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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.)
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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 Somerset" perform the roles of Sabina and Miss Fairweather. In Wilder's Our Town the Stage Manager takes the roles, alternately, of four different characters…. [The] audience is not allowed to identify itself with the characters beyond a certain point. That point is determined by the author…. (pp. 116-17)
The intent of the two authors, Brecht and Wilder, is to portray social, viz., human characteristics which the audience has familiarity with and will recognize as being true once they have been pointed out. The effect of the interruptions in the action and changes in identity and self-consciousness of the characterization is to force the audience to confront the underlying arguments of the play, to recognize certain truths as a detached observer, and to engage its observations with intelligence. The actors alert the audience, preparing them in a sense for the author's desired interpretation of important incidents in the play. For example, an actor through a remark or expression makes an incident appear strange and astonishing. A stage direction in Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth calls for Sabina to drop the play suddenly and say "in her own person as 'Miss Somerset', with surprise: 'Oh, I see what this part of the play means now!… Oh, I don't like it. I don't like it.'" (pp. 118-19)
In Our Town the women go through the preparation of dinner in pantomime. The mimic action releases the commonplace event from the particular and reveals it as part of a generalized truth. (p. 119)
The reality of theater, in Brecht and Wilder's view, extends out beyond the stage to include the audience and life itself…. The audience is a participant in the reality of this kind of anti-illusionistic theater. On the one hand, characters in the play step out of their roles to address the audience directly. On the other, the audience is requested (symbolically) to take part in the action unfolding on stage. (p. 120)
Brecht's and Wilder's use of stage properties is in accord with their attempt to present reality symbolically…. The Stage Manager in Our Town serves to heighten our consciousness of the reality of what we observe on stage in pointing to properties which do not exist. Despite the absence of any visible representation of a railroad car we nevertheless "see" one through the actor's reactions to the swaying and lurching of Wilder's pullman car (Pullman Car Hiawatha). People leave the table and new faces join those remaining seated in Wilder's The Long Christmas Dinner in a symbolic presentation of generations dying and new ones taking their places. Since the stage is bare except for the dinner table, anachronism is avoided; the audience provides the setting with its imagination.
Brecht and Wilder each took delight in disintegrating the naturalistic stage…. Wilder parodies the conventional box-set of naturalistic theater in his The Skin of Our Teeth. Act One opens as a conventional box-set with a typical domestic of "old-fashioned playwriting" dusting the living-room. The walls suddenly flap, buckle and fly off. Sabina is "struck dumb with surprise." Her amazement calls the audience's attention to this remarkable incident which symbolically displays the disintegration of the conventional stage…. Wilder wrote: "… the box-set stage stifles the life in drama … it militates against belief." His Our Town opens without curtain and scenery, the stage half-lighted. The Stage Manager enters and arranges a few tables and chairs for the convenience of the actors. Clearing the stage of ordinary scenery and props stresses the "pretense" of theater, while reminding the audience that they are spectators in a theater…. (pp. 121-22)
It is quite obvious that Brecht's and Wilder's staging makes demands upon their audiences' imagination, and even greater demands upon the actor's ability to present ideas which instruct as well as entertain. But the most difficult task befalls of course the two dramatists themselves who, working with the barest of stage materials, must elicit the audience's participation in a version of reality which is far more ambitious than the mimetic substitution for reality offered by previous naturalistic theater.
Finally, Brecht and Wilder both make use of an episodic structure…. While the episodic structure of Brecht's Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti implies the episodic nature of life itself and dramatizes the lack of continuity to life in terms of human emotions, the effect of the episodic (and cyclic) structure of Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth is to suggest just the reverse. For Wilder what is significant throughout the history of mankind is that man's emotions and convictions have remained the same: Furthermore, it is this continuity in men's lives (as illustrated in the Antrobus family's everyday existence) which has maintained the survival of the human race: inventiveness in the face of adversity, and the determination under pressure to survive, as evidenced in the ordinariness of circumstances out of which profound convictions appear almost at the last moment.
An episodic plot has the effect of breaking up the flow of the play and alienating the audience from the action. Rather than the continuous narrative and unbroken illusion of naturalistic drama, what the audience views is a series of varying and broken scenes drawing attention to themselves as theatrical devices…. The repetitiousness of the episodes in Wilder's plays … reinforces his desire to show the importance of recurring commonplace experience and how this experience may illuminate the possibilities of life. But there is selection in these episodes also, for "Wherever you come near the human race, there's layers and layers of nonsense…." The dramatist's task, in Wilder's view, is to strip the layers in order to reveal the meaning beneath the nonsense.
In between the publication of The Angel that Troubled the Waters and Other Plays (1928) and the publication of The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays (1931) a radical change took place in Wilder's dramatic technique. The new technique clearly followed many of the Brechtian rules for "epic" (or dialectical, as Brecht later called it) theater, including the shattering of dramatic illusion, the conscious role-taking of the actor, the symbolic use of stage properties in an effort to employ the reality that theater has as theater, the tendency to use parable as a basis of the narrative, the didactic intent, and the episodic structure. On the basis of internal evidence in the plays alone, some of which has been submitted here, we may conclude—without positive evidence—that some of the theory and techniques employed by Brecht worked their way into Wilder's plays published after 1928. Brecht himself implies it when, late in life, he wrote: "the term dialectical theatre has fulfilled its task if the narrative element that is part of the theatre in general has been strengthened and enrichened … it has become almost a formal concept, which could equally well be applied to Claudel or even Wilder." (pp. 122-24)
Douglas Charles Wixson, Jr., in Modern Drama (copyright © 1972, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), September, 1972.
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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, it should be clear, the result of experience, not abstract speculation. As such, they coincide with Kierkegaard's existentialism. (p. 128)
Kierkegaard realizes that it is impossible for the man without faith to fathom the leap of faith, because it embraces absurdity…. The knight of faith is fully as cognizant as the knight of infinite resignation of the impossibility, humanly speaking, of gaining his objective within the infinite order. Nevertheless, "he resigned everything infinitely, and then he grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd."…
If John Ashley is, as Wilder has said, "a sketch of Kierkegaard's knight" of faith, what impossibility does he gain "by virtue of the absurd"? Needless to say, the Kierkegaardian concept of the absurd is a difficult one to integrate into a realistic fictional plot, which generally depends on probability for its viability. It may be argued that such an effort is, in fact, impossible. Nevertheless, Wilder makes the effort. (p. 129)
While [Ashley] never stops planning his return to his family …, the mysterious circumstances of life never permit that cherished reunion to occur. It is, humanly speaking, impossible. Yet Ashley never loses faith that he will return to be a husband and father. And, "by virtue of the absurd," his faith is fulfilled.
Wilder's device for demonstrating Ashley's return as husband is a dream [of his return] which both he and his wife have. It is an important element of the novel, albeit a mysterious one…. Not only are these dreams mysterious and seemingly inappropriate in a realistic novel, but they are inexplicable apart from Kierkegaardian categories. John and Beata Ashley cannot possibly be reunited. Yet by faith, "by virtue of the absurd," they are reunited. John desires to comfort and encourage his wife, and through the vehicle to this shared dream, he does so. What he wants is, humanly speaking, impossible; yet he attains it. Apart from this Kierkegaardian interpretation, the likeliest reading is to consider these dreams a flaw in the novel, to be chalked up to unwarranted sentimentalism on Wilder's part. (pp. 129-30)
Ashley's desire to be a father to his growing children is also fulfilled, though less mystically and less dramatically. His son, Roger, asserts, "Maybe Papa's dead. But he's not dead for Sophia and me. He's alive in us even when we aren't thinking about him."… The subsequent deeds of his exceptional offspring are ample testimony to his continuing influence as their father. His continuing fatherhood is seen most clearly in the climactic passage at the end of the novel, when Roger accepts, by his own leap of faith, the meaningfulness of life with all its mysteries—and does so through the indirect agency of his father…. Despite the physical impossibilities John Ashley has fulfilled his earthly vocation of being both father and husband. (pp. 130-31)
While she does not attain her husband's heights, Beata Ashley is a woman of faith.
The Ashley children also resemble their father in ways which mark them as persons of faith, though only Roger approaches his father's stature. Wilder lists those traits which they had inherited, "particularly from their father."… (p. 131)
All of the Ashley children become famous except Sophia, who burns out early. Wilder links their later fame to certain traits of the person of faith. Lily shares "her father's inner quiet, his at-homeness in existence. This was the voice of faith—selfless faith."… Constance "possessed that rarer form of eloquence that arises from an absence of self-consciousness."… Roger "exhibited no signs of ambition; he effaced himself, unsuccessfully."… Like his father, Roger grows through the suffering inflicted upon him. While he gains enough wisdom to become fearful "that he would go through life ignorant—stump ignorant,"… at that very time he has gained much of the maturity and insight which became his father's portion and which was mediated to him through his father's example. In Roger's case the result of his growth in faith is a reconciliation with the human community…. (pp. 131-32)
Sophia's main virtue is hope, a virtue which her father shared…. So while the novel does not discuss love, it does treat hope, and once again Kierkegaardian categories come into play. It is, like faith, a means of knowing. (p. 132)
John Ashley is one individual who successfully resists [what Kierkegaard saw as the modern] leveling, abstracting process…. Wilder and Kierkegaard share the anti-deterministic view that it is men who make history; they are individualists. (p. 133)
Wilder's denunciation of institutionalized religion is as vehement as Kierkegaard's. He speaks savagely of Roger's having "suffered the spectacle of his family being chewed up fine by a civilized Christian community."… Wilder does not denigrate Christianity or even all Christian assemblies. He praises the small church of Ashley's grandmother … and that of Indian believers on Herkomer's Knob…. However, these are disestablished "splinter" sects. The mainline churches, those with status in society, are the ones which come under his scathing fire, just as it was the established state church of Denmark which Kierkegaard attacked. (pp. 133-34)
[The] main influence of Kierkegaard on The Eighth Day (at least rivaling Wilder's use of Kierkegaard's knight) … [is] on the main theme of Wilder's novel, that of living by faith.
The central meaning of The Eighth Day is most clearly laid bare in the closing pages when the Deacon of the congregation at Herkomer's Knob shows Roger Ashley the old tapestry and uses it as an object lesson to give his view of the meaning of life. The rug has a complex mazelike design on one side, but "no figure could be traced on the reverse. It presented a mass of knots and of frayed and dangling threads."… The Deacon explicates: "Those are the threads and knots of human life. You cannot see the design."… After further explication of the tapestry image as it relates to Roger and the whole Ashley family, the Deacon adds, "There is no happiness equal to that of being aware that one has a part in a design."… In Wilder's own words, "History is one tapestry. No eye can venture to compass more than a hand's-breadth …"…. Life must remain an enigma to us because of our limited point of view. Only God, who in his omniscience can scan the whole tapestry of history in one glance, is in a position to assert with confidence that life is pervaded by a meaning which is objectively verifiable. We are left with the insoluble mysteries of suffering and injustice.
All this sounds strikingly like Kierkegaard. He does not deny that life has a system. He denies only that finite man is capable of viewing the system inherent in existence. But God has a vantage point which allows him to see it. (pp. 134-35)
Truth, for man, is always subjective and not objective, according to Kierkegaard…. One can attain this truth only by the leap of faith, which is executed in the face of the absurdity that the available evidence is insufficient for such a conclusion….
Wilder urges faith. His men and women of faith in The Eighth Day attain just that kind of faith which is not fully supported by the facts of life. (p. 135)
It is only at the end of the novel that Roger—and the reader—learns of the religious principles which informed John Ashley's entire life…. [The] disclosure at the novel's conclusion casts a retrospective light over all of Ashley's life in the preceding pages. We see now that what underlay his nobility was not humanistic moralism but religious faith. We see now with full clarity why Wilder insisted on calling him a man of faith. (p. 137)
All of Wilder's persons of faith accept the meaningfulness of life despite its mystery. Eustacia Lansing meditates: "'We are our lives. Everything is bound together. No smallest action can be thought of other than as it is.' She groped among the concepts of necessity and free will. Everything is mysterious, but how unendurable life would be without the mystery."… She employs a metaphor strikingly similar to the tapestry image when she thinks, "Our lives are a seamless robe …"…. (pp. 137-38)
Why did [Ashley] die? Who can say? Can the reader find his share of that faith which Wilder extols and accept Ashley's death as part of the design which he cannot perceive from his finite vantage point? Or will he see it only as a deus ex machina which inexplicably rids the novel of its main character before it is half finished? Irrational faith may seem to some to be flimsy grounds for affirming that human life has meaning. But, say both Kierkegaard and Wilder, this is the best that we can do. We will affirm by rationally unsupportable faith, or we will not affirm at all. For understanding the ultimate issues of human existence, faith is all that we have. (p. 138)
Edward Ericson, Jr., "Kierkegaard in Wilder's 'The Eighth Day'," in Renascence (© copyright, 1974, Marquette University Press), Spring, 1974, pp. 123-38.
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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 get briefly into the act. There is inconsistency here in that only Sabina is allowed much of this duality; George and Henry Antrobus get only one chance each, Maggie and Gladys none. Worse, though, is that the device serves only a very primitive purpose: to show that the players duplicate and continue the characters they are playing….
Ideologically, there is—brace yourselves—more of this sameness. The point is that all men are alike and all women are alike: a couple of basic types, or stereotypes, constantly repeating themselves, without even the benefit of racy local variations. It follows that everyone is small…. Great writers have conveyed to us the greatness in some specific little people; Wilder, a mediocrity, merely conveys to us the littleness of great persons….
The true failure, though, lies in Wilder's sentimentality and vapidity…. In Wilder's universe, catastrophe is a feeble joke, and evil only too willing to subside at a mere pat on the back. I could go on and raise such questions as why Wilder, the champion of all living creatures, is so callously ready to sacrifice those relatively harmless Atlantic City Shriners and beauty contestants, not to mention the innocent and endearing mammoth and dinosaur. But let me say only that the trouble with this supposedly deeply humane and wise play is that it is only skin deep.
John Simon, "Epidermal Contact," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1975 by the NYM Corporation; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), July 28, 1975, p. 58.
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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 the Bridge of San Luis Rey when it breaks, is significant. It frames what is really the story like two branches of some fanciful vine that embrace an initial in a medieval manuscript and burst into flower at the top. Delicate, barely noticeable tendrils of skepticism reach out from that inquiry and its foreknown futility and give tartness to the portraits of the characters Brother Juniper studies—reminders of a skepticism that is more of our time than of the giddy, self-confident 1920s, so that the whole tone of the book is surprisingly modern.
But it is the characters and their involvements with each other that compel admiration. Powerfully evoked, there, engrossing by their immediacy, each one a mine of idiosyncrasy and paradoxical verities, they are like Rodin sculptures no longer merely pregnant with life but come to life…. [Even if many of the characters were derived from other literary sources (or literatures)], those were the mere taking-off points of Wilder's characters, and every artist is the son of somebody—or, rather, of many somebodies.
It is what Wilder did with those possible suggestions for characters that is impressive. (pp. 76-7)
[The] originality that informs The Bridge of San Luis Rey is beyond challenge…. What is most astonishing, however, is Wilder's compassion and his grasp of the perverseness not only of things and Fate but of the human heart. One would say they were those of a Dostoevsky with the years in Siberia and the long struggle against poverty and his passion for gambling behind him rather than the gift of a novelist who had had a rather easy time of it and was only in his late twenties when he wrote the book. (p. 78)
Yet more astounding even than the compassion is the mood of gentle skepticism which runs all through the book and anticipates by almost forty years the dominant mood of our time, when all certainties seem to have deserted us; that mood is a shining instance of the true artist's gift for seeing the future fruits in the present germ. Better than that, even, for, philosophically, Wilder in that book is even now ahead of us with the upbeat—not cheaply optimistic or vaguely pious, but convincingly realistic in its suggestion of the only way out of despair and doubt—on which he ends.
Yes, clearly a masterpiece…. (pp. 78-9)
Victor White, "'The Bridge of San Luis Rey' Revisited," in The Texas Quarterly (© 1976 by The University of Texas at Austin), Autumn, 1976, pp. 76-9.
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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 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.
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