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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