An Atlantic Portrait
BY JOHN GASSNER
WRITERS have this in common with adventurers: they are both apt to be highly individual personalities and yet manage to epitomize their age — whether by reflection or contrast is immaterial. Among the personalities of the literary world none is more currently conspicuous than Robert Sherwood, and few are more representative of this age both by their revolts and by their conformities. In the theatre he is not only one of the masters of his craft, but the one playwright in the lobby or in the haunts of the after-theatre set who overshadows celebrities of the acting profession without so much as a word on his part to call attention to himself. In the political world he is, barring Archibald MacLcish, the one writer who has found a place both in the government and in the scrimmage line of public controversy. At once a retiring but potent counselor to President Roosevelt and a formidable trumpeter when he comes out in the open, he has become the terror of the isolationists and appeasers in the present crisis. And he is perhaps most significant, in the casual way in which only Sherwood can be significant, as a phenomenon of the liberal mind at work in our day. He has recapitulated, in the various chapters of a very human and natural life, the evolution of an entire generation once considered lost by Gertrude Stein and hollow by T. S. Eliot.
A more modest man could not have been thrust into the foreground of current history. Physically, Robert Sherwood, who stands six feet six or seven inches, is probably the tallest writer in creation, but his simple and retiring character has become proverbial on Broadway’s Great White Way. His face seems, at first glance, to have been carved out of New England granite. (Actually he is a New Yorker, having been born in New Rochelle on April 4, 1896.) It is, however, so sensitive that one would be reminded of dolorous things like the voice crying in the wilderness and a prophecy of doom if, measuring the gaunt stalk of body that supports his extraordinarily elongated head, the comic element did not intrude. In truth, Mr. Sherwood bears a striking resemblance to our mental image of Cervantes’s Knight of the Woeful Countenance. But that hero was voluble, and Sherwood is famous for his silences, which occur between sentences, words, and even syllables. Then there are also the vaster silences that he spreads over the room like a cloud when the dinner party becomes conversational. Often it seems his shyness simply prevents him from thinking of anything to say; even Bernard Shaw’s famed volubility was unable to rouse more than monosyllabic agreement with the sage of Adelphi when Sherwood visited him.
Noel Coward reputedly sized up this phenomenon of reticence by inquiring of the writer’s sister, ‘What is that nine feet of gloom you call your brother?' Mrs. Sherwood’s pet nickname for her talented husband is ‘Old Monotonous.’ She got the name from an ill-fated race horse that she backed with unrewarded loyalty.
Nevertheless the subject of this report is greatly maligned, since he is anything but a misanthrope or recluse by inclination. He has, instead, a rich capacity for gayety, possesses a keen sense of humor, and mingles freely in society. His plays, of course, prove conclusively that there is no want of wit in the man. His friendly biographer, S. N. Behrman, reports conversations that would, if more frequent, qualify him for some such title as ‘the life of the party.’ An example offered by Mr. Behrman is Sherwood’s response at the Playwrights’ Company to a colleague who wanted a definition of the word ‘tenterhooks.’ ‘They are,’ replied Mr. Sherwood, ‘the upholstery of the anxious seat.’ In the parlors of his intimate friends he will even burst into song-and-dance, earning a reputation for a Fred Astaire rendition of ‘When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along,’ complete with top hat and cane. Unlike many authors who need a shack in the woods, he can dispense with rustic atmosphere and primeval silences; his friends will affectionately explain that he supplies the latter himself. Sherwood likes to write in offices, finds stimulation in the bustle of Manhattan, and is fond of its round of parties and night clubs. He has also traveled extensively, and nearly always where he could mingle with the world. He married the former Mrs. Marc Connelly in Budapest, and got the suggestion for the blonde troupers of Idiot’s Delight from American cabaret performers in that normally exuberant capital; he got his idea for Reunion in Vienna while visiting Frau Sacher’s rendezvous for aristocracy in Vienna; he went to South America about three years ago, has been to London frequently, and has spent many summers in England on a farm in Surrey.
If he has been only intermittently lively, he has been consistently spirited. There is impulsive Irish blood in his system, from the maternal side, and very good Irish blood at that; he is descended from none other than the famous rebel and martyr of Irish freedom, Robert Emmet. It was the latter’s older brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, who established the American branch of the family. A refractory gentleman, he got himself exiled in 1803 to the United States, where he quickly achieved a reputation at the bar that won him plaudits from the formidable Daniel Webster after a trial in which they opposed each other. It is from the equally attenuated and dark-haired Emmets that Sherwood seems to have derived his fighting spirit and resoluteness.
At Milton Academy young Sherwood was accused of setting a building on fire, and at Harvard, in 1914, he lived up to his reputation by reaching the verge of expulsion three times. But he survived, and as an upperclassman found more socially useful channels for his élan vital in the Hasty Pudding Club and in the editorship of the Lampoon. His parody on Vanity Fair in the Lampoon’s annual burlesque number hit the mark so closely that the veteran editor Frank Crowninshield gave him a position after graduation. The dignity rested rather lightly on his shoulders. When he substituted for the sartorial expert of Vanity Fair during the summer he filled his column on what the welldressed man will wear with some choice fantastication without being found out by anyone but the regular columnist.
It was, however, in more serious manifestations that his vivacity was to leave its mark on American culture and politics. His essential seriousness began to appear in his senior year at Harvard. When the United States went to war with Germany, Sherwood tried to enlist in the American forces. Rejected because of his height, he joined the Canadian Black Watch, a regiment of Highlanders that fitted him out with incongruous kilts. He participated in the defense of Arras and Amiens; he was gassed at Vimy Ridge, and later wounded in both legs. It was not until many months after the war that he could leave the hospital in England to which he had been transferred; his heart was affected, and he was not expected to live long. It was after his convalescence that he joined Vanity Fair, and here too his exploits were not wholly undergraduate. A confirmed liberal, he championed Dorothy Parker when the magazine dismissed her for writing unpleasant dramatic criticism. In the company of Robert Benchley he resigned in protest, which took courage, since his family had met with financial reverses. After a misadventure on the Boston Post, he finally got himself a berth on Life, where he began writing film reviews which set a precedent in this new field of criticism by their incisiveness and later earned him the title of dean of motion-picture reviewers. In 1924 he became an editor of Life, and held his post for four years until his sharp jibes at prohibition and President Hoover terminated his editorial career permanently.
By then, fortunately, he was already embarked on the playwriting career that brought him repute, motion-picture sales, Hollywood assignments, and earnings that in recent years have saddled him with an annual income-tax approximating $100,000. He had ample precedent for art and letters in his family. The women on the Emmet side were painters and sculptors, and the playwright’s mother will be found listed in Who’s Who for her accomplishments. The Sherwood side has favored writing and theatre; his grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood, was a successful author, and his father, founder of the Harvard Lampoon and prominent in Hasty Pudding theatricals, seriously considered an acting career before he succumbed to the brokerage business. His son began his own literary labors tentatively at the age of thirteen by contributing an essay on Lincoln to a nation-wide school contest.
His first play to see the light was his Hasty Pudding show, Barnum Was Right, still remembered with pleasure by contemporaries, and its success no doubt proved to him that he was not unendowed with comic talent. The middle twenties were wonderful years for the purveyors of sophisticated entertainment; therefore, finding himself heavily in debt in 1926, Sherwood tried his hand at a comedy, The Road to Rome, in which the amorous wife of the Roman senator Fabius divests Hannibal of his passion for conquest. Produced in 1927, with Jane Cowl and Philip Merivale playing the leading rôles, the comedy proved exceptionally successful, establishing him as a writer of witty dialogue and aligning him with the playwrights who affected a Continental contempt for stuffy respectability.
In December of the same year, the fortunate author tried another fling at humor, with a dramatization of a cynical Ring Lardner story, The Love Nest, in which a film director’s inebriated wife told what she thought of her successful husband. It failed, and for some time — for four years, in fact — Sherwood found himself in the anticlimactic stage of always falling short of his initial triumph. His third play, The Queen’s Husband, was a trifle, and Waterloo Bridge, a melodrama of a doughboy and an American girl in London, missed fire. Another melodrama, This Is New York, written in 1930, also proved disappointing.
From this point on, however, Sherwood was definitely on the upswing. Returning to his original penchant for deflating balloons, in 1931 he wrote the brilliant Reunion in Vienna, which the Theatre Guild’s favorite couple, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, turned into an extraordinary success. In this vivid comedy, science was hoist with its own petard when a super-psychoanalyst practically handed over his wife to her former lover as a result of overweening confidence in scientific deduction. The depression having hit the theatre, Sherwood retired to the safer pastures of Hollywood for some years, but by 1935 he was back in New York with another successfully contrived play, the philosophical melodrama, The Petrified Forest, for which a sojourn at Reno, which is usually less rewarding, was responsible.
He wrote the play in 1934 during the first four of the customary six weeks of residence, and in January of the next year it was on the New York stage with Leslie Howard playing the part of the suicidal representative of a degenerate era. Although its profundities were imposed on an unconvincing character and plot, the play proved provocative and exciting. Its author — who told Lucius Beebe, in a statement that does not sound wholly penitent, ‘The trouble with me is I start with a big message and end up with nothing but a good entertainment’— was not particularly satisfied. He attributed his success to his audiences’ partiality for ‘two parts of a highly improbable and sentimental romance.’ Still he is correct in ascribing the beginning of his career as a serious dramatist to this work; in it he began to give thought to the world’s ailments.
He was not entirely reformed in his next play, Idiot’s Delight, which owed much of its success to Sherwood’s comic improvisation around Alfred Lunt, playing an American hoofer surrounded by six blonde chorus girls, and the aristocratic pretensions of a red-headed Russian girl from Omaha impersonated by Lynn Fontanne. For all that, Idiot’s Delight was a deeply stirring work on what Sherwood in 1936 called the ‘next world war.’ His prescience was justified more quickly perhaps than he expected; the Rhineland was occupied two days prior to the première of the play in Washington, and the London opening in 1938 was similarly introduced to the British public by te invasion of Austria a few days before.
After a brief interlude during which the increasingly serious-minded playwright adapted the French comedy Tovarich, he wrote Abe Lincoln in Illinois. He had long been interested in Lincoln’s story, becoming genuinely absorbed in it through a friendship with Carl Sandburg, which ripened after the latter phoned him one day to compliment him on his motion-picture criticism. Reverence made him put aside what he called his ‘fondness for hokum in the theatre.’ This episodic chronicle, which opened in the fall of 1938 with Raymond Massey as Lincoln, paid the tribute of simplicity to a simple man; the public took it to its heart instantaneously, and there is a strong probability of its becoming an American classic. The situation of the world having in the meantime grown even more serious, Sherwood remained on the same sober heights when he set down his latest play after being stirred by the invasion of Finland, for which he blamed Germany rather than the Soviet Union.
He was at the time trying to rewrite his London failure, Acropolis, a drama of the twilight of Periclean civilization which bore so many parallels to contemporary currents. But the pressure of the immediate world was stronger; after listening to W. L. White’s moving Christmas Day broadcast from the Karelian front, he began feverishly to write There Shall Be No Night, merely incorporating a speech from Acropolis in the new work. The play, which opened on March 29, 1940, proved to be Sherwood’s and the Lunts’ greatest success; there has never been a week when the receipts fell below $20,000, and it is still one of the greatest attractions of the theatre. Feeling that this call to arms against Hitlerism should reach other sections of the country, the author and the producers sent it on a twentyeight week tour in November 1940. The production traveled over 1600 miles and visited forty-five cities in nineteen states, as well as two provinces in Canada. A second tour, consisting mostly of one-night stands through the South and the Middle West, started in October and will end in Washington on February 28. It has been in all respects more like a crusade than an ordinary tour.
Realizing that, with Russia fighting on the side of the democracies, the political picture has changed since the play was written, Sherwood made minor changes in the text and provided a program note for the production, although the League of American Writers argues that the play provides fuel to isolationists by placing Russia in an unfavorable light and should be withdrawn. After maintaining that the Soviet Union, ‘presumably the partner in the crime of Hitler . . . was actually one of his many dupes,’ he declares that his purpose was ‘to set forth the tragedy of every civilized home in every civilized but unprepared free country which happened to lie in the path of the international assassins. It was, and is, obvious that this play, written by an American for Americans, was intended to say that this same tragedy may come upon us.’ A careful check of reviews from the second tour convinces Mr. Sherwood that his audiences’ attention is focused on this larger, anti-Nazi significance, rather than on the Finnish campaign.
The play, however, calls attention to an equally important phenomenon: Sherwood’s evolution since 1919, which might be termed a chronicle — perhaps better a fever chart — of his generation.
Like other men, he returned from the First World War with a changed outlook and some firm convictions. Brought up to believe that he was a 100 per cent American and a superior being, he discovered some wholesome facts about the community of man in the training camps, trenches, clinks, and hospitals. On one side of him during his convalescence lay an Australian who had been burned horribly by liquid fire; in the bed on the other side he found a South African Jew who was permanently paralyzed by a machine-gun bullet that had lodged in his spine. In addition to developing an intense aversion to war, he became ‘internationally-minded,’was convinced that future wars could be avoided by the elimination of excessive nationalism, and was at first enthusiastic about the League of Nations. But his enthusiasm waned under the influence of the Wilson-haters. ‘In 1920,’ he has written, ‘I confess with deep shame, my first vote as an American citizen was cast for Warren G. Harding. Thus, I did my bit in the great betrayal.’ His position then was not inconsistent with hatred of war. This hatred he inserted into his plays, as did other fashionable writers of the twenties who vented their disillusionment with cynical vehemence but without much serious attention to the fundamental problem. In The Road to Rome, which was typical of his work in the twenties, he delivered himself of such passages as ‘You say he is cruel. Is there any soldier who is otherwise?’ and a jibe at womenfolk in war who ‘sit at home and talk of the great sacrifices they are making.’ But the cream of the story lay in fashionable digs at virtue and Babbittism, in gay indifference to national calamity, and in the jest of Hannibal overcome by a beautiful Roman woman and the respectable Fabius saddled with an illegitimate son. Characteristic was the debonair optimism which made Sherwood and his audience believe that a Hannibal could be cured of his lust for conquest by ‘the human equation,’ here represented by an evening of pleasant adultery.
Then came the stock-market crash of 1929; and the ensuing years of depression, climaxed by the rise of Hitler, rocked the foundations of the civilized world. The proletarian and nearproletarian writers reacted by adopting Marxist social optimism and activism. Sherwood responded, instead, with a philosophy of despair, harking back to ‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘The Waste Land’ philosophy of T. S. Eliot. Believing profoundly in spiritual values and in the value of individuality, he could not accept either rationalistic science or collectivism as a solution. He set down their methods, in his preface to Reunion in Vienna, as a ‘neutralization of nature’ which led to a denial of individualism, maintaining that the disciples of both Galileo and Lenin ‘are determined to exterminate it and can undoubtedly do so, with the aid of the disciples of Freud.’
He saw civilization and its intellectuals as hopelessly lost, deteriorated in their souls and helpless in the face of a world taken over by the uncivilized. The hero of The Petrified Forest (which Sherwood calls ‘my first attempt to write a play about my own country in my own time’) is a writer who frittered away his talent idling with a rich woman on the Riviera until, lacking something ‘worth living for—and dying for,’ he asks an obliging gangster to kill him. Self-pityingly he refers to his possessing ‘brains without purpose,’ and Sherwood, who could not supply him with one, fatalistically ascribed the result to Nature. Intellectual man, described as ‘a vanishing race,’ thought he had conquered Nature with science, and ‘now there is only world-chaos.’ ‘It’s Nature hitting back. Not with the old weapons — floods, plagues, holocausts. . . . She’s fighting back with strange instruments called neuroses. She’s deliberately afflicting mankind with the jitters. . . . She’s taking the world away from the intellectuals and giving it back to the apes.’
Today, having found renewed strength of purpose, the author calls The Petrified Forest ‘a negative, inconclusive sort of play,’ but in 1932 its philosophy seemed to him sufficiently conclusive. He was too close to the hollow men and made them represent the whole intellectual world. The only comfort he could find — in Acropolis, which he had written just before — lay in the reflection that the world of the Periclean intellectuals did not after all die completely, since it lived in the memory of man. But here too the intellectuals — Phidias, Pericles, Socrates — were passively losing the world to the apes.
Sherwood’s pessimism reached its climax in Idiot’s Delight. Today he describes it as ‘completely American in that it represented a compound of blank pessimism and desperate optimism, of chaos and jazz.’ If he intends this derogatorily, he is somewhat unfair to himself, since his fatalistic prediction of a second World War is justified by past and present fact. He also had a better case against the intellectual than before, when he showed the pacifistic labor leader Quillery succumbing to war hysteria and the internationally-minded scientist Waldersee returning to Germany to make poison gas instead of fighting cancer. If the play did not achieve any genuine clarification, this was because of shortcomings that its author shared with his generation. He made no strong effort to analyze causes, contenting himself with an incisive portrait of a munitions magnate and vague references to the fact that the war is ‘everybody’s fault’ or the result of ‘God-damned bad management’; and the negativism of the preceding plays still prevailed sufficiently to rule out any positive conclusions other than the hoofer’s saltily stated faith that ‘no matter how much the meek may be bulldozed or gypped, they will eventually inherit the earth’ — which hardly helps the meek.
Something, however, happened to the pessimist at this time. He found his way back to the roots of American life and drew courage from them. His belief in the common man and in the spirit of American democracy became a white flame as he explored the life of Lincoln. It lighted his way not only to that notable play Abe Lincoln in Illinois but to a renewed faith in humanitarian striving and the brotherhood of man. Throughout the formative period of this faith, Sherwood had indeed begun to behave quite unlike his passive characters. In his particular craft, he began an active championship of American playwrights against producers in connection with contractual arrangements, became one of the leaders of the Dramatists’ Guild, and in 1937 joined Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson, S. N. Behrman, and the late Sidney Howard in founding the Playwrights’ Company with the object of putting on their plays independently. His interest also extended to bringing the professional theatre to all parts of the country, by means of an association for which he tried to raise $300,000.
In the larger world, Sherwood was at the same time actively concerned with social problems like slum clearance and municipal housing projects, and in politics he became an ardent New Dealer. The writing of Abe Lincoln in Illinois crystallized his growing realization that the intellectual could have both brains and a purpose. He was voicing his own convictions when he made Lincoln tell the townspeople who were seeing him off to Washington, ‘Let us live to prove that we can cultivate the natural world that is about us, and the intellectual and moral world within us, so that we may secure an individual, social and political prosperity, whose course shall be forward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.’
A year after the play opened, that world was distinctly beginning to pass away, and Hitler’s Germany began its triumphant march across Europe. Sherwood’s new-won faith, however, stood him in good stead while others who had once been less pessimistic and passive than he despaired and stood idly by. He became aware that in his American chronicle he had told ‘the story of a man of peace who had to face the issue of appeasement or war.’ Sherwood went through the same doubts. ‘It was,’ he wrote, ‘a bitter moment for me when I found myself on the same side as the Big Navy enthusiasts.’
In the hero of There Shall Be No Night, Dr. Valkonen, he retraced the stages of his own transformation, but he did not wait until he could find dramatic shape for his new convictions. He plunged into the battle as soon as he arrived at them, and after reconsidering his impulse to reënlist in the Canadian Army, which would have relegated him to a desk job at his age, became one of the leaders of the ‘Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.’ He wrote its historic advertisement, ‘Stop Hitler Now,’ on June 10, 1940, and paid the initial cost of $24,000 out of his own pocket. (He also sent part of his earnings to the Canadian Red Cross, and he gave $20,000 of his royalties from There Shall Be No Night to the Finnish Relief Fund.) With his pen he became the Committee’s most formidable propagandist. When Charles Lindbergh’s first radio speech called upon Americans to be ‘as impersonal as a surgeon with his knife’ with respect to the plight of Europe, Sherwood’s scathing reply in Time branded the sentence an insult to the medical profession and rephrased it as signifying ‘We must be as impersonal as the professional mourner, who doesn’t lament the seriousness of the plague, or the number of fatalities, as long as it helps his own business.’
He became the leading advocate of Clarence Streit’s ‘Union Now’ proposal at the time of Britain’s darkest days, because, as he declared at the mass meeting at Mecca Temple, it would serve notice on Hitler ‘that the power of the English-speaking world was too great for destruction by wanton bombing of British cities.’ It was at this critical time, on August 30, 1940, while bombs were rocking London, that he also tried to hearten the English people with a speech over the Canadian Broadcasting Company in which he assured them that America stood by their side in their great trial. It was a bold move on the part of a private individual to promise American aid, and it was made more annoying to isolationists by his denunciation of Messrs. Ford and Lindbergh as machine worshipers who had succumbed to the ‘degenerative influence of Hitlerism.’ He became a close, if unofficial, associate of President Roosevelt, whom he admires greatly and supported for reëlection for a third term; he was slated to be Master of Ceremonies at the inauguration when he was stricken with the flu at the White House. Although no confirmation can be had from him, his frequent presence at the White House has been connected with the preparation of several presidential broadcasts, including the declaration of a state of emergency. In February 1941, there were even rumors of his being appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. This proved unfounded, but he did take a confidential flight to London from which he returned last October. When the draft bill was enacted he took temporary charge of the Committee on Education, Recreation and Community Service of the United States Army. He is now First Assistant to Colonel William Joseph Donovan, Coördinator of Information, occupying himself in a heavily guarded New York building with the important matter of short-wave broadcasting to Europe. He divides his time between his office and Washington.
He may be quietly completing a new play (he is always incommunicative about his playwriting), since he can write extremely rapidly. But there is enough in his diversified activities to occupy two men. The spirited hero of many a fracas since youth finds zest in his work. If he was once one of MacLeish’s too severely taxed ‘Irresponsibles,’ there is no trace of it left today. He is also undoubtedly a happier man. Having emerged at last from the Slough of Despond, he is, like his Dr. Valkonen, convinced of the heroic possibilities in man’s spirit and of the truth of the unknown Jewish mystic’s assurance that ‘there shall be no night there.’