Wilder, Thornton (Vol. 10)
Wilder, Thornton 1897–1975
Wilder was an American playwright, novelist, essayist, and screenwriter. He seeks to explore the universal in the particular in his writing: his stereotypical characters and conventional themes reflect his belief that realism in the theater cannot adequately portray the human condition. The form and content of his novels also reveal his rejection of contemporary modes of literary expression. His fiction and his drama have thus been the subject of critical controversy for their lack of contemporary theme or exposition. Wilder was three times the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize: for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Ray in 1927, and for his plays Our Town in 1938 and The Skin of Our Teeth in 1943. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 61-64.)
Douglas Charles Wixson, Jr.
Wilder has known German since an early age. As a child he was sent to a German school in Hong Kong. Further, there is abundant evidence that he extended his knowledge of German and German literature with maturity: some of the lines in his early plays are in German; his first published collection of drama, The Angel that Troubled the Waters and Other Plays, published in 1928, is dedicated to Max Reinhardt; he visited Berlin in 1928, at the time when Brecht's plays were receiving considerable notice; much later, it might be added, Brecht and Wilder attempted collaboration on … a project which subsequently never materialized. But the main evidence is in the plays themselves. (p. 112)
Theatricalism as it applies to Brecht and Wilder restores the theater's reality as theater while destroying the illusion of reality. Instead of attempting to imitate reality it essays, more boldly than subtly, the perception of reality through symbol. The central idea, for instance, is suggested iteratively by a "succession of events."… Brecht's and Wilder's theater, then, is theater which draws attention to itself as theater.
Brecht's and Wilder's drama imposes itself upon its audience; the audience is forced to take a critical role. In this sense it is didactic. In didactic drama the dramatist has a tendency to speak in his own voice, rather than to dramatize his subject matter. Characterization is reduced to a minimum; it...
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Edward Ericson, Jr.
That an examination of Kierkegaard's influence on The Eighth Day will prove fruitful we have Wilder's own word. John Ashley, the hero of the novel, is repeatedly called a man of faith. Noticing what seemed to me striking parallels between Ashley and Kierkegaard's knight of faith in Fear and Trembling, I wrote to Mr. Wilder to inquire about the matter. In a letter addressed to me dated April 24, 1971, he responded: "Yes, indeed John Ashley is a sketch of Kierkegaard's knight. Once one has read S.K. he remains a part of one's view of life and I'd like to think that he appears and disappears throughout the book even when I'm not aware of it. Many have noticed also the presence of Teilhard de Chardin—very few have glimpsed S.K." This compelling piece of external evidence is both sufficient encouragement to seek the internal evidences of Kierkegaard's thought in the novel and a prima facie case for their presence.
The purpose of this paper, then, is to locate as many of those places in The Eighth Day as we can where Kierkegaard "appears" and to indicate the nature of Wilder's debt. In general, we may note here that reference to Kierkegaard illuminates the main character of the novel, John Ashley, and the central theme of the book, living by faith, which is expressed most forcefully in the closing passage through the image of the tapestry of life. Other characters and secondary themes will also be...
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Wilder is obsessed with the notion of communality and identity of little people everywhere, but most particularly in middle America. They form, for him, a fictive we, the source and culmination of all that is enduring and wonderful about humanity, and most of Wilder's dramaturgy consists of brandishing this great, shaggy, unwashed lowest common denominator of a we as the tool, subject, and end product of playwriting. But lowest common denominators are too low and common for art: even Whitman, that other grassroots American, was saved by the rough idiosyncrasy of his I; Wilder sinks into the treacly morass of his we.
Philosophically, dramatically, and literarily I find The Skin of Our Teeth unpalatable. There is, first, the (all too or not enough) Joycean double or triple exposure of seeing the Antrobus family of Excelsior, N.J., as the prehistoric family—both the Biblical first family and early mankind inventing the wheel, the alphabet, the multiplication table, and such. What, except for a jejune jest, is achieved by this simultaneity? We learn nothing about the Stone Age, the Bible, or even New Jersey in 1942 except that Wilder considers them as interpenetrating and identical—interpenetratingly insipid and identically piddling. Next, we get Pirandellian reversibility: some of the characters revert periodically to the actors playing them, and a few minor members of the theatrical personnel also...
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[Theophilus North is] a story of a young tutor in the Newport of the 1920s, a mushy account of mild eccentrics and trivial complications and of a not very exciting young man's attempts at saintly midwifery and playing deus ex machina to bring to birth peace of mind in petty souls. In brief, sentimental drivel, [although] competent insofar as remembered craftsmanship and Wilder's memory of the 1920s were concerned…. The kindest thing one can say is that, just perhaps although there is no evidence of it, Wilder indulged himself in a playful pastiche—he always had a superb sensitiveness of style—of a "woman's novel" of the 1920s. (p. 76)
Inevitably one wondered whether one's own memory of The Bridge of San Luis Rey as a masterpiece was not the product of nostalgic falsification, whether it had really been all that good…. The only way to find out was to dig up an old copy—already listing seven printings a month after publication.
And, lo and behold, one is in for a pleasant surprise. Brilliantly constructed, wonderfully warm in spite of the terse style, witty, vibrant with startling insights into the darker corners of the heart, the book captivates one from the opening pages like the first few minutes with a fascinating woman. The device of Brother Juniper, who wants to make a scientific inquiry into the reasons of Providence for sending to their deaths just the particular five persons on...
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It is hardly surprising that Thornton Wilder, who found his immediate inspiration in the writers he admired and who turned to the Greeks as early as his third novel, "The Woman of Andros," should try to have his way with Alcestis….
["The Alcestiad"] is certainly inferior to the major Wilder plays, but it is interesting as an example of the playwright's work and as another variation on the Alcestis story.
Although "The Alcestiad" is called "A Play in Three Acts," it is clearly intended as a trilogy in the Greek sense, three plays united by a common theme…. In Act II we get the traditional Alcestis story, unhappily without the tension and ambiguity that Euripides gives to both the sacrifice and the acceptance of it. In Wilder, the minor characters fall all over one another for a chance to die for Admetus, but Alcestis claims the honor, after the herdsman, who taught her in Act I that she best serves God / Apollo by responding to bits of him in her fellow humans, explains that there are two kinds of deaths—endings and beginnings….
Since [Alcestis] is "the first of a great number that will not have that ending" [escaping her death], her translation to Apollo's grove suggests the Christian heaven; and Alcestis, like Chrysis in "The Woman of Andros," seems to embody Wilder's sense of a pagan world about to give birth to Christianity.
Wilder's trilogy, like its Greek ancestors, is...
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