Sunday, October 28, 2012

* Waiting for Sandy with Thornton Wilder

The Skin of Our Teeth,
with glacier approaching.

The Eastern Seaboard,
with Sandy approaching.

The  Tiny Capsules of Our Own Chronologies

The more I think about it as I wait for Hurricane Sandy to come ashore tomorrow, high up in Vermont which will still be vulnerable to her winds, Thornton Wilder did a lot to prepare me for this moment.

The meteorologists say that Sandy is the biggest storm in history (EVER) to hit the East Coast.

Thornton Wilder would not have been surprised.

He was always trying to jolt his readers out of the little capsule of their own chronology into the unfathomable abyss of unrecorded history.

His perennially staged Our Town is full of the “crisscross” wanderings of the stars,  dead as "chalk” whose light takes “millions of years" to reach earth after it flickered out for the last time eons ago.  The whole world gets so tired in one day that everyone has to lie down and  take a “rest” for awhile. 

Emily’s  premature death  in childbirth is not mitigated by the other dead in the Grovers Corners cemetery, especially her own mother-in-law.  On the contrary, it is Mrs. Gibbs who tells Emily that it’s "not wise” to ramble in the memories of the world she left. Indeed, the job of the dead is to “gradually’ forget all that, to get “weaned away from the earth”, she warns,  as the stars make their “crisscross journeys” overhead while she speaks from her grave.

In Wilder's next Pulitzer Prize winner, The Skin of Our Teeth, a glacier is moving toward the Antrobus family in Excelsior New Jersey (which seems tonight as I write, a prophetic Wilder choice for  location,  as the world  waits for Sandy to pulverize New Jersey’s shores tomorrow). 

It is clear , as in Our Town, that Wilder wants us to be shocked out of the discomfort of our little eighty-year biographies in the richest nation in the world. 

The Excelsior  glacier, ( again a strangely prophetic Wilder image: a kind of inverse Global Warming but equally menacing)  is the playwright's equivalent of the chalk-like emptiness of the galaxies that hovers above the pastoral pleasantries of  George and Emily’s Grovers Corner’s. 

Like our wait for Sandy this evening , there is even a boardwalk scene on the Jersey shore in The Skin of Our Teeth with meteorological weather socks being flown  to alert the crowds of impending weather disaster, even three pennants for "the end of the world."  

For that matter, someone in Our Town (is it the milkman, Howie Newsome?) talks about a "three day blow", just the storm Sandy promises to be, even though she is supposed to be unique according to the record keepers.

For years as divinity graduate, I  ended every eulogy I wrote with the final line of Thornton Wilder’s first Pulitzer Prize winning book, the 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."

I thought it was a beautiful line and an affirmation of some kind of meaning in life which would satisfy those who needed to believe in an Emerald City in the Sky, without my having to stoop to using that anthropomorphic New Yorker-cartoon imagery of an afterlife.

I’ve stopped using it. 

I have decided Wilder’s emphasis was not on the “bridge” but on the word “only”.

"Only", as in, there is no other meaning, no other survival. 

I don't want to lead people on ---- 

even though I think Thornton Wilder did.

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