Saturday, April 30, 2011

Putting the Playhouse to Rights

I've been digging into Thornton Wilder some more, swishing Our Town around and revisiting The Skin of Our Teeth. The two plays are his most famous works, for which he won two of his three(!) Pulitzer Prizes. The accolades are well-deserved, for in very different ways the two pieces pull off something theatre has boundless potential for, but is rarely done, and done well more seldom still: a truly cosmic scope.

This is not easily accomplished. Our Town is the more straightforward of the two in its approach--though ascetic in its staging, its dialogue is natural and unstylized--but compared with just about any other play it's a freak. Like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it eludes pat synopses (I learned this first-hand trying to explain it to my roommate): a look into the goings-on of a sleepy, turn-of-the-century New England town, and in particular one of its citizens, Emily Webb, that questions our grasp of the significance of life by depicting both its most and least significant events.

See? How the hell does someone who hasn't read the play make sense of that? One could say that the first act shows a day in the town of Grover's Corners, the second zeroes in on the wedding day of two young characters from the first act, and the third shows, several years later, the bride, now dead, ruing her time squandered on Earth after her death. (This doesn't even mention the Stage Manager, who narrates and oversees all of the action, making sure we never get too drawn into the proceedings.) That doesn't get us much further, and what about that cosmic scope business I was talking about? It's best to let that speak for itself....

REBECCA: "I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letterand on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America."

GEORGE: "What's funny about that?"

REBECCA: "But listen, it's not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God--that's what it said on the envelope."

GEORGE: "What do you know!"

REBECCA: "And the postman brought it just the same."

Or this, from the play's grim finale:

EMILY: "...Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute?"

STAGE MANAGER: "No." Pause. "The saints and poets, maybe--they do some."

This is easy enough to grasp, even with the Stage Manager demolishing the fourth wall by his very existence. The Skin of Our Teeth is a much stranger beast. It concerns the Antrobus family, a stand-in for no less than the whole of humanity. The first act deals with the family (and their maidservant, Sabina, whose actress is constantly breaking character and disparaging the play) dealing with an incoming ice age. The second act, taking place an indeterminate amount of time later, recapitulates the action of the first--the catastrophe this time is a world flood--while the setting and some of the character relations are played around with; Sabina is now a beauty pageant winner trying to seduce Antrobus (in the first act we were told that she had been raped away from her Sabine hills) and humanity, which the Antrobi went to great lengths to save the first time around, is left to drown while the animals, two of a kind, are brought onto a life boat. The third act, for a change, begins after the disaster, at the end of a war, and shows the family trying to rebuild humanity anew.

I did say it was strange, didn't I?

Several years back I was in a production of The Skin of Our Teeth (I played the stage manager, Fitz, and various ensemble roles), and I have to admit I couldn't make much sense of what was going on. I understood some of the allusions and parallels ("to Eva, from Adam," hardy har har), but the damned thing was just so odd.... I felt much the same while re-reading it, and it wasn't until I got to the relatively somber third act, and this exchange in particular, that I started to "get" it:

SABINA: "That's all we do--always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again....How do we know that it'll be any better than before? Why do we go on pretending? Some day the whole earth's going to have to turn cold anyway, and until that time all these other things'll be happening again: it will be more wars and more walls of ice and floods and earthquakes."

MRS. ANTROBUS: "Sabina!! Stop arguing and go on with your work."

SABINA: "All right, I'll go on just out of habit, but I won't believe in it."

These days, with seemingly a new crisis every week--a Japanese earthquake, Libya, the government shutdown standoff, another Japanese earthquake, Donald Trump--these words resonated.

So to, did Mrs. Antrobus's indignant reply, explaining "what nobody should ever have to say, because they can read it in each other's eyes:"

MRS. ANTROBUS: "Sabina, do you see this house,--216 Cedar Street,--do you see it?"

SABINA: "Yes, Mrs. Antrobus."

MRS. ANTROBUS: "Well, just to have known this house is to have seen the idea of what we can do someday if we keep our wits about is. Too many people have suffered and died for my children for us to start reneging now. So we'll start putting this house to rights. Now, Sabina, go and see what you can do in the kitchen."

SABINA: "Kitchens! Why is it that however far I go away, I always find myself back in the kitchen?"

The whole third act makes me want to re-read the first two with clearer eyes. This kind of approach should feel horribly belabored, but in part because the play is so bizarre--I haven't mentioned the business in the third act where the play stops in order to announce that the extras have gotten food poisoning and some volunteers will be playing the hours of the night, quoting Spinoza and Aristotle and Plato and the Bible--it works.

Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth as works for the stage, where conventional wisdom holds that relationships between characters are the key element, that manage to use those relationships--natural in the former, allegorical and grotesque in the latter--as a springboard for Big Ideas without ever becoming hoary and didactic. When confronted with these fiercely unconventional works one might ask, "What's the big idea?" and get a far different answer than one was expecting.

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