Thornton Wilder Essay - Wilder, Thornton (Vol. 5)

Wilder, Thornton (Vol. 5)

Wilder, Thornton 1897–

Wilder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright and novelist, writes elegant and inventive "dramatic hymns to human endurance" about ordinary human beings "living in an inscrutable but benevolent universe." His great plays, Our Town and Skin of Our Teeth, are distinguished as experiments in theatrical technique and by what is considered particularly American charm and humor. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Thornton Wilder … is thought of, together with O'Neill, Miller, and Williams, as one of our "Big Four," and yet his reputation is based on only three full-length plays and was made on one…. For some he is the great American satirist; for others he is a soft-hearted sentimentalist; and for still others he is our only "religious" dramatist. Furthermore…. Brecht, Ionesco, Duerrenmatt, and Frisch have all acknowledged their debt to this "great and fanatical experimenter." (p. 239)

Wilder has dealt boldly and affirmatively with the themes of Life, Love, and Earth. Each of his plays is a hymn in dramatic form affirming life. But the important question is: What is the nature of this affirmation? It is not, as some would have it, Christian. To begin with, Wilder has no belief—at least as expressed in his plays—in a religion that is revealed or historical. These are basic premises of Christianity. To be sure Wilder is deistic, but as almost all of his critics have pointed out, he is essentially a religious Platonist; and this position must ultimately reject the historic dimension as meaningful. (pp. 239-40)

Wilder is a humanist, an affirming humanist, a "yeasayer to life" as Bernard Hewitt calls him. When we examine the nature of Wilder's humanistic affirmation, what do we discover? His plays celebrate human love, the worth and dignity of man, the values of the ordinary, and the eternity of human values. From the little boy in Wilder's first play who says: "I am not afraid of life. I will astonish it!" to Dolly Levi and her cohorts in adventure in The Matchmaker, Wilder has always been on the side of life and life is seen to be most directly affirmed through love. Love, then, is his most persistent theme and it has been for him an inexhaustible subject. Of its worth he is convinced, but it is interesting to note that Wilder has never been able to make any commitments as to the reasons for its worth. Wilder can deal with life and love directly and concretely; but when he moves to the edges of life, the focus becomes less sharp. Certainly, Wilder deals with death—he is not afraid of it, but death in his plays is terminal. When Mrs. Soames says in Act Three of Our Town: "My, wasn't life awful—and wonderful," Wilder is reminding us that beauty is recognizable because of change and life is meaningful because of death. But as both John Mason Brown and Winfield Townley Scott have pointed out, Wilder never deals adequately with Death's own meaning. And as for what's beyond death?… Life is reality and eternity is the perfected essence of that reality to which we are too often blind and of which we can't stand too much.

It is this tendency, a tendency consistent with his Platonism, to reduce the dimension of eternity so that it can be encompassed by life itself, that has led me to believe, although he has written no tragedies, that Wilder has essentially a tragic rather than a Christian or even religious view of life. To be sure, Wilder has not created any Ahabs or Lears, but this is not because he lacks a tragic vision. He happens to believe, as did Maeterlinck, that there are times in each of our lives when we are conscious of moving into the boundary situations of the tragic realm, and that furthermore, life's tragedies can best be seen in the drama of the everyday, in life's smallest events. For this reason he does not dramatize great conflicts in order to capture the quintessence of tragedy. I think it is important to see the validity of this, although we must point out that while this approach is tragic it is not always dramatic. And this, I think, accounts for the fact Wilder's plays are usually referred to as "hymns", "odes," "songs," and so on, and most critics feel that there isn't much conflict in their plots. (pp. 240-42)

Over and over again in Wilder's work, the belief is stated directly and indirectly that "life is what you make of it." The fullest discussion of the idea is in his novel The Ides of March, where Caesar says: "Life has no meaning save that which we confer upon it."… [This] is really an existential position and … Wilder is very close to Sartre's "Man is condemned to be free."

In fact, upon reflection, we discover that in starting from "Life is what we make of it," Wilder is really in the mainstream of the modern drama beginning with Ibsen and Strindberg. And this is a dangerous position and usually in the drama has led to despair. The image of man in this drama is an image of collapse…. I think [Wilder] averts despair—and also tragedy, even though his view of life is essentially tragic—with a kind of Santayana-like belief in life. In fact, Wilder's Platonism can make sense only if it is seen as coming through Santayana. Wilder is, as probably most of us are, saved from despair and its paralyzing effects by what Santayana has called "animal faith."… [Our] animal faith, which bids us believe in the external world, is much stronger than all the logical arguments which tend to make life seem absurd. (pp. 242-43)

But although Wilder can assert meaning to life, the meaning is almost in the assertion itself and this is not a very comfortable position to be in. One gets the feeling that Wilder has to keep saying it to make sure that it is true. The danger of this position is that it lacks the necessary polarity and tension for full meaning. This in itself keeps Wilder from being a religious dramatist. In all great religious drama—the works of Sophocles, Calderón, Everyman, and in more recent times the later plays of Hofmannsthal, Eliot, and even Fry—there is the backdrop of religious belief which gives meaning to and informs the hero's "life is what you make of it." There is the greater stage … [and] the idea of man as a player on the world's stage becomes the very principle of the mise-en-scène. For God, the master, speaking from the top of the scaffold, actually orders the world to produce a play under his eyes, featuring man who is to act out his part on earth.

More important than the absence of a religious dimension to Wilder's work, however, are the many experiments he has made in theatrical technique to compensate for this lack of an ultimate perspective. (pp. 243-44)

Wilder has not been interested in psychology and [unlike most modern dramatists, according to this critic,] has never used psychological techniques to solve the "modernists'" problems in the theatre. This accounts, I think, for his great influence on the Continental avant-garde dramatists who are rebelling against our psychologically oriented theatre. Wilder sought to achieve the sense of an ultimate perspective by immaterializing the sense of dramatic place on stage. The bare stage of Our Town with its chairs, tables, and ladders, together with the Stage Manager's bald exposition, are all that he uses to create the town. The same is true of The Skin of Our Teeth; you never really know where the Antrobuses live, nor when. This is his second dominant technique; by destroying the illusion of time, Wilder achieves the effect of any time, all time, each time. But this is risky business, for without the backdrop of an ultimate perspective to inform a play's action, it can very easily become sentimental or satirical, or even pretentious. Wilder at his best keeps this from happening, but his only weapons are wit and irony. And a production which does not succeed in capturing these qualities (as, alas, most college and school productions do not) is bound to turn out pathetic and sentimental; when technique is used as a compensation for the ultimate perspective, the resultant work of art always lies precariously under a Damoclean sword.

It is important that we see the dangers in Wilder's methods, but that a tragic sense of life informs his plays is best illustrated by his sense of destiny. (p. 245)

What Wilder [says] is that human beings cannot stand to have a sense of destiny—the awareness that there is a continuity in all our acts, the awareness that every present moment comes from a past and is directed to a future. Only at moments, usually of emotional crisis, do we have this sense of destiny, this sense of awareness of the future. It is this sense of destiny that is the great human reality and the tragedy of life lies in our fragmentary and imperfect awareness of it. Wilder is aware, like Eliot, that "human kind cannot bear very much reality," but his plays fall short of tragedy because he takes the Platonic escape, he moves into a world that denies the reality and the nemesis of destiny. Nor does he have the solution of an Eliot. For in denying, finally, the reality of destiny he shuts out the possibility of ever providing the means to perfect our fragmentary and imperfect vision. He fails, to use Karl Jaspers' phrase, to go "Beyond Tragedy." That Wilder lacks this dimension is not to discredit him, however, for no other American dramatist more fully affirms that miracle of life which so much modern drama would deny. (p. 246)

Robert W. Corrigan, "Thornton Wilder and the Tragic Sense of Life" (originally published in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 3, 1961), in his The Theatre in Search of a Fix (copyright © 1973 by Robert W. Corrigan; used with permission of Delacorte Press), Delacorte Press, 1973, pp. 239-46.

Thornton Wilder announced himself at once as an experimenter. The audience that entered the theatre at the first performance of Our Town … found itself facing a curtainless, sceneryless stage. The beginning of the play was marked by the entrance of the Stage Manager, who lighted his pipe, cocked his hat over his eyes, and sat down to chat informally with the spectators about the play they were going to see. If the audience was at first startled by the novelty, they were soon able to adjust to it, and, through the necessarily sharpened focus on the actors, found themselves engrossed by a story so simple and commonplace that in other hands and under other conditions of production they might never have noticed it at all. The play is without the conflicts and tensions that are normally considered dramatic or theatrical: a young girl grows up, marries and dies in a New England village so isolated from the burning issues of the greater world that they are never hinted at. And yet this very isolation, emphasized by the bareness of the stage, brought to vivid life the problems, the conditions, the situation of everyman, so that this little play, seemingly so American in its frame of reference and its attitudes, has found an instant and continuing response in the hearts and minds of world audiences.

The Skin of Our Teeth … is in many ways Wilder's most creative use of the theatre. His theme is the survival of the human race in the face of ignorance, catastrophe, and folly, and he moves backward and forward in time with a rapidity that reminds some critics of the Finnegans Wake of James Joyce…. For sheer variety and mingling of emotions, The Skin of Our Teeth approaches most closely a musical comedy, but its theme is a celebration rather than a mere exhibition of humanity. Wilder's use of familiar materials and conventions in a fresh way comes very close to that creative, poetic theatre toward which O'Neill urged his fellow workers to aspire. (pp. 52-3)

Alan S. Downer, "The Revolt from Broadway," in A Time of Harvest, edited by Robert E. Spiller (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1962 by Robert E. Spiller), Hill & Wang, 1962, pp. 42-53.

[It] is within the frame of Wilder's total endeavor as playwright and novelist that [his] short pieces stand out most meaningfully. And, conversely, [the] little masterworks [in The Long Christmas Dinner] help to define their author, concerning whom opinions have been frequently divided and rarely cogent despite the attention paid to his writings and the regard in whch he is held on two continents. In this collection of early plays we find (not unexpectedly in the case of so disciplined and self-aware an artist) the configurations of a talent that combines sensitivity with a strong awareness of form and embraces both the commonplaces of life and the life of the imagination, which fluctuates between fantasy and philosophy, skepticism and mysticism, playfulness and sobriety. We see him poised between "life" and "theatre," and this not merely as a beguiling technician but as an observer of reality who does not hesitate to throw off the shackles of realistic play construction in order to come closer to reality. (pp. viii-ix)

The Woman of Andros may not be a substantial novel; it is nonetheless an enchanting and affecting book, and it is more satisfying in my opinion than many an acclaimed contemporary novel. But the historical situation was plainly unfavorable to the reflective and tastefully distanced artistry which is one of the two worlds of art Wilder has inhabited in the course of his distinguished literary career. He would have to move into the other world of common reality which he had fastidiously avoided but with which he soon made a successful compromise that accounts for much of his originality and his special genius—the compromise of combining intensive observation of the common world with uncommon transcendence or sublimation of that world. Wilder himself was apparently aware of a limitation in his art when he declared some years later (in 1938) that he had shrunk from describing the modern world and was "alarmed at finding a way of casting into generalization the world of doorbells and telephones." He was ready, he believed, "to accept the twentieth century, not only as a fascinating age to live in, but as assimilable stuff to think with." (pp. x-xi)

Henceforth he was to inhabit two worlds, the real and the imaginary, or to blend the two in the same work. This was apparent in his later fiction—in Heaven's My Destination, an amusing yet rueful novel about a moralistic innocent adrift in American society, published in 1935, and in The Ides of March (1948), in which he combined a novel of manners in Julius Caesar's times with a penetrating portrait of Caesar and exquisitively reflective prose often intensified with emotion and lightened with humor…. But it is especially in the plays published after The Angel That Troubled the Waters that Wilder effected the reconciliation of reality and imagination which proved so rewarding in Our Town in 1938 and The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942. (pp. xiii-xiv)

He is at once a radical and a traditionalist in employing a form of the drama instead of sedulously sustaining the so-called illusion of reality required by the conventions of modern realism. The artificial nature of the theatre was the established convention of classic, Oriental, Renaissance, Elizabethan, neoclassic, and romantic theatre; realistic convention, which became firmly established only in the second half of the nineteenth century, is a very late development. In returning to "theatricalism" or "theatre for theatre's sake" (rather than "theatre for the sake of illusion"), Wilder associated himself with tradition in dramatic art. But returning to tradition in the twentieth century was an innovation, and Wilder's manner of returning to it was personal and unique. It came about not without some dangers, the greatest of these being in his case some frolicsome bookishness and self-conscious skittishness, but it amounted to a minor revolution in the American theatre. (pp. xvii-xviii)

John Gassner, "The Two Worlds of Thornton Wilder" (introduction copyright © 1963 by Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publishers), the introduction to The Long Christmas Dinner, and Other Plays in One Act, by Thornton Wilder (copyright 1931 by Yale University Press and Coward-McCann, Inc.), Harper & Row, 1964, pp. vii-xx.