"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Friday, November 10, 2023

A few weeks with Thornton Wilder

This last week I finished Ann Patchett's Tom Lake in the nick of time before the book club where we planned to discuss it. Most of the gals, me included, didn't think that this latest book by Patchett is her best. But after I got home and started digging a little into what Patchett said was her muse for the book-- Our Town by Thornton Wilder-- I realized we missed the point. I needed to do some additional research and reading to find out what I missed by not being familiar with Our Town.

Because Our Town is a play, and a very famous one at that, I thought I could find a version of it on Netflix or some other online streaming service. Nope. Next I tried the library. Also nope. Okay. I decided that an audio version of the play would suffice. At least that way I could hear it acted out if not see it. There were ten plus people in line to listen to the one audiobook copy available at the library. Last resort, I checked out a physical copy of the play, one that includes some information about the reaction to the play when it first hit Broadway in 1938. 
As you can imagine just because it's been around for so many years, the public went wild for Our Town and most critics gave it rave reviews. But had it not won the Pulitzer Prize that year it might have lapsed into obscurity. As it was, after ten months on Broadway, Our Town was closed after only 336 performances. It did go on the road for a few months, but that too closed down early, this time because of friction within the cast. "Although Our Town had a less than a record-breaking launch, its subsequent history, measured in amateur and stock productions earned it the 'smashing success' that [actor] Craven predicted on the eve of its rehearsals. The play's stock/amateur rights became available in April of 1939 and by December 1940 the play had been performed more than 795 times all over the country." Since that time there is a rule of thumb that says Our Town is performed at least once somewhere in the USA every night. Not sure how I avoided ever seeing it, actually.

I have trouble reading scripts for plays, with the stage directions and the format. Reading Our Town was no exception. Thornton Wilder really wanted to strip down his play so that the story spoke louder than the stage settings and props. In fact, the set directions of ACT 1 say:
No curtain.
     No scenery.
     The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light.
That is one thing you get when reading a play -- all the stage directions, entrances and exits, and directions to actors. I had a hard time picturing all the actions without my mind putting in props. For example when the father is mowing the lawn I immediately pictured a man with a gas-powered lawn-mower. Then I remembered the play was set in 1901-1920(ish) and I had to re-picture the scene with a hand-pushed contraption of some sort.

Anyway, all of that aside. I did settle into the story quite easily. Our Town is about life after all. The three acts represent the stages of everyone's life: family; marriage; death. In the forward Donald Margulies, a college Lit professor, said he first read Our Town as a school boy. At that age and stage he thought the story was just some old-fashioned thing. But when he reread it in his forties after he'd gotten married and buried both of his parents he saw the universality of its message. He also quotes Thornton Wilder  who modestly wrote, 
'I am not on the new dramatists we are looking for. I wish I were. I hope I have played a part in opening the way for them...The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday-afternoon drives in the Ford, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed, the reading of the will,' it's all here, all in Our Town, all the passages of life.

Anne Patchett says about her book Tom Lake,

It's about paying attention to all of the small moments of your life, realizing that your life really is just the compilation of small moments. And either you are awake to them and pay attention to them, or you're always looking ahead and you miss your life. (PBS)

The characters in the last scene of Our Town come to the same conclusion.  Emily bemoans this truth to Mrs. Webb, "I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed...Oh earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you." 

Margulies concludes his forward by welcoming readers to Our Town. "I envy you. A joyous discovery awaits you." Then he welcomes back those who have read it before. Now I get to pass on the same greeting to you, dear readers. I hope you find your way to or back to Our Town, also. 

While I was figuring out how to get a copy of Our Town, I was able to get the audio version of another Thornton Wilder's works, his second and most famous novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. One of the characters in Tom Lake, though busy, found time to read this novel. Now I recognize it as another nod from Patchett to Wilder. 

The Bridge of San Luis Rey has long been on my radar and on and off my TBR list depending on my mood. It won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1928 and it was the most popular book of 1927 and the year it won, which rarely happens with prize winners. 

The Bridge of San Luis Rey tells the story of five people who plunge to death when the Incan rope bridge they are walking on collapses. Exploring the events that led them to be on the bridge at that moment inspires a philosophical examination of chance and inexplicable tragedy. (Pulitzer)

The story is set in Peru, so it is odd, or should have been odd, that it won the Pulitzer in the first place because at the time the committee wanted the winners to reflect the: “atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”  The committee can break their own rules and they did when selecting The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The fact that it wasn't an American story and didn't exemplify American manhood aside, it is a tremendous story. And with its publication and popularity Wilder was able to quit his job as a French teacher in Wisconsin so he could write full time. He and his mother and sister were able to move to Connecticut where they lived "in the house the bridge built." He went on to win two more Pulitzer Prizes in Drama for Our Town in 1938 and The Skin of Our Teeth in 1943.

In The Bridge of San Luis Rey readers meet the five people who tumble to their deaths in retrospect. All are deeply flawed characters who just moments before their death have made a decision that will change their lives. The priest who is obsessed with collecting their stories through the accounts of survivors/friends/associates is ultimately put to death for heresy for his efforts

The book has remained popular and influential, even nearly 100 years after its publication. It has never been out of print. Claudia Weissberg, in "A Bridge Too Far?" says,

The novel is often referenced in situations that involve overwhelming human loss. Author John Hersey sited it as an influence on his New Yorker essay and subsequent book, Hiroshima, about the attack on that city during World War II. And ten days after the 9/11 attacks in New York City, Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech honoring British victims that he ended with the final lines of The Bridge of San Luis Rey

But soon we will die, and all memories of those five will have left earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival, the only meaning.

Only love survives. We need to all remember this and take this message into our beings, loving those who cross our paths while we have the chance. The ending left me crying big, wet tears but more determined to take Thornton Wilder's advice from his two famous works -- to notice, to love, to be thankful for what we have.


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