Saturday, December 19, 2009

* Thornton Wilder's Empty Stage : Bye, Bye, American Pie[ty]

It is worth noting that I once asked Arthur Miller at a talk at Yale (circa 1979) "Why are the writings of Thornton Wilder ignored on college reading lists?" Miller thought for a moment and replied, "I think it is because in Wilder there is an insufficient sense of the tragic." That may have more to do with the projective needs of audiences than with Wilder , who admittedly, has been universally saccharinized (nutri-sweeted). Ironically, Wilder himself called for the American stage to celebrate "window-breaking ideas."

It intrigues me that literary critics and audiences ignore the heretical implications of a single line in the most performed play in the American theatre: "And what's left when memory 's gone and your identity, Mrs Smith?"

No--this is not a question about Altzheimer's disease posed kindly and reassuringly by her doctor to a newly diagnosed Mrs. Smith.

Mrs. Smith should be read: "average church-goer," or "average believer." And the questioner is not a kindly internist, but the Stagemanager in Our Town in the guise of the minister who has just delivered his long, eloquent discourse on "There's something way down deep that's eternal in every human being" with a crescendo of aint's: "It ain't" this and "it ain't" that -----until there's almost nothing left to be "ain'ted."

Now, when Hal Holbrook as the Stagemanager in the televised version of Our Town delivers the final line( "And what's left when memory's gone and your identity, Mrs. Smith") the medium of television permits him to make an actor's choice which would be totally lost on stage: Holbrook lifts his right eyebrow and stares into the camera in a moment of pregnant silence. Then, true to Wilder's concern that nothing in the cemetery scene be lugubrious, Holbrook smiles knowingly, even reassuringly, and moves on to introduce us to some "living people" at the Grover's Corners cemetery.

What is the import of that single line and single raised Holbrookian eyebrow?

Nothing less than a smiling recognition that Wilder is about to make the audience unwittingly swallow the biggest fish in the American theatre without even realizing they have been hooked: Emily is living in the afterlife (how reassuring to those of us who have been taught that afterlife means "survival of the personality"!) and is about to learn that her destiny in the afterlife is to be purged of her her-ness, her Mrs. Smith-ness, while she waits "for the eternal part in her to come out clear."

In other words, Emily is about to begin to be eradicated of identity--to become a Form like Plato's famous "Chair", a Form perhaps evoked by the folding chairs Wilder has directed in the current scene must serve as tombstones on stage.

This sweet little moment, staged now hundreds of thousands of times in the last 71 years, is thus nothing less than an assault on the notion of pie-in-the-sky afterlife, where angels reunite with loved ones and share old recollections of a geographical autobiography, located in a "person" who once lived in a "place" on a "planet ", perhaps a deceased Jane Crofut of "The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire;United States of America; . . .Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere;the Earth the Solar System;the Universe; the Mind of God".

That speck in the universe identified (and located) on the envelope addressed to Jane Crofut which Rebecca describes to her brother George Gibbs at end the of Act One of Our Town; that speck of personhood,whether living or dead, is ultimately in the Mind of God, not the mind of its own personality i.e. all of that chronologically accumulated artfice and claptrap which burns away until "the eternal part comes out clear".

Has not Thornton Wilder (himself the brother of a Harvard theologian), just pulled the rug out from under popular piety and left us all---actors and audience alike ---gazing at an empty stage?

The empty stage of the 20th Century in which "God is dead" (at least the anthropomorphic, omniscient,omnipotent, interventionist, score-keeper, God of the previous centuries)?

Or perhaps the empty stage of human existence itself (now that that michaelangeloic Deity reigning over a triple-decker-universe has been killed off by science)?

Oh no! Wilder is telling us how wonderful the afterlife is going to be!

Cut me a large slice of Denial Pie[ty], please.

Paul D. Keane

NB: Note too the final line of Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

" The ONLY survival [my emphasis]" can, similarly, certainly be read as nothing less than rejection of pie-in-the-skyism's 'survival of the personality'./em>>

FOR MORE on "survival of the personality" see December 12 post "Heavenly HTML..."

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