Wilder, Thornton (Vol. 1)

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Wilder, Thornton 1897–

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An American playwright and novelist, Wilder has won the Pulitzer Prize three times. His best known works include Our Town, The Matchmaker, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and The Skin of Our Teeth. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)

[Thorton Wilder's] The Bridge [of San Luis Rey] has become a classic of American fiction…. Despite its technical weaknesses, it has all the intellectual scope, depth of feeling, and complexity of character that make a mature and aesthetically satisfying vision. It was an unusual, courageous act in the twenties for a serious writer to affirm the moral nature and value of love—a subject most serious writers were associating in one way or another with sex. The almost inherently banal and sentimental "higher" manifestations of love were being abandoned to the hack writers or rejected as "genteel." But as he defines love in The Bridge, it is a most difficult thing; for it is accompanied by selfishness, confronted by human coldness, and lost upon a universe that does not seem to know or care that it exists…. The Bridge shows that not only courage but also the touch of the poet is there. The familiar takes on new life and meaning in art. (p. 56)

The artistic problem basic to Our Town is that of showing that the events of life are at once not all they could be because they are taken for granted—but are priceless. Wilder meets this problem by repeating the quotidian scenes and viewing them and the central actions of each act (growing up, love and marriage, and death) from different perspectives of time and space and different metaphysical vantage points. By relating the ordinary events in the lives of these ordinary people to a metaphysical framework that broadens with each act, he is able to portray life as being at once significant and trivial, noble and absurd, miraculous and humdrum. (p. 90)

The Skin of Our Teeth is Wilder's most complete and direct expression of his theory of the relationship between the American and "destiny," as well as the most complete achievement of his theatricalist theories. If the play proves anything, it is that theatricalism and allegory can be a dangerous mixture unless leavened with some degree of concrete fact: they must have some basis in real experience. Literal and allegorical meanings, comedy and seriousness, theatricalism and realism (almost totally lacking) are inadequately balanced to make the themes convincing and provide a unified vision of a faltering, absurd but noble mankind surviving not only because of but in spite of itself. (p. 110)

The greatest weakness of Wilder's art is that it often lacks the complexity achieved when characters and actions are presented from many viewpoints. Much of his work, built upon moral, religious, and metaphysical ideas, needs also the narrative richness that comes from having characters respond to complex social, economic, political, or psychological conditions. (p. 132)

Wilder's vision is most satisfyingly inclusive as a rule where his characters define themselves through objectively, or "scenically," presented conflict…. As might be expected, where the inclusiveness of a fully developed conflict is absent, Wilder achieves his moral and religious affirmations too easily. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth survives the disasters that beset mankind, but most of mankind is destroyed by them; and we see no real suffering during his times of crisis. Granting that moral courage can help minimize the tyranny of circumstance, we do not see Antrobus' courage tested in serious conflict on the stage. (p. 133)

The best qualities of his art are present where he wrests his most convincing affirmations from a fully developed moral conflict and when they are gained through irony—through a conflict in which moral or religious skepticism appears to gain justification but is undermined by a portrayal of great human spiritual depth and nobility. His best works from this stand-point of conflict are The Bridge, Heaven's My Destination, The Ides of March, and Our Town, where death or apparent defeat place the moral affirmation in bold relief. Less satisfactory are The Woman, The Skin of Our Teeth, and The Alcestiad, in which Wilder's themes are stated directly and arbitrarily either by dialogue or, particularly in The Alcestiad, through non-realistic action which leaves no moral option for those who cannot accept the mystical nature of the affirmation. (p. 134)

Wilder's view of life is less optimistic than it has generally been considered to be; but he has incurred the charge of unwarranted optimism mainly because of those works—most notably The Skin of Our Teeth—in which the full force of the dark side of his vision fails to make itself perceptible…. [But he] does not—as T. S. Eliot does, for instance—look with despair at the human condition in the twentieth century. On the other hand, he has no sentimental illusions about the innate goodness of men. (pp. 135-36)

Because Wilder stands back and views life as a whole and not with debilitating despair or unqualified optimism but with a tentativeness that precludes straitening dogmas or doctrines, his vision is eminently mature. Courage before the unalterable circumstances of life and responsibility for alleviating the suffering of one's fellowman—these are the moral imperatives repeated in his works. They are the indispensable elements in a meaningful, fruitful, and happy life; and it is for a full, free participation in and realization of life that Wilder appeals above all else. (p. 137)

[While] Wilder does not go so far in approving response to the appetites as Hemingway, who declares in effect that whatever pleases or satisfies the senses is good, he does advocate freedom from physical restraints that impoverish or bind the spirit. In this he is more in accord with the Greek doctrine of moderation than the leaders of the Humanist movement were. Furthermore, he holds that what he calls the "wandering desires" and "blind impulses" (the "flux" was More's inclusive term for them) may have a higher meaning than they appear to have and that even the trivial events of everyday life are important. (p. 138)

[Wilder] has been able without self-contradiction to incorporate into his own philosophy some of the ethical subjectivism of Sartre and some of the mystical existentialism of Kierkegaard and Berdyaev; for, aside from the fact that they are all humanists, these thinkers hold in common the principle of the individual's responsibility for his moral choice. But Wilder himself is not, strictly speaking, a religious existentialist—at least in the Kierkegaardian sense—because among other things he does not go so far as most existentialists in emphasizing the irrational and the subjective to the exclusion of objective knowledge. He eludes religious and philosophical labels, but his infusion of the religious life into his moral affirmations and his insistence upon the full development of all the potentials of the human spirit through human relationships engendered by love and governed by reason indicates that the basis of his philosophy is personalism. (p. 139)

Wilder's view is a mature one … because it is the product of a balanced personality whose love and hate have been successfully integrated. He has accepted the moral responsibilities of the humanist; and, because he has consistently affirmed the dignity and worth not only of the individual person but also of American democracy, he has become, as MacLeish pointed out, perhaps the most powerful living American spokesman for the humanistic values his country was founded upon. (pp. 144-45)

Rex Burbank, in his Thornton Wilder, Twayne, 1961.

[Wilder is] a man who has neither hastened to follow nor troubled to oppose the current mode, who has gone his own way, and who has clearly never sought the popularity which has periodically been his. The key to his significance, perhaps, is the number of important paradoxes brilliantly reconciled in his writings.

A romanticist at heart—and what writer of imagination is not?—he has always shown an intellectual preference for the classic. In his works emotions run deep rather than wild, and are never permitted to outrage the form. On the other hand, the form is always a clear crystal within which the bright light never flickers.

His interest has been consistently in great themes and subjects, yet in practice his art is akin to that of the miniaturist…. He has always chosen to show much in little…. The spacious air of his works is owing not to form but idea.

Like all good bookworms, he is in love with the past. But his re-creation of the past belongs very much to the present. He has never tried to write a museum piece.

No writer of his time has been more uniformly concerned with moral issues; none is less didactic. Didacticism he has branded as an attempt at "coercion." "Beauty is the only persuasion."

His experience and interests have made him cosmopolitan. Yet no storyteller has been more attentive to locale and setting.

He has always avoided the provincialism of modern American naturalists. Nevertheless, many of his dramatic compositions and one of his novels are, without loss to their universality, profoundly American. He is a man of the world, and he could have been born only in the United States. (pp. 5-6)

The theme of this brilliantly conceived play [The Skin of Our Teeth] is the ability of the human race, despite Nature's impersonally destructive powers and man's own catastrophic folly, ignorance, cruelty, indifference, and cowardice, somehow to manage to survive—and somehow, for all its readiness to forfeit all it has gained, to inch ahead of where it formerly stood…. The uphill steps by which human progress can be measured and which indicate the road still to be climbed are the great books which are the inheritance of every generation…. The dramatist's brilliant success in this play is due not only to a remarkable mingling of the serious and the comic and to a profounder use than ever of earlier devices (the telescoping of time, the diverse assignments of the Stage Manager, the simplification of scenery, and the pageantry of philosophic and poetic ideas), but also to his requiring the actors to step out of their roles to discuss with their audience their own views on the play and the problems attendant upon producing a play, and to debate and confess to one another their own personal dilemmas. In this way Wilder achieves other dimensions for the work; he also is able to drive home one of his favorite convictions: that the artistic validity of a play depends to a degree upon the acknowledgment that its pursuit of truth is via make-believe. (p. 38)

Bernard Grebanier, in his Thornton Wilder ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 34), University of Minnesota Press, © 1964 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).

The concept of eternity as all-important to the activities of man became Wilder's principal literary theme. To anyone less observant of the world around him than he himself has always been, a sense of the relative insignificance of the here and now when viewed within the context of eternity might carry with it a loss of esteem for individual life. But to Wilder it has brought a sympathetic understanding of man as a creature so bewildered by the speed with which his short span passes into history that, far from making the most of it, he is numb to its opportunities. (p. 2)

Although The Bridge of San Luis Rey is imperfect, its faults are not ruinous. Whatever they may be, they are not caused by such deficiencies of taste and wisdom as are evident in most American religious fiction…. The Bridge is not sentimental; it offers no promises of earthly rewards and no overestimation of the worth of the characters. Nor does it speak out against active participation in this life in favor of patient waiting for the life to come…. For, far from recommending a narcotic contemplation of the afterlife, Wilder speaks out for the vigorous pursuit of purely human relationships. If the … characters are tragic, they are so not because they die…, but because they have not truly lived…. In The Bridge, as in The Cabala and the major works which followed, Wilder insists that the life that is a rush of unanalyzed activity is as nothing when compared to the life in which the participant allows himself to become fully aware of the meaning of each experience. (pp. 60-2)

The title itself [of The Skin of Our Teeth] announces the theme, which is that no matter how hard pressed or frightened, the human race has power to survive its great adventure in a world where physical nature and its own internal conflicts pose endless threats. Beneath this is the idea which forms the core of all Wilder's major works. As the action proceeds it becomes clear that the playwright holds man to be worth preserving for all his absurdity, and holds also that man's lot is worth the effort it costs him to sustain life, however great his misfortunes. (p. 118)

Because they are conceived as comedies, such works as The Cabala, Heaven's My Destination, and The Skin of Our Teeth have seemed to some of Wilder's readers to fail to grant close attention to serious subjects or to deny them the full measure of their seriousness—in other words, to lack depth. Because such works as The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Our Town, and the recent Childhood describe relationships without obvious recourse to psychoanalytic doctrine or economic determinism, some readers have also charged him with heart-on-sleeve sentimentality. But unfavorable or friendly, the criticism of his work has been niggardly…. Although it is a serious complaint to level against the major critics of his time, one reason for their relative lack of interest in his work may lie in his popularity with general readers and playgoers…. The small number of carefully made works which he has issued over four decades have made their point, and it is doubtful that any of them save The Cabala and The Woman of Andros will drop into oblivion. Our Town, in all likelihood the most widely produced play in the entire history of American drama, and The Skin of Our Teeth have deserved the prizes bestowed on them….

Being a conscientious craftsman, Wilder has grown steadily in strength and taste…. When he finds the correct form for the accommodation of his latest insight into the springs of action, as he has done with Heaven's My Destination, Our Town, and The Skin of Our Teeth, it is not through happy accident, obviously enough, but through earnest study and trial. We would be unfair to think of him as only an experimenter, despite the variety of his means of expression as evident particularly in the plays, since each work is a finished product…. It is true that his inherent didacticism and pleasure in learning marred the surface of his first two novels,… [but] cavils against The Ides of March on the ground that it also exudes the air of the classroom may be dismissed routinely with the answer that the reader who finds it too learned for his taste may turn to something else. (pp. 164-66)

Malcolm Goldstein, in his The Art of Thornton Wilder (© 1965 by the University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission of University of Nebraska Press), University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

The Eighth Day came as a great surprise, not just because it was twenty years since Wilder had published a novel, but even more because today he is not primarily considered a novelist.

His place in the annals of American drama is secure…. His cryptic one-act plays have forwarded the experiment … in destroying barriers between audience and performers.

His achievement as a novelist has, however, been more debatable…. Even though people found the intellectual problem in The Bridge of San Luis Rey absorbing, Wilder had approached it as one might a game of chess. When, in his other novels, he dealt with problems that less acutely affected his readers, his books lacked the urgency that marks the greatest fiction. His craftsmanship was always impeccable, but his works seemed like Oriental porcelains in a museum, to be admired rather than experienced. Curiously, although his one-act plays often share this quality of amused detachment at the human predicament, his three outstanding full-evening plays have been vibrant with the urgency of life's problems and have made an immediate appeal to audiences. In The Eighth Day, he achieves this same immediacy in the novel, which his publishers have properly compared with his plays rather than his earlier novels….

The subject of The Eighth Day is nothing less than the condition of twentieth-century man…. Wilder's viewpoint comes close to the recently fashionable existentialist philosophy; but he avoids the narcissistic assumption that although the universe is absurd, it should not be…. The novel is also, at heart, profoundly Christian…. Wilder is saying that the Christian virtues do not assure that man will prevail, but they make it possible for him to endure.

Warren French, in his Season of Promise: Spring Fiction, 1967 (© 1968 by the Curators of the University of Missouri; reprinted by permission of University of Missouri Press), University of Missouri Press, 1968, pp. 7-12.

By experience, talent, and temperamental necessity, Wilder has created a literary world beyond time and space—a world through which he seems to move as easily as a child through his home-town streets….

Wilder's brilliant success in cheating time and space is accomplished not only by the mingling of the serious and comic but also by such devices as letting his actors step out of their roles to discuss with the audience their own views on the play, or to air their personal problems. Wilder's ability to telescope time and to give added dimensions to his work perhaps is most fully developed in The Skin of Our Teeth, in which the story of a single American family recapitulates the entire history of the human race….

Although Wilder began his career as a teacher of literature and a writer of short novels, it is in the field of the experimental theater that he has achieved his greatest success. Without issuing manifestoes, he quietly turned the theater inside out and upside down for his purposes.

Bernard Dekle, "Thornton Wilder: Dramatist of Time and Space," in his Profiles of Modern American Authors, Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, pp. 136-41.

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