S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 June 1, 1940: 33-40

Mr. Robert Emmet Sherwood speaks very slowly. Between the subject and the predicate of his sentences there ensues often the charged and prolonged hiatus that separates the parts of a mystery serial. With these interstitial silences he holds you like the Ancient Mariner. There is no force that can accelerate his tempo. In simple dissyllables, where scope for the retard is limited, he puts in an extra hazard—for "tinkling," for example, he will say "tink—e—ling;" for "dangling," "dang—e—ling." The extra syllable cushions him against impetuosity. The improvised vowel gives him time and strength to gather his forces for the ultimate commitment of the completed word. Between his words, and even between his syllables, there is plenty of time for personal reverie on the part of his listener. Between subject and predicate you can start, and often finish, a conversation with somebody else, and between his sentences you might read "War and Peace."

"What is that nine feet of gloom you call your brother?" Noel Coward once inquired of the playwright's sister, Rosamond Sherwood. As a matter of fact, there is nothing in the least gloomy about Mr. Sherwood except his habitual facial expression, which is dour. His silences, like any vast, still thing, are solemn, but they are often punctuated with the musketry of a shrewd wit. No sooner are you relaxed for a comfortable period of attrition than you succumb to a Blitzkrieg. At a meeting of the Playwrights' Company,* of which he is a founder and director, one of the members said he was on tenterhooks as to whether he would succeed in procuring the services of a certain actor for a forthcoming production. Another member, with a mania for definition, wanted to know what tenterhooks were. "They are," said Mr. Sherwood, "the up—hol—stery of the anx—i—ous seat." Another time, when a foreign manuscript was under discussion in which the author's meaning was cloaked in symbolism and the general tone abstruse, Mr. Sherwood said, "I—pre—fer—the—plays—of—Rob—ert—Em—met—Sher—wood. H e—hasn't—got —much—to—say—but—at—least—he—does—not—try—to—say—any—thing—else." Again, there was a painful occasion when it devolved upon Sherwood to convey to a director whom he admired and liked that circumstances outside his control made it impossible for the director to continue on the play in question. There paraded the room in firm adagio a convoy of inexorable sentences barricading the unfortunate director against humiliation. "I—haven't," Mr. Sherwood was heard to pronounce, "the—tem—per—a—ment—o r—the—ex—per—i—ence—to—han—dle—a—sit—u—a—tion—like—this—and—when—it—a—ris—es—I—d o—not—ask—what—would—Je—sus—do—or—what—would—Abe—Lin—coln—do—but—I—ask—what—would—Gil—bert—Mill—er—do—and—then—I—can—not—do—it." It is impossible to convey typographically the stately march of a Sherwood sentence and the attempt will he abandoned henceforth. Mr. Sherwood's speech is not, as the dashes may suggest, hesitant. He never hesitates. He never flounders. He waits, as a glacier waits, and then moves.

Simplicity is the keynote of the Sherwood character. Recently, at a night club, where he was sitting with Mrs. Sherwood and some friends, a palmist read his palm. "You are a very disillusioned man," said the palmist. "You don't believe in Cupid and you don't believe in Santa Claus." When the palmist went away and Sherwood was off dancing, Mrs. Sherwood ventured a dissenting opinion. "I don't suppose in the whole world," she said, "would you find anyone who believed so thoroughly in both Cupid and Santa Claus as Sherwood does." In lighter and less familiar gatherings than meetings of the Playwrights' Company, Sherwood is apt to reveal himself as the anxious innocent not quite at ease among the super-sophisticates. He has a reputation as a consistent bore at dinner parties. This is no fluke. He has achieved his reputation honestly, through hard, conscientious labor. He admits that because of his strenuous efforts he has come to personify a figure in the famous cartoon by Charles Dana Gibson—the lonely fellow at the dinner party, making bread pills in isolation because the women on either side of him have resorted to their other partners. At a dinner party on Long Island a few years ago, Sherwood found himself sitting next to Mrs. Preston Davie, an ardent Republican, who was writing daily articles for the Herald Tribune denouncing the New Deal, preëlection prose which ticked off the days left in which to save the American way of life. Mrs. Davie turned hopefully to Sherwood and was confronted by a brisk silence. As her partner showed no indication of doing anything about it, she did. "Which," she proposed, "do you think women prefer, Mr. Sherwood—reliable but dull gentlemen or fascinating cads?" This question was right up Sherwood's alley. He marshalled his facts for the reply, scanned minutely the long galleries of his acquaintanceship in both camps, drew careful parallels in his mind, shrewdly picked John Barrymore as the type of fascinating cad, hit on someone who might epitomize the sensible male citizen, and then, feeling himself finally ready, he took careful aim and prepared to return the shot. "Well," he began, and turned to Mrs. Davie, but when his suspensive pause after the "Well" had spent itself, he was horrified to see that Mrs. Davie had gone. She was no longer with him. Lonely, she had edged into the conversation on the other side and Sherwood was left high and dry with his parallels hanging.

In London, at dinner in Adelphi Terrace, Bernard Shaw, the host, was discoursing with wonderful fluency on the main currents of nineteenth-century liberalism. Sherwood ate away abstractedly, happily willing to live and let live. Suddenly, to his horror, he felt the attention of the table focussed on him. Shaw had reached the end of his peroration and wanted an opinion from America. He was trying to pin Sherwood down. "Don't you agree, Mr. Sherwood?" Shaw asked point-blank. It was a moment for an epigram, for a riposte, for a neat retort. Nothing occurred to Sherwood but blanket acquiescence. He murmured, "I certainly do," and swallowed some of the food he had been quietly enjoying. No one heard his remark and Sherwood was grateful. But Mr. Shaw was insistent. America must be heard! "What did you say, Mr. Sherwood?" he inquired. Sherwood's first sensation was panic; this was replaced by reassurance. "Thank God, I've got another chance," he thought, saying nothing. With the attention of two dozen of England's sharpest intellectuals converging upon him, he looked once more into his mind and found there nothing more than he had found the first time. At last he spoke. "I said, 'I certainly do.'" Slaked, Mr. Shaw returned to his lucubrations.

Sherwood is one of the greatest literary earners of all time, although, as with any highly paid worker in the present period, there is a vast difference between what he earns and what actually gets into his bank account. The prices his plays have brought from the movies are fabulous: $110,000 for "The Petrified Forest," $85,000 for "Reunion in Vienna," $135,000 for "Idiot's Delight," and $225,000, plus a share in the picture royalties, for "Abe Lincoln in Illinois." The theatrical producers' and playbroker's share absorbs roughly half of this income, and Sherwood's federal and state taxes in recent years have amounted to around $100,000 annually. The sale of a play like "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" for $225,000 thus means that the playwright receives about $115,000, and, since this sum puts him into the upper-income brackets, he pays roughly $9,000 of the $115,000 to the state and $43,000 more to the federal government. Bernard Shaw and George S. Kaufman, with their long careers of successes, have probably outstripped Sherwood in total earnings, but Sherwood has undoubtedly made more money in any one of the last ten years than Ibsen did in his entire life. He gives a good deal of it away; in the year before the opening of the controversial "There Shall Be No Night," he had contributed something over $20,000 to various charitable organizations, and all the royalties on the new play thus far have been made over to the American Red Cross and the Finnish relief fund.

The year 1935 was a wonder year for Sherwood. He finished "The Petrified Forest" and left New York for London, where he made the immensely successful adaptation of Jacques Deval's "Tovarich." He had been divorced from his first wife, the former Mary Brandon, the year before. He went to Budapest to marry his present wife, the former Madeline Hurlock, of Federalsburg, Maryland, who had just been divorced from Marc Connelly in Riga, a Baltic Reno. The happy couple went at once to London, and Sherwood got to work, with Rene Clair, on the motion picture "The Ghost Goes West." He followed the perturbed spirit of that pleasant film to New York, where he worked on "Pride and Prejudice" for Max Gordon and wrote "Idiot's Delight" for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The somewhat vertiginous transitions of this period were the outward manifestation of a very profound inner one. He turned his back on the nostalgias of Vienna and St. Petersburg and looked at his own time. Sherwood feels that his career began with "The Petrified Forest." But though he may believe that the integration between what he is and his work, which was to find completion in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" and "There Shall Be No Night," began with "The Petrified Forest," that integration really began with "Acropolis," which was produced unsuccessfully in London in 1933. He wrote this play immediately after reading "Mein Kampf" and it was intended to illustrate the incursion of totalitarianism (Sparta) on an intellectually free city-state (Athens). Between these five plays—"Acropolis," "The Petrified Forest," "Idiot's Delight," "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," and "There Shall Be No Night"—there may be traced a creative blood transfusion. Lines and ideas which Sherwood dropped out of one he used in another, and some of the speeches that were not littered by Pericles in "Acropolis" appeared in the last letter written by the Finnish Dr. Valkonen to his wife in "There Shall Be No Night."

Mr. Sherwood’s working method is peculiar. He will sometimes carry an idea around in his head for several years, thinking about it, turning it over in his mind, resolving its difficulties, without making a single note. When he reaches a point of cerebral saturation he sits down and writes the play, sometimes in a phenomenally brief time. When he works, he works day and night. He suffers from a terribly painful ailment in the sinus region, charmingly named tic douloureux. That sobriquet appears to be an understatement. Doctors say that it is one of the most agonizing afflictions known to man. Sherwood has been all over Europe and America to see doctors for this ailment. The attacks come infrequently, sometimes once a year, but when they come, they are violent; still, if he has an idea for a play, he works through them. His speed is a subject for amused comment among the members of the Playwrights' Company. At the regular Thursday meetings of the group someone will usually ask whether Sherwood wrote a play the night before. At a meeting last winter, Sherwood shamefacedly made an announcement. He was supposed to have been rewriting "Acropolis" for Lunt and Fontanne. He looked guiltily at his colleagues and there filtered from him a confession in slow motion. "I haven't been rewriting 'Acropolis' at all. I finished a new play. I got the idea just after Christmas. The scene is in Finland." The meeting at which he made this admission took place on February 1, 1940, which means that he had written the play in five weeks. He had got the idea from a broadcast from Finland on Christmas Day. Maxwell Anderson said, "You are quite right, Bob, not to have told us. Writing is a vice which should be practiced in secret."

This vice Sherwood practices in town. He doesn't go to the country to write. The silence distracts him. He likes the hum and the excitement of the city. He likes night clubs, parties, and social life, and is famous for his solo singing and dancing in the homes of his friends. One specialty is in great demand—his rendition of "When the Red, Red, Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along." This he sings with a solemn intensity and dances in a style which he calls his impression of Fred Astaire. For this act he puts on an opera hat and uses a smart ebony walking stick.

Sherwood does not feel it necessary to go to a place to write about it. He wrote "The Road to Rome" without ever going to Rome, "Acropolis" though he has never been in Greece, "The Petrified Forest" without seeing Arizona, and "There Shall Be No Night" witout a visit to Finland. He travels a great deal, however, and two winters ago spent some time in South America; his friends think he may very well be carrying around in his head an idea or two he picked up there. In his contemporary political plays, he seems to have a knack of ominous prophecy. Two days before "Idiot's Delight" opened in Washington, D. C., in 1936, Hitler occupied the Rhineland, and the weekend before it opened in London in 1938, the Germans walked into Austria. One London paper said, "This play must have been written over the weekend."

In 1927, Sherwood thought out "The Road to Rome," his first play and a great success, in taxicabs going from one movie to another while he was motion-picture editor of the old Life. The actual writing took him three weeks and the first draft was the one that was put into rehearsal and on the stage. In Reno, where, in 1934, he spent the customary six weeks, he took a drive one day with his lawyer, Lester Summerfield. Sherwood was struck by the paradox of the perpetual sluicing through this primeval Nevada valley of the thick, sedimentary stream of decadent urban society. Summerfield also had become aware of this in the course of his practice in Reno, and Sherwood and he talked it over at some length. Sherwood knew instantly that he wanted to write a play about it. He asked Summerfield if he could fix him up with an office. The lawyer could. The next morning Sherwood left the Riverside Hotel, went to the office, and began to write his play. He reached the point at which his hero asks, "Where does this road lead to?" He walked across the street to a gas station, got an automobile road map, and went back to his office and spread it out before him. With his finger, he traced a line on the map from Reno to Truckee, California. At Truckee, on the map, beside a little arrow he saw a notation, "This way to the Petrified Forest." He had his hero's destination and the title to the play. This is how it came to pass that when he was asked once what he did during his six weeks in Reno, Sherwood was able to reply, "Well, I wrote 'The Petrified Forest.' I finished it in four weeks and sent it to New York, but the last two weeks were awful boring."

Mr. Sherwood is fond of offices for playwriting. He wrote "Reunion in Vienna" in 1931 in the office building of his publishers, Charles Scribner's Sons, on Fifth Avenue. He had had the idea for the play since 1929. That year he went abroad for the first time after the war. "The Road to Rome" was playing in Vienna and he was invited to see it. He was taken to Sacher's Restaurant and met old lady Sacher herself. She told him of a special room upstairs where she gave parties for broken-down aristocrats. He went up and looked in on one of these parties, and he saw at once the pathos of these discarded and indigent semi-royalties, moving about in a shadow play of vanished grandeur. At the time he was writing his one novel, "The Virtuous Knight." This was a story of the Third Crusade and was conspicuously unsuccessful. Sherwood found the publication of a novel tame compared with the immediacy and excitement of putting on a play. It was the difference between reading a review on the morning after and a few leisurely paragraphs under the heading "Other Books." He wrote two more plays, "Waterloo Bridge" and "This Is New York," but all the time he was thinking of that upstairs room in Sacher's. As soon as he finished these plays, he wrote "Reunion in Vienna," in about three weeks. This was played by Lunt and Fontaine and was an immense success in New York and in London. In the second act of this play, the wife of a prominent psychoanalyst, who had been in love in the old days with the Archduke Rudolf Maximilian, meets him again in the upstairs room at Sacher's. The former Duke, now a taxi-driver in Nice, is febrile and epileptic. He comes to the party and sees his ex-mistress again after many years. He remembers that she has left him to marry a doctor, and as a greeting he slaps her violently in the face. This slap precedes their kiss of passionate reunion. The business of the face-slapping has been attributed to the inspiration of Alfred Lunt, but Mr. Lunt will tell you, with considerable wonder in his voice, that Mr. Sherwood invented it. "That piece of business was in the script," says Mr. Lunt. "Think of his knowing that—that shy man!"

Sherwood carried around with him for two years the idea for "Idiot's Delight." During this time he travelled all over Europe. Once, in Budapest, he went into the Arizona Night Club and saw there an American cabaret troupe. He talked to the leader of the troupe, a hoofer, and got the idea for Harry Van. For the life of him, though, he couldn't see who the woman would be and how he would get her into the play. Finally he visualized her as the phony-Russian mistress of a munitions maker, a girl who had once slept with Van in a hotel in Omaha. Having got that, he was set, and in the apartment in which he was then living in New York he went to work. When he gets started on a play, Sherwood is seized with a spectator's anxiety to find out what is going to happen and his impatience to know drives him sometimes to extraordinary exertions. When he was writing "Idiot's Delight," he worked one night until one o'clock. Then he went to bed, but he couldn't stand being left in suspense, so he got up at three and finished the second act by dawn. He wrote the entire script in two weeks and handed it to the Lunts.

In 1932, after an extended period in Hollywood, during which he had found himself growing fond of private swimming pools, butlers, and back-yard tennis courts, Sherwood bought a farm at Great Enton, Surrey, England, and determined to spend his summers there, it being six thousand miles from California. The place has no swimming pool, no butler, and no tennis court. Besides a cook and a pair of maids, the servant staff consists of a fearless but ineffectual carpenter whose time is occupied almost entirely in crawling over the roof and hammering at it. It seldom leaks in the same place twice, but it always leaks somewhere. The Sherwoods have gone to Great Enton every summer for some years past, and Mary, Sherwood's daughter by his first marriage, has spent her school vacations with them. This summer the house is occupied by refugee children from London.

Should you, last summer, have revived at Great Enton the day-with-Thomas-Hardy manner, you would have found your host at ten-o'clock breakfast, deep in the Times. You would have been left with the Daily Mail, which informs you that Sir Stafford Cripps has heckled the Prime Minister keenly the day before about the transfer to Germany of Czech gold. (Remote crisis, June, 1939!) You inquire of your host what is the attitude of the Times leader about Sir Stafford. If you do not get a prompt reply to your query, it is not because your host is rude; it is simply because he is not reading about Sir Stafford Cripps but studying the long, scholarly articles in the Times on yesterday's races. A good part of Mr. Sherwood's summer is spent in reading about what horses won the day before and in deciding on what horses he is going to bet today. It is quite an elaborate ritual. After he has recovered from yesterday's bad news in the Times, he calculates how much he has lost and how much he is prepared to bet today. To place the bets, he has to wait for the midday Standard, which comes in just about when he has finished analyzing the Times' racing news. The Standard helps him decide on his choices, and then he goes to the telephone to place the bets with his brokers. He has two. It is the correct thing in England, when you are what is known as "making investments," to use an assumed name, and Sherwood masquerades under two: Captain Sherwit and Old Savoy.

He comes back from the phone faintly apologetic but already basking in a sense of opulence, happy in the knowledge that he won't know until tomorrow how much he has lost. For a while conversation may become less specialized: the visit of Mr. Strang to Moscow, the royal visit to America (pinwheels of hope, June, 1939!). The guest inquires whether it is his host's habit to do any writing in the morning. "Not here," it is explained to him. "In other places, yes, the morning is fine, but not here." Mrs. Sherwood, who presides over the activities at Great Enton with a kind of acidulated and deflationary charm, generally disdains any part in these sordid race-track speculations, but one day she announced that she had happened by chance to look over the entries in the Times and had discovered there a horse whose appeal she found to be irresistible. Sherwood thinks that this was by virtue of her marriage to him; the name of the horse was Old Monotonous. She insisted that her husband bet ten shillings each way on this horse for her. Mr. Sherwood complied. The horse failed to run in the money, but every time he ran, right up to the outbreak of the second World War, Mrs. Sherwood doggedly backed him. In spite of his consistent record of defeat, Mrs. Sherwood's faith in Old Monotonous remained undimmed and he became a kind of family mascot. Mr. Sherwood's daughter, Mary, became infected also by the strange appeal of this steady loser and she followed his career with the fanatical enthusiasm characteristic of the devotees of lost causes. In time, Old Monotonous, the equine Bryan, became more than a mascot He became a symbol. In their many letters to each other, Mrs. Sherwood and Mary Sherwood have come to refer to their husband and father as Old Monotonous.

By lunchtime the racing news has been assimilated and the Sherwood budget readjusted. Mr. Sherwood then turns to aviation. He repairs to his hangar, a sort of substantial play shed, where the Sherwoods sometimes give amateur theatricals. In even ranks, with chromium wings gleaming in the sun and multicolored bodies beautifully painted, starred and crossed and circled, rests Sherwood's flotilla, waiting for its master to animate it. A new plane has arrived from London. Icarus takes it out of its cardboard crate to assemble it. On its side is painted "Phoebus." "This is a marvellous specimen, one of the best made, and costs six guineas," he says, holding it in his hand. Laboriously Sherwood takes out the sturdy oil-paper wings. He loses a pin, which necessitates a careful search of the floor. Be pricks his finger as he finds the pin, but is undaunted. He works till the machine is completed, a shipshape Lilliputian air raider. "Come," says the aviator firmly. You follow him to a height back of the house, where there is a smooth stretch of lawn, and there you are permitted to assist at a maiden flight. There is an interval of tension and the new plane is off, sailing steadily over the pleasant Surrey landscape. The rangy pilot hurries after it, looking up anxiously to follow the trajectory of the Phoebus. He disappears in a clump of oak trees.

Not far from the Sherwood's place is the house where George Eliot lived. It is a country which old residents in the neighborhood find greatly changed and faintly suburbanized, but which, in the golden summer weather of June, 1939 —a season described by the English as "the sweet of the year"—in that last dreaming interval, the American visitor could still find tranquil and lovely. Possibly the author of "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," painfully adjusting a strut or a propeller, is assailed by some idea that eventually will be materialized for audiences in New York by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, but there is no visible evidence of it. There are letters telling the grosses at the Plymouth Theatre on West Forty-fifth Street and trips to London to see actors for the late Sidney Howard's forthcoming play, which Sherwood is handling as Mr. Howard's executor. During that last summer of 1939, in the intervals between dart-throwing and rummy, the visitors talk discursively of Hitler and wonder how the Russian rapprochement with Germany is getting on. By air, Great Enton is about two hours from the Tempelhof airfield in Berlin. Will it happen and when? But the midday Standard arrives. Mrs. Sherwood cuts flowers in the sun-filled, droning garden and on the telephone Old Monotonous transmits his latest hunches to his brokers in London.

(This is the first of two articles on Mr. Sherwood. The second will appear next week.)

*The Playwrights' Company consists of Mr. Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice, and the author of this article.

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