01 September 2015

Love, Suffering, and Transcendence on The Great White Way


Garbo as Rita Cavallini in Romance
 
In 1930 the glorious Greta Garbo starred in an elaborate costume drama entitled simply "Romance". The story was set in the 1860s, and Garbo played Rita Cavallini, a brilliant, mercurial Italian opera star. Not only does she look incredibly lovely in Adrian's gorgeous costumes, but she gives a wonderful characterization, quick, emotive, and fascinating.
Romance is a rather old fashioned story, about an innocent young divinity student who falls in love with the worldly, cosmopolitan diva, and there's a reason for that -- it's from a play by the now-forgotten author Edward Sheldon, first produced on Broadway in 1913. Sheldon was a very popular playwright, whose other successes included the blockbusting Salvation Nell (from 1908) and The Jest.
But Sheldon's own story is more moving and more inspirational than any fiction. He was apparently a very warmhearted and charming man, and was very much loved by denizens of the theater district. Then, at an unusually early age, at the height of his success, he began to be afflicted with a dreadful, crippling illness. It is not known whether this was a catastrophically severe rheumatoid arthritis or perhaps ankylosing spondylitis. The effect, however, was that he gradually became immobilized in every joint, being completely incapable of moving by the mid-thirties. Remarkably, at this point he was actually able to collaborate on a few more plays. Then he also became blind. After that, he seldom left his darkened bedroom.
He could hear, though, and he could speak. And far from being cut off from the theatrical world he loved, throughout the next few decades of confinement that world came to him, lovingly and faithfully. Major playwrights, columnists (like Alexander Woolcott), and Broadway stars of all descriptions visited him regularly, day in and day out.
Until the end of his life Ned Sheldon functioned as a private coach for writers, actors, and directors, working with them on plots, characters, stagecraft, audience reaction -- everyone, from Robert E. Sherwood to Thornton Wilder, from Mrs. Patrick Campbell to Helen Hayes, from Raymond Massey to John Gielgud, sought his advice and shared their professional lives with him. So, despite total disability, he was never cut off from the people and interests he loved best; his friends -- almost all in a profession frequently thought of as selfish and competitive -- never forgot him, and never neglected him.
It's a remarkable story, an inspirational story -- and a true story.