Thornton Wilder (YGtCTO Words #33)

The Skin of Our Teeth

Play by Thornton Wilder

Our Town… What a colossus of the American theater. If we ever had a play that rivaled the staying power of Shakespeare… Maybe Death of a Salesman also qualifies. Maybe it’s the sparse set combined with a story that is clear as a bell. Perhaps it’s that magical combination of small-town down-home story-telling with just enough weirdness to appeal to a theater nerd. Your school board and that English teacher from the East coast can both get behind this show.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love the show and everything else that Wilder wrote. The first play that I saw my Dad act in was The Matchmaker. Iwas just out of my single digits and I still remember him coming home one day after rehearsal. They had been visited by a dramaturge (someone who thinks like I blog, but for even longer and only about theatre). Dad talked about how much had been embedded in the text by Wilder and he never imagined there was so much, especially in a part as minuscule as his. Do I need to say that he set the wheels turning in my head?

I knew that The Matchmaker was the basis for Hello, Dolly (because Dad told me), but the name Thornton Wilder did not stay with me. A couple years later, my middle school teacher assigned us The Bridge of San Luis Rey. (Really- note this was after we had read Winesburg, Ohio. In retrospect, I have to wonder if the teacher read them before assigning them. Oh, did we have fun watching the teacher discuss Hands.)

Thornton Wilder

I probably saw Our Town around the same time.
Somewhere thereabouts, I ran into The Skin of Our Teeth, and I was pretty sure this was the writer for me. Dinosaurs, for crying out loud!

Looking over the above, we might think I was scarred from all this darkness- even the evergreen O.T. is pretty brutal. But I would not forego any of it. Like everyone else, I was pretty malleable and fragile. We forget sometimes just how fortifying art can be. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the redemptive power of music- how one song can bring us back from the precipice. I have not given enough credit to the writers who prepare us to tread along the edges that life always forces us toward.

Sure, Wilder may have taught me that bad things happen for no reason, but he also showed me that the survivors fulfill the promise of life itself which is only that you get another second. Spend it laughing or weeping, but you are fortunate enough to spend it alive. In short, he taught me resilience.

So, sure- maybe I lost a little sleep to a first brush with existential anxiety, but it really was nothing compared to Oliver Twist or A Separate Peace. Empathy was a good lesson, too, but it won’t get you far without the fortitude to withstand the tidal wave of emotion.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 202 more to go.

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