Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Reconsidering the art and reputation of Madison native Thornton Wilder on his 110th birthday

Why not take a moment on the birthday of playwright Thornton Wilder, who was born on this day 110 years ago, to take a fresh look at the Madison native's life and career? A good starting point is the Library of America and its new edition of his collected plays and writing on theater. You might find that Wilder's reputation as the Norman Rockwell of American theater is undeserved -- a produuct of his interpreters' sentimental misunderstanding of his work.

That's what Jeremy McCarter contends in a recent NYT Book Review essay keyed to the publication of the new Library of America volume. Members of the literary establishment often have either dismissed Wilder or apologized for enjoying Wilder, as McCarter describes.
Mary McCarthy liked Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” more than she cared to admit. It was 1938, and the theater of social protest — of Odets and Blitzstein — was at its zenith: an inconvenient time for a politically minded critic to fall for this homespun tale of life in Grover’s Corners. In enjoying this Broadway hit, she later remembered wondering, “was I starting to sell out?”
McCarter goes on to talk about Wilder's wry humor and "infinite tolerance of human folly."
These qualities find their fullest expression in “Our Town,” a show you might recall, if your high school had a drama club. For all the play’s ubiquity, though, how well do we really understand it? Everyone remembers the folksy Stage Manager leading us through the story, as pretty Emily Webb grows up in picturesque Grover’s Corners in Act I, marries the local baseball star George Gibbs in Act II, and is buried in Act III. You may remember, too, how she decides to relive one day of her life, and sums up the play’s cosmic gospel as she returns to her grave: “Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

Frequently lost in the sentimental haze that most revivals inflict upon the play is the contrary voice of Simon Stimson, the town drunk and suicide. “That’s what it was to be alive,” he snarls. “To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those ... of those about you.” He makes a good point. Grover’s Corners is, in retrospect, an unbearable place: quite content to be homogeneous, conformist, anti-intellectual and lacking “any culture or love of beauty.” When staged properly, the play doesn’t let us to feel simple nostalgia. We ought to weep at Emily’s famous line not because she finds earth wonderful, but because she was unable to find it so during her close-minded life in her close-minded town — which is, of course, our town. Wilder makes a profound statement about the limits of human understanding here, one that requires delicacy and a little steel to convey. “ ‘Our Town’ is one of the toughest, saddest plays ever written,” Edward Albee has said. “Why is it always produced as hearts and flowers?”
McCarter lauds the Library of America for reprinting Wilder's prefaces and other writing on theater, which demonstrate how sophisticated his views on theater really were.
For Wilder, theater’s ability to present the universal and eternal made it “the greatest of all the arts,” but the 19th-century vogue for box sets and realistic props had reduced it to “a minor art and an inconsequential diversion.” He realized that for theater to regain its old pre-eminence, it would need to abandon naturalism and rediscover the tools of Shakespeare and the Greeks: stage conventions that convey — a marvelous distinction — “not verisimilitude but reality.” Thus Wilder’s lack of scenery and other brazenly theatrical devices are all ways of escaping the literal and picayune, of stretching theater as far as an engaged audience’s imagination can take it. The uncanny result is plays that pursue the emotional aims of Chekhov with the adventurous theatricality of Brecht.
It would be great to see a production that brought out those qualities.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Have you caught any of the (relatively) recent productions of Wilder around here (such as Madison Rep's Our Town or APT's The Matchmaker)?

Madison Guy said...

Wish I had.

Anonymous said...

I caught The Matchmaker but missed Our Town, and I'm kicking myself.