New York Times
November 8, 1981

Art Mirrors Life in Two Shows Headed for Broadway

A Drama Recalls A Playwright


His was a sad and remarkable story. While still at Harvard, Edward Sheldon wrote ''Salvation Nell,'' a play that not only became the Broadway hit of 1908 but also helped usher in a whole new era of realism on stage. His work was admired by Eugene O'Neill and Thornton Wilder, and his advice would help shape the careers of such actresses as Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Helen Hayes and Katharine Cornell. Gifted, charming and handsome, he was, at 22, ''the Wonder Boy of Broadway.'' Within a decade, however, he would become a permanent shut-in, afflicted by a rare form of arthritis that turned him into a kind of living statue, paralyzed and blind.

Ned Sheldon died in 1946 at the age of 60, and to later generations of theatergoers, the brightness of his name has faded. But with the opening tonight at the Little Theater of ''Ned and Jack'' - Sheldon Rosen's new play about the dramatist's friendship with John Barrymore, which played to critical acclaim Off Broadway last season - his story has come to Broadway, and for a man whose life was devoted to the stage, it seems a fitting event indeed.

Five years ago, Mr. Rosen, who was then in his early 30's, had never heard of Ned Sheldon; rather, the he was a playwright in search of a play. Having promised Vancouver's New Play Center a full-length work, he says he wandered into the local library, hoping to find inspiration in a book. There, a 1956 biography of Edward Sheldon - ''The Man Who Lived Twice'' by Eric Wollencott Barnes - happened to catch his eye. Struck by the similarity of the playwright's name and his own - Mr. Rosen's middle name is Edward - he checked out the book and began to read.

Although he says he initially dismissed the idea of writing a play about a ''man who was sort of an immobile saint,'' Mr. Rosen found, as he did further research - reading a collection of his letters at Harvard and studying a doctoral thesis that had been written about his work - that the dramatist's life, however physically circumscribed, was animated by inner conflict, that his friendships with actors and other playwrights actually defined the entire theater world of his day.

As Mr. Rosen found, Sheldon was atrracted to the stage from his earliest childhood - a penchant his parents, who had made a fortune in Chicago real estate, were willing to indulge. They provided him with his own toy theater, and they frequently took him to shows. When he entered Harvard in 1904, there were further opportunities to develop his interest in drama: as a member of the university's Cercle Francais, he was invited to do a walk-on part in Sarah Bernhardt's production of ''Fedora,'' and he so charmed Mrs. Fiske during the actress's visit that her friend, the distinguished English professor Edward Townsend Copeland, was obliged to write her a note: ''Dear Minnie - When you are finished talking with Ned Sheldon, may I see you?''
Vickery and Goetz in 'Ned and Jack' It was also at Harvard that Sheldon effectively began his career as a dramatist, enrolling in George Pierce Baker's playwriting course - English 47. Professor Baker, who over the years would instruct some of the most prominent writers of the day including Eugene O'Neill, S.N. Behrman, George Abbott and Philip Barry, was quick to recognize the young man's talent: he recommended that Sheldon show his last assignment for the course - a play entitled ''A Family Affair'' - to Alice Kauser, then one of the leading agents in New York.

Although Miss Kauser urged Sheldon to refrain from submitting that play to producers - she felt it too closely resembled a current Broadway hit - she encouraged him to write another. The result was ''Salvation Nell,'' the story of a down-and-out woman who remains loyal to her imprisoned lover and finds happiness in dedication to God.

Inspired by observations Sheldon made while attending Salvation Army meetings, the play reflected the views of a wealthy outsider looking in on the lives of the less fortunate, but in 1908 the notion of even depicting characters from the seamy side of society was mildly outrageous. Indeed at a time when classics, on one hand, and genteel drawing room comedies, on the other, were the order of the day, ''Salvation Nell'' represented a major step toward melodramatic realism in the theater. ''Ned put guts on the American stage,'' said Mr. Rosen. ''His plays were awfully romantic, but he showed the problems of everyday people, and they were people in genuine conflict - not worrying about what they should wear to the ball, but what they should do with their lives.''

Much acclaimed at the time, Sheldon's plays now seem, as Brooks Atkinson once wrote, ''maudlin, sentimental, melodramatic'' - the first act of ''Salvation Nell'' ended with Christmas carols; the second with the Lord's Prayer - but they were infused with the playwright's sure theater sense and provided actresses with dependably dramatic roles. What's more, Sheldon's craftsmanship raised the melodrama of the day to a new level, and in doing so provided later generations of playwrights with intimations of the theater's possibilities. Clever and technically dexterous, Sheldon's plays were perhaps superior entertainment, but they remained entertainment nonetheless; it would be left to his successors - Eugene O'Neill, who would effectively transform the American theater, and later Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and others - to raise the level to an art form.

Some 17 years after the opening of ''Salvation Nell,'' Eugene O'Neill wrote Sheldon a letter, in which he acknowledged his debt. ''Your 'Salvation Nell,' '' he wrote, ''along with the work of the Irish Players on their first trip over here, was what first opened my eyes to the existence of a real theater as opposed to the unreal - and to me, then hateful - theater of my father, in whose atmosphere I had been brought up ...My inner conviction has always been that you are one of the rare ones who really understand and have a right to speak, and to be listened to, whether of praise or blame.''

The season it opened, ''Salvation Nell'' was acclaimed, in the words of one critic, as ''the most daring play New York has ever seen,'' and its young author quickly became the toast of Broadway. He was invited to the most glittering of parties, and his name was mentioned in the columns. He also continued to write, frequently working on several plays at a time.

The story of a Southern politician who discovers that he is partly black, ''The Nigger,'' produced in 1909, proved as provocative as its title. Sheldon's next play, ''The Boss,'' which concerned the maneuverings of a big-city political boss, was also timely, based, in part, on the muckraking exposes of Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. Although both plays were couched in romantic terms - each focused on the relationship between the protagonist and a woman - they also addressed important social issues, something few Broadway plays had ever assayed before.
''Ned had one foot in the romantic theater,'' says Colleen Dewhurst, the actress who is making her directorial debut with ''Ned and Jack.'' ''But the other foot was moving toward the realistic theater. His influence was that he began to make people look at poverty, at suffering, at the agony of the human condition. He began to open doors to other playwrights.''

In 1913, Sheldon completed a different sort of play - a love story, with no pretensions to social relevance at all. The lead role - that of a beautiful opera singer who renounces the love of a young clergyman in order that he may continue his vocation - was written for a young actress named Doris Keane, whom Sheldon himself hoped to marry.

''Romance,'' as the play was called, turned out to be one of the theater's longest running hits, but its author's romance with Miss Keane was ill-fated. The engagement was broken, and the actress, who would make an entire career out of ''Romance,'' was seen dating Howard Gould, a millionaire backer of the play. The only explanation offered years later by Miss Keane was that Sheldon had told her, ''I would make a very poor sort of husband for you.''

A month after ''Romance'' opened, Sheldon left for a tour of Europe. Then, in the summer of 1915, he began to feel a strange stiffness in his knees - the first signs of arthritis that would eventually paralyze his entire body. By 1925, he was permanently bedridden, and by 1931, completely blind as well. Cruel as these afflictions were, friends observed, they did not seem to subdue Sheldon's spirits; rather they seemed to impart to him a certain serenity.

According to a spokesman at the Arthritis Foundation to whom Sheldon's symptoms were described, his affliction was probably caused by ankylosing spondylitis, a severe form of arthritis, which today can be partially controlled by a combination of drug and physical therapies. Often genetic in nature, it causes many of the body's joints to fuse, resulting in limited movement. In Sheldon's case, doctors of the day were unable to cure or arrest the disease, and several speculated that it might have been aggravated by emotional and psychological conditions. For dramatic reasons, it is a theory that Mr. Rosen has chosen to explore. The author of ''Ned and Jack'' was faced, after all, with illuminating the personality and inner drives of a man who calmly, even sweetly, accepted his terrible fate, and this theory of psychosomatic irritation helped provide an insight into his condition.

''I think Ned might have had some problem in dealing with women on a certain level,'' says Mr. Rosen. ''I felt there was a craving in him to keep all of his relationships pure and it might have been reflected in the disease -once his body turned to stone, he could only react to people purely. I had to take my own guesses with Ned. You have to come to grips with who he might have been, and in the effort to make an explanation, maybe you point out a flaw - what a human being has to sacrifice in order to become a saint, and even raising the question, 'Is it really a sacrifice?' ''

''Ned had a very rigid moral code,'' Mr. Rosen adds, ''and I can recognize some of that in myself. At some point, I had to forget Ned's actual biography and ask how would I react in his situation. It's like taking a tiny similarity and inflating it. I'm not an actor, but I imagine it's the same process of being given certain lines, certain facts, and trying to make them your own - give them an identity. My research became intuitive: it was me - not worrying about historical accuracy, but trying to capture the spirit of the man.''

However valid Mr. Rosen's speculations are, it seems Sheldon's illness neither isolated him from the world nor constrained his imagination. His household staff read him a wide selection of books - poetry, history, novels, even scientific surveys - as well as two newspapers a day, and they kept him apprised of developments in popular culture, giving him descriptions of everything from new women's fashions to new automobile models. The children and grandchildren of his friends had birthday parties and easter egg hunts at his spacious penthouse, and the daughter of Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur was even christened there.

Always impeccably attired - his clothes were slit down the back for easy dressing - Sheldon always dressed up for company, frequently wearing elegant dinner jackets, complete with boutonniere. His guests reciprocated in kind: women dressed in their finest gowns and jewels for their dinner dates with him.

Indeed Sheldon's entire apartment, as the novelist Helen Howe once noted, possessed a certain theatricality that curiously masked its owner's true condition: ''Framed against the panels of a high, dark blue screen -actually put in place to keep off draughts, but with the full dramatic effect of a cyclorama - on a high slab-like pallet lay what might have been the effigy of a Crusader. A blue coverlet reaching to the floor completely covered the figure beneath. Only showing on the pillow was his head, incapable of turning to right or left, his eyes covered under a black mask... from this uplifted altar where, in a sort of physical crucifixion, his body was held fast, an atmosphere of light and health streamed out, which healed and refreshed everyone who came within its rays.''

For several years, Sheldon continued to write his own plays, but as his illness progressed he increasingly worked as a collaborator and play-doctor with others. He helped Cornelia Otis Skinner and Ruth Gordon begin their playwriting careers, and he frequently advised such friends as Thornton Wilder and Robert Sherwood. With Charles MacArthur, he wrote ''Lulu Belle'' in 1926, and with Margaret Ayer Barnes, he worked on ''Dishonoured Lady'' in 1930. With many others, he insisted that his input remain anonymous.

''No one knows the extent of his contributions to Broadway productions between 1930 and 1946,'' wrote his biographer Eric Wollencott Barnes. ''But it is safe to say that there was no season during those years which did not see at least one play in which he had some part, and frequently two or three.''

Dispenser of advice, comfort and sometimes even financial aid, Sheldon invented a life, as Thornton Wilder once said, animated by ''an elaborate usefulness to others.'' And when he could no longer venture out into the world at all, the world came to him. Geraldine Farrar, Lotte Lehmann, Walter Damrosch and Harpo Marx came to sing or play for him, and Jascha Heifetz once gave a two-hour private concert in his bedroom.

Maude Adams, Billie Burke, Katharine Cornell, Jose Ferrer, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Constance Collier, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence were frequent visitors, as were Edith Wharton and Alexander Woollcott, who both shared Sheldon's enthusiasm for mystery and horror stories. Edith Evans played some of her great roles for him - Millamant in ''The Way of the World'' and Lady Fidget in ''The Country Wife'' - and Ruth Gordon once brought the entire cast of ''A Doll's House'' to his penthouse to perform.

''He was the handsomest creature that ever lived and a brilliant playwright with charm galore,'' says Miss Gordon, who first met him at the Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago, when both were patients. ''Anyone who had the chance to know him, knew him. Never mind that he couldn't go out, he knew all about anything that anyone was doing.''

With some, talking with Sheldon became a favorite ritual. Helen Hayes, for instance, says she never went an opening night without first having dinner with him. ''I always went to his apartment and had the usual boiled chicken and peas because he steadied me and gave me strength,'' she recalls. ''Actors are too scared to be reasssured by just soothing words; he had something more - good sense and theater awareness - and he always went right to the bottom of a problem. My husband Charlie used to say, Ned was less confused than us because he didn't have to cope with all the less important things, all those wearing and diminishing decisions most of us have to make. So there he was, remote and right at the heart of everything.''

One of Sheldon's closest and most enduring of friendships was with the actor John Barrymore. As young men, both possessed a heightened, romantic sense of life and they shared adventures in Europe and New York. Tempestuous and self-indulgent, Barrymore affectionately regarded Sheldon as a kind of father figure - the playwright was the first to urge him to develop his dramatic gifts by switching from light comedic roles to important, classical parts - and during the years when his career and marriages were coming apart, frequently turned to him for comfort and advice.

It was this friendship between Barrymore and Sheldon that Mr. Rosen determined to examine in ''Ned and Jack.'' By focusing on one hypothetical evening during which the two men confront one another, the playwright was able to illuminate their respective personalities and fates. It is a portrait of two men who were foils to one another in temperament, yet confidants in all that mattered, each helplessly witnessing the other's decline - Sheldon's into physical infirmity and Barrymore's into spiritual and professional despair.

Barrymore - who once declared that that his epitaph should read, ''This Goddamned Son of a Bitch Knew Ned Sheldon'' - would die in 1942 in Hollywood. Ned Sheldon would die four years later in New York. By then, deafness had begun to set in as well, and he was preparing to learn the Morse Code in order to continue to communicate with his friends. Exactly 35 years later, his life, so much a part of the theater of his day, would animate another play on Broadway.

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