herald, in which he writes: “Miss Porter speaks of the futility of war, of hypocrisy bred by war, of the appeal war extends to silly women… Everyone [the actors] does all right but shouldn’t have been implicated to begin with in this unfortunate canter of enthusiasm.” Though Aston critiques the overzealous acting, he accurately assess the heart of the play’s critique of war and propaganda, of hypocrisy in wartime, in the midst of the rampant propaganda of McCarthyism.

Porter collected her share of published reviews in the scrapbook, but she also received personal testimony. A few months into the off-Broadway production’s run, Porter’s friend and later agent, Cyrilly Abels, arranged for some of her staff members at Mademoiselle magazine to see the play. Abels forwarded multiple personal notes of thanks and praise for the play to Porter, whose letter to Abels in return expresses her delight at the varied responses to the play, with particular praise for Suzanne Wile’s letter.

Suzanne Wile, an employee at Mademoiselle, notes that the stage adaptation of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” captured “popular appeal,” even as it differed from “ordinary Twentieth Century stage-presentation…” as it:

required a type of theatrical – and literary – appreciation a little different from the ordinary demands (or lack of them) of the successful plays–… for Pale Horse the ability to be absorbed in the fundamentals of life with the aid of  a high–or unfettered–imagination. It demanded a different use of the imagination than that which the theater normally requires, and evidently the critics felt that the popular audience was not up to it.


Suzanne Wile to Cyrilly Abels, 13 January 1958.

Porter was very pleased with Wile’s note, writing to Abels that “If you [at the magazine] ever put in a theatre department, give it to her!” Porter’s enthusiastic approval of Wile’s reading of the play suggests that her happiness with the stage adaptation could lie in part in its ability to challenge the imagination to examine the everyday intrusion of war into life beyond the battlefield, which the story forces readers to do as it intimately reveals the consequences of militarism and critiques of propaganda. What is the disconnect between the critics’ reviews and Wile’s experience, then? How might the play’s rendering of the everyday futility of war differ from the short story’s, while still retaining a recognizable critique of the hypocrisy, the futility of war?

The different adaptations, from stage to television, suggest that there is some ineffable quality about Porter’s story – even Tennessee Williams notes in his review of the play, which was subsequently blurbed in advertisements for the production, that he was “haunted” by the performance. Part of the long-lived success of the story, the motivation for the adaptations, is its relentless questioning of the forces that characterize American political life. What is war, but a chance to sell bonds, or a blunt reminder of the capacity for violence? Porter’s critique of American politics and militarism resonates to the present day, as a recent Literary Hub article argues that contemporary readers stand to gain from Porter’s ability to describe World War I-era “fake news,” and the uncanny resonance of her critique of national propaganda in today’s current moment. But, as Suzanne Wile suggests in the note that so impressed Porter, the draw of Porter’s story is how it explores the toll of war in the everyday, as the forces of war and influenza work hand in hand to separate the story’s young lovers. Even Porter’s sister Gay was pulled to lightly underline in pencil one of the last lines of the story, from Miranda’s internal narrative after her recovery, when she learns that Adam has died:

Adam, she said, now you need not die again, but still I wish you were here; I wish you had come back, what do you think I came back for, Adam, to be deceived like this?

Gay Porter Holloway’s inscribed edition of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, (1939). Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

Adam did not die in battle, and the war ended without him just the same. As Porter’s collection turns eighty years old this year and the story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” reaches its eighty-first anniversary, it’s worth reflecting on why this story continues to haunt us. The story has been absent in recent years from American television screens and theater stages, but it resurfaces in syllabi and essays online. It is no surprise that this story – haunting as it is – returns to us in conversation with the current political discourse, as we continue to accumulate the dust of wars and ponder how little dazed silence has transpired between each war, each everyday death that has filled these eighty years since.


Jeannette Schollaert is a graduate assistant in Special Collections and University Archives who works with the Katherine Anne Porter Correspondence Project. There, she assists with compiling and organizing metadata and contributing to the Project’s online exhibitions. She is pursuing a PhD in English, and her research focuses on twentieth century American writers, feminist theory, and ecocriticism.

[1] Stout, Janis. “‘Something of a Reputation as a Radical’: Katherine Anne Porter’s Shifting Politics.” South Central Review, vol. 10, no. 1, 1993, pp. 49-66.

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