relevant to us and to our students? I believe it is. Those who see only the surface—daily life in a small town in New Hampshire at the turn of the century—will disagree. Once we see the larger issues and realize the wealth of material presented to us, agreement must follow.
Much in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman,
celebrates the commonplace, the ordinary, the daily life. The concern with the questions of youth, marriage, and death are
questions, as well as those of George and Emily. The audience is deeply involved in the play—for it is Life. We make our own inner connections with the drama. As Goldstone avers,
is a play about belonging—to a family, to a community, and to a nation.
Wilder likened his vision to that of an archaeologist: the view of the telescope combined with the view of the microscope.
, he states, asks a question which is the central theme of the play: What is the relation between the countless unimportant details of our daily life, on the one hand, and the great perspectives of time, social history, and current religious ideas, on the other?
He wished to depict, and to have us take part in, the life of a village against the life of the stars.
In searching for the best form to express the universality, Wilder decided that drama was ideal. Drama, he thought, typified raising individualized action—what we see happening before us—into the realm of the universal. Drama is always “now,” possessing heighten vitality.
But for a time, Wilder was dissatisfied with the theatre. He stopped believing in what he was seeing. The words did not ring true; he characterized them as “soothing.” He thought theatre as merely a diversion began in the nineteenth century with the rise of the middle classes, desirous of a theatre which would not disturb them. The distance they desired was fostered by the use of the box set, which Wilder likened to a museum showcase. The stage became littered with props, concrete objects which narrowed the action to one time and place. Attempts to be “real” all but destroyed Wilder’s belief in the theatre.
In an effort to capture reality rather than verisimilitude in the theatre, Wilder began writing one-act plays. What is said and felt is what is important; props are minimal. “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden” focuses on a family taking an automobile trip; it was Wilder’s first attempt to write about modern America and clearly prefigures
“The Long Christmas Dinner” moves through and across time, tracing ninety years in the history of a family in twenty minutes. Again the focus is on relationships, on what is said, rather than on how “real” things look. In these two one-act plays, one sees the beginnings of what is fully developed in
a paring down to essentials;
a ranging through and across time;
an insistence on the universality of the human condition.
, we find the same sort of focus. Believing that the imagination of the audience must come into use if the audience is to recognize its own situation in the play, Wilder eliminated the things which distract. Dispensing with box sets, Wilder replaced elaborate props with a few token articles. Through the use of pantomime, he suggested activities such as lighting the stove and shelling peas. The elimination of distractions forces an involvement with the drama, doing away with drama’s distance.
The use of the Stage Manager also serves to negate illusion. On occasion, the Stage Manager reflects upon his role in the proceedings, bringing ordinary people who believe they are leading individual lives into relation with general values. The questions raised concern basic
—rather than individual—conditions. He introduces, takes part in, and concludes the play, interacting with the audience and the characters, thus destroying the usual separation between the stage and the audience. His excursions into sociology and pedantry (the exact geographical location of Grover’s Corners) can be viewed as a gentle satire on the “realism” Wilder detested. The Stage Manager also serves as an announcer; however, his words reveal a knowledge of the future fates of characters in the play.
Wilder thought that drama was an art which rests upon the work of many collaborators: the dramatist, the director, the actors, and the audience. The wise dramatist takes advantage of the collaboration, being sure that the strength of the play is in narration. The dramatist must be an instinctual storyteller, one who couples ideas with illustrations.
The idea of a collaborative effort is valuable, I think, in a classroom, with its “Stage Manager” and “actors,” the teacher and the students.