Robert E. Sherwood Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although Robert E. Sherwood’s writing was seldom profound, it was often effective and moving. He had an excellent sense of timing and was able to balance his characters and play them off against one another in such a way as to achieve and maintain dramatic tension. His major characters are largely romantics, dreamers of one sort or another, who envision a more perfect world, a more felicitous state of affairs. Sherwood’s plays are urbane, idealistic, and often quite witty. They may seem somewhat dated to modern readers. Both the situations on which they are focused and Sherwood’s suggested solutions to the problems posed are out of keeping with the pragmatic temper of the modern world.

The most consistent element found in the plays is pacifism. Sherwood was convinced of the futility of war. There Shall Be No Night, although it is a war play, wrestles with the question of pacifism quite substantially. In this play, Sherwood was led to abandon his idealism to the extent of calling for action against the sort of aggression that leads to genocide. In nearly all of his other plays, Sherwood examines the options available to humankind to avoid war.

The Road to Rome

Even Sherwood’s earliest play dealt with the question of pacifism and of human conflict in the face of war. The Road to Rome would be flippant if it were less urbane. In this historical comedy, Sherwood risks using modern slang and contemporary situations in an ancient Roman setting and gets away with it. The subject of the play had always interested Sherwood: Why had Hannibal and his army come to the very gates of Rome, only to turn away and retreat from a sure victory?

Taking a number of liberties with historical fact, Sherwood suggests an answer: Amytis, the wife of Rome’s dictator, Fabius Maximus, allows herself to be captured by the enemy and is about to be stabbed to death by Hannibal when she seduces him. Amytis returns to Rome and to her unexciting husband. Hannibal retreats.

Essentially, The Road to Rome is a satire that compares the Rome of Fabius with American society after World War I. Fabius and his mother, Fabia, represent conventional social values. They are much concerned with appearance and with what people think, and they take themselves quite seriously. Amytis, on the other hand, has an Athenian mother; she is an iconoclast in this dreary, somewhat backward Roman society. When she hears that Hannibal is about to invade Rome, Amytis flees to Ostia, admonishing Fabius not to eat too much starch while she is away. She leaves in the company of two slaves, Meta and Varius, around whom a useful subplot is constructed.

Before the end of act 1, it is obvious that Amytis, bored with her life and unsympathetic to her husband and her monotonous mother-in-law, is thrilled by the thought of the aggressor outside the city gates. She claims that Hannibal “sounds like a thoroughly commendable person” and goes on to ask, “Is it wrong for me to admire good, old-fashioned virility in men?”

Thus, the stage is set: When Amytis and her slaves are captured, it is clear that she will entrap Hannibal. More important, through Amytis, Sherwood suggests that Hannibal comes to realize that there is no glory in sacking Rome. Rationality prevails in the tradition of true liberal romanticism found in much of Sherwood’s writing before There Shall Be No Night.

If Sherwood was attempting to convey the message that reason can prevail over might, he fell somewhat short of his mark. Hannibal can be brought to the point of uttering that “there is a thing called the human equation,” but he arrives at this point not through reason so much as because he has yielded to his lust for Amytis. Nevertheless, if the decision not to sack Rome is Hannibal’s, it is clear that the focus of the play is on Amytis, whose reason prevails.

The Meta-Varius subplot portrays the true and lasting love the two slaves have for each other. Because they are slaves, they are unable to marry. Their love stands in sharp contrast to the barren relationship that exists between Amytis and Fabius. Amytis persuades Hannibal to free these two lovers so that they can return to their native Sicily and marry.

The last two acts of The Road to Rome are weakened by heavy-handed pacifist diatribes, but the play’s general wittiness and the excellence of Sherwood’s characterizations are sufficient to overcome such shortcomings. It is ironic that Amytis’s relationship with her husband is based on her frivolousness, while her relationship with Hannibal succeeds because of her wit and intellect. The play attacks conformity and examines closely the difference between public and private morality. In Amytis, one can see shadows of the bright young Sherwood whose nonconformity led him to disaster on more than one occasion. Amytis is drawn delightfully and convincingly and is ever the recipient of the audience’s warm compassion.

As the play ends, Rome has been spared, Hannibal is in retreat, and Amytis returns to Fabius, who will undoubtedly receive the credit for saving Rome. The audience is also left with the strong impression that Amytis has been made pregnant by Hannibal, and it can savor the delicious irony that Hannibal’s child will be reared as Fabius’s and may himself eventually come to rule Rome. In the final scene of the play, Hannibal says to Fabius, “I wish happiness and prosperity to you, your wife, and your sons.” When Fabius responds that he has no sons, Hannibal replies, “You may.”

The Love Nest

Sherwood’s next play, The Love Nest, was based on a splendid Ring Lardner short story, but the adaptation failed utterly, both artistically and commercially, playing only twenty-three performances. Perhaps Sherwood was drawn to the story by his own domestic complications at the time. A secondary theme of the play is censorship, a subject in which Sherwood was becoming quite interested and on which he debated in 1927 with John Sumner, president of the Society for the Prevention of Vice.

The play revolves around Celia Gregg, the actress wife of a much disliked motion-picture director, Lou Gregg. Celia has risen to her present position not through her own talent but because she married a director whose reputation is shady, partly because of nudity in his film, Hell’s Paradise, and partly because of rumors about his own private life. Celia and the butler, Forbes, an unemployed actor, love each other, and before the play is over, they decide to leave and have a life together, though there is little to suggest that they have any real future. The Love Nest has some witty lines, and Celia’s dramatic drunk scene in act 2 is splendid, but the play fails because its psychological motivation is unconvincing and underdeveloped, and the dramatic tension is uneven.

The Queen’s Husband

Newspaper accounts of the official visit of Queen Marie of Romania to the United States in 1926 gave Sherwood the substance for his next play, The Queen’s Husband, a thin yet diverting comedy that ran for 125 performances on Broadway, making it moderately successful commercially. During Queen Marie’s visit, her consort was very much in the background. Sherwood’s play focuses on the consort, Ferdinand, who in the play becomes Eric VIII, consort of Queen Martha. The principality over which Eric and Martha rule is much in the hands of the military, led by General Northrup, who seeks to annihilate the opposition by executing them. Queen Martha goes along with this. The king, however, must sign the orders for the executions, and he subverts the plan simply by losing the orders. When his private secretary, Freddy Granton, finds the death warrants, Eric tells him to “take them out and lose them again.”

Eric is first presented as a doddering nonentity, but it soon becomes apparent that he knows what he is doing and that he ultimately gets his way. In a romantic subplot, Princess Anne is in love with Freddy Granton, but there are impediments to her marrying a commoner; indeed, a royal marriage is being arranged for her. On the day of the wedding, however, the king finally asserts himself, sees to it that Princess Anne marries the man she loves, sends them off on a trip to Panama, and clears the way for free elections by dissolving the Parliament. The play is filled with fairy-tale elements, and its resolution is improbable at best. It was received with some public enthusiasm as a diverting, witty entertainment, well-staged and competently acted, but it is not a play that contributes to Sherwood’s artistic stature in any way.

Waterloo Bridge

Waterloo Bridge has little more to recommend it than does The Queen’s Husband, and its run of only sixty-four performances clearly indicated a lack of public acceptance. The play succeeded better as a film, for which S. N. Behrman wrote the major portion of a screenplay that fleshed out the plot and essentially discarded Sherwood’s original script. Universal Studios produced the film in 1931, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released other film versions of the play in 1940 and 1956.

Sherwood wrote the play from the memory of an experience in London in 1918 when he was recovering from war injuries. During the festivities celebrating the Armistice, Sherwood had met an American chorus girl who had been stranded in London, where she was in the cast of The Pink Lady. She invited Sherwood to come to her flat, but he lost the address so was unable to accept her invitation.

In the play, a remarkably innocent American soldier, Roy Cronin, meets Myra Deauville on Waterloo Bridge and is too inexperienced to realize that she is a prostitute out plying her trade. He goes to her apartment and, mistaking her for a symbol of purity, proposes marriage to her. She accepts, but then she has a change of heart, leaves Roy a note, and fades from the scene. They meet again by accident on Waterloo Bridge, where she confesses to being a whore, but Roy urges her to forget her past. He loves her and shows that he does by signing over his life insurance to her and arranging for her to receive part of his pay each month. As the second act of this two-act play ends, enemy bombers are flying overhead and Roy must return to his unit. Myra lights a match and holds it up for the German bombardiers to see. The play ends with a pacifist diatribe that Sherwood puts rather unconvincingly into Roy’s mouth. Waterloo Bridge was less successful than The Queen’s Husband because it lacked the wit of its predecessor and because it often wallowed in sentimentality.

This Is New York

Not to be daunted by the failure of Waterloo Bridge, Sherwood wrote This Is New York, which also failed, running for only fifty-nine performances on Broadway. He produced the play quickly after he had put aside a play about the Crusades entitled “Marching as to War.” This historical play was never completed, but much of the material Sherwood used in it found its way into his only novel, The Virtuous Knight.

This Is New York shows Sherwood as a loyal and patriotic New Yorker but not as a consummate playwright. Irked by the provincial attitudes that had helped to defeat Al Smith in the 1928 presidential election, Sherwood set out to write a play about the hypocrisy of the provinces. He partially succeeded by lining up Senator Harvey L. Krull of Iowa and his self-righteous wife against a group of New Yorkers, including racketeers, bootleggers, blackmailers, and other such marginal figures. In the end, the Krulls are shown up as the hypocrites Sherwood set out to create, while the socially marginal characters show a warmth and humanity that ingratiate them to audiences. The key figure in the play is the Krulls’ daughter Emma, who wants to marry a New Yorker, Joe Gresham. Emma is an appealing character, believably depicted and necessary to the development of the play’s theme. After a somewhat tedious and talky first act, the play moves to a dramatically tight second act with a strong climax. The play is significant only as a step in Sherwood’s development toward being able to create and control a believable microcosm, an ability that was to serve...

(The entire section is 5064 words.)