Thornton Wilder Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4919

Thornton Wilder’s contributions in style and technique to American drama are akin to the innovations that Alfred Jarry in France, Luigi Pirandello in Italy, and Bertolt Brecht in Germany made to world drama in the twentieth century. Basically, Wilder was an antirealistic playwright, reacting against the tenets and presuppositions underlying the type of drama that held sway during the nineteenth century and continues to be a potent force even today. During a play that, as part of its attempt to create the absolute illusion of reality, employs a box set so that the audience sees the action through an imaginary fourth wall , there is a complete separation between actors and audience, stage space and auditorium. The audience, even though it implicitly knows it is in a theater watching a play, pretends for the duration that it is seeing reality on the stage; in short, the audience makes believe that it is not making believe. On the other hand, in theater that makes no attempt at achieving such an absolute illusion of reality, the audience readily accepts that what it is seeing is make-believe or pretense. In his important essay “Some Thoughts on Playwriting” (1941), Wilder argues that the theater in its greatest ages—Periclean Athens and Elizabethan England, for example—has always depended heavily on conventions, what he calls “agreed-upon falsehoods” or “permitted lies.” Such accepted conventions help to break down the artificial boundary between play and audience by inviting a fuller imaginative participation in the action; by increasing the audience’s awareness of itself as audience; and by emphasizing the communal and ritualistic nature of the theatrical experience. In Wilder’s view, the traditional box set, because it localizes the action to a particular place and restricts it to a definite time, renders the action less universal and hinders its ascent into the desirable realms of parable, allegory, and myth. In contrast, Wilder sought a theater in which the large, recurrent outlines of the human story could be told through particular examples less important in themselves than the universal truths they stand for and embody.

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The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden

Wilder’s brand of minimalist theater can be illustrated by looking at The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, which the dramatist himself regarded as the best of his one-act plays. The action is simple: The Kirby family (father, mother, son, and daughter) takes a brief automobile trip to visit a married daughter/sister, whose baby died shortly after birth. Because the literal journey is less important than the metaphoric one, it is appropriate that the bare brick walls of the backstage remain visible; that the automobile is merely suggested by four chairs and a platform, with Dad Kirby working an imaginary gearshift and steering wheel in pantomime; that the towns through which the family travels (including Lawrenceville, where Wilder once taught) are simply mentioned in the dialogue; and that a Stage Manager is available to serve as property man, to read the parts of all the minor characters, and to act the role of service station attendant. When the car must stop for an imaginary funeral procession to pass, it allows the family an opportunity to recall their son and brother Harold, who died in the war, and to remember that every human being must be ready for death. As is typical in Wilder, the central female figure carries the weight of the play’s meaning and expresses the dramatist’s simple faith. Ma Kirby is the Eternal Mother, preserver of the family, who is close to God and to the nature that shadows forth the divine. She understands the process-oriented quality of existence: All things are born and they die; some, in fact, are born only to die. Further, she maintains her confidence in a providential order at work in the universe. Although human beings cannot know the ways of God, they must continue in faith that all things in life are for the best. What tempers Wilder’s optimism and often prevents it from becoming sentimental is that he always keeps before his audience the dark side of human nature—human beings’ myopic vision that limits them from being all that they might become—and the dark side of human existence—the fact of death, especially of dying without ever having really lived.

Our Town

When the Stage Manager steps out onto the stage at the beginning of Our Town and locates the mythical and microcosmic New England village of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, firmly in time and space, he creates a place so palpably present to the American imagination that most people in the audience might expect to be able to find it on a map. This is, truly, anyone’s and everyone’s town, and the people who are born and grow up and live and marry and suffer and die there are clearly Everyman and Everywoman. Wilder’s opening stage directions specify “No curtain. No scenery.” The absence of a curtain conveys the timeless quality of elemental experiences; the action has no specific beginning, because these daily events have been occurring since time immemorial and will continue to go on, despite an ever-changing cast on the world’s stage. The almost complete lack of scenery, with only “two arched trellises” permitted as a concession to the unimaginative and literal-minded in the audience, indicates that the action is unlocalized and not tied to only one place at one time, but could, and does, happen everywhere. The pantomimed actions—perhaps influenced by the style of the Chinese theater, with which Wilder was well acquainted—achieve the same effect. The audience has no difficulty recognizing them, precisely because they are common actions (such as getting meals) that everyone performs.

The play’s action is as basic, and yet as universal, as the setting: neither more nor less than the archetypal journey of man and woman through life to death and beyond. In this respect, the title play from The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act serves as a precursor to Our Town. In that short work, Wilder presented ninety years in the life of the Bayard family. Characters enter through a portal on one side of the stage, which symbolizes birth; partake of a Christmas dinner over the years that symbolizes the feast of life; and then exit through a portal, on the opposite side of the stage, that symbolizes death. One generation replaces another, even uttering many of the same lines of dialogue. Act 1 of Our Town, called “Daily Life,” focuses on the ordinary, day-to-day existence of two neighboring families: Editor Webb, his wife, older daughter, and younger son; and Doc Gibbs, his wife, older son, and younger daughter. In act 2, called “Love and Marriage,” the playwright shows the courtship and wedding of George Gibbs and Emily Webb; the audience becomes an extension of the church congregation as the young couple enter and leave the ceremony via the theater aisles. Act 3, which is left untitled, is set in a cemetery with chairs for graves and an umbrella-protected group of mourners; it is the funeral of Emily, who died in childbirth and has been united in eternity with something like an Oversoul.

Although the action literally begins in May, 1901 (the hopeful springtime of a new century), Our Town is, unlike a play such as Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (pr. 1933), more than simply a nostalgic recollection of a bygone era of American democratic egalitarianism. Nor is the picture of life from the dawn of the twentieth century to the outbreak of World War I as sentimentally one-sided and limited in its awareness of evil and the darker forces of existence as has sometimes been charged. Along with Simon Stimson, the town drunk and eventual suicide, Wilder portrays petty gossip and backbiting, even among the church choir ladies; lack of communication between husband and wife and parent and child; the pain of separation and loss through death; and war (looking forward, since the action per se ends in 1913). The continuing importance of Our Town, however, should not be looked for on so basic a level as that of its story. Rather, it is a philosophical examination of time and the proper way of seeing, stressing the necessity for escaping from the narrow, myopic view of existence that human beings ordinarily take and embracing, with the poet’s help, a God’s-eye view of human history.

Wilder’s attitude toward time as a continuum is made concrete in the way he conveys events that occurred before or will happen after the twelve-year scope of the action. Not only does the local expert, a college professor, Willard, provide a lengthy report about the geological formation of the region and the anthropological data of the area, but also the Stage Manager, in his casual shifting of verb tenses from present to future or future to past, points to a perspective that is both inside secular time and outside time, transcending it. Wilder’s laconic Stage Manager, with his understated and homespun New England manner, performs several functions: He is narrator, bridging shifts in time and place, setting the scene for the audience; he is actor of minor roles, including drugstore owner and preacher at George and Emily’s wedding; he is property man, constructing the soda fountain from a few boards; he is chorus, philosophizing for the audience; and he is destroyer of the theatrical illusion, reminding the audience that they are in a theater watching a play. Distanced from the action that is filtered through his eyes, the audience begins to see with his sometimes ironic perspective. He possesses a Godlike omniscience, overseeing the progression of human history as God would. It is this kind of sight and insight that the audience, too, must develop.

In a seemingly inconsequential exchange of dialogue (perhaps influenced by a similar passage in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916), Wilder hints at the idea on which the entire work pivots. George Gibbs’s sister Rebecca tells about a letter that a minister sent to a sick friend; included as the final words of the address on the envelope was the location, “the Mind of God.” Wilder, who himself acted the role of the Stage Manager in the Broadway production, tells his audience that if it could only plumb the mind of God, where everything—from least to most, from smallest to largest, past, present, and to come—exists simultaneously as part of a purposive, providential order, then they would live life wholly and even be able to cope with death.

The tension and tragedy of the human condition, however, arise because, paradoxically, it is possible to gain the perspective necessary for seeing life steadily and seeing it whole only after death. Emily dies giving birth, a poignant image not only of mutability but also of the way in which life and death are inextricably bound in nature’s cycle. Only after she dies and is given the opportunity to relive the most “unimportant day” in her life does she see that even the most ordinary and banal of life’s experiences is full of wonder and learn to treasure more what she has lost. Sadly, only the “saints and poets” seem to recognize this wonder and beauty while they are still alive. The end of a human life, union with some larger spirit, is in its beginning hinted at even in the most common events of daily living—if only that person, like the poet, could see.

The Skin of Our Teeth

While Our Town displays some affinities with medieval morality plays, The Skin of Our Teeth is influenced by the medieval mystery cycles in its structure: In capsule form (and stylistically akin somewhat to a comic strip), it recounts human history from the beginning of time to the present and on into the future. The Antrobuses, Wilder’s Family of Man in this play, begin each of the three acts on the upswing, feeling positive about themselves and the human race; see their fortunes descend to a nadir, through either a natural disaster or human culpability; yet finally finish each act—and the play as a whole—having narrowly muddled through “by the skin of their teeth.” In each instance, temptation is overcome, sinful action somehow compensated for. In act 1, with its echoes of the Garden of Eden story from Genesis, son Henry’s killing of the neighbor boy (he earlier killed his brother, for which he received the mark of Cain) prompts Mr. Antrobus to despair, but daughter Gladys’ ability to recite in school a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow restores his faith. In act 2, with its underpinning of the Noah tale, the father’s lack of faithfulness to Mrs. Antrobus sends shock waves through the family, as Gladys dons red stockings and Henry attacks a black person with a slingshot. Yet Mr. Antrobus, unlike the other conventioneers at Atlantic City who writhe in a snakelike dance, is among the remnant of faithful ones saved from the Deluge. Act 3 finds the family returning to normalcy after the war (any war), but the anarchic Henry threatens the stability of the family unit just as the forces of totalitarianism almost destroyed the world, until he is finally reconciled with his father, who puts his confidence in the best ideas from the past to sustain the human race. The overall structure, therefore, embodies Wilder’s concept of cyclic time, with one result being that time can be handled anachronistically. The play, which began with a slide of the sun rising, ends with the equivalent lines from Genesis: “And the Lord said let there be light and there was light.”

In its techniques, which extend the nonillusionistic style adopted in Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth reflects the influence of Surrealism and even points forward to the multimedia effects of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The scenery, with its angles askew, the dozen lantern slides projected onto the set, the talking dinosaur and mammoth, the cardboard cutouts and flats, the lighting and noises—all contribute to a carnival atmosphere, anticipating the playful techniques of some Absurdist drama while also suggesting a dream happening without conscious control. Mr. Fitzpatrick, Wilder’s director/stage manager here, not only stops the play so that he can rehearse volunteers taking over the parts of sick actors, but also is mildly satirized for his literal-mindedness and prosaicism; even Ivy, the costumer, understands the meaning of the play better than he does. Significantly, the substitute actors are needed to play the hours of the night who cross the stage; that they recite passages from Benedict de Spinoza, Plato, Aristotle, and the Bible (as similar characters also had in Pullman Car Hiawatha) demonstrates that the enduring ideas of the past are not out of reach of the common man. The illusion of reality is further destroyed when Lily Sabina Fairweather, a compound of temptress, mistress, camp follower, and maid, steps out of character and, as the actress Miss Somerset, speaks directly to the audience, requesting that they send up their chairs for firewood during the Ice Age of act 1 and, at the end of the play, sending them home to do their part in completing the history of the human race on earth.

Within the framework of his comic allegory of humankind’s journey, Wilder’s characters assume an archetypal dimension; each member of the Antrobus family, whom Wilder calls “our selves,” seems to stand for an aspect of the archetypal man or woman’s personality. Mr. Antrobus—the former gardener (Adam), self-made man, inventor of the wheel, the lever, gunpowder, the singing telegram, the brewing of beer and of grass soup—represents the power of the intellect, which can be a force for both creation and destruction. Appreciating the importance of the wisdom of past ages, he will not tolerate the burning of William Shakespeare’s works even to provide life-sustaining warmth. Mrs. Antrobus, inventor in her own right of the apron, the hem, the gore and the gusset, and frying in oil, is humankind’s affective side; her watchword is the family and the promise of love between husband and wife that helps them endure and makes even suffering worthwhile. As one who insists that women are not the subservient creatures the media make them out to be, she stresses woman’s role as transmitter of the Life Force.

Lily Sabina (Lilith), with her philosophy of enjoying the present moment, embodies the hedonistic pleasure principle. The Antrobuses’ daughter Gladys, who appears after the war with a baby, symbolically conveys hope for the future. Their son Henry is a representation of the strong, unreconciled evil that is always with humankind; though he is the enemy during the war and in general refuses to accept responsibility, he is still taken along on the ark at the end of act 2.

In act 3, the actors playing Mr. Antrobus and Henry break out of their roles, moving from stereotypes to more rounded human beings as they reveal the tension between themselves as men rather than as characters. Something in the attitude of the actor playing Antrobus reminds the one portraying Henry of how authority figures have always blocked and hindered him, and so they clash personally. Through this tension, the actor playing Antrobus recognizes that there must indeed exist some lack within himself that triggered this negative response in the other, and so he promises to change. He ends confident that humanity, always on the edge of chaos and disaster, will ultimately endure and prevail, if only people accept the chance to do the hard work that Providence demands of them.

Wilder, like George Bernard Shaw, has often been criticized for his romantic optimism, which seems out of keeping with the darker facts of human history—The Skin of Our Teeth opened, after all, only a year after Pearl Harbor and found its greatest success in post World War II Germany. Whether Wilder’s optimistic belief in humanity’s “spiral progression through trial and error” is found congenial or not, The Skin of Our Teeth remains a richly imaginative work and the seminal text of deliberately self-conscious art in the American theater.

The Matchmaker

Wilder’s The Matchmaker—a revision of his The Merchant of Yonkers, an adaptation of Johann Nestroy’s 1842 Viennese comedy Einen Jux will er sich machen (pr. 1842, pb. 1844; The Matchmaker, 1957; which, in turn, was based loosely on John Oxenford’s 1835 English comedy A Day Well Spent)—belongs to that most venerable of dramatic traditions, the genre of romantic comedy. As such, it is characterized by a repressive authority figure who tries to thwart young love; mistaken identities and confusion between the sexes, including boys disguised as girls; and a ritualized dance to foreshadow the multiple marriages that resolve the plot. Along with these appear elements of good-natured, boisterous farce, including inopportune entrances and exits; hiding behind a screen, in closets, and under tables; and exploding cans of tomatoes shooting up through a trapdoor in the floor. What marks all of this traditional, even stereotypical material with Wilder’s own signature are the themes and the manner in which he breaks down the illusion of stage reality.

A further alteration from the norm in romantic comedy is that in this play, the older couple, rather than the young ones, are the hero and heroine. Horace Vandergelder, the sly, miserly merchant from Yonkers (he seems a direct descendant of Ben Jonson’s Volpone, the fox) forbids his sentimental young niece and ward Ermengarde to marry the penniless artist Ambrose Kemper. They ultimately circumvent his authority through the agency of two older women: Miss Flora Van Huysen, the spinster fairy godmother in the play, and Mrs. Dolly Gallager Levi, the inimitable matchmaker herself. Miss Van Huysen refuses to permit her own loneliness to be extended to others through the destruction of young love, and so she acts as the presiding deity over the three marriages: Ermengarde’s to Ambrose; Cornelius Hackl’s to Irene Molloy, the Irish widow and milliner; and Barnaby Tucker’s to Minnie, Mrs. Molloy’s assistant.

Dolly, who all along has her eyes on Horace for herself, is the only character among a cast of types permitted enough depth to probe into herself and her motives. In the manner in which she arranges the relationships of others and herself, there is something of the artist in Dolly Levi; her vocation is to make life interesting, to make people less selfish, to spread enjoyment, to see that the community renews and fructifies itself. She must, first of all, tutor Horace in adopting a proper attitude toward money; for her, money must “circulate like rain water” among the people and be “spread around like manure” if it is to encourage life and growth. She must also, however, tutor herself into giving up her widow’s weeds, so to speak, and completely rejoining the human community. Ever since the death of her first husband, Ephraim, she has allowed herself to become like a dying leaf and now must cure her underactive heart through marriage to Horace. For both Dolly and Horace, lonely old age is only narrowly averted. This emphasis on full participation in life and life’s processes, of seeing that to everything there is a season and of not rushing before one’s time toward death and decay, is peculiarly Wilder’s. Also distinctively Wilder’s is the emphasis on the need for “adventure” and “wonder,” which are two of the key words spoken by nearly every one of the play’s characters and are direct echoes of the attitudes espoused in Our Town.

The settings for the four acts of The Matchmaker are the most elaborately realistic box sets prescribed for any Wilder play. Precisely because they do form such a realistic background, replete with “obtrusive bric-a-brac,” they make the several instances of direct address to the audience by the major characters all the more startling. The disjunction between the realistic sets and the very nonrealistic goings-on calls the audience’s attention to the fact that it is watching a play and turns stage realism on its ear. The Matchmaker becomes, indeed, a playful and affectionate parody of the way that stage realism stifles life. To be doubly sure that the audience does not miss this point, Miss Van Huysen even repeats several times some variation of the line “Everything’s imagination,” which is another way of saying that all is make-believe and pretense: exactly what Wilder strives to provide for his theater audiences.

A Life in the Sun

Wilder’s A Life in the Sun is, both in form and content, linked closely to the Greek drama of the fifth century b.c.e. Its form, a play in three acts (each of which could almost stand alone as a self-contained episode) and a satyr play, replicates that of the Greek trilogies, which were followed with a comic parody of the tragic action. Here, the satyr play (entitled The Drunken Sisters, which tells how Apollo tricked the vain Fates into allowing Admetus to live) is added by Wilder to make the point that the tragic and comic experiences are incomplete in and of themselves; in life, the two kinds of perceptions must coexist. The content of Wilder’s powerful retelling of the Alcestis story for modern man is religious and mythological in nature, with his act 2 corresponding closely to the material found in Euripides’ original. Unlike T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (pr. 1949), which uses the same myth allusively as a vague underpinning for a contemporary parable, or Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (pr. 1931), which takes the outlines and psychology of the Orestes and Electra stories and redresses them at a different time and place, Wilder creatively adjusts the myth to reflect contemporary philosophical currents, especially existentialism, as Jean-Paul Sartre had done in Les Mouches (pr., pb. 1943; The Flies, 1946).

Act 1 begins with a confrontation between Apollo, the force of light, and Death, the force of darkness, who introduce the issues that inform the entire play: the relationship between the divine and the human and the problem of discovering a meaning to life. Although Apollo admits that there exists much that human beings are incapable of understanding, he insists that what meaning does exist flows from him. Death, on the other hand—and later Tiresias, the wizened seer, will echo him—argues that it is the gods who cause human torment. By meddling in human affairs, the gods make people unhappy and distraught. On her wedding day, Alcestis decides not to marry the King of Thessaly unless she receives a clear sign from the gods; she will forsake humans, finite and of this world, to love only God, infinite and other-worldly. Alcestis desires absolute certainty and the assurance that the gods have not abandoned humankind; without that, life is reduced to meaningless nonsense, and humankind is left in a condition similar to that of the absurdists, with life made all the more unbearable because human beings have been given hope of some meaning only to see that hope dashed. The God Apollo, by becoming human in the form of one of Admetus’s herdsmen, must save Alcestis by forcing her to recognize that God is within each and every person, that the divine can be found within the human, the infinite within the finite. When Admetus enters wearing a blue cloak like Apollo’s, the sight is an epiphany for Alcestis, who pledges to marry him and live totally for him, ready even to die for him.

Act 2, which occurs twelve years later, finds Admetus at the point of death and Alcestis finally favored with the long-sought-for message from Delphi, which indicates that the gods do demand the difficult. The message challenges her to do what she was prepared to do at the close of act 1: die in place of Admetus. The Watchman, the old nurse Aglaia, and the Herdsman all offer to sacrifice themselves so that Admetus might live, but Alcestis insists that the role fall to her. It is not that Alcestis has no hesitation, for she dreads to cease to be, to leave the sunlight, and she still craves the right to understand the ways of God to humankind that would make human beings more than animals. Finally, though, her love for Admetus dominates her love for life; she will die for him and, what is perhaps even harder, die from him, believing a divinity shapes her end. Yet, as Apollo intervenes in act 1, here Hercules, though in fear and trembling, descends into the Underworld to bring back from the dead the all-forgiving Alcestis, the “crown of women.” The last image of the resurrected Alcestis led forth from Hell provides a further instance for the audience of the way in which classical and Christian myth and iconography fuse in Wilder: Apollo/Christ became man; Alcestis/Christ died and rose so that others might live.

If act 2 forms a meditation on death, act 3 is a metaphysical inquiry into the existence of human suffering, with Death taunting Apollo to explain why so many innocent in Thessaly have died in the pestilence: Do the gods make human beings suffer only so that people will remember rather than reject them? Admetus is now dead, and Alcestis is an old slave under King Agis. Epimenes, the only surviving son of the former queen, returns to what has become a wasteland, vowing butchery and revenge, only to have his hand stopped by his mother. Rejecting all of those who see God’s influence only in the evil in the world and never in the good, Alcestis says that the gods’ ways are not human ways; they do not love one minute and then turn against the loved one in the next. She counsels Agis, whose daughter Laodamia dies in the plague, that evil does have a purpose within the divine scheme and that suffering can make him open his eyes and learn wisdom. Her final visionary pronouncement recalls that of Emily in Our Town: Human beings should despair at the point of death only if they have not really lived, if they have failed to experience fully and treasure the here and now. The meaning of life is in the living of life. Alcestis herself becomes the sign that life does possess a meaning in and of itself, and, freed from the grave by the grace of Apollo, she experiences an apotheosis as her reward.

A Life in the Sun, as much a paean to woman and her role in the cosmic order as are The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Skin of Our Teeth, provides a dramatic summation of much of Wilder’s philosophy: To become divine, human beings must first be fully human; the extraordinary is to be discovered in the ordinary; the power of myth is timeless, cutting across cultures and religions, synthesizing the past and the present, making the past ever new and vital. The Watchman’s words in act 1 of A Life in the Sun, a play that is essentially an undiscovered country for all but ardent enthusiasts of Wilder, might be paraphrased as an epigraph for all Wilder’s dramatic works: The essential facts of human life do not change, nor should humankind expect them to, from millennium to millennium, from year to year, from minute to minute. What must change is human beings’ way of seeing.

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