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Edith Wharton's


Monday, January 28, 2019

7:30 PM
Lucille Lortel Theatre
Directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Featuring Emily Brown, Samantha Blaire Cutler, Michael Cerveris, Sanjit De Silva, Talley Beth Gale, Adam Harrington, Kathryn Meisle, Amanda Quaid, and Brian Wiles

“My dear, after twenty, all life is pretending, and it’s easier to pretend in a good house, than alone in a garret!” advises Lady Uske, urging our heroine Kate to return home to her husband, in Edith Wharton’s long-lost drama. Written 20 years before The Age of Innocence earned her the first Pulitzer Prize for Literature to be awarded to a woman, Wharton’s The Shadow of a Doubt contains kernels of the socially conscious characters and themes of her later masterpiece novels. The three-act play was in rehearsal in 1901 when its production was cancelled; rediscovered only last year by sleuthing scholars, Wharton’s script will at long last be heard on the New York stage.


This reading is generously sponsored by Jonathan Reinis Productions


The Shadow of a Doubt (1901), an unknown, original three act play by Edith Wharton, was recovered in 2016 in the Playscripts and Promptbooks Collection (Performing Arts) at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. A working manuscript also resides at the Billy Rose Theater Division of The New York Public Library.  


Although renowned for her fiction in multiple literary genres, Wharton also wrote a series of plays, long forgotten, during her career. The period 1899-1906 remains especially fruitful. Several works she called brief “dialogues,” such as “Copy” and “The Twilight of the God.” But she also wrote full length plays, including The Tightrope, now lost. Her translation of Hermann Suderman’s Es Lebe das Leben (The Joy of Living) for actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell brought her residuals for years, to Wharton’s surprise.


Wharton was an adept playwright and worked with the best talent on Broadway. The Shadow of a Doubt, produced by Charles Frohman, represented by talent agent Elizabeth Marbury, and starring Elsie de Wolfe, was intended as a matinee for The American Academy at the Dramatic Arts and Empire Theatre Dramatic School.


The Shadow of a Doubt, set at the turn of the twentieth century in London, explores issues of the day, such as social position, remarriage, the roles of women, and euthanasia. Some of these ideas were later reworked in her best-selling novel, The House of Mirth (1905) as well as in the lesser known novel, The Fruit of the Tree (1907), albeit transferred to an American setting.


The Shadow of a Doubt showcases Wharton’s skill with witty repartee, dramatic tension and superb characterization. The women’s roles are especially strong, with bonds formed across social class and life situation. Kate Treddenis’ station has risen with her marriage to her late best friend’s widower, John Derwent, but her good fortune seems precarious even as she embraces her new role as wife and step-mother to Sylvia.


Drama in the late nineteenth century was in transition from farce, melodrama, and spectacle to a more realistic or “natural” style. American dramatists such as Clyde Fitch both entertained and pushed the boundaries of American taste, especially with regards to roles for women. Women playwrights were beginning to be noticed, and Frohman actively encouraged several of them, including Wharton. In The Shadow of A Doubt, she incorporates elements of the “problem play” and the “well-made play” influenced by Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, but with the wit of Oscar Wilde.


Around the same time as The Shadow of a Doubt, Wharton adapted Abbe Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut (1901) into a play starring Julia Marlowe, which nearly made it to the stage in the weeks before The Shadow of a Doubt. When Marlowe withdrew from the performance, Elsie de Wolfe was thought to step into the role of Manon after The Shadow of a Doubt was cancelled. Why neither play debuted remains a mystery.


While Wharton moved on to a successful career, she never lost interest in dramatic form. She collaborated with Clyde Fitch to stage The House of Mirth in 1906, claiming to her friend Robert Grant that even if the play was not a success, she would not regret the experience. Several of her works were later dramatized by others, including The Age of Innocence (1928) starring Katharine Cornell, and The Old Maid, for which Zoe Atkins won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1935.


The time is long overdue for Edith Wharton to take her bow on stage.


Mary Chinery

Professor of English, Georgian Court University

Laura Rattray

Reader in American Literature, University of Glasgow


Edith Wharton (1862–1937) was born into old New York society, the youngest child of affluent and socially prominent parents. She wrote from a very young age, with a volume of poems, Verses, published privately when she was just sixteen. At the age of 23 she married Edward (Teddy) Wharton of Boston, twelve years her senior, eventually divorcing him after 28 years and setting up permanent home in France. In the 1890s her early publications included short stories, often appearing in Scribner’s Magazine, poetry, a co-authored influential book on interior design, The Decoration of Houses, a translation of the drama Es Lebe das Leben, and her first volume of stories, The Greater Inclination. She wrote almost every day of her life, becoming one of America’s most popular and prolific novelists. Her successes included The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), The Custom of the Country (1913), Summer (1917) and The Age of Innocence (1920). Wharton was awarded France’s highest decoration, the Légion d'honneur, for her relief work during the First World War. Her last trip to the United States was in 1923 to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University. She died in France in August 1937, leaving behind a final, unfinished novel, The Buccaneers.

Mary Chinery

Professor of English, Georgian Court University

Laura Rattray

Reader in American Literature, University of Glasgow


Our OBIE Award-winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York. 


Casting subject to change.


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