The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

Fascism in Italy
During World War I, Italy was a part of the Allied forces, which included Britain, France, Russia, and the...

(The entire section is 992 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

A polemic is an argument for or against one side of a controversy. Artists are very seldom successful when they engage...

(The entire section is 811 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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


(The entire section is 285 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Write a short play that shows what happened to some of the characters from this play: the Cherrys, for example, or Dr. Waldersee or Don...

(The entire section is 260 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Idiot’s Delight was adapted as a film in 1939, starring Clark Gable, Norma Shearer, and Burgess Meredith. Robert E. Sherwood adapted the...

(The entire section is 92 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Sherwood’s play The Petrified Forest has a similar structure and similar themes to Idiot’s Delight: a mismatched assemblage of...

(The entire section is 342 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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


(The entire section is 200 words.)


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 102 words.)