Thornton Wilder Wilder, Thornton (Vol. 15) - Essay

Ruby Cohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Inspired by Dreiser's Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural, Wilder's Angel That Troubled the Waters consists of sixteen three-minute plays for three actors. The plays draw upon history, legend, and invention; the staging directions are elaborate, the dialogue pretentious, and the plays are interesting only as evidence of Wilder's early disinclination for the dominant realist mode, which prefigures his lifelong rebellion against the box-set…. More mannered than the dialogue of Dreiser's "supernatural plays," that of Wilder also drowns its substance.

Having traveled to study non-realistic staging in France and Germany, Wilder showed considerably more dramatic skill in his second volume of plays, The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays (1931). The three least interesting plays are Pirandellian in their treatment of the fictional process and its problematic relation to life. The three other plays experiment with stage space and time. (p. 212)

[Our Town is] Wilder's pernicious portrait of turn-of-the-century America.

Pernicious because it invites self-congratulation. Our Town focuses on two middle-class WASP families, entirely and smugly self-sufficient as families and inhabitants of Grover's Corners. And the play at large barely hints at the suffocating limits of their world. The greeting card parents and celluloid adolescents are ignorant, innocent, and without individuality. Even the family names—Webb and Gibbs—differ only by a consonant or two. Doctor Gibbs and Editor Webb are virtually interchangeable, even to their hobbies in history. Plump mother and thin mother are interchangeable, stringing imaginary beans. Though each family has a boy and a girl, "same ages," their sex fizzes into strawberry ice cream sodas in Grover's Corners. Economic competition and outright theft are unknown. Though Editor Webb claims that "they spend most of their time talking about who's rich and who's poor," we are idyllically spared such talk…. The "plants" in the audience who ask about social injustice, culture, or beauty in Grover's Corners are put in their place by Mr. Webb's tolerant good humor, so that "our town" emerges as wiser and better than any place we know, and yet Wilder contrives to give us the impression that this bovine existence is what we know, and that its value is "above all price." (p. 215)

Crucial to this idealized portrait is the self-consciously simple staging. Originally played with conventional sets, Our Town was poorly received in the very New England of its setting—the citified town of Boston. Wilder then leaned upon his experiments in one-act plays and suggested the innovation of an almost bare stage to emphasize the deliberate placeless generalization of the play….

Like Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood, Wilder attempts to link the town-protagonist with large cosmic forces. But the poet Thomas presents a mystical vision through his metaphysical imagery, Welsh rhythms, and cyclical structure. Wilder's language is as bare as his stage. Thomas drew upon the lyric fertility of his poems, but Wilder consciously tailored his material to the group mind of the great number who attend the theater. Universal experiences are suggested by the titles of the acts: I Daily Life, II Love and Marriage, III Death. But all three experiences (with marriage inevitably linked to love) are so universalized that they lose specific meaning. (p. 216)

Wilder deliberately immerses us in pathos, even while he seeks to generalize its meaning. Thus, the first description of our town ends at the cemetery. Even before we hear them speak, we learn that Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs are now dead…. Because of this shared omniscience, the Stage Manager causes us to share his sense of recollection of this idyllic town—"You all remember what it's like."—and the old-fashioned, unadorned diction reënforces this sense.

Except for Professor Willard's brief pedantic remarks, all the characters use a modified New England dialect. The omniscient descriptions of the Stage Manager are punctuated with "there"s, "that"s, "there comes," and "thank you"s. Everyone indulges in … reassuring colloquialisms…. (p. 217)

Imagery is rare in our town, but tends to be drawn from animals. Rebecca Gibbs compares herself to a sick turkey, Dr. Gibbs says his wife has the voice of an old crow, Mrs. Webb scolds her children for "gobbling like wolves," and she recalls that she went into marriage "blind as a bat." (pp. 217-18)

Deliberately prosaic, Wilder's language occasionally achieves hypnotic quality through...

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Hermann Stresau

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Cabala (1926)] deals with a variety of plots, intrigues, and society gossip among a rather loosely joined group composed of wealthy, extremely conservative individuals—some of aristocratic backgrounds—living in modern Rome. Unable to adjust to modern political realities—the growing threat of fascism is mentioned occasionally—they cultivate ideas of a peculiarly retrogressive, highly reactionary utopia. (p. 14)

Wilder is obviously less interested in the history of the Cabala than in the character and fate of its individual members. Without exception they are cases of human existence on the borderline between reality and nonreality. Yet in the very marginal nature of their lives they reveal crises of the spirit that transcend the banal, the practical, and the purely factual. (pp. 14-15)

The novel actually consists of separate tales depicting the fate of each of these figures and their relationships to one another. There is a certain vacillation, a slight uncertainty in the grouping of motifs and in the entire subject matter. One incident appears as a harsh dissonance in the unity of the whole—and, strangely enough, it appears at the very beginning, before the individual stories. Blair and his friend visit a dying English poet, who begs the archaeologist to remind the painter who is nursing him that there must be no name on his grave. "Just write: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water.'" This statement and the rest of the circumstances … all definitely point to the English poet John Keats. The episode has no sequel, it is never mentioned again. But since the first part of the narration—the more general introduction to the Cabala group—is written in an ironical key that subsequently gives place to a warmer note, it is not inconceivable that the plan of the whole was originally different and that the "Keats" episode had a somewhat different significance.

Superficially, the Keats figure serves as contrast: the poet is dying, but his short life was to have an immortal success. The Cabala circle as a whole, however, along with its individual members, seems condemned to hopeless failure. The Keats figure also represents a sacrifice, just as those Cabalists whose fate the narrator depicts are sacrifices. (pp. 15-16)

On a clear, starlit night, Virgil, the spirit of the West, the mediator between antiquity and Christianity, appears to the narrator aboard a ship returning to his American home. "Seek out some city that is young," he says. "The secret is to make a city, not to rest in it. When you have found one, drink in the illusion that she too is eternal." Rome, he continues, was great. He, Virgil, cannot enter Zion until he has forgotten Rome—but he cannot forget Rome. In the new world a new Rome awaits its greatness.

This is the underlying motif of The Cabala. As a young man, the narrator had a map of Rome hanging above his desk, and, longingly, he studied the plan of the Eternal City. Now, having come to the city, he recognizes instead "human ruins," and it is these he describes. And finally, he returns to the new world which, compared to Europe, is still "new." It is the Henry James theme of the relationship between America and the old world. The twilight of the gods has settled over the old world, but in it appears the image of Virgil, the great exemplar. It is as though this Roman could, to some extent, invest the almost ridiculous inadequacies of the Cabalists with a humanity that lends warmth and beauty even to the decay. (p. 18)

[The Bridge of San Luis Rey] was extraordinarily successful. Perhaps its success can be attributed to the unusual amalgamation of European classical elements with an American naturalness of form. Or perhaps it was the unusual subject matter. It was probably both and, not least, the mastery with which the various elements were woven together into a unity. (p. 20)

The reader may be struck by the fact that few of the characters have strong family ties…. This solitariness could, perhaps, have occurred as a theme only to a modern American. Again most of the characters live on the borderline between the real and the nonreal, though their cases, certainly, are not as extreme as those of The Cabala.

Whereas Cabala deals with very strange and even abstruse ideas, with women whose hysteria verges on psychosis, the characters of this novel are isolated, but comparatively normal, human beings. Their fate is not bound up with an ideology, but with something universally human—the inadequacy of striving. Wilder seems to imply that even the family offers no protection against this inadequacy…. (pp. 24-5)

From the point of view of the temporal life of man, there is a definitely pessimistic strain running through the novel. This is contrapuntally offset by a religiosity that is vague and casual and by an unsentimental, slightly ironical imperturbability in the storytelling. One reason for the success of the novel is the steady calm with which disturbing, even exciting events are related—events that show man's defenselessness, the suffocating meaninglessness of existence, the cold loneliness of the individual, and at the same time his deep longing for security, love, and meaningfulness.

In contrast to The Cabala, there is a more rigid form, a clearer composition, resulting from the greater aloofness of an omniscient narrator.

The reader is also likely to be impressed by descriptions of some very lovely moments. He is not offered many such pictures, but their very paucity makes them more telling. (pp. 25-6)

The brief descritpion of the air, mountains, and stars seen from the pilgrimage town of Cluxambuqua evokes a vision of the awe-inspiring vastness of eternal and immovable nature in contrast to the pettiness of human destinies. (p. 26)

[With The Woman of Andros, Wilder] goes back to the late Hellenic age. The material is derived from Andria, a comedy of the Latin playwright Terence, who in turn based his work upon two comedies of the Greek dramatist and poet Menander. Thus, once again, the American utilized elements of European tradition, as he did in The Cabala, but this time he reached far back into ancient pagan civilization. (p. 36)

Terence's suspenseful but gay comedy has turned into a story weighted with human sorrow and suffering. Yet, in contrast to The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the burden of pessimism seems somewhat lightened by the entire atmosphere, by the restraint of the outward show of emotions, the tenderness of the young lovers, and the spirituality of the hetaera Chrysis.

The idea of inadequate family ties appears again in this novel. The relationship between Chrysis and her sister is contrasted with the bourgeois families of Simo and Chremes. Both women are defenseless against their fate, thrown back on their own resources.

The meaning of the story, however, is revealed above all in the figure of Chrysis. In the comedy of Terence she is a hetaera like any other of ancient Greece. Here she has become a highly differentiated figure of a woman who both intellectually and personally is far superior to her environment, even to Simo, whose social position is all but unattainable to her. (pp. 37-8)

Wilder seems to be concerned throughout his works with the question How does one live? This is especially so in The Woman of Andros. (p. 38)

The novel is epic in character simply because it takes place in a narrow and definitely circumscribed milieu, the island of Brynos. With deliberate yet spare realism the daily life of the island is described: the market, the palaestra, the harbor, the insignificant—and yet so significant—lives of human beings. The landscape seems to encompass more than an occasional vista…. The steep land, the occasional view of the sea at dusk, the shadowy profile of Andros on the horizon, the ships in the harbor, the comfortable busyness of the inhabitants, the heat of the day and the cool breeze at night—all give the work, slight as it is, an epic breadth and distinction, a definitiveness that things will always remain the same. Yet this vision is ever so slightly disturbed by the hint of an approaching, unknown change, by the possibility that one day things may be different. That is why the novel is introduced by a kind of description of the ancient world that is not usually encountered: the earth sighing as it turned in its course, the shadow of night creeping along the Mediterranean from an Asia left in darkness. (pp. 41-2)

The actual suspense of the novel lies in [the] contrast between local limitation and world scope. It is a dramatic suspense. This uniting of the epic and the dramatic is characteristic of The Woman of Andros. (p. 42)

In this work Wilder reached a high point in his artistic development. The composition, in the fusion of the epic and the dramatic, is almost faultless. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in its subject matter alone, may have had a suspense that, in the story of The Woman of Andros, seems to be present only in two points: the prologue and the epilogue. But this is only apparently so; the actual tension in The Woman of Andros lies in the almost...

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David Mayer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When The Skin of Our Teeth first appeared in 1942, Wilder deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize for a play that stepped into what is pretentiously called the 'epistemological dimension', that area where are made to challenge our own unspoken assumptions and conventions for viewing and interpreting theatre. Did we believe, he asked, that what happens onstage must duplicate the everyday tangible world, that the proscenium arch is a keyhole through which we peep and overhear real people? Simultaneous to these queries Wilder offered in the comic allegory of one American family the past history, present peril and future redemption of human civilisation from ignorance, hedonism and holocaust. A tall order for comedy, especially when Wilder foresaw not merely the eventual devastation in Europe and Asia, but recalled in the Nazi pogroms and the burning of 'decadent' literature a threat to all learning, particularly to metaphysics and the arts.

But if The Skin of Our Teeth answered the temper of its own time, it was less effectual when, during the early 1950's, it was toured about by the US State Department to demonstrate to world-wide sceptics that if America had its Senator McCarthy, it also had its native playwright and its avant garde culture…. [The] piece looked naïve and rather provincial. Wilder seemed less sure of himself and of his roots, less an American than a displaced European. The culture he feared losing (Plato, Spinoza, Moses and Homer) belonged to this hemisphere, not to his own. It looked as if his Mr Antrobus was geeing up his family or arguing with his conservative homebody wife, or turning away from tempting flesh or rebuilding a shattered society for the sake of received and entrenched ideas, not for the free play of intellect. It was all very Old World, safe and unadventurous. By the 50's the illusionistic or representational stage was on its way to becoming the dead issue it is today. (p. 38)

David Mayer, "Reviews: 'The Skin of Our Teeth'" (© copyright David Mayer 1977; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, Vol. 24, No. 6, March, 1977, pp. 38-9.

Eric Shorter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Was Wilder serious] when he wrote The Skin of our Teeth thirty-five years' ago? It still gives off an endearing skittishness, though one suspects that the author of this 'history of mankind in comic strip' was being more serious than he dared to let on with his theme of mothers stabilising man's inherent waywardness and lust making the world go round. Whatever he meant,… [this boisterously facetious parable reminds us] how such a play, because of its fundamental thoughtfulness, can change its meaning from generation to generation….

Watching this absurdly typical American family facing suddenly up to the Ice Age, the invention (by father) of the wheel, worrying about Thurberish dinosaurs in the garden and coping with all those curious biblical parallels in such a modern, suburban context, who could not suppose that some magnificent meaning of other must be leaping out of Wilder's sugarcoated pill?

Besides, there was Sabina to lead us significantly on—Sabina the eternal 'other woman', the temptress who in some ways keeps Man going and yet may prove to be his ruin.

Eric Shorter, "Plays in Performance: 'The Skin of Our Teeth'," in Drama, No. 124, Spring, 1977, p. 54.

Daniel Aaron

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"American Characteristics," the collection of Wilder essays (a few of them reconstructed from notes or newly published), contains no startling personal revelations, but it does suggest the extent and diversity of an intellectual or mental terrain still not fully explored by his biographers…. These observations about writers and art and books—"bookishness" in its best sense he defined as "loving great books as though they were people"—disclose the breadth and catholicity of his reading, his lucidity and acuteness. More to the point, they define his conception of himself: the friendly guide and admonisher of his own special America, the preacher-entertainer attuned to the Goethean World Spirit receptive to all...

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Megan Marshall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It would be safe to say that Wilder never intended [the essays in American Characteristics and Other Essays] to be collected—there is much repetition of ideas, ever of passages, from one essay to the next. Several of the never-before-published essays might best have been left that way (these reveal Wilder's confessed difficulty in "putting down one declarative sentence after another" in stilted or scatter-shot organization). And, to get the carping over with, Wilder's "big" ideas are few, and derived mainly from his reading of Gertrude Stein and the classics. But what the essays do offer—and this should not be dismissed—is a personal view of literature from a writer whose intuitive understanding of human...

(The entire section is 501 words.)