All the characters and relationships in Idiot’s Delight are defined or affected by the impending conflict between the Allied forces and Nazi Germany. The play’s perspective broadens as the play advances, beginning with the narrow sphere of the cocktail lounge and ending with the air raid that symbolizes a conflict that envelops all of Europe. Thematically, the play develops the idea that humans are too fearful, narrow-minded, and patriotic to resist the urge to defend national honor. Morally, war is regarded as abhorrent and evil, but, the play suggests, humans are too emotional and too easily manipulated by “patriotic jingoism” to live up to their moral convictions.
Each of the major characters represents a specific point of view about war, its nature, and its consequences. Harry Van, the optimist, believes that the desire for peace and goodwill are fundamental to human nature and will eventually triumph. Achille Weber, the most morally depraved of the group, believes that humans are driven by self-interest, as he is, and by national honor, which he exploits for commercial gain; patriotism, he declares, is simply a mask for greed and mistrust.
Quillery betrays the passionate believer’s weakness by succumbing to his own patriotic fervor, which turns into a ranting nationalism. His execution confirms the point that war is idiotic in part because it destroys harmless people like Quillery. The Cherrys represent the disruptive effects of international turmoil on young love and the allure of nationalism; they believe that their superiority and ability not to “give a damn” protects them against the war, but they too succumb to national fervor and abandon their aloofness. Dr. Waldersee also undergoes a complete reversal of spirit. In a fit of despair, he abandons his humanitarian research and dedicates himself to killing people, convinced by the outbreak of war that people are maniacs who do not want to be saved. If Weber is the complete cynic, Dr. Waldersee is the complete pessimist.
Irene shows the most development and is the most complex, hiding the secret of her past, confessing that her life has been a series of escapes, and ultimately seeing that Achille Weber is evil for his part in making war possible. She imagines the kind of horror for which Weber is responsible—the killing of babies, the destruction of cities—and at last, unable to accept his cynical opportunism and debased morality, she leaves him. Her decision ends a life in which she has always made escapes, she declares at one point, admitting that with Weber, she is a prisoner in an ivory tower. Ironically, her decision to escape that life leaves her confined to the hotel but free of the lies she has been living. Leaving him and deciding to face the future on her own demonstrate that she has at last found the courage to face the truth and the future.
Harry Van’s loyalty to Irene and to his troupe of dancers—he makes sure they are safely on their way to Geneva before returning to Irene—offsets Weber’s disloyalty and loveless nature. Harry’s character and actions are the mirror opposite of Achille Weber’s and contribute substantially to the play’s uplifting finale. As the others shrink into nationalism, Harry becomes increasingly compassionate and selfless. Robert E. Sherwood suggests that war does not transform everyone into monsters; some, like Harry and Irene, become the better for it. Their final union is an affirmation of love, trust, and courage. They are the only characters who see clearly the insanity of war, who do not succumb to nationalistic fervor, and who do not take up arms against others.
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Love Although the situation of Idiot’s Delight revolves around the political situation in Europe, the play is ultimately a love story, with two lovers who spent a night together ten years earlier realizing that they are still in love. The years have changed both Harry and Irene, to such an extent that they do not recognize each other immediately. From their very first meeting, Harry does not know who Irene is, confused by her changed hair color and her strongly Russian pronunciation of her name; still, he is fascinated with her and shows excessive interest in her relationship with Weber. It is not until act 2, scene 3, that they have some time alone together, and Harry explains that she reminds him of the redheaded girl he knew in Omaha. ‘‘I was crazy about her,’’ he tells Irene. ‘‘She was womanhood at its most desirable—and most unreliable.’’ Even when he is certain that ‘‘Eye-ray-na’’ is the ‘‘Irene’’ that he once knew, she does not acknowledge having met him before. The audience knows that she is lying, that she earlier told Mr. Cherry that she had seen him perform before.
The casual approach that these two lovers have toward one another melts away in the face of death. When Irene is left at the hotel, probably to die in an air raid, she tells Harry that she remembers him from Omaha and gives the number of the room they stayed in. The fact that she remembers such an irrelevant detail after so many years is an indication of how much their affair meant to her. Harry gives up his life to be with her, facing the expected bombing raid because she did remember. He does nothing to deny it when Irene says, ‘‘All these years—you’ve been surrounded by blondes—and you’ve loved only me!’’ In the end, Irene, who had denied knowing him, tells Harry that she has loved him ever since that night they spent together. Together, in love, they face death.
Fatalism The characters in this play all know that war is coming and that it will affect their lives. At first, they each come onto the stage expressing their urgent need to get out of the war zone before the fighting begins. When it has been confirmed that bombs have been dropped on Paris, though, they all realize that their lives are going to be subject to circumstances beyond their control.
The mildest case is Donald Navadel. Early in the play, he expresses his wish to stay at the Hotel Monte Gabriele through the end of his contract, but he also had good reason for wanting to leave. In the end, after he has seen Quillery executed, he knows that Italy will not be a decent place to live any more, and so he knows he must leave.
Dumptsy accepts the unpleasant fact that he must fight for the Italian army, even though he does not think of himself as an Italian. By the same token, Mr. Cherry and his wife know that he must fight for England, even if it means dropping bombs on the beautiful country where they chose to celebrate their wedding just days earlier.
When Irene is left behind by Weber, she does not complain, accepting it as just the kind of fate that befalls a woman like her. Harry accepts that Irene is his fate, and he returns to the hotel, even though the odds are good that he will die there, in order to be by her side.
The most extremely fatalistic character is Dr. Waldersee. Early in the play he is full of hope, determined that political events cannot be allowed to stop him in his search for a cancer cure. After the bombs start falling, though, and he sees the pacifist Quillery turn into a raging nationalist, the doctor realizes that his efforts to cure people are futile in a world bound to destroy itself with war. ‘‘Why should I save people who don’t want to be saved,’’ he asks, ‘‘—so they can go out and exterminate each other? Obscene maniacs!’’ With such a fatalistic view of humanity, he returns to Germany to work on developing chemical weapons.
War This play presents a rare case in which war is actually used as a theme more than as a plot point. Although every action in the play revolves around the coming war, there is really little involvement in the war until the very end. The guests are stranded at the hotel because of the rumor that war is coming, and as they talk in the first half of the play, the idea of war is very abstract and theoretical. When, in the middle scene of the middle act, confirmation comes that the war has begun, the personalities of all those gathered begin to change. The Cherrys, for example, who came to Monte Gabriele oblivious to anything but their love for each other, realize that they will soon be separated under life-or-death circumstances, and they both become short-tempered. The doctor changes from thoughts of life to thoughts of killing. Quillery quits identifying himself as a worker and instead sees himself as a Frenchman. Weber carefully scrutinizes his companion, Irene, for any weakness or sensitivity about killing, and she in fact does become more aware of the brutality of war once it becomes real and is no longer theoretical. Only Harry seems able to retain a stable personality once war becomes a fact of their lives. He continues to joke and play lighthearted songs. His long career of trying to cheat people has left him immune to shock about human depravity. War does not stir fear, pity, or anger in him. What it does is make Irene vulnerable, so that, faced with no future, she opens up to Harry, who, in turn, places himself in danger of falling bombs.
Patriotism Sherwood seems to be making the point in this play that, given extreme circumstances, almost anyone will become patriotic. The most obvious examples are Quillery and Dr. Waldersee. Early in Idiot’s Delight, Quillery refuses to call himself a Frenchman. He identifies the French with pig farmers, as his father was, while he sees himself as belonging to a new breed of industrial workers. If he has any political affiliation at all, it is with Communist party leader Nikolai Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution. After the assault on Paris, however, Quillery identifies himself as a Frenchman. He seals his own doom by cursing the Italians for what they have done to his country, and he goes to his death shouting patriotic slogans. Dr. Waldersee falls into patriotism as a negative reaction to the war. He loses hope in saving the world from cancer, and, hopeless, he realizes that he is at heart a German citizen.
Sherwood makes his case for patriotism most clearly when he has his characters called by their nationalities, as Quillery is confronting the members of the Italian army. The scene works because it is consistent with the characters of Harry and Mr. Cherry to try to intervene in the barroom scuffle, and Quillery draws attention to the symbolic union by calling them by the names of their respective countries: ‘‘You see, we stand together! France— England—America! Allies!’’ The patriotism of the moment is deflated when Harry tries to distance himself from the equation, using Quillery’s technique sarcastically, shouting, ‘‘Shut up, France!’’ He is trying in vain to save Quillery from being punished for his patriotic enthusiasm, more concerned with the human before him than in nationalistic posturing.