Robert Ardrey’s final play was a fitting finale to a career dedicated to socially-engaged theater. A documentary drama about the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956, Shadow of Heroes resulted in the release from custody of two political prisoners. It is also praised as an early example of Verbatim Theater, and was notable for giving a non-romantic leading role to a woman, played originally by Dame Peggy Ashcroft.
The play follows two members of the anti-Nazi Hungarian resistance, Lászlo Rajk and his wife, Julia. They are both arrested and tortured. Lázslo is betrayed by his former friend János Kádár and then killed. Julia works tirelessly to rehabilitate his name, and insists on a state funeral. When the soviet-backed Kádár succeeds to the head of the government, he promises Julia amnesty, and then arrests her. The play ends with the announcement that Julia Rajk is still a prisoner of the Russians.
Shadow of Heroes premiered in London at the Piccadilly Theatre. It opened on October 7, 1958, and inspired outrage; only eleven days later Julia Rajk and her son were released from prison.
The play was successively produced in New York and Germany, and was broadcast to acclaim on television by the BBC in 1959, with Dame Ashcroft reprising her role.
"This is one of those rare pieces of theatre which commends itself ... for what it has to say and teach, and for the honesty which it says it ... [It] is a bold, challenging and moving drama which strikes hard at the human conscience."The Age
"In Shadow of Heroes Robert Ardrey has recalled one of the shameful horror stories of our time. Because he has done so with control, his anger burns all the more compellingly. Because he has made an intensive study of the history of self-serving men who dominated Hungary and abused its people after the war, he has composed a work that is more like a sworn affidavit than a conventional play."Howard Taubman, The New York Times