Saturday, June 15, 2013

* " When our fit's over :" Thornton Wilder's invisible parade

The Cemetery Scene in Our Town

Somewhere in Thornton Wilder’s autobiography  The Enthusiast by Gilbert A. Harrison, it says something like this: Wilder went through his crisis early.

Of course we are only left to speculate what that crisis might have been: Repugnance at the societal (and legal) trap of being a homosexual ?  The indifference of death to the biographies of her victims? The obliviousness of others to the feelings burning in another’s chest ? The inexorable evisceration of  lustful youth and beauty by the accumulation of years? ( His own family would have an amazing penchant for producing nonagenarians: a brother 98, a sister, 95. He himself lived to the relatively tame 78 with cigarettes and alcohol perhaps too much his companions.)

All of these are good guesses given his biography, especially the death theme which appears over and again in his work, from The Bridge of San Luis Rey  to Our Town  (half the characters are dead before the end of the play) to his tour de force on that dark subject, The Long Christmas Dinner, which, as is his talent, he manages to pretty-up while paradoxically staring it down.

 His childhood must have  been gently haunted by the twin that didn’t make it, another boy, Theophilus, whose struggling infant body was placed on a pillow on an open oven door for warmth, the only incubator of the time, an oven whose maw would later disgorge Wilder's own childhood sustenance, a rather horrifying death/life image for a kitchen appliance.

Indeed, one of Wilder’s late-life novels would be Theophilus North,  north being the region uppermost toward “the heaven that saints and poets have imagined” to quote Bertrand Russell.

One of Wilder’s greatest literary achievements is to make death seem like a friend, “out of the cradle, endlessly rocking” as Whitman has said.  It is as if death is the most gentle outcome of this ”fit” as Wilder has the Stagemanager in Our Town describe life in the cemetery scene of that play , the most performed  in the history of the American theatre.

Yes, an awful lot of sorrow has sort of quieted down up here. People just wild with grief have brought their relatives up to this hill. We all know how it is…and then time…and sunny days…and rainy days…’n snow…We’re all glad they’re in a beautiful place and we’re coming up here ourselves when our fit’s over. (III.23-4)

Indeed, we are coming, when out of the cradle, gently rocking in the ebb and flow of the oceans of the universe.

We are coming, all of us, in the endless and most invisible parade on ---and off --- the planet.

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