Vol 28 no.1

“Re-righting” Finland’s Winter War: Robert E. Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night[s]

Robert E. Sherwood’s biblical source for the title of his play There Shall Be No Night is useful for establishing context for the contemporary controversy the play was part of, as well as the lack of subsequent commentary it has received. Sherwood dearly wanted to create something profoundly relevant. The inherent paradox in such an ambition is something any writer who wishes to be a contemporary voice must contend with. The play was presented by the Theatre Guild and originally ran from 29 April 1940 to 9 August 1940, re-opening 9 September 1940, closing 2 November 1940. It dramatizes the collapse of Finland between 1938 and 1940, and concerns a Nobel Prize-winning Finnish scientist (played by Alfred Lunt), and his American-born wife (played by Lynn Fontanne). He is a renowned pacifist who refuses to believe that war will overtake his country. When the war does come, their son Erik (played by Montgomery Clift) joins the Finnish army, and after he is killed, the father joins the fight. It is possible now though, to consider a larger question that the play and its production raises. Can an “up-to-the-minute” play survive a long run? What is more, Sherwood’s play crystalizes an Horatian dilemma: does the play “enlighten” or “entertain”? It also raises decidedly post-classical issues.

The work of Carlo Ginzburg  (b. 1929) can assist us in assessing the pitfalls that may beset a playwright who relies too much on current events and enable us to consider the microhistorical concerns that this production may address. Ginzburg is one of the most important microhistorians; significantly, he originally wanted to study literature and Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis has always been a starting point for him. In Ginzburgs approach, literature precedes history. So using Ginzburg to consider a play about its own time that is of greater historical than literary interest provides a useful twist. Sherwood takes such an approach dramatically in his World War II play by drawing on the Finnish Winter War and subsequently in a revision, the invasion of Greece. There Shall Be No Night’s urgency precludes history in no small measure because the play is primarily a polemic. Thus, there is only one perspective in it, as noted earlier, that the United States should join the war against Germany. It has no use as a means of fathoming the greater complexity of the alliance with the Soviet Union or what the United Nations[2] would become, to mention but two issues confronting Americans after they entered the war. By failing to comment on his own revision, Sherwood also offered only one perspective towards it. The question of perspective takes us to one of Ginzburg’s favorite concerns. He has revitalized the microhistorical approach through a, perhaps ironic, expansion of its focus. His recent work has expanded via discursions rather than monographs.[3]

Challenging aesthetic history, Ginzburg has called out art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892-1928) as an exemplar of method to be challenged, questioned, and indeed resituated. Ginzburg takes issue with Panofsky’s foundational assumptions about iconography (relating the subject matter of a work of art contextually to symbolic meaning drawn from literature and other art works).[4] The notion of perspective as an immutable is something theatre historians have challenged in recent years, yet recalling the “invention” of scenographic perspective as an evolutionary phenomenon is also an example of how Ginzburg’s work may inform our more skeptical inquiries. Theatre historians who remember Alberti’s 1435 text outlining the “rules” for drawing with a three-dimensional perspective will be interested in the way that Ginzburg’s discussions of Alberti call into question the idea of precise “sight-lines” through history.[5] Noting how quickly Sherwood’s drama inspired by a wartime broadcast so quickly dated instructs us here. What is more, when Ginzburg references Erich Auerbach as an ultimate authority due to Auerbach’s disregard for generic distinctions between “history” and “literature,” he may lead theatre theorists and historians to see past such false dichotomies as “theatre” and “drama” or “stage” and “performance.” Auerbach’s Mimesis[6] is itself a legend of scholarship (and a testament to a scholar’s memory in the literal sense, considering the circumstances of its composition).[7] The ongoing use to which Mimesis is put in the 21st century also allows us to enter into the discourse of a work such as There Shall Be No Night and consider the importance of the performances of the famous acting couple Alfred Lunt (1892-1977) and Lynne Fontanne (1887-1983).

“The Lunts,” as they were known, were a mainstay of the Theatre Guild and were best known for their work in comedy, though their reputation was somewhat belied by their performances in plays by O’Neill and Chekhov. Without the Lunts, the play would have been inconceivable. They were at the crest of their fame and reputation. They had also starred in Sherwood’s Reunion in Vienna (opened 16 November 1931, ran for 264 performances) and his anti-war play Idiot’s Delight (opened 24 March 1936, ran for 300 performances). Two star performers at the height of their careers, a playwright renouncing his own pacifism, and a nation riven by controversy over intervening in the war are the elements behind the play’s contemporary triumph.  Thus, we have before us, the current events that Sherwood dramatized, the historical moment of Finland’s Winter War with the Soviet Union, and the theatrical phenomenon of the production starring the Lunts (and directed by Alfred Lunt) that would not have been successful without these factors.

Sherwood wrote the play in response to the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland. It opened 29 April 1940, went on a month’s hiatus while Sherwood rewrote it in August for a September re-opening, and it closed 2 November 1940. It then went on tour through the United States and Canada. It crossed the Atlantic and opened in Liverpool 1 November 1943, toured England and opened in London 15 December, running until 30 June 1944, thence for another month on tour. An interventionist polemic and star vehicle for a celebrated acting couple, nevertheless the play was also mired in politics; Sherwood was attacked by right and left as a “war-monger” and “capitalist stooge,” respectively. Irrespective of these accusations, Sherwood closed it when the United States entered the war, believing that the play’s heroic depiction of Finland, which had become Hitler’s ally by then, was bad for the war effort. Some accounts have President Roosevelt himself asking Sherwood to close it down.[8]

Before considering Sherwood’s discontinuities, a brief review of Sherwood’s career is necessary as he is largely unknown today. Sherwood reveals in the preface that he was so eager to serve in the First World War that when the United States army rejected him because of his height, he crossed the border to join a Canadian Black Watch regiment in 1917. He was severely wounded and suffered for the rest of his life from his wartime injuries. Thereafter, he was an avowed pacifist for several years. While his serious political interests seemed not to jibe with his literary reputation as a charter member of the Algonquin Round Table, the celebrated circle of Broadway wits that included including Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley, Franklin P. Adams, and others, Sherwood was the only one of that group to have consistently made a serious literary career. Kaufman was a most successful playwright and director, but no other Algonquin Round Table member had anything like Sherwood’s level of success. (Sherwood’s 1948 joint biographical history, Roosevelt and Hopkins won the Pulitzer Prize, his third, and almost every other literary prize, as well as the Bancroft Prize and many other awards for history writing.) Robert Benchley, one of Sherwood’s Algonquin confreres, with whom he had shared an office at Vanity Fair in the 1920s, was a beloved comic writer and performer whose final Hollywood years were marked by alcoholism and depression. He eventually could not bear to be in the same room with Sherwood. Benchley grimly remarked after walking out of a party where he had seen his old friend, “Those eyes, I can’t stand those eyes looking at me. He’s looking at me and thinking of how he knew me when I was going to be a great writer—and he’s thinking, now look at what I am!”[9] Benchley was excoriating himself, for Sherwood was a remarkably generous writer who was doubtless more concerned with slaying his own inner dragons of despair than looking daggers at Benchley. Years later, Sherwood even wrote the foreword to Nathaniel Benchley’s biography of his father. For his own part, Sherwood continually lamented the fact that he always seemed to start out with something serious only to end up with lighthearted entertainment. Nevertheless, after There Shall Be No Night opened, another of Sherwood’s erstwhile Algonquin comrades, Alexander Woollcott, wrote to Lynne Fontanne about his talent, “Not one of the Algonquin crowd has made such good use of the stuff he has in him.”[10]

Sherwood’s success as a writer and public servant and his relatively uncomplicated personal life obscure his inner conflicts. The lingering physical pain from his war wounds was exacerbated by his own self-doubt and sense of failure.  He may well have suffered from depression, and there is even the thought that his war service may have left him with more severe mental scars than the shrapnel he carried in his legs. With these issues in mind, There Shall Be No Night is the culmination of Sherwood’s playwriting ambitions; it is the play he had been trying to write for his entire career. Even so, it betrays the plight of the commercial playwright in service to a cause. Sherwood had to write the play as quickly as possible in order to insure its relevance; thus, while Sherwood made a theatrical milestone, he fell short of creating a dramatic landmark. If Sherwood is remembered, it is for The Petrified Forest (1935), which provided Humphrey Bogart with a career-making role and was made into a successful film the following year that also established Bette Davis once and for all as an A-List star for Warner Brothers. Less well-known today is the fact that its original Broadway star, Leslie Howard stipulated that he would only act in the film if Bogart were cast as well. It is perhaps amusing that those who grew up watching films on television probably remember it as a 1930s “gangster” movie.

In his preface to the published version of There Shall Be No Night Sherwood notes the influence of his earlier plays. Sherwood carefully traces the play’s genesis, and his introduction is an exculpation of his transformation from pacifist to interventionist. He begins by recounting how he was accosted in the lobby after the first try-out of the play by a “young man” who “accused” Sherwood of having become a “War-monger.”[11] He adds that many critics continue to echo that accusation. After a lengthy review of his playwriting career, he concludes:

It seems to me as this Preface is written, that Doctor Valkonen’s pessimism concerning man’s mechanical defenses and his optimistic faith in man himself have been justified by events. The Mannerheim and Maginot Lines have gone. But the individual human spirit still lives and resists in the tortured streets of London.[12]

Sherwood defends his vision, but curiously makes no mention of the “Greek” re-visioning of the play.

Sherwood subsequently relocated the play to Greece (“re-righting” history via dramatic setting).[13] Sherwood had to do so in order to maintain a coherent liberal, democratic vision of the Allied war effort that America could rally behind. Finland’s alliance with Germany was an issue even for non-Stalinists. Sherwood’s choice of Greece was both “historically” accurate and appropriate. The Greeks fought valiantly against the Italians and the Germans. There was no chance of a Soviet invasion there that might necessitate any political or military realignment. Drawing on the irresistible heritage of “the glory that was Greece,” Sherwood found a perfect way to maintain the political message of his play and its urgency for its audiences. Location and ideology merged perfectly, indeed instantly, for no one would need any explanations about which country “Greece” was or which side Greece was on.

The play won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Institute of Arts and Letters’ Gold Medal, and the Lunts successfully transferred the play to London, where it was even more highly acclaimed. Most observers agreed that their performances were tremendously moving and that it was a great production, in spite of signs of hasty composition.[14] In Sherwood’s papers the typescripts reveal that he completed the play in less than three months and, as mentioned above, revised it in three weeks.[15] He chastised himself for “sloppy writing.”[16] Reconsidering the play as an emblem of problematic liberal bourgeois decency allows us to question whether it was the play or its performance that was so effective. Its protagonist is Dr. Kaarlo Valkonen, a Nobel-prize winning pacifist physician, who is married to Miranda, an American woman. The introductory scenes allow Dr. Valkonen opportunity to espouse his philosophy that the world has gone mad because of too much scientific and technological success. He argues humanity has grown complacent. Nonetheless, Sherwood offers a vision of a liberal and humane Northern European paradise. This is shattered with the Russian invasion. Valkonen’s son, a soldier, leaves his inamorata just after getting her pregnant (albeit he does not know it), though he does manage to marry her from his hospital bed before dying from his wounds (providing emotional melodrama alongside the political). After the invasion, Dr. Valkonen joins the medical corps but after his son’s death joins the partisans, tearing off his Red Cross armband and strapping on a revolver as he exits. There are additional debates among secondary characters, English and American volunteers who are Spanish Civil War veterans, about fighting the good fight and what will happen after the war. After learning of her husband’s death, Mrs. Valkonen escapes with her pregnant daughter-in-law to America. The play is no masterpiece, but it remains moving. The problem lies not with its success as melodrama, but with its failure as ideological explication. The play’s “dramatic” and “historical” problems will be discussed when the London production is taken up.

Now the question of the success of a production of a given play in the midst of World War II, vis-à-vis the relative failure of that play, in itself may not seem crucial to one’s understanding of either the war or American drama as a whole. Nevertheless, if we consider the problem of Sherwood’s expansive vision of the role of the playwright as a player on the field of history with the contractive nature of “timeliness” we can come to an understanding of the microhistorical usefulness of both the text and the production of There Shall Be No Night. Auerbach’s notion of mimesis pertains here only indirectly. We should not look to Sherwood’s play for a “realistic” depiction of wartime Finland (or Greece), but for a recapitulation of American attitudes towards World War II. Eight decades later, Sherwood’s work appears to be a theatrical monument that memorializes the playwright’s belief in his audience’s capacity for liberal, humanist idealism.  By studying the reaction the play inspired we gain insight, not into the front lines, but the home front. We observe the impossibility of a play “recreating” battlefield issues. Yet, we may note the possibility of understanding why a contemporary audience would want to believe in the possibility of a genuine dramatization of wartime perceptions and sensations. It is not Sherwood’s play per se that offers us this insight. It is recognizing how the combination of the play, its preface, its revision, and its production history (including audience and critics’ reactions) reflect their historical moment that entails our attempt to discern this wartime mentalité.

The ephemeral nature of performance is dismissed by the historical record of There Shall Be No Night. Drawing on Siegfried Kracauer’s levels of history, we can balance the putative timeliness of the play against the timelessness of the Lunts’ achievement and consider that their artistic achievement transcends their own or Sherwood’s humane or patriotic ambitions. It is aesthetic ambition that endures here. The Lunts took a hastily-written, topical melodrama and made it into an icon of United Nations idealism. What the play offered was an enactment of what the allies were fighting for. Sherwood asserts his right to express in public the ideology of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms; Sherwood had already given Roosevelt the powerful term, “arsenal of democracy.” He was involved with the moment, though his historical reach exceeded his playwriting grasp. For Sherwood there was a particular urgency here. He had chastised himself for not being able to sustain a serious dramatic situation, even if he does manage to maintain acute tension with this play. It is misleading that latter-day critics have lumped the play with Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine (opened 1 April 1941); distance may make the plays seem similar, nevertheless, Thomas P. Adler goes so far to argue that Sherwood’s play “actually helped shape and alter the opinions of Americans about entrance into the war.”

While the contemporary critical debate was lively, subsequent scholarly commentary is limited. The play is discussed more in terms of Sherwood’s turning away from pacifism and as somehow adjunct to his work for the Roosevelt administration than as part of his playwriting career. Bigsby devotes as much space to Sherwood’s war work as he does to the play. Wertheim mostly discusses it as part of Broadway’s march toward wartime awareness.[19] As noted, Adler makes even stronger claims for the play’s contemporary impact. What the critical commentary lacks is an appreciation for the play’s production. By limiting their approach to a reading of the play, Bigsby, Adler, and Wertheim overlook an indispensable aspect of the play’s success: the Lunts’ performance. In terms of Sherwood’s literary career it is seen as a sort of sequel to Idiot’s Delight, dramatizing the war that that play presaged. The aesthetic dilemma that this play presents is daunting. Particularly in light of its liberal ideology: it is a life lesson in the humane. But the Lunts and their audiences found they could not sustain their own line of defense when confronted with V-2 rockets.

Sherwood defended his work (and interventionism) in the preface,[20] and Roosevelt supporters praised the play more for its message than for its dramatic soundness. The play was a box-office hit, and Sherwood donated some of the profits to war relief. After their Broadway success, the Lunts were eager to bring the production to London, where they were equally successful. In spite of this seeming triumph though, even before it closed in 1944, some argued that the play had already become dated.[21] Additionally, the London production was literally stopped by bombs. The Aldwych Theatre suffered a direct hit. In an excruciating example of art and history colliding, Lunt himself believed the play’s resonance had become too strong. Audiences had begun to thin and the other actors found performing difficult to endure. Such lines as “the enemy is near” while bombs were falling outside the theatre seemed to have nearly choked up Lunt’s ability to act.[22]

There are many war plays, and Wertheim’s study considers American World War II plays in particular, but he writes almost entirely about plays being performed on Broadway. One cannot neglect the unique London production of There Shall be No Night. Historically, there have been plays about wars being fought as the plays themselves were being performed. Lysistrata is probably the most famous example. Yet, Aristophanes’s play was originally written for a single performance and the Spartans were not yet at gates of Athens at that time. Nineteenth-century examples might include the Battle of Little Big Horn recreated in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show or Philip Astley’s hippodramatic military spectacles presented during the Boer War. None of these were performed under fire, nor were any performed for anywhere near the number of consecutive performances as was There Shall Be No Night in London (15 December 1943 to 30 June 30 1944).

Even so, a play such as There Shall Be No Night, whose least significant aspect is its script, offers a cautionary tale for the playwright who wants to be timely. The ephemeral “performance” of the current events taking place in Finland is eclipsed by the “great performance” of the Lunts; both elide over the text of the play itself. Current event and performance phenomenon are washed over by the tide of history. Commenting on the original production, George Jean Nathan, usually unabashedly caustic, seemed reticent plowing under Sherwood’s hallowed ground, but was prescient:

If the Federal Theatre Project gave us what with considerable exactness was called The Living Newspaper, Sherwood is giving us what with at least a measure of exactness may be called the Living Editorial. Neither, however, is in form the least like the other and both differ further and widely in the fact that, whereas the former was contrived with plan and deliberation, the latter is the hapless consequence of dramaturgical insufficiency.[23]

Nathan sums up the play’s central problem. There Shall Be No Night is not so much concerned with drama as it is with amplifying a call to arms. I would add that when Nathan’s colleague, drama critic John Mason Brown, embarked on the second volume of his biography of Sherwood, he made it clear that this play summed up Sherwood’s career. Indeed, Brown died before he completed the volume and the entire text of the play was included when the biography was published posthumously. Brown’s failure to assimilate this assertion with his own vision as a writer demonstrates the collapse of genteel liberalism’s aesthetic consciousness.[24]  I also wonder if the Lunts being the production’s stars had an impact on the seriousness with which the play was taken. Even though their performances were praised, the Lunts had long been associated with light comedy. This would be a problem for them in their final years; the London production of The Visit  (opened 23 June 1960) was advertised as a sparkling comedy and this had a negative effect on its initial reception.

In the context of Sherwood’s work and There Shall Be No Night, the Lunts had performed in Sherwood’s Reunion in Vienna (opened 16 November 1931) and Idiot’s Delight (opened 24 March 1936) , so were established as regulars with his Playwrights’ Company productions. By the 1940s, in spite of their performances in O’Neill and Chekhov, the Lunts had seemingly turned their backs on serious drama. This would become more of an issue in their post-Their Shall Be No Night careers. The Lunts as a couple were the arbiter elegantarium of the American theatre, and in the post-war years would continue as leading stars, but would not take part in any of the groundbreaking work of the 1940s and 1950s—until their final performance in The Visit in 1959 directed by Peter Brook (who still maintains that Alfred Lunt was one of the greatest actors he ever worked with). For their part the Lunts later expressed regret that they were not considered for plays such as Death of a Salesman or Long Day’s Journey Into Night. One wonders if they had performed in an American classic rather than in an adaptation of a Duerrenmatt play as their finale whether they might be better remembered. Ultimately though, they served their public, which limited their artistic range but won them a huge and devoted following in their lifetime. Looking back on them, it is most unfortunate that the American theatre could never have had the means to provide them with a living legacy, but something only memorialized.[25] Tradition is not something that American culture has ever been able to sustain.

The play’s critical reaction discussed earlier gives us insight into the split the American left was undergoing in the final days of the Roosevelt administration.[26] The cause of the dissension was whether to revive the New Deal or focus on America’s new place in the world, with the additional issue of the United Nations: what would be the role of the United States in this international organization? By the 1948 presidential election, the Democratic Party would splinter into three factions: the mainstream party that nominated Harry Truman; the leftist Progressive party whose candidate was FDR’s former vice-president and secretary of agriculture, Henry Wallace; and the so-called Dixie-crats who ran Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina on their states-rights platform. Sherwood’s politics were comfortably mainstream, and he supported the United Nations. While Sherwood was never a “red-baiter,” he became a Cold Warrior because he was convinced that Communism presented the same threat to the world that Fascism had been.

Thus, in the context of its time we may see that There Shall Be No Night was never really considered for its dramatic value; it was always part of an ideology. Judging from two contemporary observers, it was from the rise of the curtain, the sort of play that forward-thinking patriots or citizens-of-the-world could not help but admire. Noël Coward was among the Broadway first-nighters and provides testimony for this. He was moved to tears throughout the performance, and he said after the curtain fell that his entire trip to America would have been worthwhile if he had had no other reason for making it than seeing There Shall Be No Night.[27] Former drama critic Alexander Woollcott considered the first night the final proof of Sherwood’s worth as a high-minded playwright.[28] When Sherwood published the play in 1940, he used the original version set in Finland, but after 1944, neither the Finnish nor the Greek version was ever performed again on Broadway. An adaptation by Morton Wishengrad was performed on television in 1957 two years after Sherwood’s death. Starring Katharine Cornell in a rare screen appearance, Wishengrad’s version was set during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Charles Boyer co-starred.

It is interesting to consider the double-phenomenon of the published text set in Finland and the performance text set in Greece. The play’s theatrical/historical relocation queries how a war/time[ly] drama that is a response to an immediate conflict ultimately becomes an historical monument rather than a play, as mentioned earlier. Given Sherwood’s apologia for the play’s ideology in his “Preface,” and that the second version earned praise for its even closer connection to the Allied war effort, one would think that Sherwood would have used the revision as the final version. Sherwood’s publication of the original version suggests that Sherwood’s theatrical vision does not cohere. This is so because the revision was made in order to keep the play pertinent, yet it was largely discarded when Sherwood published it. Sherwood retained his added references to Pericles, but the slightly longer discussions of democracy and its future were not retained.[29] Sherwood’s “present” dramaturgy is contradicted by his reversion to the original Finnish setting. Resituating the play to Greece appears expedient. Carlo Ginzburg’s reading of Siegfried Kracauer’s idea of the discontinuity of reality is useful here.[30] I would amplify this by turning to Ginzburg directly and noting that what he describes as “estrangement, detachment, the interweaving of micro- and macrohistory, a rejection of the philosophy of history” applies here. In other words, “the search for a comprehensive sense in human history” is an essential quality of a perspective which oddly enough stems from a key modernist literary antecedent, L’education sentimentale.[31] I say “oddly” because this line of argument allows a post-modern perspective to consider how more than half-a-century after the play was presented, Sherwood’s unified vision now appears skewed. I would argue that Sherwood believed he was dramatizing Finland’s Winter War and offering a macrohistorical perspective. His politically liberal and psychologically realistic dramaturgy was the product of his own personal struggle to overcome pacifism and embrace interventionism. Even so, Sherwood’s vision was challenged before the war(s) ended (the Finnish Winter War and World War II as a whole).[32] The play was an artifact of liberal idealism even before its run concluded. The preface to the play and much of the speechifying of the characters reveals that Sherwood believes he is dramatizing the ultimate battle for civilization.[33] He does this through the use of characters such as a radio reporter who initially sets up the radio broadcast for Dr. Valkonen’s disquisition about human progress and degeneration, but returns throughout the play to “update” the other characters on Nazi aggression. Valkonen’s life story stands as a précis for Finland’s 20th century history: he served in the Russian army’s medical corps, even met his future wife in St. Petersburg, thence returning to his native land. He engages in philosophical debates with the pessimistic Uncle Waldemar and with Dr. Ziemssen, a cynical German diplomat, who early in the play blithely asserts that the neutrality of the United States is part of the Herrenvolk’s master plan for world domination. Sherwood punctuates the play with news from the front and characters’ speeches about the indomitable spirit of the human race. Thus, it would seem to be a sweeping dramatization of the world, or at least Europe, in extremis. Ultimately though, it is a pièce à thèse in which liberal faith in humanistic ideals is given pride of place. The play’s only ideological development is Dr. Valkonen’s rejection of pacifism.

In his summative study of history, Siegfried Kracauer’s point about the “micro dimension” suggests Sherwood’s drawing room wartime drama is not a macrohistorical work:

In the micro dimension a more or less dense fabric of given data canalizes the historian’s imagination, his interpretative designs. As the distance from the data increases, they become scattered, thin out. The evidence thus loses its binding power, inviting less committed subjectivity to take over.[34]

Sherwood’s play is neither an adequate reflection of une mentalité nor a depiction of un événement. It is in Kracauer’s term a “close-up shot or establishing shot.” There Shall be No Night is an index of Kracauer’s “law of levels”:

contexts established at each level [that] are valid for that level but do not apply to findings at other levels; which is to say that there is no way of deriving the regularities of macrohistory, as Toynbee does, from the facts and interpretations provided by microhistory.[35]

The characters in the play offer sweeping historical and cultural summaries or sociological pronouncements, but even though Dr. Valkonen makes an international radio broadcast, shortly after the play begins, and is something of an international figure, the moment of the play is contained by the play itself. It does not resound beyond the ovations it inspired during its performance. Sherwood never takes the play beyond the immediate liberal ideology that seeks to justify America’s entry into the war. Thus it even negates both its European settings; it is really a dramatic debate by an American for and about Americans. This is why I would argue that to attentive critics it seemed dated by 1943. It had only the “committed subjectivity” of 1940 to offer the more complex situation of the latter part of the war. Its “facts” and interpretation were inadequate for contemplating a post-war world.

After Finland joined the Axis, Sherwood rapidly rewrote the play, but the only substantial change Sherwood made was substituting lines from Pericles’ funeral oration for those from the Kalevala.[36] It is also worth mentioning that he located the penultimate scene in “a classroom near Thermopylae.”[37] He saw no reason to significantly revise a play that was a “[report] of current fact that the human race was in danger of going insane,” as one of Sherwood’s characters, an American radio correspondent, describes the play’s protagonist’s recent book: The Defense of Man. Sherwood was in England during the London run where he received a commendation from the exiled King of Greece and playwriting advice from Winston Churchill, who suggested that he add a scene in which the characters would discuss the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Churchill said to the playwright, “I want to know what those people thought and said about that.” Sherwood had to suppress laughter at Churchill’s dramatic criticism.[38] As noted, the second version was brought to London, where it would collide with history. (The production literally suffered a “direct hit.”) This version remained a conversation play about liberal values; ironically the off-stage combat that was discussed on stage was horrifically reified by the air raid that ended the play’s London run.

The London performances had been continually endangered by the Germans’ renewed bombing campaign. The Lunts insisted on performing even during air raids. The raids made lines such as, “The enemy is not very far away” resonate with the London audience who reacted to the play with more tears and sobs than even New Yorkers had. Fontanne commented that even though they had “drenched” many theaters in North America, Londoners wept with even greater abandon. Alfred Lunt maintained Londoners let their emotions out in the darkened theatre because they would not do so in public or even in their homes.[39] One night bombs fell so close to the theater that the scenery wobbled, the fire curtain descended, and a blast hurled one actor out the stage door.[40] The London run of the play ended on 30 June 1944 as a result of damage done to the playhouse by a V-1 rocket attack, which killed a member of the air corps who was buying a ticket at the box office. Adjacent current events coming so fatally close to the performance of wartime casualties is a morbid continuity revealing the unintended yet omnipresent hubris behind any artistic endeavor that attempts to dramatize war on stage synchronously with contemporary combat, thereby creating a discontinuity.

Audiences diminished during the play’s final London performances while people were experiencing warfare. Stage pictures of characters cowering during bombardments became paltry. Under the circumstances, how could such an enactment meet any Horatian requirements? Any question of “delight” in such scenes is superfluous. Nevertheless, what of an audience not threatened by war (the original American one) listening to dialogue exhorting them to accept the virtues of the struggle against the enemy? Apparently, it worked up to a point in London, but when the war came to the theatre itself, the best intentions of playwriting faltered. Late in the London run, the company gave a performance in a private home. Performers and spectators were in the midst of each other and the extraordinary discipline of the Lunts and their company created a performance that “was almost too painful to watch.”  Contrary to dismissals of their work as purely external,  they used any device they could, even elements of so-called emotional memory.[42] Such dedication to their art is best evidenced by the powerful impact of their extraordinarily “close” performance in a private home.

Sherwood’s own preface makes it clear that the play is primarily about America. It details the connections between The Petrified Forest and There Shall Be No Night. Specifically, Sherwood argues that both are representative American plays because they confront contemporary complacency: The Petrified Forest achieves this on a domestic level; There Shall Be No Night on a foreign one. As the “Finnish” drama is a play about the 1940s, The Petrified Forest is about the previous decade—thereby making it a fascinating social document of the 1930s, but it is also timelessly American in a way that There Shall Be No Night is not. Sherwood identifies The Petrified Forest as the play that “pointed him in a new direction.”[43] There Shall Be No Night is only ostensibly “existential” in the way that it addresses the pacifist scientist hero’s dilemma of how to live in a war-torn world that could not care less that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize. Of course, ironically, Alfred Nobel’s fortune was founded on dynamite and munitions; he established his foundation after one of his brothers was killed in an accident at their factory and when an obituary for another brother mistaking this Nobel for Alfred seemed to gloat that “the merchant of death” was dead. Sherwood’s character remarks on this in the first scene when Dr. Valkonen and his family toast Nobel’s memory sarcastically.[44]

Sherwood was fascinated by apocalyptic violence, which is evident in Idiot’s Delight, written a year after The Petrified Forest. Idiot’s Delight is a strange pacifist satire that concludes as Europe plunges into war—indeed, its finale seems to be Armageddon. The play blends serious anti-war statements with vaudeville jokes and jabs at ethnic identities and national rivalries. Sherwood’s next play, which he wrote just before his Finnish play and which was still playing when There Shall be No Night opened, was Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a drama about Lincoln’s early career. It is a simple, if slightly romanticized vision of the Great Emancipator. Unsurprisingly, the play, which concludes with Lincoln’s departure for Washington, foreshadows Lincoln’s death: a sacrifice made for the Union and the abolition of slavery. In a fitting parallel the conclusion of There Shall Be No Night shows that fighting and dying for freedom is necessary if civilized humanity is to survive. Though it predates Sartre’s post-war usage, Sherwood saw himself as an American écrivain engagé from the outset of fascism.

Indicative of Sherwood’s status as an activist writer, he was a film critic, editor, speechwriter, biographer, historian, soldier and pacifist, always supporting liberal points of view, and yet was one of the most self-effacing writers our nation has produced. One could also say he sacrificed his career for his country. Few now remember that he was the nation’s leading commercial playwright at the time of the New Deal, but his devotion to the cause of Roosevelt and his fury at the wrenching events of the Second World War caused him to disdain the Broadway box office and attempt to awaken the consciousness of his fellow citizens. Sherwood was at the height of his career when he became a speechwriter for President Franklin Roosevelt, thereafter joining the Roosevelt administration as head of the Office of War Information.

Fortuitously, he chose to write about Finland—almost always called “Brave Little Finland” then. He was inspired to write the play while listening to a wartime Christmas broadcast direct from Finland, “Come In, Helsinki” featuring Bill White, the son of the famous editor of the Emporia Gazette. Sherwood had been struggling with the idea of a sequel to Idiot’s Delight, and also felt that he had let earlier events pass him by. One rather outré attempt to write about contemporary political issues was a play called Footsteps on the Danube, which featured a group of Jewish refugees fleeing from Vienna in an overcrowded boat. They are about to give up hope when they are hailed by another refugee, a bearded man dressed in white who walks across the water to their boat and offers solace. Sherwood quickly put that attempt aside. After he settled on the idea of a play set in Finland, he used the same title as the radio broadcast (“Come In, Helsinki”). According to the manuscripts at the Houghton Library at Harvard, some time after February 1940 he changed the title to “Revelation.” The title Sherwood ultimately chose was taken from the Book of Revelations 22:5:

And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.[45]

As mentioned earlier, Sherwood clearly sought biblical resonance for his latest play.

The 1939-40 Broadway season paid some dramatic attention to the war with several plays about it being produced. A headline in The New York Times of 12 May 1940 declared: “The Broadway Stage Has Its First War Play.” The reporter Jack Gould quoted Sherwood’s assessment of the state of the nation using a phrase that President Roosevelt himself would adapt for the pre-war effort, “this country is already, in effect, an arsenal for the democratic Allies.”

Indeed, the fact that Europe was at war was not quite lost on Broadway in the first two years of the 1940s, but Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer winning There Shall Be No Night was really the first play to seriously depict the war. Sherwood generously donated his proceeds from the play to the American Red Cross and the Finnish War Relief Fund to further their resistance to Russia. Lillian Hellman’s anti-fascist Drama Critic’s Circle winner, Watch on the Rhine, opened one year later. In October of 1941, a second performance of this play was scheduled after the evening’s performance and broadcast in German to the people of Germany. Another example of Broadway’s war work was when The American Theater Wing volunteered its services and was serving as an auxiliary to British War Relief (Lynne Fontanne declared she was “knittin’ for Britain”).

It is sometimes hard for twenty-first century Americans to recall how controversial it was to support any kind of intervention in Europe before Pearl Harbor. The rise of the “America First” movement had galvanized Sherwood’s determination to do something. For instance, he was profoundly disturbed by Charles Lindbergh’s speeches broadcast on the radio in September and October 1939, in the two months before the Russian invasion of Finland. Sherwood believed this was proof “that Hitlerism was already powerfully and persuasively represented in our own midst.”[49] As a result, Sherwood was criticized from both the right and the left for his support for Finland. The playwright himself was convinced the attack on Finland was the beginning of the end for Scandinavia. He believed Norway and Sweden would fall if nothing was done to help Finland.

American Communist sympathizers, such as Lillian Hellman attacked Sherwood for writing about the Finns sympathetically. Hellman was an unrepentant apologist for Stalin and never repudiated her stance. Contrarily, she fabricated an image of herself as liberty’s greatest defender. Sherwood’s opposition to Hellman and her ilk shows his consistently humane idealism. Nevertheless, Sherwood’s reputation for sometimes dark comedy and social satire had stretched the Broadway audience’s sensibility to its limits.  In spite of his self-criticism, Sherwood’s style of writing was suited to the mainstream audience. He never deviated far enough from their expectations to experience outright rejection. An anecdote of Sherwood’s about himself reveals the essence of his place in the theatre of his time. On the eve of writing his Finnish play, in spite of his raised consciousness, Sherwood felt particularly conflicted because he wanted to escape from the crushing anxiety provoked by European crises. He told the film producer Alexander Korda that he wished he could write a “sparkling drawing-room comedy without a suggestion of international calamity or social significance or anything else of immediate importance.” Korda scoffed at his escapist ambitions, “Go ahead and write that comedy and you’ll find that international calamity and social significance are right there in the drawing room.”[50] It seems as though Sherwood absorbed Korda’s comment and applied it to his play about a Finnish family trying to live their lives in the face of invasion and guerilla war.

There Shall Be No Night is not a drawing-room comedy, and though in the long run Sherwood’s dramatic ambitions were daunted, his political and humane aims were met, if only briefly. In spite of the play’s limits, the Lunts’ performance enabled a brilliant staging. Yet even with a great production, Sherwood’s liberal perspective could not be sustained in performance. The bombs falling around the theatre eventually struck the theatre and stopped performances. History itself intervened and time ran out on the playwright. Sherwood’s overarching concern with timeliness in a real sense made the play time-sensitive, in that its message and merits expired.  Finally, recalling the microhistorical approach and considering these issues from a 21st century perspective demonstrate that There Shall Be No Night is very much one of Ginzburg’s “normal exceptions,” an amplified example of what Ginzburg discusses as “anomalous evidence that casts light on a widespread, otherwise undocumented phenomenon.”[51] The ephemeral nature of performance is a phenomenon that cannot be documented. Even so, the record of Sherwood’s now dated playwriting that fleetingly influenced his own time combined with the timeless success of the Lunts’ performance, becomes a document in its own right. Revisiting what happened when this play depicted and then came under enemy fire, shows us how art and history can collide, if not cohere.


Thomas F. Connolly is Professor of English at Suffolk University. His most recent book is Genus Envy: Nationalities, Identities, and the Performing Body of Work. Connolly is a former Fulbright Senior Scholar and the recipient of the Parliamentary Medal of the Czech Republic.


[1] “And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.”Revelation 22:5. https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Revelation-22-5

[2] Here and elsewhere by “United Nations” I mean the allied nations of World War II. This term was introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942.

[3] Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and Traces: True False Fictive, trans. Anne C. Tedeschi (Oakland: University of California Press, 2012).

[4] Among Panofsky’s major works are, Idea: A Concept in Art Theory (1924), Perspective as Symbolic Form (1927), and Studies in Iconology (1939).

[5] Ginzburg, Myths, Emblems, Clues (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1990). Ginzburg discusses his interest in “figurative evidence as historical source, but also…forms and formulae outside the context in which they had originated” (ix). He elaborates on this in the second chapter “From Aby Warburg to E. H. Gombrich: A Problem of Method.” 17-59.

[6] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard Trask, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

[7] Driven from the University of Marburg in 1935, Auerbach famously wrote Mimeis while in Istanbul where he had taken up a post at the university there. Drawing only on primary literary sources it is a work without footnotes, informed only by Auerbach’s erudition.

[8] Patricia Bosworth, Montgomery Clift: A Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 77.

[9] Billy Altman, Laughter’s Gentle Soul: The Life of Robert Benchley (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 331. One of Benchley’s greatest disappointments was that, unlike Sherwood’s great success with his history, he failed to produce his long-projected history of England during the reign of Queen Anne. One suspects Benchley never did anything more than talk about it.

[10] Quoted in Harriet Hyman Alonso, Robert E. Sherwood: The Playwright in Peace and War (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 212.

[11] Robert E. Sherwood, “Preface,” There Shall Be No Night (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940), ix.

[12] Ibid., xxx.

[13] Ilkka Joki and Roger D. Sell, “Robert E. Sherwood and the Finnish Winter War: Drama, Propaganda and the Finnish Winter War Context 50 Years Ago,” American Studies in Scandinavia XXI, (1989): 51-69. This article goes into great detail about the differences between the two versions.

[14] Robert E. Sherwood Papers. Houghton Library. Harvard University. There Shall Be No Night. TS. (carbon copy) with A.MS. revisions; [n.p., ca. 1940]. The file folders in the Sherwood papers are arranged chronologically. He began the first draft on 28 December 1939 and finished it 28 January 1940. On 31 January he began typing the second draft and completed this 10 February.

[15] Robert E. Sherwood Papers. Houghton Library. Harvard University. There Shall Be No Night. TS. (carbon copy) with A.MS. revisions; [n.p., ca. 1943].

[16] John Mason Brown, The Ordeal of a Playwright: Robert E. Sherwood and the Challenge of War (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 67.

[17] Thomas P. Adler, Mirror on the Stage: The Pulitzer Plays as an Approach to American Drama (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1987), 61.

[18] Ibid.

[19] C.W.E. Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to 20th Century American Drama, Vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 145. Bigsby sums up the scholarly assessment of Sherwood’s 1940s career. Albert Wertheim, Staging the War: American Drama and World War II (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 22-25.

[20] Sherwood, “Preface,” xi-xii.

[21] Joki and Sell review contemporary reactions in the press as the urgency of current events receded. 61, 64.

[22] In a letter dated 25 August 1944 Lunt expressed his and Fontanne’s “relief” that the bombing of the theatre caused the London run to end. He added that the play was “too close” and neither the cast nor the audience could take it any longer. Letter of Graham Robinson quoted by Margot Peters in Design for Living (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 212.

[23] George Jean Nathan, The Entertainment of a Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942), 25.

[24] Thomas F. Connolly, Genus Envy: Nationalities, Identities, and the Performing Body of Work (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2010). See the chapter on John Mason Brown, 41-65.

[25] Jared Brown cogently summarizes the Lunts’ career and legacy. Of particular interest is the testimony of actor John Randolph, who worked with the Lunts and with Lee Strasberg. Randolph’s contrasting of their work with Strasberg’s is a case study in the limitations of “the method” as practiced by Strasberg, The Fabulous Lunts (New York: Athenaeum, 1986), 462-65. The efforts of the Ten Chimneys Foundation must be noted here: “Ten Chimneys Foundation preserves and shares the Lunts’ historic estate, serves American theatre, and offers public programs in keeping with the Lunts’ interests and values.” http://www.tenchimneys.org

[26] Alonzo reviews the praise the original New York production received (211-12), and the reviews I have cited: Nathan and Conlin offer counterpoints. Nathan’s relative disdain for the play may have kept it from winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Prize. John von Szeliski writing in Tragedy and Fear: Why Modern Tragic Drama Fails (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971) reduces the play to a “tragedy of social disintegration,” which is of course the opposite of what Sherwood thought he was writing.

[27] Alonso, 82-83.

[28] Quoted in Alonzo, 212.

[29] Robert E. Sherwood Papers. Houghton Library. Harvard University. There Shall Be No Night. TS. (carbon copy) with A.MS. revisions; [n.p., ca. 1943].

[30] Ginzburg, Threads and Traces, 208.

[31] Ibid., 189. In addition to Ginzburg, Robert Darnton, Natalie Zemon Davis, Clifford Geertz, Mark Kurlansky, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and Jonathan D. Spence, among many others, have been identified as “micro historians.” Ginzburg identifies the first use of the term occurring in 1959 with George R Stewart’s Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Charge at Gettysburg, July 3 1863 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959). See Ginzburg, Threads and Traces, 193-214.

[32] See Joki and Sell.

[33] See the play’s third scene, 79-80 and 86-90. Sherwood, There Shall Be No Night.

[34] Siegfried Kracauer, History: The Last Things Before the Last (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 123.

[35] Ibid, 134.

[36] Richard Conlin, “London Theatre,” America 70, no. 23 (1944):633-634. Conlin praises the London version for being more “cogent” in its depiction of civilization versus barbarism.

[37] Robert E. Sherwood Papers. Houghton Library. Harvard University. There Shall Be No Night. TS. (carbon copy) with A.MS. revisions; [n.p., ca. 1943].

[38] Alonso, 255-256.

[39] Brown, 357.

[40] Alonso, 255.

[41] Brown, 312.

[42] Peters, 284-85. See also Brown, 462-65.

[43] Sherwood, “Preface.” xxi.

[44] See the play’s opening scene, 31-32.

[45] The English Bible: King James Version, eds. Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2012), 604.

[46] Among such plays were Another Sun by the celebrated journalist Dorothy Thompson and Fritz Kortner, which lasted eleven performances. It depicted a German acting couple who protest anti-Semitism by fleeing to America, but ultimately the wife cannot resist a personal invitation from Hitler to return to Berlin. A revision of Ernest Hemingway’s The Fifth Column emphasized Fascism as a present danger. Key Largo is Maxwell Anderson’s verse drama about Americans who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and discover moral corruption when they return home (John Huston’s 1948 film adaptation makes major changes to Anderson’s original script). Clare Boothe’s Margin for Error was a whodunnit set behind the scenes at the German consulate in New York. (Expatriate Austrian actor Otto Preminger, soon to be famous as a film director, played a lead role). Henry R. Luce, the playwright’s husband, opined in his introduction to the play that she had “half-succeeded where all others had failed in dramatizing the Nazis. No doubt the strangest theatrical offering was “The Devil is a Good Man” a one-act comedy by William Kozlenko, a protégé of the drama critic George Jean Nathan. The Devil, an upstanding family man, sends his son up to earth armed with a rabbit’s foot where he meets “Adolf Schukelgruber” and is subsequently arrested as a pickpocket.

[47] Jack Gould. “The Broadway Stage has its First War Play.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 133. May 12 1940. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008). Web. 22 Aug. 2012 .

[48] The 1943 film Stage Door Canteen (dir. Frank Borzage) depicts one aspect of Broadway performers’ war relief efforts. It is also a rare chance to see the Lunts on screen. Most interesting is Katharine Cornell’s poignant performance as “herself” in which she plays a brief scene from Romeo and Juliet with a young soldier. It offers a glimpse of her talent; not only in her “performance” as Juliet, but in her silent and poignant expression of concern for the soldier’s fate quickly juxtaposed with self-deprecation of her own stardom.

[49] Quoted in Brown, 48.

[50] Quoted in Brown, 36.

[51] Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,  trans. John and Anne C. Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), xi.


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“‘Re-righting’ Finland’s Winter War: Robert E. Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night[s]” by Thomas F. Connolly

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 1 (Winter 2016)
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: James Armstrong
Editorial Assistant: Kyueun Kim

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Michael Y. Bennett
Kevin Byrne
Bill Demastes
Jorge Huerta
Amy E. Hughes
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Jordan Schildcrout
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf

Table of Contents:

  • “The State of the Field” by Michael Y. Bennett, Kevin Byrne, Jorge Huerta, Esther Kim Lee, Jordan Schildcrout, Maurya Wickstrom, and Stacy Wolf
  • “‘Re-righting’ Finland’s Winter War: Robert E. Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night[s]” by Thomas F. Connolly
  • “Star Struck!: The Phenomenological Affect of Celebrity on Broadway” by Peter Zazzali

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Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

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