Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

In his early plays, Sherwood focused on relationships and individual concerns in a predominantly comic spirit, though antiwar sentiments are often evident. It has been said that all of his plays are about pacifism. In four plays his sharpest views on war may be traced. In Waterloo Bridge (pr., pb. 1930), the soldier finds love more attractive than war. Idiot’s Delight takes the view that the individual cannot escape being caught up in war’s consequences. Abe Lincoln in Illinois (pr. 1938, pb. 1939) shows a peace-loving man faced with the task of plunging the nation into war; and in There Shall Be No Night (pr., pb. 1940) a man who wins the Nobel Peace Prize is forced to fight for freedom and human dignity. Running throughout all of Sherwood’s plays is the belief that personal sacrifice is often necessary to achieve the common good, and this sacrifice establishes the individual’s worth and faith in human goodness.

The popularity of Sherwood’s plays, beginning with The Road to Rome (pr., pb. 1927) and extending to There Shall Be No Night, and his work with the Playwrights’ Company and the American National Theater helped to keep the American theater alive in times of great social change. When Idiot’s Delight won the 1936 Pulitzer Prize, Sherwood was established as an important voice in prewar American drama. He believed that drama should entertain yet reflect the realities of the world outside the play, and his dramas embrace this dual purpose. His early plays reflected the lighthearted mood of the American 1920’s, whereas by the 1930’s the grim realities of the Depression and the rise of communism and Nazism cast a darker shadow over the plays. Idiot’s Delight was written and produced when major nations were poised to start another war, so its plea for sanity and the preservation of peace is all the more effective for its timing.

During the war years, Sherwood became a speech writer for President Franklin Roosevelt, and by war’s end, it is generally agreed, his artistic powers had declined, though he continued to write for the stage. On the whole, his plays gave audiences something positive to ponder while reflecting their hope for peace and faith in reason and human goodwill. The shifts in Sherwood’s feelings and thinking, reflected in his popular plays, present a clear record of what most intelligent, liberal people were thinking and feeling as well. Without being overly preachy, Idiot’s Delight accurately reflects the general moral climate of the 1930’s and captures the sentiments and point of view of large groups of people in a time of national and international crisis.

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Critical Overview