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Robert E. Sherwood

Robert E. Sherwood: The Playwright in Peace and War

Harriet Hyman Alonso
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Robert E. Sherwood
    Book Description:

    One of the nation's first film critics, an acclaimed speechwriter on his own and for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a propagandist during World War II, and a leading producer on Broadway, Robert E. Sherwood scripted some of the most popular plays and films of his day, including Waterloo Bridge, The Best Years of Our Lives, Idiot's Delight, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and Rebecca. His work brought him four Pulitzer Prizes and an Oscar. In his personal life, however, he was driven by a deep conviction that war was a societal evil that must be eradicated and human rights a moral responsibility that all governments should protect. At times, his belief in pacifism and his commitment to defending freedom and justice came into conflict with each other, causing frustration and emotional trauma which found their way into his writings and actions. In this book, Harriet Hyman Alonso unravels Sherwood's inner struggle and portrays his political journey. Relying largely on his letters, diaries, plays, films, essays, and biography of Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, she traces Sherwood's obsession with the world of politics and its effects on his life and art, from his experience as a soldier in World War I to the Cold War. She also describes his participation in the Algonquin Round Table, his friendships and working relationships with such notables as Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Edna Ferber, Spencer Tracy, Harry Hopkins, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, his two marriages and uneasy relationship with his daughter, and his leadership role in the Broadway community. Alonso brings together history, theater and film studies, and peace studies in this interdisciplinary political biography. In the process, she illuminates major currents in U.S. foreign policy, society, and culture from 1896 to 1955—the years of the remarkable life of Robert E. Sherwood.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-062-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[x])
  3. Act One

    • Prologue
      (pp. 3-6)

      In June 1901, when Robert Emmet Sherwood was just five years old, his mother, Rosina (or Posie, as her loved ones called her), visited a fortune-teller. She was skeptical of fortune-tellers, spiritualists, and other seers of the unknown, but her sister Lydia, an avid fan of such practices, insisted that she go, and Posie’s curiosity and sense of fun allowed no other option. After giving Posie a perfunctory description of her four other children, the woman zeroed in on young Bobby and refused to discuss the others any further. “She was simply inspired and prophetic about Bobby,” Posie told Lyd....

    • 1 Being an Emmet and a Sherwood
      (pp. 7-20)

      Robert Emmet Sherwood was born into two illustrious families, the Emmets and the Sherwoods, both with long histories in the United States and with shared common values. First, they were patriotic, loved the nation they lived in, and supported their government’s positions in both domestic and foreign policies as long as they deemed them fair and honest. Second, they were committed to social justice—to standing up for individual freedoms and protecting civil liberties. Third, they valued the printed word, and several family members engaged in some sort of writing themselves. Fourth, they also loved the arts, especially literature, theater,...

    • 2 Born to Be a Ham
      (pp. 21-35)

      Over forty years after his birth on April 4, 1896, Robert Sherwood’s mother still recalled how happy she was on the day he arrived, when her artist’s eye took in the heaps of white snow on a maple tree “covered with scarlet tassels” outside her window and heard the doctor say, “This is the biggest baby I ever saw.”¹ Indeed, even in his adulthood, Sherwood’s height, thinness, and slight stoop were noted in almost every newspaper article, memoir, or speech in which he was mentioned and remained a cause of his constant self-consciousness. As a small child entering the Jay...

    • 3 From Soldier to Pacifist
      (pp. 36-62)

      The month after war broke out in Europe in 1914, Robert Sherwood entered Harvard University as a freshman. His father, Arthur, had graduated from Harvard in 1877, his brother Arthur in 1910, and Philip, now a senior, was scheduled to complete his degree in 1915. Sherwood’s experience at Harvard duplicated those at the Fay School and at Milton Academy. He excelled in the arts and creative writing while turning his back on academics. Still, his two and a half years at the university exposed him to the wider world, especially as the war in Europe moved closer to home. In...

    • 4 Life after the War
      (pp. 63-93)

      For almost a decade after his war experience, Robert Sherwood went through a series of changes. For some time he suffered from a case of moderate postwar trauma with nightmares and sweats, fear of rodents, and general restlessness and bouts of undisciplined behavior. In seeming contradiction to his wildness and hyperactivity, he was also often withdrawn, pensive, and silent, never wishing to discuss his military service. During the same period, he pushed forward in his pursuit of a career in writing—at first as a feature writer, essayist, and film critic; then as a short story author and screenwriter (neither...

    • 5 Writing Plays for Peace
      (pp. 94-132)

      In 1925, when Robert Sherwood decided to take Edna Ferber’s advice and become serious about his writing, he knew that he wanted to spread an antiwar message. By then, he had spent almost five years commenting on the way filmmakers handled the subject of war—giving high praise to a very few and damning the many. It was his time to make it right, but not on the screen. He had decided that for this cause he needed to use words, not images, to make his point. The “silent drama” was not the place for him, but the theater was....

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
  4. Interlude

    • 6 Marriage, Divorce, and The Petrified Forest
      (pp. 135-164)

      Although World War I remained the defining moment of Robert Sherwood’s life until the day he died, the experience most affected him over the years from 1919 to 1934. His eleven-year marriage to Mary Brandon illustrates the impact the war had on his psyche and his behavior. His emotional ups and downs and his frenetic restlessness juxtaposed with periods of silence characterized their early years together. But as time passed and the scars of war more or less healed, his lifestyle also changed. He became more dedicated to his work, which meant fewer parties and late nights of gambling. Although...

  5. Act Two

    • 7 From Pacifist to Soldier
      (pp. 167-217)

      On January 18, 1938, Robert Sherwood wrote in his diary: “Made up my mind today that I’m interested (in writing) in nothing less than reforming the world. The other day I said to Alex Korda, ‘I’m sick of world affairs, war, etc. I wish I could write a plain drawing room comedy.’ He laughed and said it was impossible. ‘You can’t even keep world affairs out of the drawing room.’ ”¹ The British film producer had hit the nail on the head. Bob’s life was consumed by world affairs. World War I remained the key experience in shaping his responses...

    • 8 Sherwood and Roosevelt
      (pp. 218-266)

      Robert Sherwood had to play an active role in World War II because, like some interwar pacifists, he believed that his support of self-protective isolationism and neutrality had contributed to its cause. He blamed himself for aiding in the breakdown of what he termed “civilization” and the return to “the apes” by using his role as a playwright and screenwriter to sway public opinion. Therefore, he was guilty of “peace monomania” (a term the dramatist Paul Green coined in his 1936 antiwar playJohnny Johnson) and was culpable for the rise of fascism, tyranny, unchecked imperialism, and crimes against humanity.¹...

    • 9 Changing the Message
      (pp. 267-296)

      Like a number of men of his generation, Robert Sherwood had taken two turns at war which resulted in vastly different postwar experiences. A private in the trenches during World War I, he returned home to the common global disillusionment over the declared aim of that struggle: to make the world safe for democracy. His anger and disappointment resulted in drastic shift from supporting militarism to embracing pacifism. Perceiving World War II as a battle against tyrannical fascism, however, cast things in an entirely different light. Being appointed by the president of the United States to head the Overseas Branch...

    • 10 The Message Is Lost
      (pp. 297-323)

      Robert Sherwood spent the last six years of his life split between two worlds. He received a constant stream of honors for his work as a playwright and biographer despite being stuck in the quicksand of writer’s block. Although he tried several times to compose a play or film that would once again capture the nation’s heart, he was continually unsuccessful. Meanwhile, he enjoyed politics and campaigned for Herbert H. Lehman for the U.S. Senate, Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. for Congress, and Adlai Stevenson for president, and won awards as a spokesman for human rights. At times, the tug between...

    • Epilogue
      (pp. 324-328)

      Many people gathered to honor Robert Sherwood after his death. ANTA, of which he had been one of the creators and presidents, held a memorial to him on November 29 which attracted more than three hundred people. A host of theater people spoke, among them Sam Rosenman, Moss Hart, and Elmer Rice, and the newsman Charles Collingwood. The Dramatists Guild established a yearly award to be given in Bob’s memory to a Columbia University student in the Theatre Arts Division of the School of the Arts. The Fund for the Republic, of which Bob was the director at the time...

  6. Notes
    (pp. 329-366)
  7. Bibliography
    (pp. 367-380)
  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 381-382)
  9. Index
    (pp. 383-394)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 395-396)