The master anthologist J D McClatchy does it again with this superb edition of Thornton Wilder's plays and associated writing for the theater.
In the SF Chronicle the other day, a reviewer gave this volume horrible marks, he didn't like one thing about it. He said THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH is labored claptrap, and that was about the nicest thing he said.
I'm here to refute that opinion. To me Wilder is a great god of the theater and the shame is that some of his very best work has rarely or never been staged. Over the past ten years, as the different episodes of his two cycles have been given to us by Gallup and others, it's been one enchanting masterpiece after another! I had no idea how protean his imagination was, nor how everything had to be different from one another. What a shame he didn't finish the 7 ages of man, but the episodes we have, "Infancy," "Childhood," "Youth" and especially the new "The Rivers Under the Earth" are pretty spectacular, And as for THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS, what can I say, I don't believe any other author could have pulled it off. "A Ringing of Doorbells" gets sort of into Tennessee Williams country, but Williams lacked the control Wilder had in spades.
OK, I wasn't crazy about "In Shakespeare and the Bible," but I probably just don't understand it. I can't decide if Katy did the right thing, nor what the point was about her having changed her name from Mildred, nor what agreement is made by the other two more worldly characters, her fiancee and her aunt, after Katy makes her exit. "Bernice" and "The Wreck on the Five Twenty Five" are beyond praise and I wish I could step into a time machine and see Ethel Waters and Lillian Gish act in them in Berlin or wherever their fugitive premiere was. We don't usually think of Wilder as being interested in civil rights, and the famous plays we know by him deal with almost totally white worlds, but "Bernice" is all about a sort of Frantz Fanon liberation and empowerment after enslavement, just brilliant.
And the two "extra" (non cycle) plays are cute too, "The Marriage we Deplore" has a surprise ending, and "The Unerring Instinct" has a device I think John Waters would love -- or has he used it already?
The EMPORIUM grows in power and eerie knowledge every time I read more of it. Someday I hope to read the manuscripts for the whole thing, no matter how chaotic they are.
For many the great plus of this McClatchy-edited volume will be the screenplay for SHADOW OF A DOUBT. It is remarkable how much of it Hitchcock used! And yet while the editorial apparatus tut tuts the contributions made to the screenplay by NEW YORKER hack Sally Benson, I think she helped. She wasn't the carpetbagger some have made her out to be. Her writing is always good, and a thorough study of her work on the final screenplay of SHADOW OF A DOUBT must be undertaken at once. Is Benson still alive? Somebody must know. In the meantime we have this fantastic book will console us.
I find the plays of Thornton Wilder to be a refreshing delight. While they have humor, satire, a freedom with the conventions of drama, and a telling use of the ordinary to make a deeper point, they also have scenes of emotional power and depth without ever becoming maudlin. Wilder never needs to make things "real" to make a real point. I can't think of any of his characters that need the psychological torture or a pathos built on a foundation of narcissism or the endless drumbeat of sex as the universal explanation for whatever one wants to conclude about life. Yep, I enjoy what Wilder provides and enjoy it very much.
The play that most people associate with Wilder is "Our Town", but they know it mostly from the 1940 movie. The play is sparer and Emily does not live. I think the play is better because her death makes its point about life more strongly than it does when she pulls through. This wonderful edition from the Library of America has articles by Wilder on the production of the play and a series of letters between Wilder and the producer, Sol Lesser, on the making of the movie version are quite interesting. This volume also has notes by Wilder on some of his other plays and on other theatrical topics.
What most people may not know is that the musical "Hello, Dolly" is based on Wilder's play called "The Matchmaker". The musical paid him sufficient royalties that made him financially secure for the remainder of his life. Wilder had based "The Matchmaker" on earlier works. It has a fairly long tradition because it is such a delightful topic.
The volume opens with a series of very short "plays" that are really literary pieces more meant to be read than produced. These were previously collected in a volume entitled "The Angel That Troubled The Waters".
Then come the longer and performable and even regularly performed one act plays. "The Long Christmas Dinner" is probably the best well known. The effect of the time compression of 90 years of Christmases (not every year) is such an interesting effect. The actors age on stage, are born, and die for four generations (a fifth being hinted at). The ordinary language and the way we observe these lives in "fast forward" tell us so much. Quite a fine achievement.
Then come the big plays. Wilder won three Pulitzers. One for his novel, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" in 1928. Another for "Our Town" in 1938, and then for the strangely wonderful "The Skin of Our Teeth" in 1943. "The Skin of Our Teeth" is said to be influenced by "Finnegan's Wake" and Wilder did love that book. It toys nearly every dramatic convention one can think of. The three acts aren't really related except by keeping the central characters. But they are not informed from the other acts. It is full of anachronisms such as mixing 20th Century New Jersey with an ice age. And not only do the characters talk to the audience (a Wilder trademark), they do so out of character as if the actor himself or herself is speaking. But they are playing a role there, too.
The volume also includes a number of Wilder's "uncollected plays" and which are quite enjoyable and valuable.
The book also includes a very informative chronology of Wilder's life and very good notes on the texts.
Strongly recommended for those who love drama and American letters.
on April 10, 2007
The most comprehensive one-volume edition of dramatist Thornton Wilder's work published to date, Thornton Wilder Collected Plays & Writings on Theater is an 800+ page compendium of plays Wilder wrote throughout his career, essays that reveal Wilder's reflections on his own plays, an epistolary account of the film adaptation of the classic play "Our Town", a chronology, notes, and much more. Of special interest to literati is material that has never before been published: scenes from "The Emporium", an ambitious yet unfinished play that evolved out of Wilder's involvement with existentialist philosophy in his postwar years, as well as the complete screenplay that Wilder wrote for Alfred Hitchcock's movie "Shadow of a Doubt" just prior to reporting for military service in 1942. Like all Library of America editions, Thornton Wilder Collected Plays & Writings on Theater features a sturdy hardcover binding, a compact, relatively lightweight design, and an inset ribbon bookmark. A "must" for classic theater shelves, and recommended for college and public library collections.