Newly re-discovered Edith Wharton play comes to The Mount

Kate and John Derwent are newly married and in love, and she is warmly close to his 13-year-old daughter. After the early death of his first wife, they have slowly rebuilt a family. And their trust is about to face a radical test.

Kate was the nurse who cared for John’s first wife when she broke her back in a riding accident, and a doctor suggests that Kate gave her chloroform, to help her die without pain.

The three-act play The Shadow of a Doubt revolves around a strong professional woman with the bluntness of someone who has stopped bleeding and sat with people as they died. It would be a controversial story today, and it has stirred media attention on two continents — because Edith Wharton wrote it in 1901, and it has been lost for more than 100 years.

Laura Rattray, a reader in American literature at the University of Glasgow, and Mary Chinery, a professor of English at Georgian Court University in New Jersey, rediscovered the script in the archives of the University of Texas at Austin.

They met last year at a conference sponsored by the Edith Wharton Society, Chinery explained by phone from New Jersey. They both spoke there on Wharton’s little-known early career in theater

“She was a playwright before she was a novelist,” Chinery said.

In her talk, she referred to a mention in the New York Times in 1901 of a cancelled performance of The Shadow of a Doubt. Rattray came up to her to ask about this play that no one knew. And they went looking for it together.

They found it almost in the open, Rattray said by phone from Glasgow. UT Austin has a large and well-known Wharton archive, centering around correspondence with Wharton’s sometime lover, Morton Fullerton. But they found Shadow in the theater collection.

“That was quite a good day at work,” Rattray said with a smile in her voice.

“I almost couldn’t believe it,” Chinery said, laughing.

They were holding two typescript copies of Wharton’s only finished, full-length original play, written four years before The House of Mirth, and a year before she designed and built The Mount, her estate in Lenox.

It tells a raw story in a clean and focused perspective, with the pithy, parrying conversation and sharp humor Wharton is known for, said Susan Wissler, executive director of The Mount, and Anne Schuyler, visitors services and group tour manager.

Unlike most of her unfinished plays, this story focuses on a woman. Shadow has strong male roles, Rattray said — John himself, and the doctor who accuses his wife, and his former father-in-law, who tries to break up the marriage because he is grieving for his daughter.

But Kate lives at the center of this story. She directs her own life, and she is willing to give up almost anything rather than stay where she is no longer trusted.

She is  a staunch woman, Chinery said. She is not afraid to work, and she will fight to spare the people she loves and to keep her integrity.

“You see how much she has to lose,” Rattray said, admiring her grit and pluck,

when a society woman tries to talk her out of it: “… after twenty, all life is pretending, and it’s easier to pretend in a good house, with everybody’s cards on the table, than alone in a garret under a false name.”

Kate answers, “Ah, but there’s one thing I don’t have to pretend here — That I’ve forgotten what life was like before I was twenty!”

Rattray and Chinery see Kate foreshadowing Lily Bart in a boarding house in the House of Mirth and Ellen Olenska standing on her own in Age of Innocence, and in her story they see Wharton responding to debates relevant to her time and her life.

Assisted death was a hot topic in the early 1900s, Schuyler said. Advances in medicine made it possible to keep someone alive longer — unconscious, or in acute pain. As people saw the consequences, they began to protest. Friends of Wharton’s advocated for euthanasia, and she had reason to support it.

She returns to the theme in her 1907 novel The Fruit of the Tree, in a plot closely borrowed from Shadow, and scholars have thought two tragedies in her own life inspired the novel: one friend left comatose after a carriage accident, and another suffering dying of a long illness who took her own life.

But Wharton lived through these losses in 1905. Shadow throws light on an earlier grief. Wharton’s mother was unconscious and paralyzed for a year before she died in 1901, Rattray said, as Wharton was writing the play.

It was a changing time in Wharton’s life. Within the year, she would build The Mount, where she worked on the novels that would make her a Pulitzer prizewinner and an international name. But in 1901 she was making a determined move to get into the intensely close-knit theater world in New York City. And she seemed to be succeeding.

She was earning critical attention as a playwright to watch, Wissler said.

She had published a novella and short stories, and she was writing plays — she has left five scripts in progress, and translations, including an adaptation of the French novel Manon Lescaut — the openly erotic story of a courtesan who repeatedly leaves the man she loves for wealthier patrons.

“She’s not afraid of hard luck, is she?” Rattray said.

Shadow and Manon both came close to production and were both dropped abruptly, and Wharton’s other plays remain unfinished. Later, as a successful novelist, she did not often talk about this part of her career, Schuyler said, but she set key scenes in theaters and adapted her own novels for the stage.

“She loved the field,” Rattray said, all through her life.

So she finds this time in Wharton’s life compelling, and the new play is drawing readers in the U.S. and the .K. who agree.

“We thought it would excite scholars,” Chinery said, “but we didn’t know it would capture public imagination like this. We’ve had enquiries about staging readings in England, in New York and on the East Coast.”

“We’ve had interest from a BBC producer,” Rattray said.

Wissler has talked with Shakespeare & Company about staging a series of Wharton’s unfinished plays in the future, and Rattray would love to see the play come to The Mount, where the settings feel homegrown in the drawing room, on the terrace, in the gardens and the carriage house.

Wharton would enjoy it, she said: “Will she finally become the playwright she wanted to be?”


In the photo above, French Lilac blooms in a wide arc in Edith Wharton’s gardens at The Mount. (Photo by Kate Abbott.) This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle’s ‘Landscapes’ section. My thanks to Features editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh.

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