Ruby Cohn

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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.

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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 Steinian repetition. Wilder himself has called attention to the recurrence of large numbers in the dialogue—hundreds, thousands, millions. The Stage Manager says in Act I: "There's some scenery for those who think they have to have scenery." And: "You can go and smoke now, those that smoke."… Gertrude Stein used her repetitions to imitate the texture of experience; she relies on specific verbs or nouns, as in the famous "rose is a rose is a rose." Wilder skirts emptiness when he applies the repetitions to abstraction, as in the sermon of the Stage Manager (as minister) in the Act II wedding, and in the omniscient introduction to the Act III funeral. The former begins: "There are a lot of things to be said about a wedding; there are a lot of thoughts that go on during a wedding." And ends: "And don't forget all the other witnesses at this wedding—the ancestors. Millions of them. Most of them set out to live two-by-two also. Millions of them." It is a sobering thought only for those unaccustomed to thinking. (p. 218)

Dante in the Purgatory (to which Wilder acknowledges a debt) conveys eternity through the presence of his recollecting spirits, but Wilder's spirits are almost disembodied. Detached from and superior to the living, they mitigate the effects of death. As the Act II wedding had a hint of sadness, the Act III funeral has a tinge of happiness. Emily's recognition is juvenile: "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you." In Our Town, emotions are not mixed so much as flattened, under the tender omniscience of the Stage Manager

Wilder's deliberate exploitation and repetition of cliché has been ascribed to the influence of his friend Gertrude Stein, and yet the language of Our Town is similar to that of The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden. The probability is that Stein confirmed his own rejection of the strained poeticism of his earlier plays, but he was guided by her to convey the significance of the apparently insignificant. This risks the imitative fallacy, since Wilder uses undistinguished language to sing the glories of the undistinguished….

As Our Town reflects Wilder's admiration for Gertrude Stein, The Skin of Our Teeth reflects his admiration for James Joyce. Between these plays influenced by two experimentalists, Wilder wrote The Merchant of Yonkers, adapted from a farce by Johann Nestroy, which in turn was adapted from an earlier farce by John Oxenford, and which incorporates some dialogue from Molière's Miser. But Wilder wears his learning lightly, and The Merchant of Yonkers is his least pretentious play, thriving on joyous adventure (especially in the revised version, The Matchmaker). (p. 219)

It has been claimed that Wilder's emphasis shifts, between The Merchant of Yonkers (1938) and The Matchmaker (1954), from a male to a female protagonist who was not present in his main source, Nestroy's Einen Jux will er sich Machen. Actually, however, the dialogue is more evenly distributed among all the characters in the revised version, aphorisms are sharpened, repartee is exchanged more swiftly, and mockery of the box-set is increased. Thus, the scenic directions are more detailed for the four different sets—one for each act of the farce. (p. 220)

Since The Matchmaker is a farce, Wilder wisely limits his soliloquies; farce demands physicality—ridiculous clothes and positions, concealment and chases, disguises and mistaken identity—and this he supplies. Though the ubiquitous bed of French farce is absent from The Matchmaker, Wilder makes fun of an American Puritan heritage—moneymaking and propriety. (pp. 220-21)

Though Wilder exhibits some linguistic versatility in [The Skin of Our Teeth], the ground rock of the dialogue remains folksy Americanisms, as in Our Town. Mrs. Antrobus never deviates from its plain simplicity; Mr. Antrobus and Sabina return to it after their occasional excursions into other idioms—swearing drunkard and Kiwani-type politician in the one case, maid of melodrama and false soubrette in the other. Early in the play the human plight is made immediate through American slang—"knock on wood," "catch as catch can," "skin of our teeth," "tight squeeze."

In its peril, Wilder's symbolic family is meant to represent the human race throughout Western civilization, but the sustained joke of the play is that this modern American family keeps referring to its prehistoric past in the present tense. Thus, we have the comic incongruity of a modern news release to announce the ice age; the political convention, whose watchword is "Enjoy yourself," precedes the flood; a radio address parodying the Gettysburg Address precedes the Fortune Teller's warning that the Antrobus family should seek shelter in the ark. Only in Act III does the comic element flag, and simplistic didacticism follows the war.

Though Wilder has acknowledged his debt to Joyce, he has said nothing of a debt to Pirandello, and yet The Skin of Our Teeth, like Pirandello's Theater Trilogy, suggests that the flux of reality will always intrude into the conventions of theater. Wilder's "group mind" Pirandello matches his "group mind" Joyce; rather than the complexities of the tension between roles and reality, Wilder reduces his breaking of theatrical illusion to the several censorious interruptions of Sabina-Miss Somerset. (pp. 222-23)

Wilder also leans on Pirandello to enunciate the wisdom of the ages. When seven actors (seven!) take sick, they are replaced by four theater employees, to act as philosopherhours. (pp. 223)

Wilder does not trust our response to his carefully chosen quotations from Spinoza, Plato, Aristotle, and Genesis to prove that we all exist in the Mind of God and that suffering ennobles us. Therefore, Mrs. Antrobus underlines the moral in two separate speeches: "Too many people have suffered and died for my children for us to start reneging now." And: "The only thought we clung to was that you were going to bring something good out of this suffering." As in Act I, it is she who gives her husband the strength to preach on his own: "All I ask is the chance to build new worlds and God has always give us that. And has given us voices to guide us; and the memory of our mistakes to warn us." (pp. 223-24)

One of the best read playwrights, Wilder reduces the questions of the past and the experiments of the present to wholesome lessons. His rebellion against the box set has toppled no orthodoxy. At his best when he capers freely around the stage—The Matchmaker—he has a dangerous soporific effect in Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, because their facile comfort masquerades as cosmic significance. After his major plays were written, Wilder published an article entitled "Toward an American Language," in which the following sentence is found: "The United States is a middle class nation and has widened and broadened and deepened the concepts of the wide and the broad and the deep without diminishing the concept of the high." Neither wide, nor broad, nor deep, and above all not high, Wilder's plays are smugly self-congratulatory of a country that O'Neill called "the greatest failure." Out of that failure (and his own) O'Neill wrenched his masterpieces; on a middle class nation, Wilder bases his homilies. (p. 224)

Ruby Cohn, "Less than Novel," in her Dialogue in American Drama (copyright © 1971 by Indiana University Press), Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 170-225.∗

Hermann Stresau

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3845

[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 greater meaninglessness of the individual lives it portrays. In the story of the five victims of the catastrophe the very scene of the action suggests hidden explosive forces within that remote, volcanically undermined country of the Inca civilization. In the present novel, the gentler and more delicate tension, softened by the idyllic setting, leads to a warmth that Wilder could scarcely have surpassed. (pp. 43-4)

In answer to the criticism of literary observers that he was apparently inclined to avoid the problems of present-day America, Wilder published the novel Heaven's My Destination (1935). With it he proved that he did not hesitate to set a novel in the twentieth century, even to set it in the immediate present, the period of the Great Depression. He showed himself quite capable of portraying an American similar to those who exist in the realistic literature of the United States. Even the numerous secondary figures of the story, in their conversations and views about life, behave like average Americans. (p. 50)

[Heaven's My Destination] could almost be considered a picaresque novel (in keeping with the chapter headings, which briefly summarize the contents) were it not for the ambivalent feelings that the hero arouses. This "saint" is by no means unlikable. Yet, in the long run, his extreme naïveté becomes repugnant or, at any rate, disagreeable. The child's doggerel verse from which the title is derived is actually meant to warn the reader not to take the hero too seriously. (pp. 51-2)

In comparison with the earlier works, this novel seems rather formless, almost improvised. There is, however, a certain rhythm: the hero's twofold breakdown—the first time in Kansas City after the episode in the brothel, the second time when he falls ill after attempting to lead a worldly life—divides the book into three parts. But having demonstrated the conflicts of the world on the basis of contemporary figures, Wilder put them aside and has not yet returned to them. (p. 54)

Wilder states in his Preface to Three Plays that he wrote Our Town in an effort to "find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life." He even tries to underline the minutiae that make up the lives of the two small-town families, the Gibbses and Webbs and their children, by contrasting them with the universality of the millions and millions of times that similar things have occurred. (p. 60)

It is the Stage Manager who gives the play its unique, almost improvised character and yet makes it appear as something "enduring." It is he who holds the threads in his hand, who knows everything and yet gives the characters the freedom to choose what they wish to do. He does not state the meaning—the meaning is implied in the interplay of characters. Here, too, there are no sentimental overtones. There is no intrusion of "actuality" until the third act. But again the meaning of life remains an open question; the Stage Manager's reply that the saints and poets may perhaps realize life to a certain extent is too vague to be more than a suggestion. Nevertheless, one feels a slight change here. The impression that the problem of life's meaning remains unanswered does not exclude a deeper impression that there is a meaning.

Whereas Wilder's novels (with the exception of Heaven's My Destination) owed so much to the spirit of Greece and Rome, with a Christian background, that superficially one might conclude they were written by a European, this is not true of the plays. These could have been written only by an American. In the drama, Wilder seems to have found his own form to express the ideas that basically mattered to him.

The Skin of Our Teeth, which appeared in 1942, seems to confirm this. The play has been criticized for being an historico-philosophical book drama containing a bloodless theory of history. From the formal point of view, The Skin of Our Teeth represents something positively revolutionary. But with it, Wilder—who raises such basic questions as: What shall we eat? What shall we drink?—was able to grasp the reality of the present. (pp. 61-2)

The setting is not quite as abstract as in Our Town: the house in which the Antrobus family lives at least has walls, though now and then they lean over or fly up into the loft. The play, however, might approximate a conventional stage setting were it not for the constant shifting of reality whose puzzling complexity—though it seems entirely "natural"—belies any such approximation. In fact, the levels of reality are shifted about to such an extent that it does not seem very important to distinguish between them. This, in addition to the fact that the cast of characters is almost twice as large, makes a strict absence of scenery not as necessary as in Our Town.

Again the fate of a family is portrayed. (It is interesting to note that Wilder the dramatist places the family at the center of the action—a position that Wilder the novelist avoids.) This is the story of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus and their two children, Gladys and Henry. The family name and the content of the play suggest that this is basically a story of man (Anthropos) or of Adam and Eve and their son Cain, who killed his brother. (pp. 63-4)

Of all the trials that he must go through, the actual difficulty for Antrobus-Adam—and this is the point at which Wilder's play becomes relevant to the present—is the existence of his son Henry-Cain. He who as a boy slew his brother is now the "representative of strong, irreconcilable evil"; in other words, of individualism carried to extremes. (p. 66)

The Ides of March, despite its brevity, is in its internal dimensions perhaps one of the most exhaustive and significant descriptions of [the age of the Roman revolution]…. With The Ides of March Wilder, having already developed a revolutionary style in playwriting, became experimental with the novel form also. If the word "novel" is defined as something narrated, The Ides of March is not a novel: the narrative passages—Cleopatra's account of the garden party or Assinius Pollio's description of Clodia's dinner, recounted many years later from memory—are so isolated that they scarcely change the character of the whole. (pp. 74-5)

As Wilder points out, the book is not an historical reconstruction but rather a "fantasia on certain events and persons of the last days of the Roman republic." The author shifts a number of events and persons into a period in which they do not belong…. (pp. 75-6)

The characters seem altogether real, neither godlike nor legendary. They are the exponents of a worldly, very skeptical age marked by violence, civil wars, moral instability, and cynical nihilism. Caesar, the absolute monarch, plays the part of the reformer, a role that ultimately destroys him. Basically, this "novel" represents the struggle between the almost solitary ruler and his own age, or rather the human figures that personify that revolutionary age. The suspense, the excitement of the account, lies in the fact that even Caesar, with all his autonomous superiority and independence, is to a certain extent the product of his times. (pp. 76-7)

The Ides of March is an extraordinarily rich work. The abundance of life poured into this slight volume and the "truth" of the account are astonishing—an indication that mere accuracy does not determine the reality of truth; it resides in the self-contained cosmos of the work of art itself. And the central figure of this work of art, around which this cosmos revolves, is Caesar. The fact that this is Thornton Wilder's Caesar gives him, paradoxically, the appearance of objectivity, as though the historical Caesar could really have been like this. (p. 83)

Wilder does not answer nor does he presume to be capable of answering the question of how one lives with any ideological formula. And this is actually the point of departure, the motif of his art. One might be inclined to assume that Wilder had written The Woman of Andros for the sake of Chrysis's doctrine and her story of the hero, or Our Town for the sake of Emily's experience of life and death. But though we believe it possible to assert that Pamphilus's question How does one Live? is the guiding thought behind all Wilder's work, we must nevertheless keep in mind that his vital interest lay in the artistic shaping and grouping of the figures embodying that question.

When Wilder theorizes it is almost always about the problems of art. The purely conceptual problems that he expresses in his works are few compared to his images, and they leave no doubt of his artistic, rather than speculative, impulses. (pp. 94-5)

Although Wilder's themes were perhaps not conscious ideas, the speeches of the angel, of the Fates in "Nascuntur Poetae," and of the Grey Steward (Death) in "Mozart and the Grey Steward" are actually messages containing ideas, and what the angel says to the sufferer is reminiscent of the Cardinal's words in The Cabala: "Who has not suffered…"

The ideas expressed in these messages may sound alien in our modern world. This is a peculiarity of Wilder's work that must strike everyone who studies it: the modern industrial, technological world has no place in Wilder's writing. More specifically, it has no influence on the consciousness of Wilder's characters, or only a very general, indirect influence insofar as the question How does one live? has received special emphasis in the present age. (p. 96)

A motif that is mentioned again and again, especially in the early works, is the one of the dual reality, as Death expresses it in the Mozart play. This contrast is present in the world of Wilder's earliest fancies. A further motif was added; only the sufferer is destined to see the reality that lies behind or within actuality, and only he can give it perceptual form, for the sake of the millions who are unable to do so. (p. 98)

It is obvious that basically all these plays have a religious, more specifically, a Christian content. But Wilder does not commit himself. For him, even in the earliest works, religion is not a doctrine, not an "idea" or abstraction that, paradoxically linked with actual existence, burdens common sense with conflicting enigmas. One might almost say that religion for him is something perceptively tangible, though beyond the here and now. It is life that is accessible perhaps only to the imagination, but once revealed, it is seen to be meaningful and significant. (p. 99)

Other themes bound up with the "things that lie beyond the present" are the theme of permanence or eternity and that of limitless time and space. The latter determines the form of "The Long Christmas Dinner," in which a family sits at an endless meal throughout generations. In "Pullman Car Hiawatha," though the train is en route from New York to Chicago on a certain date, the human experiences that take place are seen as universal experiences.

These experiences beyond time and space, which are accessible only to the imagination but out of which human beings fashion their world, dominate Wilder's work. They can also lead to a certain buffoonery growing out of delusions, as in "Queens of France." Here several more or less respectable middle-class women of New Orleans are deluded by an uncanny, fraudulent lawyer into believing that they are legitimate heirs of the Bourbons and pretenders to the throne of France.

This delusion is treated as comedy in "Queens of France," but for the characters in The Cabala the nonexistent dream world becomes tragic and destroys them. (pp. 99-100)

The theme of "things that lie beyond the present" is expanded and deepened by yet another element: the element of love. The characters in Wilder's early works, in The Cabala, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and The Woman of Andros, live outside the family or in a family relationship of tension. Yet they are all directly or indirectly concerned with love, with a love that is unfulfilled in a worldly sense. (p. 101)

In his early works, up through The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder draws a wide arc: from the hetaera Chrysis to the Christian Abbess Maria del Pilar, from priestlike Pamphilus to suicidal Esteban, from the mad sea captain Philocles in The Woman of Andros to Captain Alvarado in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. There is something extreme in the behavior of these people, a demand for the absolute. (pp. 101-02)

For those characters who long to live in "reality,"—a trait of self-destruction, or rather self-abnegation, drives them into the very heart of suffering, which is at the same time the core of the individual, the personality—of Alcestis or Pamphilus, for example. And at this point the theme passes over into the general; their suffering speaks for the millions who cannot give expression to their dull pain save in a cry of despair. (p. 102)

In all these works of Wilder, the religious question How does one live? is never formulated as a theory. If there is something absolute by which human beings can orient their lives, it is neither the state nor society nor the rationale of technology. All these authorities have their limits beyond which questions such as the relation of the individual to the universal become crucial.

We cannot ignore the theme of the future. Thornton Wilder's work, in an immaterial sense, contains the man of the twentieth century who, in the maelstrom of toppling orders, has frighteningly lost his orientation. Faced with the question of how to live, what is left for him but to trust, like Caesar, the promise that grows out of the unknowable? (p. 103)

Hermann Stresau, in his Thornton Wilder, translated by Frieda Schutze (copyright © 1971 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1971, 130 p.

David Mayer

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 192

[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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 657

"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 human experience. The Wilder of the essays is steeped in his country, its history and geography, and he continually seeks ways of compensating for its deficiencies, less by submerging himself in its culture or escaping from it than by incorporating into it the best of other literatures and artistic traditions. (p. 9)

The lectures on American language, American loneliness and Emily Dickinson, which owe so much to Gertrude Stein, examine the emergence of the American mind in literature. His theme is the "complex fate" of our classic writers in a fluid culture, living in a "turbulence of unrelated phenomena" and deprived of "the immemorial repetitions" who nonetheless converted "an American difficulty into an American triumph." American language for Wilder (here his example is Melville) is less a matter of new works and idioms than what resulted when insular English was reshaped in ways to apprehend the American sense of space and time and self. The American writer, unsure of his identity in a vast, unlicensed environment, acquired the ability to specify and catalogue the amorphous—and in the process modified the language.

Wilder had in mind the same ambition, but chose a communal medium to work in: the theater. It gave him a platform for his magical act and satisfied his histrionic as well as religious bent…. [These] essays confirm that Wilder expected to contribute most to American literature, if not as an innovator, at least as a "rediscoverer of forgotten goods and I hope a remover of obtrusive bric-a-brac." (pp. 9, 18)

What American theater had failed to provide, in Wilder's view, was a vision of ourselves, the ornery human race. A controlled pessimism can be felt even in his own affirmations. He tried without great success to revive religious themes or myths at a time when the religious impulse was unwelcome and misunderstood and original meanings of sacred words discredited. The comic spirit he espoused was a temporary escape from the abyss, not a denial of it. "Heaven's My Destination," his neglected comic novel, is shot through with darkness, as are "The Ides of March," "Our Town," "The Skin of Our Teeth" and "The Eighth Day," a late novel that contains some especially bleak reflections on human nature.

Unfortunately for Wilder's reputation, the bland and cheerful entertainer has obscured the wry stoic. To many readers his world seems remote from the urban, ethnic America of their experience, and Wilder's inability or disinclination to unbutton himself with the abandonment of contemporary writers makes him sound old-fashioned. So does his "contrived and stilted" … treatment of heterosexual relations. His work is already light-years behind the current apocalyptic mode, and the old-stock, middle-class readership he spoke for—whose values he shared in part and whose narrowness and parochialism he genially corrected—has pretty much faded away.

It is regrettable, however, that critics put off by his subject matter and mannerisms have consigned Wilder to textbooks. At his best he was not a tame traditionalist but a minor mythmaker and undogmatic soulsaver, an appreciator of what is fresh in literature old and new, and quester ever alert to the continuities with the past that make the present more comprehensible. (p. 18)

Daniel Aaron, "Wilder's World," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 30, 1979, pp. 8-9, 18.

Megan Marshall

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

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 nature supports all his great works, whether dramatic, fictive, or critical.

First, the ideas. The three essays on "American Characteristics," taken from Wilder's 1950 Norton lectures on Melville, Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson, set out most of the themes that appear in the rest of the volume. Wilder's effort here is to define American literary classics which, he says, can only be understood as the works of the prototypical American, the loner. (p. 32)

[What] is best about these essays is not Wilder's theory of drama, nor his notion of the American loner—an outmoded ideal sustained these days mostly by graduate students and politicians. Wilder's gift, ironically, is not for naming universals, but for understanding the particular problems of the authors he studied—problems which, not accidentally, mirror his own….

Wilder is at his best when writing about familiar subjects: because it draws on his firsthand knowledge of single women and dominated children, his essay on Emily Dickinson is the most insightful of the collection. (p. 33)

The reader of American Characteristics will find much that is missing from many a more considered volume of criticism. There is the refreshing straightforwardness of the creative artist considering his craft: in the midst of disquisition on the style of Finnegans Wake, Wilder asks, "do all books henceforward have to be written like this?" There is the smart aleck humor of the playwright taking potshots at his colleagues: on the derivative Shaw, "he could only think by ricochet." And there is the eloquence we recognize as the novelist's: on the letters of Madame de Sévigné, "Time after time the letter rises beyond the understanding of the daughter and becomes an aria where the overloaded heart sings to itself for the sheer comfort of its felicity, sings perhaps to the daughter she might have been." But above all we get to know Thornton Wilder, the loner who spent his childhood hither and yon, who never did find his mate, but who still managed to break out of his loneliness by recognizing his kinship with other great American writers with whom, through this book, he takes his place. (p. 34)

Megan Marshall, "Books and the Arts: 'American Characteristics and Other Essays'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; (© 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, Nos. 1 & 2, January 5 and 12, 1980, pp. 32-4.

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