The Play

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Act 1 opens in the cocktail lounge of the Hotel Monte Gabriele overlooking Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and Bavaria. Captain Locicero, commanding officer of the nearby military airfield, enters, followed by Dr. Waldersee, demanding that the captain permit him to cross into Switzerland for his important cancer research demands. The captain explains that the threat of war has closed the borders. They are joined by an English couple on their honeymoon, Mr. and Mrs. Cherry, and a group of six exotic dancers from the United States and their leader, Harry Van. The radical socialist Quillery also joins the group; he is returning to France, where he hopes to unite all the workers of Europe against war. Finally, arms magnate Achille Weber enters with his companion Irene, who boasts a Russian ancestry. Weber describes himself as one without a nationality since he does business with all nations. As airplanes roar overhead, Captain Locicero announces that Germany has mobilized and that Italy and France are at war. Harry calls for music and dance.

As act 2 opens it is the evening of the same day. The Cherrys are declaring that they will remain superior to the war. Harry is again playing the piano and drinking. Quillery, ranting about the “dynamite of jingoism,” attacks England, the “well-fed, pious hypocrite,” and the arms manufacturers who have formed a “League of Death.” He turns on Dr. Waldersee, who, as a German, represents the swastika, but the doctor declares that as a scientist he is not concerned with politics. Harry shifts the conversation, offering to put on a show for the other guests that evening. Irene continues telling of her escapes, hinting as the scene closes that she has seen Harry Van somewhere before.

Scene 2 opens later the same evening. Airplanes again drone overhead. Irene comments that war is a game that God plays called “Idiot’s Delight.” It “never means anything, and never ends.” She blames Weber for the death and destruction caused by war, but he says that the greatest criminals are those he supplies with arms and that he merely furnishes them with “the illusion of power.” Harry and his dancers perform for the guests, but they are interrupted when Quillery announces that Italian planes have bombed Paris. In a violent outburst, he blames the Fascists; the captain has him arrested and taken away to be executed. The scene ends with the guests dancing in the lurid lights of the color wheel. In scene 3, Harry and Irene are alone on stage, the others having gone to bed. Harry says that he dislikes Weber, who considers the “human race just so many clay pigeons,” but Irene defends him as being necessary to “the kind of civilization that we have got.” Harry reveals that he suspects her to be the woman he knew in Nebraska, but she coyly evades admitting the truth.

When act 3 opens, it is the following afternoon. Quillery has been executed by the Fascists. The captain announces that they all will be permitted to leave. The Cherrys are returning to England, where the husband will enlist and fight for “civilization.” Dr. Waldersee has abandoned his scientific research to return to Germany and use his scientific knowledge to kill rather than to cure. Although her passport is not in order, Irene will be permitted to leave because Weber will vouch for her. He declines, however, forcing the captain to detain her. Harry learns of Weber’s betrayal and offers to help her, but she declines his offer. Before he leaves, she admits that she knew him in Omaha. The others depart, but soon...

(This entire section contains 644 words.)

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Harry returns. As he and Irene drink champagne and make plans for her to join his show and tour with him, bombs begin to fall around them and machine-gun fire can be heard. They stand together at the window singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as the curtain falls.

Dramatic Devices

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Sherwood depicts the horrors of war by employing a number of subtle and dramatic devices. Mainly, he relies on his characters to demonstrate war’s “bestial frenzy” and its dangers. Quillery’s frenzied outbursts are shown to destroy him, Dr. Waldersee’s pessimism destroys his career, and patriotism lures the Cherrys from their honeymoon. The sound of machine-gun fire and the deafening roar of bombers create a vivid image of war’s menace.

The play also relies on lighting to reinforce content. The darkening of the stage signals oncoming night but symbolizes the approaching darkness of war. The color wheel in the cabaret sequence sheds a lurid light on the dancing couples, suggesting the unnatural effects that war brings with it. Lighting therefore becomes a visual connection throughout the play that also symbolizes events offstage.

Onstage, the characters often speak in different languages simultaneously. This device reflects, on one hand, the difficulty of communication among nations—suggesting one of the causes of war; on the other hand, it dramatizes the human characteristic of not listening to or hearing others—not being interested enough in what they are saying to shut up long enough to hear them out. The discordant chorus of voices is an apt symbol of human self-centeredness and the jangle of failed communication that contrasts with the musical elements in the play.

The play’s setting is important because it enables Sherwood realistically to bring together assorted characters representing not only a certain point of view but a certain nationality as well. The setting is also central to the antiwar theme and itself symbolizes the idealist’s appeal for international accord and the ideal place to be when human affairs grow heated. When Irene exclaims in the end, “Here we are, on the top of the world,” her meanings resonate throughout the play. High in the Alps she is indeed on top of the world, but morally she has ascended by embracing truth and love and by not succumbing to patriotic fervor. She has risen above the sordid horror of destruction and asks rhetorically, “Do you want to go in the cellar?” By placing the action on top of the world, Sherwood suggests that the best place to be is above it all.

Historical Context

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Fascism in Italy
During World War I, Italy was a part of the Allied forces, which included Britain, France, Russia, and the United States. They were gathered against the Central powers, which included Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria. When the Allies won, the Treaty of Versailles decided upon a reorganization of territories that were held by the defeated countries. In Idiot’s Delight, Monte Gabriele is in an area of the Alps that had been part of Austria but that was ceded to Italy by the Treaty of Versailles.

At the end of the war, the Italian political system was in disarray. Socialists, Communists, and Fascists all tried to gain control of the country. Fascism was a new form of political system, supported by armed bands of nationalists. The Italian term, fascio, which refers to a bundle of axe-headed rods that symbolized the ancient Roman Republic, had been used in Italy as early as the 1870s to describe the new radical organizations that sprang up around the country. As World War I ended, these separate bands gathered together as a unified national party called Fascio di Combattimento. This new party promoted action, modernism, and a strong sense of national identity. At its onset, the Fascist Party was primarily a left-wing organization.

Within three years of the party’s formation, Benito Mussolini had worked his way up within its ranks to become the country’s premier, and almost immediately he began cutting off democratic means of political change, so that by 1925 he ruled Italy as a dictator. The Fascist Party under Mussolini became increasingly right wing, so that its primary objectives were to keep order and to control Italy at any cost. Fascists invented the term ‘‘totalitarianism’’ to describe their goal of keeping total control on all aspects of life.

In 1935 and 1936, Italy fought a war to annex Ethiopia (which Harry refers to in act 1 when he says, ‘‘You mean—that business in Africa?’’ ). After their success, Adolph Hitler sought out Mussolini to make an alliance. When World War II began in 1939, Italy was unprepared, and the social cost in lives and money made the people turn against Fascism. Mussolini was driven from power in 1943, though he and a small band of Fascists were supported by Hitler in northern Italy as the Italian Socialist Republic, which waged a civil war against the rest of the country. In the meantime, the new democratic Italian government changed sides during the war and fought against Germany. In the final days of the war, Mussolini tried to escape to Switzerland, but he was caught by the Italian government and executed.

The Start of World War II
In this play, an armed conflict begins, which the characters recognize to be the start of a second world war. In reality, though, World War II did not begin until 1939, four years after Idiot’s Delight was written. During that time, the tensions were so obvious to an observer of international affairs like Sherwood that another war of global proportions seemed inevitable.

The causes of World War II grew out of the way that the world was left when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. The treaty marked the end of the most terrible, widespread international conflict the world had ever known, with thirty-two countries eventually involved. Germany was the most prominent nation on the losing side of that conflict, and the treaty extracted a heavy price, both to punish and to make sure that Germany would not have the means to assemble a powerful army again. In addition to forfeiting millions of dollars in money, ships, livestock, and natural resources, it had to give up much of the land that it had acquired as a result of the war. All of these losses caused great economic hardship in Germany, especially when a worldwide depression began in the 1930s. Inflation in Germany reached triple digits, making the money earned from working worth less by the time it was spent.

In their misery, the Germans sought out a strong leader who felt that the treaty had been unfair and was willing to fight about it. In 1933, they elected Adolph Hitler, a charismatic candidate who made Germans feel good about themselves by promoting military strength and by playing off racial prejudices. After being elected chancellor, Hitler turned the government into a dictatorship and began a program of military aggression.

Other countries were also unhappy with the Treaty of Versailles. France and England were left in the uncomfortable position of having to rebuild their own economies after the war and to enforce the treaty as best as they could. Instead of staying with the wartime coalition, the United States began a new program of isolationism after the war, which meant political isolation from the rest of the world. Italy, which had been aligned with the winning Allied powers, felt that they had not received a proper share of the land that was divided up by the treaty: when Mussolini rose to power in the 1930s, he began a program of armed aggression, starting with the Ethiopian campaign in 1935. The Japanese military also created a dictatorship that was reaching out to conquer other nations.

When the play was written, the international situation was clearly volatile, changing weekly, but the world war that Sherwood anticipated still did not happen. Germany, Italy, and Japan signed treaties in 1936 and 1937, and each continued to conquer smaller countries. Reluctant to become involved in another terrible conflict like World War I, France and England accepted Germany’s moves, even though they broke the Treaty of Versailles. When Germany annexed Czechoslovakia in 1938, threatening Poland; Britain and France signed a pact promising Poland’s defense. After Stalin agreed to leave Germany alone, which meant that Hitler would not have to defend the country’s east border, Germany invaded Poland in 1929, and France and Great Britain declared war soon after. Eventually, most of the countries in the world were involved in the conflict.

Literary Style

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A polemic is an argument for or against one side of a controversy. Artists are very seldom successful when they engage in polemics in their works, because doing so usually means the work is guided by the lesson that the artist wants to teach rather than by artistic principles.

Idiot’s Delight is a work by a pacifist, and it espouses pacifist ideas, but the ideas are not forced into the work. There is enough diversity in the characters for Sherwood to address the issues that he wants to with a sense that they would naturally come up among these characters in this situation. For example, the German munitions dealer, Weber, is clearly the villain of the piece, and Sherwood underscores his villainy by making him cold and merciless, willing to double-cross his lover and leave her to die. Still, it is not Weber who talks joyously about destruction, but Irene, giving her impression of the sort of gruesome talk she thinks he might appreciate. Weber himself is quiet about what he thinks. This serves to make him a chilling character, but it also saves the drama from having to oversell his viciousness. He does not even openly accuse Irene when he suspects that she is too sentimental to be trusted but instead gives her his argument in favor of the poison gas business, saying that the people who buy from him deserve what they get. If Sherwood had gotten carried away with his polemics, this character would have been much more unconvincingly despicable.

The same holds true for the hero and heroine of this work. Harry and Irene are both flawed individuals, both accustomed to taking advantage of people through lying. Sherwood does not try to make angels of them but instead trusts audiences to recognize that their observations about the war are true even though their personal lives have been based on falsehood. No other characters feel the effect of the war as much as these two, and they are only able to bear the horror of the final shelling because they have each other. Even though they have the insight to see the world as Sherwood wants to present it, they are not made to seem unbelievably righteous.

There are two aspects of this play’s setting that make it the perfect place to show off the ideas that it deals with. The first is the geographic location in the Italian Alps. Several times, characters point out the fact that one can see four countries from the hotel: Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Bavaria. This point is significant because it reflects the diversity of the people who are passing through Monte Gabriele. There is an inherent tension in a border town during wartime, with enemies of the government trying to escape and the government trying to restrain them so that they cannot return to their homelands to aid the fight. That tension is real enough along a single border, but it is especially pronounced when several countries with different allegiances come together.

The specific setting of the play is the lobby of a hotel that was once a sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers but that has lately been trying to attract a recreational crowd. Hoping to emphasize winter sports, the management has hired an American social director, but his good spirit is wasted on the people who are forced to stay at the Hotel Monte Gabriele against their wills. A hotel is a good setting for showing off an international cast of characters: it is a public place, and so it is likely that any of them could show up there. It is also generally a relaxed vacation spot, an expectation that helps to highlight their tension about being detained.

Sherwood manages to keep audiences interested in the events onstage by playing two conflicting moods off each other. As a drama set in the first days of the war, Idiot’s Delight has elements of deadly seriousness about it. Subjects such as curing cancer, nerve gas, and execution serve as reminders of just how terrible the world can be. On the other hand, there are many light elements presented. The girls from ‘‘Les Blondes’’ never seem to grasp the dire circumstances surrounding them, and audiences can laugh at their shallow perception. Don Navadal’s argument against his employer, Pittaluga, is funny because neither of them is serious enough about their disagreements to fire the other or quit. To add to the lighthearted aspects, Sherwood includes a time in the middle of the play when audiences can temporarily forget the important issues being discussed by watching a show-within-ashow, with singing and dancing that has no more purpose than pure entertainment. The mix of these two moods, serious and whimsical, prevents audience members from becoming too complacent or making assumptions about what the play has to say to them.

Compare and Contrast

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1936: The world is in the middle of a global economic depression, which started with the stock market crash of October 1929.

Today: After record-breaking economic growth in the 1990s, supported by the spread of personal computers and the Internet, the world economy is softening into recession.

1936: News of events in other countries comes from those countries on short-wave radios.

Today: People all over the world are connected to the latest developments. Television news stations have bureaus all over the world, and many people get constant news updates via the Internet.

1936: The Great Purge begins in the Soviet Union. Over the next two years, 8 to 10 million people are murdered by Stalin’s government.

Today: Ten years after the fall of Communism, Russia is struggling to create a viable, stable economy based on capitalist principles.

1936: The Japanese government is taken over in a mutiny by young army officers who established a military dictatorship, tilting Japan toward its eventual alliance with Germany and Italy.

Today: Japan is one of the world’s great economic superpowers, with a government of elected officials that answers to the will of the people.

1936: A group of female performers traveling in a foreign country need a man to manage them and to chaperone them so that men would not take advantage of their naïveté.

Today: Old stereotypes have been broken, and women in most countries are respected enough to be able to travel without a male chaperone.

1936: There is fear that hostility between the world’s superpowers could lead to years of con- flict between ground troops.

Today: Most of the world’s powerful countries have nuclear capabilities and are willing to try hard to settle disagreements diplomatically without resorting to nuclear weapons.

Media Adaptations

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Idiot’s Delight was adapted as a film in 1939, starring Clark Gable, Norma Shearer, and Burgess Meredith. Robert E. Sherwood adapted the screenplay from his own drama. Directed by Clarence Brown, released by MGM, the 1991 video is available from MGM/UA Home Video.

In 1983, legendary lyricist Alan Jay Learner did a musical adaptation of the play called Dance a Little Closer. Charles Strouse did the music. This version closed after one performance. A 1987 compact disc of the music by the original Broadway cast is available from Topaz Entertainment Inc. and Theaterland Productions.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Brown, John Mason, ‘‘Postscript,’’ in Idiot’s Delight, Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1936, pp. 189–90.

———, The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times, 1906–1939, Harper & Row, 1962, p. 341.

Gould, Jean, ‘‘Robert Sherwood,’’ in Modern American Playwrights, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1966, p. 107.

Further Reading
Auchincloss, Louis, ‘‘Robert E. Sherwood,’’ in The Man behind the Book: Literary Profiles, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996, pp. 192–98. Auchincloss’s brief overview of Sherwood’s life is a good starting point for students.

Meserve, Walter J., Robert E. Sherwood: Reluctant Moralist, Pegasus Press, 1970. Meserve focuses on Sherwood’s hopes and fears for humanity, centering his book around the playwright’s shift from pacifist to supporter of American involvement in war.

Morgan, Philip, Italian Fascism, 1919–1945, St. Martin’s Press, 1995. The last half of this study deals with the situation in Italy after 1933 and serves as clear and readable overview of the background of this play’s politics.

Moses, Montrose J., ‘‘Robert E. Sherwood,’’ in Dramas of Modernism and Their Forerunners, D.C. Heath and Company, 1941. This introduction to Idiot’s Delight, in an anthology published while Sherwood was at the height of his career, views his work as a more sustained and coherent body than contemporary critics usually do.


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Sources for Further Study

Brown, John Mason. The Ordeal of a Playwright: Robert E. Sherwood and the Challenge of War. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

Brown, John Mason. The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times, 1896-1939. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Flexner, Eleanor. American Playwrights, 1918-1938. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1938.

Meserve, Walter J. Robert E. Sherwood: Reluctant Moralist. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Sahu, N. S. Theatre of Protest and Anger: Studies in Dramatic Works of Maxwell Anderson and Robert E. Sherwood. Delhi, India: Amar Prakashan, 1988.

Shuman, Robert Baird. Robert Emmet Sherwood. New Haven, Conn.: College and University Press Publishers, 1964.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide