A Lost Edith Wharton Play Debuts on Stage for the First Time

After more than 100 years, the renowned writer’s script resurfaced in a Texas archive

André Morin as John Derwent and Katherine Gauthier as Kate Derwent in The Shadow of a Doubt David Cooper / The Shaw Festival

Several years ago, two scholars dug up a 1901 script by Edith Wharton. The play, titled The Shadow of a Doubt, had been lost for more than a century.

Now, for the very first time, audiences can see the show on stage: A new production debuted at the Shaw Festival in Ontario’s Niagara-on-the-Lake earlier this month.

“We really don’t know why it didn’t get produced, and part of me wonders if Wharton even wanted it produced,” Peter Hinton-Davis, director of the new play, tells the New York Times’ Eric Grode. “We all have stuff at the bottoms of drawers.”

Wharton is best known for her novels and stories, many of which she wrote later in life. She published her first novel at 40, and she was nearly 60 when The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921, making her the first woman to win the award. Still, she was a prolific writer, producing more than a dozen novels, as well as many other novellas, short stories, poems and other works.

She isn’t known as a playwright. So when the script surfaced several years ago, the literary scholars who found it—Laura Rattray of the University of Glasgow and Mary Chinery of Georgian Court University in New Jersey—knew they had stumbled upon something rare. In 2016, the duo found it “hiding in plain sight” at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, as the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead wrote in 2017.

“The archives in the United States and Europe with huge holdings on this most transatlantic of authors have been extensively researched,” Rattray told the Guardian’s Nadia Khomami in 2017. “After all this time, nobody thought there were long, full scale, completed, original, professional works by Wharton still out there that we didn’t know about. But evidently there are.”

Royal George interior
The interior of the Royal George Theater, where the play is being performed David Cooper / The Shaw Festival

The play is “one-half murder mystery, and one-half devastating critique of the hypocrisy and snobbishness of the Gilded Age,” according to a statement from the Shaw Festival.

Mystery is also embedded in the circumstances surrounding the play’s disappearance.

In 1901, The Shadow of a Doubt was in rehearsals, with the expectation that it would eventually open with a one-off performance at Broadway’s Empire Theater, per the Times. The lead role, Kate Derwent, was to be played by actress Elsie de Wolfe.

But the play never opened, and the reason why isn’t entirely clear. Chinery and Rattray found an archival news story claiming the production had been paused so that Wharton could “strengthen some of the roles,” though they’re skeptical of this explanation. Perhaps, as they told the New Yorker, the lead role was deemed beneath de Wolfe’s glamorous reputation.

Additionally, they suspect that the subject material would have proven controversial. The plot concerns taboo subjects such as assisted suicide, something Wharton returned to in her 1907 novel The Fruit of the Tree.

Even today, the script can come across as “odd,” per the Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor. The new production introduces new staging techniques that are similarly unconventional. For instance, throughout the production, four onstage cameras project live video images of the cast’s faces onto the set.

“Some people will be divided on this production, no question,” Tim Carroll, the festival’s artistic director, tells the Times.

And the newly unearthed script? “It’s not perfect,” he adds, “but it’s jolly interesting.”

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