Saturday, June 10, 2017

Rewriting History: Edith Wharton’s The Shadow of a Doubt

Author and playwright Edith Wharton 

The discovery of a neglected work by Edith Wharton has understandably made headlines in a number of high-profile publications, in particular The New Yorker. However, the story behind Wharton's play, The Shadow of a Doubt, and its reemergence into the public consciousness is more complicated than the oversimplified narrative of a “lost” play being plucked from oblivion by intrepid scholars, and it points to the messy way in which we build and organize our ostensibly tidy literary and theatrical canons. The Shadow of a Doubt has made the news thanks to the efforts of Dr. Mary Chinery and Dr. Laura Rattray, two scholars from Georgian Court University and the University of Glasgow, respectively, who began discussing the little-known work at a conference and subsequently examined a manuscript at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin. They’ve reproduced the manuscript, typos and all, and it’s available to read in The Edith Wharton Review. It’s free at the time of this writing, but will eventually disappear behind a paywall; you can find it here, along with the accompanying article by Drs. Chinery and Rattray. (They also spoke with me on the Theatre History Podcast to explain the play’s significance.)

The Shadow of a Doubt primarily offers a starring vehicle for the actress playing its heroine, Kate Derwent. Kate, a former nurse, has married her late patient’s husband John, who grew close to her during his wife’s final days. Given the circumstances of their meeting, as well as Kate’s lowlier background, it’s not surprising that their union occasions some tension within John’s wider family and social circles. His father-in-law, Lord Osterleigh, is particularly skeptical, his granddaughter Sylvia’s evident affection notwithstanding. (She keeps calling Kate “Mamma,” even though her stepmother, fearful of being seen to supplant Sylvia’s late mother Agnes too completely, encourages the girl to call her by her first name.) The arrival of a disgraced doctor, Carruthers, throws this uneasy situation into turmoil; he’s threatening, in a plot device that’s clearly taken from the well-made-play tradition of Ibsen and his predecessors, to ruin Kate’s reputation by revealing information about how the first Mrs. Derwent met her end.

The Shadow of a Doubt often comes across as an odd mishmash of contemporary theatrical styles, with Wharton sprinkling Wildean bons mots amidst elements straight out of A Doll’s House or a play like Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, which was one of the most popular and successful attempts at domesticating Ibsen’s style for a British audience. At times, the play’s remarkably self-aware: when Carruthers is menacing Kate in the first act, he says, “I’m not a stage villain trying to frighten the heroine in order to give the hero a chance to rescue her. I’m simply a poor devil who’s down on his luck.” Wharton also seems to be making a conscious effort to swerve away from melodramatic stereotypes, revealing by the end of the first act the secret – Kate helped Agnes Derwent end her life after what looked like a fatal injury - that would normally drive the plot of a well-made play and set up its climactic scene.

Indeed, that attempt to buck convention, as well as the evident influence of a number of her successful theatrical contemporaries, often makes The Shadow of a Doubt feel somewhat disjointed. Much of the humor is Wildean and comes from Lady Uske, a society matron who, while entertaining, appears to have wandered in from a much lighter comedy happening just offstage. By contrast, the third act has a whiff of gritty social realism, as we see the depths to which Kate sinks once her secret has been revealed, only for the play to end on a (perhaps obligatory) hopeful note. Wharton also ultimately returns to the tropes of the well-made play, revealing her apparently premature revelation of the play’s central secret to be sleight of hand, as there’s yet another, even more explosive, one that stays under wraps until almost the final curtain. The often-sharp dialogue and nuanced characters add to the play’s unexpected narrative twists, and it would certainly be worth a staged reading, but I’m not sure it could ever hold the stage in the same way that some of Wharton’s influences still do.

The Shadow of a Doubt was apparently slated to appear on Broadway around 1901, but it never saw the light of day; Chinery and Rattray speculate that it may simply have been too unconventional for Elsie de Wolfe, who was to star as Kate, as well as for Charles Frohman, the ruthless and powerful producer who exercised outsize influence on the New York theatre scene until his death on the Lusitania in 1915. The fact that euthanasia, still a hot-button issue today, figured so prominently in the plot couldn’t have helped matters. The play then largely disappeared from accounts of Wharton’s life and career.

However, it didn’t disappear so thoroughly as many recent accounts might lead one to believe, something which Chinery and Rattray have tried to correct in interviews about the subject. Both the Harry Ransom Center and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts have had copies of the manuscript in their catalogues for decades, available to anyone who cared to look. As Chinery and Rattray told me in their interview, it made all the difference that the play was catalogued in performing arts collections, rather than the picked-over archives to which literary scholars usually gravitate.

It’s understandably easier to refer to The Shadow of a Doubt as a “lost” or “rediscovered” play; “Edith Wharton Play That Scholars Were Vaguely Aware of But Which Escaped Consideration for Decades” is a rather unwieldy headline. But the more complicated story of its reemergence points to the ways in which our knowledge of a writer and her oeuvre is always to some degree incomplete. While Wharton’s play never made it to Broadway, the fact that she was, for a time, more focused on writing for the stage than in a more literary mode adds further depth to our understanding of her career, and its fate offers insight into the nature of the American theatre of the time. What we think we know of our literary giants depends to a large degree on the efforts of scholars like Chinery and Rattray, and to chance encounters between scholars and archivists.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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