Monday, March 21, 2011

Why I'm Inspired By Thornton Wilder

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Contributed by Mark Blankenship

From the moment I read The Skin of Our Teeth as a college sophomore, Thornton Wilder became a guiding light in my professional career.

I came to college, you see, just bursting with the adolescent certainty that I understood the theatre. I figured that my dozen roles in community productions had made me an expert and that I needed to spend the rest of my life pursuing something that was truly sophisticated and enlightening. At the point, it had never occurred to me that a character could forget her lines on stage and suddenly become an actress playing a character. It had never occurred to me that a dinosaur could amble on stage and talk, that Cain could be a surly teenager in Atlantic City, or that the structure of a play could expand to include "stagehands" roaming around quoting great philosophers.

The Skin of Our Teeth, assigned in a theatre class that I took on a whim, expanded my mind in one sitting. I finished reading it in a daze, aware that I'd just started learning about all the things I didn't know.

And more importantly, I remember the thrill of realizing that in the theatre, the world can exist without rules. If it helps the play achieve its goals, then dinosaurs can talk and dramatic structures can collapse. Over the next few years, I was delighted to discover that Thornton Wilder's plays---the full-lengths and especially the one-acts---are filled with those imaginative gestures. Time and again, he creates unique worlds because no other world will do. When he needs to evoke the soft ache of passing time, he lets a family go on a happy journey in an imaginary car. We sense the ritual of what they're doing, feel the familiarity, but because we see that ritual in a vacant space, we also sense its ephemerality. You're driving to see your daughter today. You're entire life is gone tomorrow. What a true and awful and beautiful thing to say, and what a lovely way to say it.

As a critic and reporter, I strive to maintain the sense of wonder that Wilder awoke in me. I strive to emulate his enthusiasm for unique worlds and breathtaking theatrical gestures. No matter what I'm seeing, I try to remember the lesson his plays taught me: The performance before you is a tiny world, existing only for a moment. Respect that.

Of course, Wilder affects me even when I'm not in an audience. His plays (not to mention his novels and letters) have a furious optimism that grounds my worldview. Wilder's never blind to the hardships of life, but he doesn't believe they cancel out the miraculous. His plays show us how to look hard times in the face and keep living gloriously. That kind of hope inspires me the most---the hope that flutters fervently in the face of terrible things. I think of those great ideas floating over our heads at the end of The Skin of Our Teeth, of Emily's joyful-awful recognition at the end of Our Town, and even the poignant comfort of new life emerging in The Long Christmas Dinner. I think, "Now there's something true."

As a member of the theatre community and as a person who is trying to live a meaningful life, Thornton WIlder inspires me every day. I may never live up to the worlds he creates in his plays, but I am wildly grateful those worlds exist.

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Mark Blankenship is the editor of TDF Stages, the online magazine of Theatre Development Fund.

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