Happy 2017 from Wilder Central
“The gift to the public of laughter without malice is one of the most useful things a man can do,” [Wilder] said. “Anyone can make a comedy which is cruel. It is hard to make a comedy that is kind. To give a fellow a feeling between the young and the old—that is art.”
— New York Journal-American interview, August 8, 1958
This year, we celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Broadway opening of The Skin of Our Teeth, for which Wilder won his third Pulitzer Prize, and the 50th Anniversary of Wilder’s National Book Award-winning novel, The Eighth Day.
To usher in the New Year, we give you Thornton Wilder’s words on his fondness for Laughter, Hope and the Human Condition as expressed in these two seminal works.
Salute to a Play Set in New Jersey
“The earthquakes of Society have so altered the character of our time,” Wilder thinks, “that today comedy is the only means the theater has to transmit a serious message. The high-toned, soberly descriptive play is out of sympathy with our times. Joyce and Kafka and T.S. Eliot in his drawing room ‘Cocktail Party’ have shown us that the comic spirit is capable of supporting the most profound moral.”
— New York Tribune undated clip [1952?]
“Anyone can see that the play affirms a belief in the survival of the human race. The race is often threatened and there are reasons to despair. The play attempts to illustrate some of the forces within the human being that contribute to his will to survive — fortitude, a vision of mankind’s capabilities, and the institution of the family understood as destiny and promise.”
— From a Handwritten note, circa 1960, found in Wilder’s Yale archive
In Act I of The Skin of Our Teeth, Lily Sabina, the eternal temptress, is swishing about the stage cleaning the living room of the Antrobus’ home, a modest suburban home in Excelsior, New Jersey. They will soon celebrate their five thousandth wedding anniversary:
“Each new child that’s born to the Antrobuses seems to them to be sufficient reason for the whole universe’s being set in motion; and each new child that dies seems to them to have been spared a whole world of sorrow, and what the end of it will be is still very much an open question.
We’ve rattled along, hot and cold, for some time now…and my advice to you is not to inquire into why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate—that’s my philosophy.
Don’t forget that a few years ago we came through the depression by the skin of our teeth! One more tight squeeze like that and where will we be?”As you’ll recall, in Act II, Sabina/Miss Fairweather attempts to seduce George Antrobus. In a letter to director Alan Schneider during rehearsals for the 1955 Broadway/ world tour production of The Skin starring Mary Martin as Sabina—a production Wilder adored—he writes:
“The great Narcissist-Beauty Winners don’t really love their men. They love themselves. Sabina knows early that she has Antrobus in her pocket. “
On how to play it:
“How can we avoid cliché?
Cutie eases up to Sugar-Daddy.
It’s been shown 1000 times.
… it’s partly a satire on such encounters, and yet is also played practically for Straight Vamp routine.
Doesn’t do any good to satirize the situation; even the satire of such goings-on has become corny.
I suggest: we play it very straight….”
The Eighth Day
“It was on a New Year’s Eve, but not just an ordinary New Year’s eve: It was December 31, 1899—the eve of a new century. A large group was gathered in front of the court-house in Coaltown, Illinois, waiting for the clock to strike. There was a mood of exaltation in the crowd, as though it expected the heavens to open. The twentieth century was to be the greatest century the world had ever know. Man would fly; tuberculosis, diphtheria, and cancer would be eradicated; there would be no more wars. The country, the state and the very town in which they lived were to play large and solemn roles in this new era. When the clock struck all the women and some of the men were weeping. Suddenly they burst out singing, not ‘Auld Lang Syne’, but ‘Oh, God, our help in ages past.’ Soon they were throwing their arms about one another; they were kissing—an unheard of demonstration…
Breckenridge Lansing—always at his best in company, the perfect host, and, as managing director of the mines, the first citizen in town—spoke up for the company, “Dr. Gillies, what will the new century be like?”
Dr. Gillies made no deprecatory noises, but began:
“’Nature never sleeps. The process of life never stands still. The creation has not come to an end. The Bible says that God created man on the sixth day and rested, but each of those days was many millions of years long. That day of rest must have been a short one. Man is not an end but a beginning. We are at the beginning of the second week. We are children of the eighth day. . . In this new century we shall be able to see that mankind is entering a new stage of development—The Man of the Eighth Day.’
“Dr. Gillies was lying for all he was worth. He had no doubt that the coming century would be too direful to contemplate—that is to say, like all other centuries. . . . His midnight reading of the great historians confirmed his sense that Coaltown is everywhere. . . . There are no Golden Ages and no Dark Ages. There is the ocean-like monotony of the generations of men under the alternations of fair and foul weather. . . . He lied roundly because his eyes rested on Roger Ashley, fourteen years and fifty-one weeks old, and George Lansing, fifteen. He spoke as he would have spoken if his dead son had been there. It is the duty of old men to lie to the young.” (p.17)
“When God loves a creature he wants the creature to know the highest happiness and the deepest misery – – then he can die. He wants him to know all that being alive can bring.” (p.135)
“Because it is irrational, hope rejoices in evidence of the marvelous.” (p. 58)
“So defenseless is hope before the court of reason that it stands in constant need of fashioning its own confirmations.” (p.58)
“The lives of the hopeful abound in coincidences.” (p. 55)
“It is doubtful whether hope – – or any other manifestation of creativity – – can sustain itself without an impulse injected by love.” (p.57)
“Hope, like faith, is nothing if it is not courageous; it is nothing if it is not ridiculous. The defeat of hope leads not to despair, but to resignation. The resignation of those who have had a grasp of hope retains hope’s power.” (p. 71)