Follow TV Tropes


Theatre / Idiot's Delight

Go To

Idiot's Delight is a 1936 play written by Robert Sherwood.

The setting is a small resort hotel in the Italian Alps, right on the border with Switzerland. Various guests arrive at the hotel, including: Mr. and Mrs. Cherry, British newlyweds; Harry Van, an American vaudeville performer who is leading a troupe of dancing girls; Dr. Waldersee, a German scientists who is on the verge of a cure for cancer; Quillery, a French Communist and anti-war activist; Achille Weber, a German arms dealer; and his companion Irene, a Russian woman with a Mysterious Past.

The travelers' plans are complicated when Capt. Lociciero, the officer in charge of the border post, tells them that the border has been closed and the train has been halted due to the imminent threat of war. The possibility of war is even more threatening because the resort hotel is in close proximity to an Italian air base. Tensions rise as the guests hope to escape before war is declared.

Something of an Unintentional Period Piece today—the real World War II did not start with Italy attacking France. In 1939 Idiot's Delight was made into a feature film starring Clark Gable and Norma Shearer. It was directed by Clarence Brown, and Robert Sherwood adapted his own play for the screen. Gable sings and dances for the only time in his long film career.

A 1983 musical adaptation, Dance a Little Closer, was written by Alan Jay Lerner, with music by Charles Strouse. Introducing a Cold War Setting Update and a gay marriage subplot, Dance a Little Closer was Lerner's last and least successful Broadway musical.


  • Arms Dealer: Weber, the most villainous character in the play, who sells arms to all sides and profits off of death. He defends himself by saying that the people who use his products are worse than he is.
  • Downer Ending: War has come. Quillery has been executed. Apparently Irene and Harry are going to die in the raid. Waldersee has rejected his cancer research and decided to devote himself to germ warfare research in support of the German war effort.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The story takes place over about 24 hours.
  • Foreign-Language Tirade:
    Pittaluga: Pezzo mascalzone farabutto prepotente canaglia.
    Don: And it will do you no good to call me names in your native tongue.
  • Higher Understanding Through Drugs: Harry calls cocaine "illuminating", saying that it helped him appreciate how everyone in the world is addicted to their false faith and false beliefs.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Quillery is a Communist who rejects the concept of nationalism, won't even admit that he's a citizen of France, and is working to stop the war—but once the news comes of the Italian raid on Paris he become violently nationalistic and verbally antagonizes the Italian soldiers in the hotel.
  • The Mistress: Irene is Weber's. He abandons her at the hotel after coming to believe her anti-war sentiments could hurt his business.
  • Mysterious Past: Irene claims to be a Russian highborn lady who escaped from the Bolsheviks. Weber says that she's told at least eleven times how she escaped "and each time it was different". Apparently at one point in the distant past the woman who now calls herself Irene was a vaudeville performer, who had a one-night stand with Harry in Omaha. Late in the play Irene loses her Russian accent.
  • Shot at Dawn: Quillery's fate after getting too insulting with the Italians.
  • Title Drop: Irene imagines that an indifferent God is up there playing "idiot's delight" (solitaire), "the game that never means anything, and never ends."
  • War Is Hell: Mr. Cherry calls it a "bestial frenzy". Irene gives a vivid hypothetical picture of how Mr. Cherry will be crushed by a tank while his wife will end up a mangled corpse after an air raid.
  • You All Meet in an Inn: The whole story takes place in the inn, as various characters are stuck there with the closure of the border crossing.

Tropes found in the 1939 film:

  • Adaptation Expansion: An entirely original first act dramatizing Harry and Irene's Back Story, including their fling in Omaha.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: Among the things Harry does in the lean years after World War I are sell encyclopedias door-to-door and sell snake oil on street corners.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "The gay, carefree world of entertainment."
  • High-Class Glass: Appropriately, Weber the evil arms dealer sports one.
  • Lady Drunk: Madame Zulaika, the Phony Psychic whom Harry has an act with. Her water jug is actually filled with gin, leaving her drunk during a performance.
  • Multiple Endings: Two endings were shot. The ending for American audiences is a somewhat less harrowing bombing sequence in which Harry tries to teach Irene the code for the Phony Psychic act while the bombs fall. The international ending has Harry and Irene singing a hymn like in the play. Both endings, unlike the play, show that Harry and Irene survive.
  • Non-Specifically Foreign: To avoid offending Fascist Italy, the film is set not in the Italian alps but in some non-specific border crossing in the mountains. The locals speak not Italian, but Esperanto, the Universal Language.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Maybe. The play actually has an ambiguous ending in which Irene and Harry sing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" as the bombs rain down. In the film, both endings show Irene and Harry definitely alive after the bombing stops.