Bringing A Lost Play out of the Shadows

Edith Wharton, c. 1905.

I’ve written elsewhere about my own adventures in the archives, where I’ve had the good fortune to find some previously undocumented works by Edith Wharton and commentaries she made on the works of others. The author of The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and numerous other novels and literary works, Wharton is a primary focus of my work as a literary scholar. A prolific author who wrote until almost the day she died, Wharton saved everything: manuscripts, letters, postcards, clippings of reviews, snarky (and occasionally dirty) jokes, her own translation exercises, and much, much more.

For editors and critics, Wharton’s preservation habit can make for excitement as well as frustration. Where finding a piece of archival arcana was once a source of triumph, it also underscores the fact that there is always more to find. And once found, it must be analyzed and contextualized. Readers need to know why an archival discovery is important.

The importance of a contextualizing an archival work became evident recently, when I was part of a group that brought a significant finding to public attention. My own archival experiences prompted me, as editor of the Edith Wharton Review, to create a section of the journal entitled From the Archives, where authors could detail discoveries they had made and their experience of doing so. In our most recent issue, thanks to the sleuthing of scholars Laura Rattray (University of Glasgow) and Mary Chinery (Georgian Court University), we published the only complete work by Wharton found in the archives for decades, a play called Shadow of a Doubt.

Although this is the first time we’ve re-published a full-length unpublished work, the journal published Shadow of a Doubt without hesitation. We knew this work would be important to Wharton scholars and aficionados. What we didn’t know, however, is just how excited the reading public would be about the play. Within a week, the unveiling of Shadow of a Doubt was tagged in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Guardian, and Smithsonian Magazine. The play’s hundred-plus-year disappearance coupled with its sudden resurgence communicates something about Wharton’s enduring popularity, as well as our assumptions about genre and subject matter in relation to the authors we cherish.

Shadow of a Doubt rehearses themes that Wharton would use in her later work, especially the themes of euthanasia, marital conflicts and divorce, and the difficulties faced by women without means. The play was to be produced by Charles Frohman, a leading impresario of the day. But for reasons we still don’t know, the play was cancelled, and although Wharton would continue writing and adapting plays, she never became fully successful as a playwright.

Interestingly enough, Wharton used her plays to explore more melodramatic terrain than that of the novel of manners, the genre in which she excelled. Another play, the unfinished Kate Spain, makes clear Wharton was well aware of the trial of Lizzie Borden. Yet Wharton didn’t finish some of these texts, and some, like The Shadow of a Doubt, lay waiting in the archive for critical attention.

The brief production history of Shadow of a Doubt, unearthed by Chinery and Rattray, also makes clear that Wharton had a social network critics have yet to appreciate fully. Elsie de Wolfe, one of the most sought-after interior decorator of her day, starred in the planned production. Thus Wharton knew de Wolfe and her partner, Elisabeth Marbury, a leading theatrical agent of the period. How does Wharton’s social and professional relationship with De Wolfe and Marbury — a long-time couple known as the ”lesbians of Sutton Place” — affect our understandings of her work?

Archival discoveries might evoke images from A.S. Byatt’s Possession¸ where dedicated scholars fall in love with their subject — and each other — while in pursuit of a text or a moment occluded from history. However, much more typically, archival discoveries and publications emerge from collaborations with scholars, librarians, and publishers — the librarians who preserve the work, the scholars who frame it, and the publishers who bring it into print.

And publishing this text was the product of extensive collaboration. Here are just a few of those whose work was necessary to bring Shadow of a Doubt to public attention: copyeditors, who parsed Wharton’s sometimes eccentric punctuation and underlining; compositors, who, with great care, typeset Wharton’s text exactly as she and the editors wished it; editors like Chinery and Rattray, who explain the significance of the work; editors like me, who agreed to publish an unknown work in entirety; and the Pennsylvania State University Press staff, who proofread the work, assured its readiness for publication, and agreed to make it freely available for a larger audience. Yet the contributions of these individuals are rarely acknowledged.

Shadow of a Doubt offers a snapshot of Wharton’s ambitions early in her career, shortly before her great success as a novelist. However, it also illuminates the process by which a literary work is recovered: Literary detectives may unearth a text, but it takes a corps of staff, who typically remain anonymous, to bring that work into print. The recovery of Shadow of a Doubt makes for an exciting story, but stories we have yet to appreciate lie behind the scenes.