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Theatre History Podcast # 34

Dr. Mary Chinery and Dr. Laura Rattray on Edith Wharton’s The Shadow of a Doubt



Did you know that novelist Edith Wharton was also a playwright? Dr. Mary Chinery and Dr. Laura Rattray join us this week to talk about her work for the theatre, in particular her play The Shadow of a Doubt, which had languished in obscurity after it failed to make it to Broadway at the turn of the twentieth century. Thanks to Laura and Mary’s work, it’s now back in the public consciousness.


title page
Title page of Edith Wharton’s typescript draft of "The Shadow of a Doubt,” 1901. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.
character list
Character list for Edith Wharton's typescript draft of "The Shadow of a Doubt,” 1901. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.

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Michael Lueger: The Theatre History Podcast is supported by HowlRound. The knowledge commons by and for the theatre community. It's available on iTunes and HowlRound.com.

 Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast, I'm Mike Lueger. You might be familiar with the novels of Edith Wharton, but you probably don't think of her as a playwright. I certainly didn't until I heard about a play of hers in the special collections of the Harry Ransom center at The University of Texas, Austin. Today we're joined by Dr. Laura Rattray, whose a reader in American Literature at The University of Glasgow, and Dr. Mary Chinery, whose a Professor of English at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, New Jersey. Together, they brought the manuscript of Wharton's play entitled The Shadow Of A Doubt back into the public consciousness. Laura and Mary, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Laura Rattray: Thank you, Mike!

Dr. Mary Chinery: Thank you, Mike!

Michael: Can you tell us more about Wharton's career as a playwright? How did she relate to the theatrical environment of the time?

Laura: It's a great question isn't it Mary? And you're right of course Mike, when we think of Edith Wharton we don't think of the plays, we don't think of the theatre, we think of novels like The Age of Innocence, with which she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. We think of The Custom of the Country, The House of Mirth, that high school staple Ethan Frome, although often important scenes in her novels are set in the theatre, but the fact is that both Mary and I would agree that Wharton was also a playwright, and we don't talk about it. Any reference to her theatre work begins and ends usually with a brief reference to her adaptation to The House of Mirth with Clyde Fitch. And Wharton herself didn't help us here because she downplayed the theatre in her published memoir A Backward Glance, probably because it was a field in which she didn't enjoy great success.

But throughout her life she was interested in playwriting, writing original plays, adapting plays, writing translations for plays, and I think it's those original plays that are of most interest. So at the turn of the century before she publishes a novel, Wharton was working really hard at playwriting and playwriting was more important to her, we think than establishing herself as a novelist. And we know there are a number of unfinished, unpublished plays in the Beinecke Library at Yale, for example The Mammoth Genius, the social comedy set in high society England, The Comedy of Errors and Misunderstandings where all in the end is happily resolved, which is very unlike Wharton of course. Then there's a dark untitled play which begins in high society with two gossiping society ladies where a society lady is pregnant and not by her husband, and things have to be covered up. And then the set ladies discover that their unmarried maid is also pregnant and then downrange hypocrisy, condemnation double standards and we know there's a play called The Tightrope, which seems now to be lost though I know Mary and I, we're hopeful aren't we Mary?

That it is out there, somewhere and we know a little of that from letters again suggesting a social comedy with a big set scene of balls, a character called Mrs. Smash that seemed to have great comic potential. And yet none of the plays quite made it to professional production and The Shadow of a Doubt, which is cataloged in the Harry Ransom center dates from that period, was in production by 1901 so this seems to be a different kettle of fish really. Do you say that in the states? A different matter, but in the end that too didn't quite make it to professional production and that was canceled.

Michael: You know I noticed in reading the script there are a couple of these kind of meta theatrical references, these moments where I think one character says "Hey look, I'm not a melodrama villain, you know I'm not that kind of person you're gonna see on the stage, I'm a real character."

Laura: Yes, she does doesn't she? She sets up what seem to be these melodramatic stereotypes and then in many ways undercuts them I suggest, would you agree Mary?

Mary: Absolutely! She is creating a wonderful, dramatic environment, very, very witty. As you say, very mindful of the genre in which she's working, she was by no means a novice I think in playwriting. And it was really I think as Laura said, trying to set herself up in the world of theatre as a legitimate playwright and I think she did that because it was something she really enjoyed doing. She talked a lot about how much fun playwriting was, even though it was a lot of work it was a great deal of fun, and she was very well connected we found in the theatre world. She had a theatrical agent, Elizabeth Marbury, and had her work performed with Charles Stroman who was the great leading impresario of the day. A lot of them were shorter works, she did have short works like The Twilight of the God, a copy preformed in theatre groups, student theatre groups that Charles Stroman had established, but she had a lot of other connections that I think were still going to see being un-pieced. She worked with C.B. Dillingham, who was Julia Marlowe's agent.

So we're still unpacking all those connections we had but we're finding that she had many more connections to the professional theatre than we thought and as Laura said, she really was trying to establish herself as a playwright who was taken seriously for her theatre and she almost got there. That's the funny part, she had several things lined up to be performed but for whatever reason they were canceled.

Michael: Can we talk about the play itself? What is Shadow Of A Doubt about? 

Laura: Ooh, um, well it's a deceptive play. It starts off set in England as many of her early plays are, it's a high society setting, the world of Earls and right honorable and landed gentry. A lot of great Wharton one liners, nobody does a one-liner like Edith Wharton and you think, "Oh here we go, nice piece of fluff beautifully done." And then it takes quite a dark, dark turn. We have, we open up Kate and John recently married, Kate was the nurse to John's first husband who had been very seriously injured in an accident and the stepdaughter adores Kate, everything seems to be fine. And then, there's a shift, a plot of intrigue and blackmail unravels and we learn that Kate as the nurse had actually help her predecessor to die, so it was very contemporary in that sense of euthanasia or assisted dying, assisted suicide, which presented is it an act of compassion? Or is it— he comes up with this line he calls Kate, you venomous reptile and he thinks that she has killed his child and the final act moves right down the social scale.

And those of your listeners Mike who know The House of Mirth are going to see links here, we're suddenly in a boarding house, we've suddenly got letters of the burned and incriminating letters on blackmail, and we really move down to a much darker piece. Is that a fair summary Mary?

Mary: Oh Absolutely, I mean the intrigue is really quite something filled with one-liners, a great deal of wit, really satirizes I think upper class society as well and you know, it talks a little about the hypocrisy of the upper class. Kat is a nurse, but it she, how mindful was she? Was she the guilty party or was she covering up the first wife's indiscretions? She also had a secret past as well, but I think the great effects of drama of that age as Laura mentioned, letters and intrigues and turns of fortune are really apparent in this play. Certainly I think great characters for women, in addition some really great roles and I think all the characters are pretty well drawn.

Michael: Yeah Laura, I'm struck by something you said a minute ago where you kind of say it doesn't go where you expect it to and at first it sort of looks like, Oh here's some Pinneroe, here’s some Shaw, a little bit of Wilde thrown in a blender together. But, from act to act it seems to change in surprising ways, I'm curious in particular about the subject matter. We talked about euthanasia, one of the things that comes up in this play. Also, maybe a little bit more conventional territory but questions of marital infidelity, I hope that's not too much of a spoiler. What would Wharton's audience, had this play ever made it to the stage, have thought about these issues?

Laura: It's a great question and I completely agree, you've got that mix there and I think Mary and I both found enormous Oscar Wilde tonality in the beginning and then that shift. The play did go into production in early 1901 with Charles Stroman on board, and it looks finally as Mary said that she was going to make it, and then it doesn't, it's not entirely clear why. There was a piece suggesting that Stroman had suspended the play while Wharton strengthened some of the characters but Mary and I actually wonder in our article, could it be that this subject matter was actually too controversial for a commercial audience? Now as you say dealing with euthanasia in 1901, and Stroman as a commercial producer is looking for something that will sell of course but we don't know this for sure.

Michael: There's a lot that we see in popular news report about this play about how it was "Forgotten" or lost, how did you come across it?

Mary: We were at the Wharton in Washington conference together and I was reading a paper, Laura was in the audience, the title was in my paper but I didn't know what it was and Laura said "Gee I haven't heard of that." And, we talked about it, so that's how our conversation started and we both started looking in archives. And I think one of the things that the reason this wasn't found is it's in a theatre archive, even though it's at the Harry Ransom, it's not in a marked Edith Wharton archives and those really are very well explored. Many scholars go to visit them, and Harry Ransom is one of those great archives, a wonderful place filled with very interesting famous materials like the Morton Fullerton letters.

But this was in a separate archive for theatre and I do think that's a great place Wharton scholars haven't really looked so much and it can be an opportunity for the research for those who are interested in this topic. That's how we came to the Harry Ransom theatre archive there and it is the funny part, there it was. The archivist had very clearly marked it, and we also tell that story in the article as well. That there it was for all those years.

Laura: Absolutely, you know it wasn't found in an attic, or a hayloft, it was listed in the catalog, the archivist had done their job. But, I think the fact Wharton scholars didn't know Wharton had written a play, Shadow of A Doubt, to look for it. And as Mary says, the great irony is Harry Ransom, fantastic archive is one that Wharton scholars do go to partly because there's that cache of letters from Wharton's one time lover Morton Fullerton. So, it's an intriguing story in that sense and it gives us hope that there's other stuff we haven't looked at that's cataloged in different archives.

Michael: I'd like to follow up on that because as you mentioned, this was very well cataloged at the Harry Ransom center. It seems every couple of months we get a story about some lost play or work of literature being rediscovered and I think for many archivists, that's a little bit frustrating because they're actually kind of hiding in plain sight. Sort of looking at it from a larger perspective, what does it say about how we sort of create theatrical and literary history?

Mary: Hmm, very good question. You know, I think if I can address the archivist part of your question. I think in a new age of archival research and database research and history, because now so many things are public, they're cataloged, they're searchable, we found that the newspaper electronic archives are invaluable to what Wharton was working on. Her plays were announced in advance that they would be on Broadway, who would be starring in them, who were the producers, the directors and you know, we have never looked at those materials before so I think that there's a whole group of unknown materials that scholars are delving into. Those are the archivists, the digital humanities folks and many others, it's not the cannon anymore. I think similarly with the discoveries with Walt Whitman recently, an entirely new novel was realized in the newspaper that scholars didn't know to look for but this grad student Turpin, who knew what words to search for and that's helping to reconsider Walt Whitman. So too, we have the opportunity for many major writers, we just don't know everything we think we do about these "so called" major writers. There's a lot more to find I think out there.

Laura: And Mary and I were particularly interested that this was 1901, which those that know Wharton, this is really a period where we don't have as much information as we would like and one of the questions that we were interested in was what does the play tell us? And what does we know learn about Wharton that we didn't know before? And I think it's been a huge help in giving us another piece of the jigsaw, rather like the great discovery of the Anna Bellman letters recast her childhood and youth a few years ago.

Michael: We'll post a link to a number of pieces about Laura and Mary's work, including an article in The New Yorker, as well as a link to Jay's Store, where for a limited time you can download and read The Shadow of A Doubt for free. Laura and Mary, thank you so much for joining us.

Laura: Thank you very much Mike!

Mary: Thank you very much! It was a pleasure to talk to you. Great to see you Laura!

Laura: Good to see you, Mary.

Michael: If you'd like to continue today's conversation, please visit HowlRound.com, and follow HowlRound and @TheatreHistory on twitter. A big thank you to the staff at HowlRound who make this show possible. Our theme music is The Black Crook Gallop, which comes to us courtesy of The New York Public Library libretto project and Adam Roberts. Thanks as well to Tip Cress who designed our logo. And finally, thank-you for listening.

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