At The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland Robert E. Sherwood's
"Idiot's Delight" is a fascinating tale of an extremely diverse group
of travelers stranded at a second class resort high in the Italian Alps, on
the border with Switzerland and Austria at a fictional outbreak of WWII. The
play opened March 9, 1936 at the time Mussolini's army was sweeping across Ethiopia.
The cast includes a German scientist, Dr. Waldersee, who is going to Zurich
to conduct experiments to find a cure for cancer and Dumpsty, the waiter, who
is an Austrian born here, but when the Treaty of Versailles gave the area to
Italy, he became a foreigner. His children are taught Italian in schools and
he and his wife can't communicate with them. Captain Locicero is the apolitical
border guard who has been ordered to not let the train cross the border out
of Italy, so they are all stranded there.
The first half of the play introduces the cast and we get to
know them. They all have their own thoughts on war and their particular situation
as they try to make the best of it. It's very funny, but underlying the comedy
is a profound sense of distress at what is about to take place. Donald Navedel
is an American from Santa Barbara who has been hired to bring his clientele
from San Moritz to the hotel to upgrade it's stature. When he asks the Captain,
who's fighting, the answer is that Europe's a big place and he's sure the government
will announce some enemy, then we'll all know who to shoot at.
Harry Van is an American song and dance man, traveling with a dance revue of four women. He's full of quips, asides, and wise cracks. He tells Quillery, the French revolutionary that "travelling with a bunch of blondes, it's always nice to find someone to talk to." Quillery responds that he works in a factory that makes artificial limbs, and business has been good for the last twenty years or so. Van responds with a resigned sigh of yeah. There is a stream of joking and ethnic slurs, but, after all, that's what war is all about, one country feeling superior to another.
Mr. and Mrs. Cherry are newlyweds who were married in Florence
and are at the resort willingly, for their honeymoon. They're superior to everyone,
but their absolute candor about it endears them to everyone, especially the
Russian, Irene. She is the consort of Achille Weber, the arms dealer who is
stirring things up to help his business interests. Italian bombers have taken
off from the airfield and as rumors spread that they have bombed Paris, tension
arises. Van and his girls perform a tap dance musical routine to lighten things
up, before Quillery storms in screaming that the bombers, who have just joined
the group have just bombed Paris. He's arrested and taken away, and later shot.
Here's where all pretense of comedy stops.
Irene tells Achille of her vision of Mr. Cherry in a uniform firing a pistol at a tank, supplied by him. He is run over and crushed, but as he dies he thinks of her, and how his sacrifice has made the world safe for his wife and their baby that she's going to have. He doesn't know that she's been blown to bits in a basement by the bombs that Achille supplied. Achille defends himself, saying that he's only supplying people with what they want to satisfy their national pride and patriotism, by making them feel secure in the thought that they are superior to someone else. Van says war is like being a drug addict. You get all hopped up with fear and lust for power.
Van has known Irene before, and he finally places her in Omaha.
The conversation is sort of strange and he says how he has never forgotten that
woman, and he's sure it's her. Achille breaks it up by calling her. She says
he's a terrible insomniac. There's something on his mind, something like Macbeth.
The next day, war has been declared and the travellers
are free to go. The scientist has decided to not go to Switzerland, but to return
to Germany to make weapons to destroy people, and he says he can do it very
well. He says we're all diseased; what can I do? Irene responds that "You
are a man, you can refuse to fight." Her passport was issued by The League
of Nations, since there was a question of where she was born. They won't let
her leave, as Achille has decided he no longer wants her.
After everyone's gone, Van returns to Irene. They say that the reason for the war is them, the little people. For them the most merciful weapons are the most destructive ones, that deliver the swiftest death. The war comes home in the retaliatory strikes. The sky turns red, bombs fall all around, and Van plays "The Ride of the Valkyries" on the piano as we're swept to the powerful climax. "Idiot's Delight" is especially thought provoking in light of recent events and our current patriotic fervor, and our continually expanding war. It continues in The Angus Bowmer Theater at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland through July 14, 2002.