Phyllis McGuire | View from the Village: Revived Wharton play may resonate beyond The Mount

WILLIAMSTOWN — When I read "Ethan Frome" as a freshman at Walton High School in New York, I had not the least inkling that someday I would live close to the home of its Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Edith Wharton.

The Mount, Edith Wharton's home in Lenox attracts up to 52,000 visitors annually, from near and far.

First opened to the public as a museum,The Mount, a national historic landmark, has evolved into a cultural center.

"In partnership with local and regional organizations, we offer music, theater, art, workshops, lectures, readings," said Susan Wissler, executive director of the The Mount, which maintains and operates the estate.

Edith and her husband, Ted, built and named their home The Mount in 1902. During the nine years the couple lived in the Mount, Edith wrote several of her 40 books.

When Edith died in France at age 75, her voice was silenced, but she left behind the written word for the living to enjoy. And a newly discovered play by Wharton titled "The Shadow of a Doubt" has been added to her legacy.

Scholarly sleuths Laura Rattray and Mary Chinery wanted to bring the story of their exciting discovery to The Edith Wharton Review, an academic journal, but decided to first speak with Susan Wissler,

"They asked if I thought there would be wider interest in the discovery than the audience of The Edith Wharton Review. I said 'yes'' and told them that any other publication would want to be the first to print the story," Wissler recalled when I phoned her in late January.

"I pitched the story to The New Yorker and they wrote a lovely piece," Wissler said. Shortly after the story appeared in the New Yorker in late May 2017, the Edith Wharton Review published the script of Wharton's previously unknown three-act play.

After Wissler contacted Shakespeare & Company, they manifested their interest in "The Shadow of a Doubt" by presenting a reading in their Bernstein Theatre in Lenox. The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington has also presented a reading.

The Mount will offer a reading of "The Shadow of a Doubt" this summer.

Research has revealed that "The Shadow of a Doubt," was in production in 1901 but was never performed. "It vanished from the scene," Wissler said. A number of theories about why the play was canceled have been put forth, such as the leading lady and the writer had a falling out; failure to raise sufficient funds for the play with a theme that revolves around extortion and euthanasia.

The main characters in the play, Kate Dermet, a former nurse, and John Dermet are happily married until he learns Kate had been involved in the suspicious death of his first wife, Agnes.

In one scene, family friend Lady Uske implores Kate to come back to her husband even though all might not be quite right between them: "My dear, after twenty, all life is pretending, and it's easier to pretend in a good house, with everybody's cards on the hall table, than alone in a garret under a false name!"

Agnes' father, Lord Osterleigh, warns Kate of the danger of a woman leaving her husband without explanation: "When a woman refuses to explain her situation to society, society is at liberty to infer what it pleases — and it always infers the worst."

Wissler said, "Following the publication of the script "The Shadow of a Doubt" in the Edith Wharton Review, a producer called from California expressing interest in producing the play."

It has also been reported that the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), is interested in the play.

Thus it is possible that the words Wharton left behind in "The Shadow of a Doubt " may be brought to life by actors in a theatrical or screen production.

Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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