Sunrise at Campobello

by Dore Schary

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Act I The play opens at the sprawling summer home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), located in the deep woods of Campobello, New Brunswick, Canada. It is August 10, 1921, before FDR was elected president of the United States. As dusk approaches, members of the Roosevelt family return from a day of outdoor activity. Eleanor discusses the day’s events with her husband and children and arranges for dinner.

Anna addresses her mother Eleanor, confiding in her that she cannot fathom her mother’s tolerance of her brothers. ‘‘I think you feel surrounded by the men in the family,’’ Eleanor ultimately offers her daughter. Anna also shares with her mother her grandmother’s opinions of Eleanor’s severe demeanor with Anna, and she claims to support her grandmother’s comments directed at Mr. Howe.

When Jimmy overhears his sister, he asks his father if he can expect Howe will be paying a visit. It seems Howe has asthma and, as a result, can be overheard by Jimmy from the next room, coughing and wheezing. ‘‘I want no criticism of or complaints about Mr. Louie Howe from you or anyone else,’’ says FDR gruffly of son Jimmy’s comments.

In a private conversation with his wife, FDR shares his concerns about the Harding presidency and its negative impact on the economy. As the conversation continues, a supportive Eleanor af- firms Louie’s belief in FDR’s great potential as a Democratic presidential candidate. Believing the light is dim on his political horizon and hesitant to give up a Wall Street salary, FDR tells his wife:

Babs, I’ve weathered battles with Tammany Hall, seven years in the Navy Department, and Mama’s massive objections to politics—which she rates one step higher than garbage collecting. I’m quite sure that Wall Street will not corrupt my political convictions.

Moments later, after a playful arm-wrestle between himself and son Jimmy, FDR saunters over to the bay window to admire the sunset. He is seized with a sudden pain in his back, evident as he stumbles, and he grabs his back and grimaces. He attributes the incident to lumbago, or inflammation in his back muscles, and makes his way up to bed to rest.

Scene ii leaps forward to September 1, 1921, as the action continues at FDR’s summer home. Howe is with Eleanor, discussing FDR’s medical condition. Mrs. Roosevelt, or Sara, joins the discussion, despite the mutual dislike shared by Howe and Sara. Eleanor says that, after several visits to local physicians, a doctor flew in from Boston and diagnosed FDR’s condition as infantile paralysis and explains that ‘‘at first Franklin lost control even of his hands. He couldn’t write—or hold a spoon. Now his arms and hands are almost all well. We still don’t know about his legs—or his back.’’

In a particularly tense moment, Howe happens upon Sara telling Eleanor that despite both FDR and Howe’s regard for each other, ‘‘I’ve never quite understood it. It’s possible Mr. Howe merely enjoys riding along on Franklin’s coattails.’’ Howe manages to suppress his anger, but tempers soon flair in a private discussion between himself and Sara. When Howe shares with Sara the decision to move FDR to a hospital in New York, Sara asserts, ‘‘the best place for [FDR] is Hyde Park,’’ where he can rest and enjoy life running the family estate. She also insists that her son be discouraged from remaining active in politics. Howe has different ideas and counters, ‘‘Mrs. Roosevelt, Hyde Park or Timbuktu, Franklin’s political future is ordained.’’ As tempers flair, neither waivers in his or her convictions, and they part company.

Scene iii, the morning of FDR’s departure...

(This entire section contains 2174 words.)

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for New York on September 13, 1921, is a tense one for the ailing man. This will be his first appearance in public since the onset of his paralysis. Missy, his secretary, is discussing the travel and other arrangements with Howe. Responding to her somber mood, Howe asks her why she is so down. ‘‘Louie—I’ve been here for two weeks taking dictation and trying to act as he does—as if nothing is the matter.’’ She adds, ‘‘Sometimes it seems a sad and foolish game.’’

Sara also questions her daughter-in-law as to whether the children are emotionally equipped to see their father carried out on a stretcher. Eleanor believes the children will have to learn, sooner or later, to accept FDR’s circumstances. Sara is not consoled, stating that her son’s arrival at Eastport ‘‘should not be handled as a circus.’’ Both Howe and Eleanor stand firm in their convictions, Howe offering Sara assurances that her son will be in full view of the press only after he is seated in his berth on the train.

The sight of FDR silences all as he arrives by stretcher. Howe playfully shares the logistics of the trip with his friend, sharing that the children, Sara, Eleanor, and Missy will be travelling by decoy boat to divert the attention of sightseers and the press as FDR makes his way on a separate boat for the train station at Eastport. Noting his wife’s nervousness, FDR says, ‘‘Eleanor, you’d better give me that [hat] before you tear it to ribbons.’’ He remains cheerful, if not stoic, until the time of departure. As Eleanor leaves, she notices her husband’s back sag against the stretcher wearily, dropping his hat. His wife assists him in its retrieval, questioning his ability to handle the trip. Says FDR, ‘‘I’m going to make a damn good try.’’

Act II In May 1922, FDR is working out of his New York home on 65th Street at the outset of scene 1. He is seated in a makeshift wheelchair fashioned out of a kitchen chair. His mood is short, evident in his tone with Missy: ‘‘No sweetness and light today— please.’’ His mood quickly changes after reading a letter from Woodrow Wilson congratulating him on his work with the Wilson Foundation. Alone with Eleanor, he opens up about the loneliness he experiences as a result of his invalidism: ‘‘When you’re forced to sit a lot—and watch others move about— you feel apart—lonely—because you can’t get up and pace around.’’

A deeper, more heartfelt conversation between husband and wife ensues. FDR explains the affects of his loneliness: ‘‘Often when you’re alone, certain fears seek you out and hunt for a place in your mind.’’ The pain, he shares, was not initially a cause for despair but rather ‘‘the sense that [he] would never get up again.’’ A reliance on faith ‘‘for strength to endure’’ has been the hallmark of his emotional progress. He feels he must ‘‘learn to crawl before [he] can walk’’ through ‘‘this fire,’’ this trying time.

Later, Howe tells Eleanor her nerves are shaken from thinking about the speech she must deliver in support of the Democratic party. She confirms his statement, sharing her fears about lecturing, of her inability to control her voice and maintain the proper composure. Thoughts of such responsibility, of an earlier disagreement with Anna, and of her husband’s profession of loneliness weigh heavily on Eleanor. When FDR decides to crawl upstairs to bed in a demonstration of newfound dexterity, her composure erodes further. Finally, unable to fight her emotions any longer, Eleanor breaks down in front of the children.

By January 1923, (scene ii), FDR is sporting crutches and leg braces, in addition to his wheelchair. Returning from a speaking engagement with Eleanor, Howe reports that FDR’s wife was good, having ‘‘almost rid herself of those ridiculous giggles,’’ even managing ‘‘to make a point now and then,’’ having read her husband’s statement to an audience of several hundred women.

Scolding FDR for careless wrestling with the boys, Eleanor warns him to be careful, telling him to take his time in favor of physical damage. FDR presses the point, telling her that ‘‘something has been changing’’ inside of himself. He acknowledges Eleanor’s words of wisdom, telling her that the process of recovery has been a great exercise in patience. From it, he adds, he has achieved a balance in knowing ‘‘when to try for the brass ring’’ or when to enjoy the ride’’ without effort. FDR adds, ‘‘I don’t know when it began. What minute or day or hour—but today I was suddenly aware that, despite everything, I felt sure-footed.’’

Later, Anna goes to her father and mother with a confession that she has been selfish. She explains she is hurt because she feels as though she has been kept in the dark, as though ‘‘everybody was keeping me out of rooms.’’ Eleanor validates her feelings by accepting blame for her part in the situation, stating for both herself and FDR that in the future, ‘‘We’ll try to find more time’’ for Anna.

The conflict between Sara and her son escalates over FDR’s future plans. FDR reacts strongly to Sara’s plans to electrify the lift, a dumbwaiter her son uses to hoist himself upstairs, because he appreciates the exercise of physical upper-body strength necessary to complete the task. Sara says, ‘‘sometimes I think Eleanor, certainly only with motives of deep love, and that ugly little man, push you too rapidly.’’ The tenor of the discussion changes to one of anger with FDR’s demands that his mother refrain from criticizing Howe and accept his condition, regardless of whether or not he could leave his ‘‘braces and canes and wheelchairs’’ behind.

On the subject of political involvement, Sara shares with her son her fears, telling FDR that his cousin died because of ‘‘ambitious people around him.’’ She adds, ‘‘Died because he didn’t know when to stop—didn’t know that you can’t make it the same world for all people.’’ A discussion of the wealth and prestige of the Roosevelt family ignites the passions of both Sara and her son. When Sara reminds FDR of the ‘‘advantages of birth,’’ he feigns indifference. Sara once again asserts her ideas of sensibility—that her son forsake politics for a life in Hyde Park, and the discussion spirals out of control. FDR finally exclaims, ‘‘That’s enough. There’ll be no more talking—no more.’’

Later, low and dispirited, FDR, driven by his need to prove himself to Sara, attempts to stand with the aid of his crutches, only to collapse in exhaustion, exasperation, and pain. With grim determination, he once again attempts to rise.

Act III It is May 1924, and the Roosevelts are still at their New York home. FDR is privileged to receive several guests. The first is Mr. Lassiter, who challenges the support of Governor Smith’s campaign for presidential nomination on the basis of Smith’s Catholicism. Lassiter’s fear, shared by many, he claims, is that religious dogma will dominate American politics if Smith is elected. FDR quickly dismisses Lassiter after a strong speech ridiculing Lassiter’s ideas.

The second guest to visit FDR is Governor Al Smith himself. Howe suspects that Smith would like FDR to be his speaker. ‘‘You’re protestant— dry—rural. You’re the logical cowcatcher,’’ surmises Howe. FDR is not easily persuaded. He believes the appointment would be made reluctantly. Further, he is not certain he could stand the demands of ‘‘public service,’’ that his aspirations and dreams ring false in ‘‘the hard light of practical politics.’’ Howe will not consider FDR’s position and tells his friend, ‘‘I am no idle dreamer, Franklin. Working with you is an act of faith. I believe God has an eye on your future.’’

In conversation with FDR, Smith proves Howe is correct in his suspicions. He first speaks of a tight race for the nomination and then reflects on what issues his former speaker would have focused on regarding the current election. FDR, posturing to accommodate the invitation he suspects from Smith, mentions issues of the Klan, the Volstead Act, Smith’s faith, and the obligation of a candidate to keep the party together, among other topics. When FDR affirms his prior suspicions about the nomination, Smith replies that he and Howe ‘‘were both too surprised to be surprised.’’ The scene ends as Missy, Howe, and FDR plan the logistics of FDR’s trip to the platform at the Garden (Madison Square Garden).

The venue for scene ii is Madison Square Garden, June 26, 1924, at about 11:30 p.m., and FDR is preparing to give his speech nominating Governor Smith for the Democratic presidential candidacy. Howe and FDR argue about the end of the speech as FDR puts on his leg braces. Sara arrives to say ‘‘God Bless you’’ and to tell her son to ‘‘speak clearly.’’ Even Howe supports her sudden change of heart, remarking that in a couple of months Sara may be involved in politics. The play ends on the platform at Madison Square Garden. Upon introduction, FDR stands up and proceeds to the lectern, walking on his crutches to the roar of an appreciative crowd.