After 122 Years, a Lost Edith Wharton Play Gets Its Debut

Edith Wharton’s 1934 autobiography, “A Backward Glance,” glances a bit more carefully at some things than others. She gives her close friend and fellow literary lion Henry James a chapter, but names her husband of 28 years exactly once. (And that’s only because she quotes James referring to him.)

One subject Wharton doesn’t mention at all? “The Shadow of a Doubt,” a full-length 1901 play that got close to a Broadway opening before foundering under murky circumstances. It was all but forgotten — which is perhaps what Wharton had intended — until two scholars unearthed a script in 2016.

Mary Chinery, of Georgian Court University in New Jersey, and Laura Rattray, of the University of Glasgow, found the script in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. (Crucially, the play was filed not under the center’s well-combed-over Wharton holdings but rather in its collection of “Playscripts and Promptbooks.”)

“We often don’t have the complete picture, especially with women writers from that period,” Chinery said. “Their work is so spread out that there’s a lot we still don’t know about.”

Audiences will finally be able to see for themselves at the Shaw Festival, in the bucolic Canadian hamlet Niagara-on-the-Lake, which presents works written by and in the spirit of George Bernard Shaw each summer. Nestled alongside works by Shaw, J.M. Synge and Noël Coward this year is the world premiere of “The Shadow of a Doubt,” which opened Aug. 20 at the Royal George Theater.

Tim Carroll, the festival’s artistic director, said he was constantly on the lookout for new works to add to the festival’s repertory. “I have friends all over the world sending me links to articles about new discoveries,” he said. “And 95 times out of 100, you realize this is a forgotten play for a reason.”

But he said “Shadow,” a somewhat lurid mash-up of Oscar Wilde’s drollery and Henrik Ibsen’s noose-tightening melodrama, “ticked three boxes”: It was by a well-known author, it was written during Shaw’s lifetime and it had never received a full staging. (There was a BBC Radio adaptation in 2018, and the Red Bull Theater staged a reading the following year.)

Carroll felt Wharton’s play was in that 5 percent of discoveries worth unearthing. “It’s not perfect, but it’s jolly interesting,” he said.

As it happens, Wharton’s interest in the theater went well beyond the occasional stage adaptations of her novels. Before she found success with “The House of Mirth” in 1905, Chinery said, Wharton had forged relationships with several New York theater professionals and worked on adaptations and brief works that she called “dialogues.”

“Shadow,” the story of a nurse who marries uneasily into a wealthy family after her patient’s death, was poised to become Wharton’s big step forward. The play entered rehearsals in February 1901 with the impresario Charles Frohman and the noted leading lady Elsie de Wolfe on the bill. It was scheduled to be performed as a one-off matinee at the Empire Theater, then a Broadway venue, which was a common prelude to a longer run, but it never got that far.

Why? Accounts vary, with culprits ranging from the subject matter (assisted suicide) to a discontented Frohman to an unenthusiastic de Wolfe. Wharton reportedly planned to “strengthen some of the roles” during the announced postponement. But for whatever reason, the postponement became permanent and essentially marked the end of her playwriting days.

Much of the play’s raw material would soon provide fodder for her 1907 novel “The Fruit of the Tree,” which served as a useful resource for the cast and crew of the Shaw Festival’s new production. This was especially valuable since the script raised some questions of its own. Katherine Gauthier, who stars as the upwardly mobile (and potentially sinister) Kate Derwent, said she identified several aspects that she believes would have been tweaked after the initial Empire Theater performance.

“It had kind of a smorgasbord of genres,” Gauthier said of the original text. “Our challenge has been to put all of these people in the same world.”

Gauthier is a playwright herself, as is the director, Peter Hinton-Davis, who described the initial script as “a bit like getting a rehearsal draft” — to the point where he felt almost queasy about taking it on.

“We really don’t know why it didn’t get produced, and part of me wonders if Wharton even wanted it produced,” Hinton-Davis said. “We all have stuff at the bottoms of drawers.”

He said the “Shadow” actors, eager to make a good first impression on behalf of the piece, felt more beholden to the original text than they would have for a better-known work. All of the words being performed are Wharton’s, but Hinton-Davis described the rehearsal process as “a constant navigation between the found text and the edited text that we used.” For one thing, he arrived at rehearsals with a considerably leaner version, only to reinsert certain witticisms and plot points along the way.

Hinton-Davis also added some audiovisual components, including real-time close-ups courtesy of four onstage cameras, that might have sent de Wolfe to her fainting couch. “Some people will be divided on this production, no question,” said Carroll, who contrasted this approach to what he called the “archaeologically exact sort of staging” common to so many period pieces.

Gauthier drew a different comparison from the perspective of Shaw Festival audiences. “I think some people are coming in primed to see another ‘Gaslight,’” she said, alluding to last year’s reboot of another woman-in-trouble drama that played in the same atmospheric theater. “But while a lot of plays come to you, this one asks you to lean forward and listen.”

Those who do will hear a fledgling playwright take a tentative but intriguing step toward many of the themes that would animate her novels — the persistence of class, the fluidity of our personas and how they change from relationship to relationship. “Given her mastery of multiple genres, I think she would have done well had she stuck it out as a playwright,” Chinery said.

That possibility remains unknowable (unless other plays also surface, including a missing title called “The Tightrope” that Wharton alluded to in her letters). Still, “Shadow” offers a titillating look at what she might have done with — and to — the prevailing theatrical styles of the time.

“A lot of people think of realism as the antithesis to artifice, as opposed to melodrama or farce,” Hinton-Davis said. “But I think of realism as the antithesis to idealism, and Wharton excelled at that. I see her as a wonderful satirist.”

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