restricted access The Plays of Thornton Wilder by Donald Haberman (review)
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436 MODERN DRAMA February THE PLAYS OF THORNTON WILDER, by Donald Haberman, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Conn., 1967, 162 pp. Price $7.00. Donald Haberman opens with a preface, "Everybody's Thornton Wilder,''' which suggests the quality of this writer. Malcolm Goldstein wrote a more comprehensive "Outline of a Life" in The Art of Thornton Wilder. In his first chapter Haberman might have developed a part of his first sentence: "his attitude toward life is his story." He tells of the inspiration of Theodore Dreiser, digresses on the technical problems in Our Town, summarizes the plot of Heaven's My Destination~ relates material used in both fiction and drama, writes at length about the Reinhardt production of The Merchant of Younkers, and concludes with a number of details about The Skin of our Teeth and some good quotations from that play which themselves tell the most about Wilder's attitude toward life. In the chapter, "The Religious Life," he shows how Thornton Wilder adapted ideas of Kierkegaard in The Alcestiad, produced at the Edinburgh Festival, 1955.. but never published. In his extensive summary of this play he makes some very interesting comments about the playwright's developing religious statement as it grew from his study of the Danish philosopher. He discusses the pervasive influence of Gertrude Stein not only in her attention to language but in her perspective on Americans. These observations and quotations are some of the most interesting in the book. He comments fully on Wilder's adaptation of Moliere's. L',Avare in The Merchant of Younkers, on the problems of transposing the Alcestis myth to a modern play, and of his interest in pantomime. He digresses. on the art of Mei Lan-Fang and his commercial success. His generous use of quotation from Richard Boleslavsky, Gertrude Stein, and from Thornton Wilder's. own articles on writing makes the reader want to read these texts without benefit of interruption and comment. The book concludes with a chapter on myth, opening: with two curious statements: "Although the emphasis is on the narration, thesequence of events, Wilder has recognized the need of his audience for a story of some sort. The audience may create the story themselves, but Wilder has provided the clues." The contrast between statements like these and the quotations. from the playwright-novelist is conspicuous. The book reads like a doctoral dissertation, the work of a conscientious student who has tackled a difficult subject. He assigns himself to the task of writing a: critical study of the plays but gives considerable attention to the novels. Hemakes frequent use of contemporary criticism from the periodicals, some of it highly controversial, but indicates no real acquaintance with the classic statements< of dramatic critics. He leaves the impression that he is more interested and more at home in philosophy than in the theater. He has the graduate student's; certainty about influences but seems not to be sure what he thinks about theworks he is discussing. If he had been, he would have relegated to the footnotesthose comments about literary jealousies and some of the more oblique and subjective critical statements that frequently appear. He has made some interesting observations on the similarities between plays like Our Town and Skin oj OurTeeth . The reader craves more attention to the way in which Wilder has assimilated his borrowings. Where he found his material is not so important as what he did with it. The book gives a curious insight into the difference between the requirements; of a doctoral dissertation and the demands of a non-specialist lay reader. Thelatter seeks a lucid comment that contributes to his understanding of the work in question. The fragmentary treatment of a play like Our Town under severa); 1968 BOOK REVIEWS 437 different and seemingly arbitrary headings is disconcerting and at times rather confusing. A book with so many possibilities deserves the attention of a careful editor. He might have raised questions about the organization, why a curtailed discussion of myth should conclude the book; why the first two chapters were not reorganized and perhaps combined; why garbled sentence constructions were not revised; why editorial comments were not deleted; why paragraphs written from several points of view were not rewritten; why awkward and colloquial expressions were not replaced; why literary references were not more fully given and those inaccurately used, as with Achilles, corrected; why the several sophomoric and patronizing comments were not blue penciled. Though there may not have been enough time between the dissertation and the book every student interested in the work of Thornton Wilder will appreciate the generous use of quotations within the text and the very fine bibliography at the end. SIGNI FALK Coe College BRECHT'S TRADITION, by Max Spalter, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore , Md., 1967, 271 pp. Price $6.95. This study of Brecht's literary antecedents is a genuine contribution to the growing body of Brecht scholarship. It is, indeed, one of the very best books on Brecht that has yet appeared, quite on a par with John Willett's excellent work. Dr. Spalter traces the influences which formed Brecht's style, technique, and dramatic philosophy to five writers: J. M. R. Lenz, Christian Dietrich Grabbe, Georg Buchner, Frank Wedekind, and Karl Kraus. These five writers contributed to the formation of Brecht's epic theatre style, which the author defines as episodic structure and an absence of conflict as the characters are controlled by reality rather than vice versa. Dr. Spalter does not in any way imply a lack of originality on Brecht's part by tracing these relationships. Instead, he makes quite clear that what distinguished these forerunners of Brecht-with the possible exception of Karl Kraus--was the fact that they were the avant-gardists of their day. Lenz, Grabbe, Buchner, and Wedekind were all living anachronisms, totally misunderstood in their day. Kraus was not ahead of his time, nor was he misunderstood: he was simply immeasurably superior to his time. One of the points that Spalter brings out in passing is that a full-length critical study of Kraus-certainly one of the most powerful and incisive of modern German writers-is badly needed. Prior to the present study's excellent chapter on him, Kraus had been treated only by Erich Heller in The Disinherited Mind. In his discussion of Lenz, whose play The Tutor Brecht later adapted, Spalter points to his anti-Aristotelianism. whereby the avoidability rather than the inevitability of tragic consequences is shown, his episodic structure, and his implication that social reform is hopeless. With Grabbe and with Buchner, Spalter emphasizes the control of human beings by society and by economic events and the equation of "morality" with a lack of worry about money. The concept of "Erst kommt das Essen, dann kommt die Moral" was espoused by Grabbe and Buchner just as enthusiastically as by Brecht. "Like Brecht," Spalter tells us, "Grabbe makes us feel that life is bitter hell for most people unlucky enough not to have a slice of the pie." Combined with this flatly realistic and disillusioned perception is a simplistic psychology that makes no attempt to "understand" ...