The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

Many harken back to the period of the 1950s in reflection of more innocent times. As tract housing grew and suburbs...

(The entire section is 1060 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The play is a chronicle of the events from a specific time period in FDR’s political history, namely, the...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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

(The entire section is 161 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

In 1964, author Betty Friedan, in her book The Feminine Mystique, challenged the prevailing notion in the 1950s that women could only...

(The entire section is 310 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Sunrise at Campobello was adapted as a film in 1962 by Schary and directed by Vincent J. Donehue, starring Ralph Bellamy, Greer...

(The entire section is 33 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Crucible, first produced in 1953, is a play by one of Dore Schary’s contemporaries, Arthur Miller. On the surface the play deals...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Atkinson, Brooks, Review of Sunrise at Campobello, in The New York Times Theater Reviews, 1920–1970,...

(The entire section is 271 words.)


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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 entire section is 88 words.)