Sunrise at Campobello

by Dore Schary

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The Play

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Sunrise at Campobello chronicles the life of future American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt from the brutal onset of his infantile paralysis (polio) to his triumphant return to political life three years later. The curtain rises on the large living room of his summer home at Campobello in Canada’s New Brunswick province. Several of the Roosevelt children run in and report the day’s outdoor activities to their mother, Eleanor. Soon Franklin bounds in behind them. He is a forty-year-old man, fit, strong, and in the prime of life. The pleasant family chatter continues with some good-natured bickering among the children.

With Eleanor and Franklin momentarily alone, he reveals that the swim did not refresh him as it usually does. Franklin unexpectedly stumbles and grabs his back. He dismisses it as a spot of lumbago.

Scene 2 opens three weeks later to a changed world for the Roosevelts. The normally robust Franklin has fallen seriously ill and has been diagnosed with polio. His legs are paralyzed, he cannot sit up unsupported, and for a time, cannot even hold a spoon. Sara, Franklin’s mother, and Louis Howe, his friend and political adviser, have joined the family to assist with Franklin’s care. Sara, Eleanor, and Louis discuss Franklin’s condition and their interrelationships become clear. Sara, an indomitable matriarch, disapproves of the chain-smoking Howe, who she thinks enjoys riding on Franklin’s coattails. Eleanor, who respects Howe’s abilities, carefully defends him to her overpowering mother-in-law. Nevertheless, they all seem united in their love and devotion to the stricken Franklin.

Scene 3 takes place one month later, when preparations are under way for Franklin’s trip home to New York City. The journey begins with townsfolk carrying him downstairs into the living room on a stretcher. Though weakened from his illness, he still displays good humor and banters with Louis. Always the political mastermind, Howe discloses that he has diverted the press from Roosevelt’s true route and plans for their first glimpse of Franklin to be from the train. Pleased with Louis’s shenanigans, Franklin dons his familiar fedora hat, his favorite cigarette holder, and his Scottie dog Duffy, and is carried out of the home.

Act 2 is set in the Roosevelt home in New York City eight months later. Franklin is now quite adept at maneuvering his wheelchair and can crawl up the stairs to his bedroom. However, his usual high spirits have begun to wear thin, and at times he is grumpy, rude, and short-tempered.

Franklin reveals to Eleanor that the illness has created within him a deep loneliness and episodes of despair. He explains that in the beginning only his faith gave him the strength to endure. In the intervening months, Louis Howe has been busy promoting Eleanor as a political speaker to keep the Roosevelt name in the public eye. Eleanor lacks natural ability, but she gamely makes her best effort. However, the situation has taken its toll on everyone. Later, while reading to the children, Eleanor uncharacteristically breaks down crying.

While Howe works toward a political career for Franklin, Sara attempts to persuade him to retire to the family home at Hyde Park, where he can administer the estate and retire from public life. Franklin firmly states that he refuses to surrender to invalidism.

In the final act, Eleanor and Howe encourage Franklin to nominate Governor Al Smith for president at the Democratic National Convention. Reportedly, the governor has been considering asking Franklin to do the honors. Franklin understands that he will need to walk (in his heavy braces and crutches) from his wheelchair to the podium and then speak standing upright for...

(This entire section contains 707 words.)

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forty-five minutes. Yet he and Howe realize that this speech will make or break Franklin’s political future. As anticipated, Smith arrives and asks Franklin to give the nomination speech. Franklin accepts.

The final scenes are at the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden. After being introduced, Franklin rises from his wheelchair and walks the ten painful steps to the podium. The cheering swells while the band plays “Sidewalks of New York.” He reaches and holds onto the lectern, hands the crutches to his son, and waves to the crowd, smiling broadly. The roar continues as the curtain falls.

Dramatic Devices

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Roosevelt’s wheelchair is a prop of major symbolic importance and visual impact in Sunrise at Campobello. When he appears onstage sitting in the wheelchair, it is a startling moment for the audience. Although the general public was aware of his disability, the discreet contemporary press did not publish photographs of him in the wheelchair. To see the president, who had bravely led the country through two crises, the Great Depression and World War II, humbled by disability historically made a huge impression upon Americans, and, in the theater, conveyed a sense of intimacy with the audience.

Additional props related to Roosevelt’s illness take on similar significance, including his crutches and braces and the difficulties he experiences adapting to their use. Yet his proudest moments come when he rises above the constraints of these props, as in the stretcher scene, where he manages to emerge resplendent, optimistic, and cocky despite being crippled and unable to walk. The scene in which he crawls across the stage, demonstrating the extent of his helplessness and boundless determination to overcome his disability, is deeply poignant. Finally, the podium in Madison Square Garden represents the difficult challenges ahead for Roosevelt, and his ultimate success in overcoming them.

The stage lighting accomplished by oil lamps during hours of darkness not only conveys the cozy atmosphere of a summer cottage on an island but also suggests that this is an earlier era, when the medical profession was less advanced.

Sunrise at Campobello is a historically accurate play, as opposed to plays based on historical events or persons, which invent situations and characterizations, such as Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (pr. 1979, pb. 1980). In addition to conducting considerable research into Roosevelt’s life, Dore Schary took special pains to portray accurately Roosevelt’s manner of speech at this time and consulted with Eleanor Roosevelt in order to depict it correctly. The dialogue effectively characterizes an aristocratic family, where French is spoken and taught by a governess, William Shakespeare is read aloud, cultured conversation is valued, and courtesy and noblesse oblige are observed.

Historical Context

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Introduction Many harken back to the period of the 1950s in reflection of more innocent times. As tract housing grew and suburbs exploded, the American dream became synonymous with the white picket fence. To sum up the era of the fifties in this fashion is to deny the McCarthy witch hunts, the practice of espionage in favor of patriotism, and the mounting racial tensions that set the civil rights movement in motion.

Religious Revivalism In the late 1940s, the fervor that fueled religious revivalism during the 1930s had long since died due to dishonest clergy and other unsavory characters at the core of the movement. Billy Graham, a Charlotte, North Carolina, native would change all of that. After graduating from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1943, he became the local pastor of a church in Illinois. He also headed up the Youth for Christ movement on a national level. He put together a travelling revival team in 1947, and gained notoriety two years later after an appearance in Los Angeles. Graham also made effective use of television and radio. As a result, he became one of the best known and most admired religious leaders in the United States. He also legitimized evangelism in America and also became an appointed spiritual advisor to President Nixon during his term in Washington.

The Army-McCarthy Hearings It is hard to believe the impact that an insignifi- cant senator would have on the nation in a very short period of time. When Joseph R. McCarthy from Wisconsin stood up in front of the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, he became the focus of the nation. He shocked the organization and the country, claiming he possessed a list of approximately 205 cardcarrying communists in the U.S. State Department. Perhaps the most perplexing fact: no one ever really saw the list; yet the sheer notion of it sent the nation into a panic.

Even more perplexing were the results of what seemed to be groundless accusations on the part of McCarthy. Members of the State Department and others were subjected to senate hearings despite a lack of evidence necessary to incriminate them. As a result, many careers were destroyed and reputations ruined due to the reckless ambition of McCarthy. With the prompting of attorney Roy Cohn and others in the McCarthy camp, the ruthless Senator made a list of suspected communists who were prominent celebrities in Hollywood. Again the results were unfavorable for the performers and others in the industry; the accused were blacklisted and deemed unemployable, a death sentence to any careers they may have had.

Espionage in the United States The testing of the atomic bomb November 1, 1952, and the subsequent development of a hydrogen bomb by the Soviets later on August 12, 1953, took the United States by complete surprise. The question on the minds of American officials: how could the Soviets develop this technology so quickly?

Investigations of the soviet atomic power led to Harry Gold, an American chemist who had been fed secrets from a weapons laboratory in New Mexico. Further digging implicated Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were identified as mediators in the exchange of information between Harry Gold and David Greenglass, a soldier and brother of Ethel Rosenberg. Federal agents arrested the Rosenbergs. Admitted communists, they nevertheless pled not guilty to charges of espionage leveled against them. The Rosenbergs were found guilty and executed in June of 1953.

Civil Rights When Thurgood Marshall, an attorney for the NAACP, appealed the lower court decision determining that Linda Brown (Brown v. the Board of Education) could not attend the all-white public school just four blocks from her home, the community of Topeka, Kansas became the center of a highly publicized racial conflict.

The lower court deemed that the board of education’s insistence that Linda Brown attend a segregated school was legal under the separate but equal policy established in the Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896. Marshall appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and, subsequently, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, along with the doctrine of separate but equal, was overturned on May 17, 1954.

In response to the law, many schools accepted the higher court’s decision, but in Little Rock, Arkansas, the response was quite different. President Eisenhower mobilized 1,200 U.S. Army paratroopers to escort nine black students past the Arkansas National Guard (initially ordered by the governor of the state to block their path) to their classrooms.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a Montgomery, Alabama seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus and was arrested and jailed. African Americans reacted by boycotting Montgomery city buses for one year. This forced Montgomery into the political spotlight, as it did the notion of civil rights for African Americans. Right on the heels of Parks’ experience came a wave of African Americans also asserting their rights by participating in sit-ins, as well as other means of nonviolent protest. Instead of fighting back, African Americans engaged in sit-ins as a means to combat the violence perpetrated against them by the white majority. When whites attempted to forcibly break up such events, the combative and violent methods used appeared as brutal acts of violence, considered against the backdrop of a passive sit in, thus earning African Americans sympathy and support from liberals, moderates, and whites who may not have been interested before.

Finally, it was Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, given during the march on Washington, D.C. in 1963. The ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ speech is credited with helping put the civil rights movement at the forefront of American politics.

The Cure for Polio A seasonal epidemic, polio, or infant paralysis, was a deadly infection that struck both infants and young children during the warm summer months. While some cases were fairly mild, polio had the potential to leave its victims either temporarily or permanently paralyzed or restricted to an iron lung; in some cases, the disease caused death. The iron lung meant a life of containment in a chamber providing air pressure around the patient’s body to induce lung expansion and contraction.

In 1954, Dr. Jonas Salk began testing a vaccine he had developed at the University of Pittsburgh, which he believed would eliminate the virus. In 1955, Salk’s vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, permanently halting the polio epidemic in the United States.

Literary Style

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Chronicle The play is a chronicle of the events from a specific time period in FDR’s political history, namely, the thirty-four months leading up to a public appearance that would change his political destiny. Action occurring in a given act is presented in chronological order, indicated at the beginning of an act by date, affirming the historical authenticity and significance of the events of the work. The effort FDR makes personally and politically to overcome his illness forms the framework for the play. The first act accounts for the initial onset of FDR’s paralysis and the shockwaves this attack sends through the Roosevelt family. In the second, Schary explores the depth of FDR’s determination and personal struggles in the face of adversity. Finally, in the last act of the play, FDR develops the courage and resolve he needs not only to sell himself to Governor Smith but to walk out in front of the teeming crowds in Madison Square Garden to speak to the nomination of Smith for Democratic presidential candidate.

Climax The turning point in the narrative, the moment when the conflict is at its greatest intensity in the play, comes in the final precious minutes before FDR is to appear on the platform. He nervously adjusts his braces with the help of his son, and Sara arrives in a show of support. She expresses her concerns regarding the ‘‘howling mob outside,’’ and there is a predictable moment of apprehension between mother and son. Up to this point, tensions have been building between them over FDR’s future in politics. However, when FDR defends the proceedings as being typical, Sara takes an unexpected tack, telling him it is ‘‘hardly the time’’ to give her ‘‘lessons in politics.’’ She simply wants a moment, she tells her son, to say ‘‘God bless you.’’ This final show of support serves to erase any conflicted feelings FDR has harbored earlier. There is a clear break in the tension that was mounting earlier in the play. It is a turning point marked by Howe, who acknowledges Sara’s gesture as a peace offering in their otherwise verbally charged relations, quipping that Sara resembles a career politician.

Foreshadowing The author employs foreshadowing in the work, creating an expectation in the reader that FDR will maintain his sense of resolve and pursue politics, despite his physical challenges. For example, an earlier struggle to rise in his chair predicts, or foreshadows, the final moment in the play, when FDR is seen standing and preparing to make his way out on the platform at Madison Square Garden to deliver Smith’s nomination speech. This approach is effective because it creates a new level of anticipation and excitement in an otherwise familiar story.

Point of View Events of the play are presented outside of any one character’s perspective, in the third person. At no time does a character address the audience or offer any special insight into his or her motivations or actions. Instead, the audience is able to draw conclusions about the characters themselves by observing them in dialogue with various other characters. The dynamic nature of such interactions gives breadth and depth to these individuals and helps the audience to better understand their motivations. When FDR decides to rise up out of his wheelchair, for example, the audience is aware of his discussion with his mother occurring only moments beforehand, and in this light, the decision to stand serves as a challenge to his mother and what she has implied about FDR’s condition.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: At the age of twenty, Al Kaline bats .340 in 1955, becoming the youngest player ever to win the American League batting championship.

Today: Barry Bonds hits his 72nd seasonal homer and rewrites baseball history by surpassing Mark McGwire’s recent record, the best on the books since Roger Maris.

1950s: Playwright Arthur Miller writes The Crucible, a play that on the surface deals with the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century and on another level criticizes the McCarthy communist witch hunts.

Today: The Vatican scrambles to respond to the fervor of public opinion in the wake of allegations of criminal sexual misconduct perpetrated by Catholic priests against young boys.

1950s: Democrat John F. Kennedy, a devout Roman Catholic, begins campaigning for the presidency, bringing the issue of religion to the political forefront.

Today: Robert F. Kennedy’s eldest child, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland lieutenant governor, is the first and only woman in the Kennedy family to pursue a political career.

Media Adaptations

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Sunrise at Campobello was adapted as a film in 1962 by Schary and directed by Vincent J. Donehue, starring Ralph Bellamy, Greer Garson, and Hume Cronyn. It is available from Warner Brothers on VHS.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Atkinson, Brooks, Review of Sunrise at Campobello, in The New York Times Theater Reviews, 1920–1970, Vol. 6, Arno Press, 1971, 1958 Jan. 31, p. 25.

Axelrod, Alan, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 20th Century American History, Alpha Books, 1999, pp. 285–327.

Gomery, Douglas, ‘‘Schary, Dore,’’ in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 3d ed., Vol. 4, Writers and Production Artists, St. James Press, 1996.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns, ‘‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945),’’ in Time Magazine, December 27, 1999.

———, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, Touchstone Books, 1994.

Moore, Deborah Dash, ‘‘Schary, Dore,’’ in Dictionary of American Biography Supplement 10: 1976–1980, Charles Scribner and Sons, 1995.

Rosen, Ruth, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, Penguin, 2000, pp. 3–36.

Schary, Dore, Heyday: An Autobiography, Little, Brown and Company, 1980.

———, Sunrise at Campobello, Random House, 1958. Sigal, Clancy, Interview, in Los Angeles Times, March 7, 1998.

Further Reading Davis, Ronald L., Van Johnson: MGM’s Golden Boy, University Press of Mississippi, 2001. This work covers the rise and fall of Van Johnson, Hollywood’s ‘‘golden boy’’ during Hollywood’s ‘‘golden age.’’ This work offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Hollywood during the time Dore Schary headed up MGM pictures.

Fried, Albert, ed., McCarthyism: The Great American Red Scare, Oxford University Press, 1996. This book covers the period of the late 1940s to the mid-1960s when Americans were routinely persecuted for their lack of patriotism or their sympathy for the Soviet Union. The author demonstrates the absurdity of the times, using speeches, court decisions, letters, memoirs, and so forth as strong supporting evidence.

Schary, Dore, For Special Occasions, Random House, 1962. This text is an account of Dore Schary’s childhood and his parents’ catering business.


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Sources for Further Study

Atkinson, Brooks. “The Theatre: Sunrise at Campobello—Bellamy as Roosevelt Scores at the Cort.” New York Times, January 25, 1958, p. 25.

Eells, George. “Sunrise at Campobello: The Story of Two Comebacks.” Look 22 (April 1, 1958): 98-101, 103, 105.

Schary, Dore. “F. D. R. in Dramatic Focus.” Theatre Arts 42 (February, 1958): 62-64, 93, 94.

Schary, Dore. Heyday: An Autobiography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.

Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. “F. D. R. on the Stage.” The New Republic 138 (February 10, 1958): 20.

“A Time of Ordeal for Young F. D. R.: Eleanor Roosevelt Helps Actors Prepare New Play.” Life 44 (February 10, 1958): 91-94.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide