Thornton Wilder Wilder, Thornton (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 serves only to point up the underlying ideas embodied by the fable. "The myths, the parable, the fable," Wilder wrote, "are the fountain head of all fiction, and in them is seen most clearly the didactic, moralizing employment of a story." In order that the audience give their full attention to the lessons of the play it is important that their sympathies not be engaged. They must not, for instance, anticipate the dramatic climax rather than the underlying idea.

Brecht and Wilder rebelled against the naturalistic theater on grounds that it deprived the audience of any participation other than strictly emotional…. Wilder, in his The Skin of Our Teeth parodies the naturalistic theater he had known in his youth. Miss Somerset, an actress, unwillingly takes the role of Sabina in the author's play…. Later in the play, she refuses to continue her part, "Because there are some lines in that scene that would hurt some people's feelings and I don't think the theatre is a place where people's feelings ought to be hurt." (pp. 113-14)

Both dramatists set about to destroy dramatic illusion and insure detachment on the part of the audience…. Brecht's and Wilder's theater calls upon the imaginative participation of the audience. (p. 114)

Brecht's and Wilder's plays display a distinct self-consciousness; the dramatist's presence is felt along with his didactic purpose. For them the play is a means to convey those ideas in which the dramatist wishes to instruct his audience. For this purpose both dramatists frequently make use of a narrator…. [In Our Town, at] the point we begin to be "taken in" by the drama unfolding before us the Stage Manager appears to point the moral and shatter the illusion…. In Wilder's plays the Stage Manager actually arranges the props, directs the action, and takes different roles…. [The] effect is … to provide interruption and digression in order that the audience not miss the significance of the action. The sequence of events in the play which constitute the narration is more important to Brecht and Wilder's dramatic purpose than exposition through character, for instance.

The importance of characterization, as a consequence, is minimized in Brecht's and Wilder's plays. The stage directions in Wilder's Happy Journey go so far as to prescribe that the Stage Manager read "from a typescript the lines of all the minor characters … with little attempt at characterization, scarcely troubling himself to alter his voice, even when he responds in the person of a child or a woman." Wilder tends to portray types in his plays rather than individuals. Emily of Our Town is the small-town provincial girl; Ma Kirby in Happy Journey is the authoritarian but loving mother. Qualities are abstracted for the purpose of illustrating the human condition. (pp. 115-16)

Both Brecht and Wilder … distinguish within the play between the character and the actor taking the part of the character…. Wilder wrote parts in his plays for the actor as both actor and character…. Wilder in his play The Skin of Our Teeth has the actress "Miss...

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Edward Ericson, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 clarified by an analysis in Kierkegaardian terms. The Eighth Day covers many issues which lie outside the scope of Kierkegaard's influence: the debate on heredity versus environment, the idea of progress, the concept of evolution, the influences of world religions, and others. Also, the novel presents a wide array of realized characters. We should not claim too much for Kierkegaard's influence. Nevertheless, an influence which explains the main character and the main theme must be considered the crucial one. (pp. 123-24)

The parallels are just the kind one might expect from a source which has been assimilated so thoroughly that its ideas have passed unobtrusively but firmly into the fiber of the author's own thought. Wilder is writing his own novel, not a fictional gloss on Kierkegaard based on slavish imitation.

Kierkegaard lists a variety of traits of his knight of faith, and Wilder echoes most, though not all, of them. The knight is not easily recognized as special by those around him…. John Ashley has the same kind of invisibility which comes from commonness…. Wilder describes men of faith primarily in negative terms. They are not afraid, not self-regarding, not interesting, not pathetic, not tragic, not articulate. "They have little sense of humor, which draws so heavily on a consciousness of superiority and on an aloofness from the predicaments of others."… (p. 124)

Kierkegaard contrasts his knight of faith, Abraham, with the tragic hero. Like the knight of infinite resignation, the tragic hero belongs to the ethical stage, while the knight of faith goes beyond this stage to the highest one in Kierkegaard's schema, the religious stage…. Ashley is a truly religious man, not one who lives in accordance with universally recognized precepts of morality. In fact, others consider him immoral because they do not understand the principles which motivate him. Like Kierkegaard, Wilder carefully distinguishes men of faith from tragic heroes: "Try as hard as you like, you cannot see them [men of faith] as the subjects of tragedy. (It has often been attempted; when the emotion subsides the audience finds that its tears have been shed, unprofitably, for itself)."… Ashley's whole life story is a sharp contrast from conventional tragedies. His death midway through the novel comes by mysterious accident, not from a tragic flaw. His life breathes a perpetual benediction on his family; there is no grief.

As the knight of faith is not a tragic hero, so "he is not a poet, and I have sought in vain to detect in him the poetic incommensurability."… Neither is Ashley poetic. He "had never distinguished a category of the beautiful."… (pp. 124-25)

The knight of faith, as a common man, belongs to the realm of the finite…. [Ashley is] a man conscious of no purpose other than the concrete, finite one of being a family man. Kierkegaard's knight "takes delight in everything."… Ashley is "constantly filled with wonder."… (p. 125)

[Like the knight of faith,] while Ashley gives the appearance of a carefree ne'er-do-well, he is as far from one as is the knight of faith…. Ashley's wife, Beata, remarks, "All Ashleys are happy, because we work. I'd be ashamed if we weren't."…

One of Kierkegaard's main themes is the limitedness of human rationality. For Kierkegaard existence imposes upon the individual the necessity to choose and to act…. Wilder speaks similarly: "… choice is the sovereign faculty of the mind."… For both Kierkegaard and Wilder, thinking about existence, trying to comprehend life's meaning and formulate it into dogmas, is insufficient. Reflection is a paltry substitute for action….

Wilder makes a major point of the man of faith's inarticulateness and lack of reflection. His men of faith "are inarticulate, especially in matters of faith."… (p. 126)

However, inarticulateness does not mean ignorance. The man of faith knows much, and his knowledge is of the kind which comes by faith. (p. 127)

[The knight of faith's] self-knowledge does not come painlessly for John Ashley. It is through the sufferings which life imposes on him that he grows in wisdom…. But he does not succumb to despair. He keeps faith and grows through suffering…. Kierkegaard, too, spoke often of the relationship between faith and suffering. (pp. 127-28)

[Ashley's] exercises in self-understanding are,...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Victor White

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Gerald Weales

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 followed by its own satyr play. "The Drunken Sisters" seemed a thin academic joke when it was published on its own in the centennial issue of The Atlantic Monthly in 1957. Here it has more point, but the comedic heavenly perspective on earthly tragedy would be more effective without Apollo's final cry of grief.

At this point I should say that "The Alcestiad," for all its faults, deserves a permanent place on the shelf of any Wilder enthusiast.

Gerald Weales, "The Wilder Shores of Love," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 1, 1978, p. 27.