Sunrise at Campobello reveals a side of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that few witnessed or saw publicly portrayed—his affliction with polio. Major themes of the play demonstrate his courage in dealing with this crippling disease and how the ordeal shaped his character as a future president.
Playwright Dore Schary was a longtime supporter and admirer of Roosevelt, having served as chair of the Hollywood for Roosevelt Committee. While reading a book on the president, Schary decided to write the play, hoping that Roosevelt’s courage would convey an inspirational message for contemporary audiences.
Roosevelt’s courage is vividly characterized through his flamboyant optimism, revealed soon after being stricken by polio. Unable to walk, he needs to be transported by stretcher. He transforms a potentially embarrassing and humiliating situation into a triumphant departure. He jokingly banters with Louis Howe and remarks that he feels like the caliph of Baghdad. Then he dons his favorite fedora, pokes his familiar cigarette holder jauntily in his mouth, and gets his Scottie dog to sit in his lap. This pose was so remarkable that it wound up on the cover of the popular Life magazine.
During the period of Roosevelt’s convalescence, Louis Howe, his friend and adviser, provided a great deal of humor, which played a significant role in Roosevelt’s recuperation. Whether it is reading aloud William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” (1875) in a comical, burlesque Dutch accent, gleefully describing the clever schemes he has devised to outwit meddling reporters, or making countless wisecracks, Howe’s dry and sometimes caustic humor greatly contributes to buoying Roosevelt’s spirits.
The loving support of Roosevelt’s family is of prime importance as well. Eleanor especially shows deep compassion and understanding, and Roosevelt confides in her when he experiences the inevitable periods of gloom and depression, as when he describes how physical activity helps overcome what he sees as the loneliness of being disabled. She supports his occasional crawling as a means of locomotion because it affords him independence. The theme of family support culminates in eldest son Jimmy’s assisting Roosevelt with his crutches in order to get to the convention podium in the final scene.
Roosevelt was a vigorous athlete and sportsman before his disability, and physical activity plays a major role in his recuperation. In the play, he insists to his mother that the dumbwaiter he uses to travel among floors should remain manually operated, because he values the exercise for his arms and shoulders. When he has an impromptu wrestling match with his sons, as he did before the onset of polio, it suggests that the old Franklin is still present, strong as ever.
While Roosevelt was always an effective politician, in the play his overcoming his disability raises him to a higher level of character and self-awareness. He confides in Eleanor that not being able to rush things has given him a greater sense of patience, and being stricken has taught him humility. He reveals that he has relied on his religious faith for support. Though already politically progressive (he once sold his mining stock because of the cruel treatment of the miners), he reaffirms more strongly than before his compassion for others and desire for global peace. His decision to pursue those goals in the political arena, in spite of his mother’s plea for him to retire to Hyde Park and become a country squire, demonstrates how his disability caused him to redouble his resolve to work for a better world.
Fortitude and Endurance It is FDR’s strength of mind that allows him to endure both mental and physical...
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pain with courage. The events of the play, and the portrayal of FDR at crucial moments in the thirty-four-month period represented by his illness and first public appearance, support the idea of a man who can deal with seemingly insurmountable problems with courage, humor, and grace.
When FDR surfaces publicly for the first time to make his way to New York, he smoothes over any discomfort both he and his family may be feeling and meets the event with humor. Instead of focusing on the possible unwanted attention he may receive, FDR makes light of the potential danger with Howe— ‘‘As Assistant Secretary of the Navy I used to rate a seventeen-gun salute. Have you arranged for that?’’ This good cheer serves to smooth over the tensions that most of those around him, including his children, are feeling.
More impressive still is FDR’s refusal to let his paralysis become an excuse for him to remain aloof from public scrutiny. This issue figures prominently with his mother, who continually warns him of the disastrous consequences inherent for an invalid in living a life in the public eye. At the very least, those more supportive and those closest to him have been concerned he be successful at Madison Square Garden: for instance, Howe and Eleanor planned the logistics of his speech, right down to the calculation of actual steps to the podium on the platform. When Howe shares in his nervous excitement that ‘‘they are liable to be the ten biggest steps you ever took in your life,’’ FDR responds, humorously diffusing a tense situation, ‘‘Perhaps—or to be clinical—I may fall smack on my gluteus maximus.’’
Loneliness and Isolation FDR’s invalidism proves to isolate him, further fostering his sense of loneliness. In a moment alone with Eleanor, he shares these feelings with his wife and how they have changed the way in which he views himself, from someone actively able to participate in the events swirling about him to an envious bystander. ‘‘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,’’ says FDR.
His inability to pace around causes him, by his own admission, to feel jealous towards others who ‘‘parade around all over’’ his office. The urge to scream at them to ‘‘sit down—quiet down—stand still,’’ which FDR stifles, is simply a manifestation of his feelings of isolation, a perception built on the basis of his own physical inability to keep up with his peers. Because he feels alone, says FDR, ‘‘certain fears seek you out and hunt for a place in your mind.’’ The idea of facing fire alone overwhelms him, for example, causing him to have nightmares about being trapped and unable to move.
In terms of the overall scope of the play, FDR struggles to overcome his feelings of loneliness and isolation as a function of his physical handicaps and wins at the end of the play, when his efforts to walk out onto the platform at Madison Square Garden end triumphantly. This single act earns him the respect and acceptance of his mother, his family, and more important, his Democratic constituency, closing the gap in public perception between FDR the invalid and FDR the man.
Social Status The topic of social status figures prominently in the struggles between FDR and his mother, Sara. For FDR, the wealth and recognition that goes with the Roosevelt name carry negative connotations for him. In a world of wealth, he claimed to be ‘‘snobbish’’ and ‘‘haughty,’’ drunk with ambition without purpose. His mother, however, encourages him to embrace a life of entitlement to avoid public embarrassment and humiliation as a result of his handicap, insisting, in one instance, that his boat trip to New York be ‘‘kept secret,’’ to avoid placing her son ‘‘on exhibition.’’
Throughout the play, FDR resists his mother’s insistence upon her son’s taking charge of the family estate rather than pursuing a life of public scrutiny. Sara recalls a member of the Roosevelt family who ‘‘died because he didn’t know when to stop—didn’t know that you can’t make it the same world for all people.’’ FDR confronts her hypocrisy by pointing out her indifference, her attitude of ‘‘noblesse oblige,’’ or grace towards the poor. ‘‘Yes—yes. . . . The poor will always be with us. We went through that when I sold the mining stock.’’
FDR also recognizes that a concern for appearances based on social status fuels her desire for his retreat to Hyde Park. He tells his mother as much, claiming, ‘‘At the moment I’m not running from anything—and I won’t until I can get around and stand up on my own two feet—but that doesn’t mean I have to go into hiding.’’ For Sara, social status and material wealth are not part of a duplicitous scheme; they are simply a means by which she can protect her son from further pain and humiliation.
Destiny The inevitable, perhaps necessary, fate of FDR is a career in politics, as is reinforced in the comments of the characters and expressed in the greater context of the play, through FDR’s struggle to overcome his paralysis. From the beginning of the play, this destiny is intimated, particularly by Eleanor and Howe. As FDR complains of the political climate of the country in act I, his wife is quick to point out that Howe insists her husband ‘‘can reverse the trend,’’ reinforcing the convictions of FDR’s friend that he is destined for the presidency.
Howe is FDR’s biggest advocate and is convinced not only of his friend’s success but also that his political future is preordained by God. His devotion serves a greater function in the context of the overall play, as does Eleanor’s. Their encouragement and unwavering belief in FDR’s abilities prove to be valuable in several critical moments in the play. For example, after Sara’s final assault on FDR’s dreams, he expresses his doubts to Howe that he could ‘‘stand the gaff (abuse) of active work.’’ Immediately, Howe tells him that ‘‘God has an eye’’ on his friend’s future in politics.
When Eleanor is prompted to contribute her views, she also responds, telling FDR that he ‘‘should pursue principles without calculating the consequences.’’ In this way, the momentum of FDR’s political career is portrayed as more than a simple decision but as a choice based on the complexities of a challenging personal life.