Thursday, April 05, 2007

America's Greatest Playwright?

Thornton Wilder got a fond appraisal in the Times recently, on the heels of the Library of America's new Wilder collection. For Jeremy McCarter, it offers proof that the author of Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth is due for reconsideration, that "the man who might be our greatest playwright could also be our most misunderstood."

Wilder’s tone is dry, fond; if God were to dabble in anthropology, and the recording angels to write with wry humor and infinite tolerance of human folly, this is how the holy books would read.

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?”

The article also cites his screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, which the director liked best of all his American films. It, too, is set in a kind of sleepy, Rockwellian, All-American town: Santa Rosa, California. If I recall the facts right, Hitchcock and Wilder both spent a lot of time there well before production, soaking up the feel of life in a very ordinary city. Though bigger than Grover's Corners, Santa Rosa is just as mundane, making it the perfect hideout for a murderous lothario (Joseph Cotten) who arrives for a surprise visit to his sister's family. Here he's just good old Uncle Charlie, idolized by his niece, Teresa Wright, who shares his name, and who soon begins to suspect he's not all he seems.

The title isn't just about Young Charlie's suspicion; Uncle Charlie himself is the shadow, the dark side, the underbelly of a world that, like Grover's Corners -- or like Lumberton in Blue Velvet -- looks just peachy on the outside. He's traded in small-town small-mindedness for big-city misanthropy, and his most famous speech has occasionally been cited as the guiding weltanschaung behind Hitchcock's films. Maybe it's Wilder's view, too.

You think you know something, don't you? You think you're the clever little girl who knows something. There's so much you don't know, so much. What do you know, really? You're just an ordinary little girl, living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there's nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I? Or was it a silly, inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You're a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.

No hearts and flowers there.

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