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Scholars Rediscover Forgotten Edith Wharton Play

“The Shadow of a Doubt” had been overshadowed by over 100 years of history

Edith Wharton circa 1900. Her play "The Shadow of a Doubt" didn't make it to the stage in 1901—but has finally been rediscovered by scholars. (Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo )
smithsonian.com

Before Edith Wharton was a novelist, she tried her hand at playwriting. But whatever happened to her little-known play, “The Shadow of a Doubt”? It almost disappeared without leaving a shadow at all—the play spent over a century hiding in plain sight. Now, The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead reports, it’s finally been published thanks to two Wharton scholars.

“The Shadow of a Doubt” has a sad history. The play, which was produced in 1901 (before Wharton had even published her first novel), was never given a theatrical run.

Perhaps understandably, Wharton didn't even mention it in her own autobiography.​ But she didn't toss the play, either—it remained in her personal papers, Mead reports. After her death, those documents ended up at multiple research libraries around the United States. One of those libraries is the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin—which saved two typescripts of the play in a larger collection of scripts and promptbooks of authors like Lillian Hellman and Jean Cocteau. 

Now, the first typescript has been published by Laura Rattray and Mary Chinery in the Edith Wharton Review. The scholars tracked it down after finding an obscure reference the play in a newspaper. The play, write Rattray and Chinery, is the only original, full-length Wharton play that exists.

The story follows a nurse named Kate Derwent whose marriage runs into trouble when her husband learns that she helped his injured first wife die. The consequences of Derwent’s actions not only threaten her social standing—they threaten a once loving relationship when her husband refused to believe that she acted out of pity instead of malice. The play’s dramatic ending is pure Wharton, whose heroine chooses defiant loneliness rather than the love of an unworthy man.

Wharton wrote about euthanasia again in her 1907 novel The Fruit of the Tree, in which a similar ethical dilemma serves as a major plot point. As Mead notes, the play shows that Wharton grappled with questions of assisted suicide and romantic autonomy long before her first novels were written.

It isn’t the first time a Wharton treasure has been found where nobody expected it. As Smithsonian.com reported in 2015, a scholar discovered an unpublished short story by Wharton on the backside of another manuscript at Yale. Both finds have snooping scholars to thank. But the unsung heroes and heroines of these stories are the archivists and archival processors who organize and preserve these pieces for decades, empowering modern scholars to explore their riches.

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