Book Shelf THE STACKS

The Bridge

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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some picarones for the birthday
of a well-known and sometimes-loved author.
** Linger to consider
a small gem of a novel set in Peru.
** Savor a last ½ cup mulling
the goods and bads of an old chestnut of American theater.
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STT-71

First Sip:

The bridge was on the the high road
between Lima and Cuzco
and hundreds of persons passed over it every day.
It had been woven of osier by
the Incas more than a
century before

No one, not even the Viceroy,
not even the Archbishop of Lima,
had descended with the baggage rather
than cross the famous bridge

of San Luis Rey

The bridge seemed to be
among the things that last forever;
it was unthinkable that it
should break.

– from The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by
Thornton Wilder
Chapter 1

Plaza de Bolivar
(photo by Carlyn Crystal)

“A llama…with a long neck and sweet shallow eyes…
came over and offered Doña María a velvet cleft nose to stroke…

– from The Bridge of San Luis Rey

.


Slice of Cake:

Why did a 20th century American
write about 18th century Peru?

Why did a Midwest-born Congregationalist
write about a New York Jewish matchmaker?1

Why did a man who grew up moving around
between Shanghai, California, and Hong Kong2
write about New Englanders who’d never traveled
10 miles from their New Hampshire village?

Turns out, Thornton Wilder is one complex guy.

I wanted to pile up a million details
of daily living

with some sense of the whole

I think the business of writing is
to restore that sense of the whole.

– Thornton Wilder3


** Here are 5 things I Learned **
about
Thornton Wilder this week


** Thornton Wilder grew up as one of 5 children:

Two of his sisters became writers, the other a zoologist;
and his older brother became a professor of divinity.2

Their father was a journalist and diplomat, so the family moved a lot:
from Wisconsin to China to California. Thornton graduated from Berkeley High School,
then went to college in US & Europe.
He studied Italian and French literature—and archeology.1,6

For a while in Rome I lived among archeologists,
and ever since I find myself occasionally
looking at the things about me as an

archeologist will look at them a
thousand years hence

An archeologist’s eyes combine the view
of the telescope with the view of the microscope.
He reconstructs the very distant with
the help of the very small


It was something of this method
I brought to a New Hampshire village
.

– Thornton Wilder4

** Thornton Wilder served in the military during both World Wars.

** He spoke 4 languages.6

Thornton Wilder
on stage, 1947
(photo courtesy of The Thornton Wilder Society)

What is the relation
between the countless ‘unimportant’ details
of our daily life

and the great perspectives of time?

What is trivial and what is significant
about any person’s making a breakfast,
engaging in a domestic quarrel,

in a love scene, in dying?

I wish to
record a village’s life on the stage,

with realism and generality.

– Thornton Wilder4

** Thornton Wilder won three Pulitzer Prizes, yet…

…Wilder considered himself a teacher first,
and a writer second.6

Happy 125th Birthday
** Thornton Wilder **

– born April 17, 1897
in Madison, Wisconsin

.


Linger Awhile:

One morning twin boys were
discovered in the foundling’s basket before the door
of the Convent of Santa María Rosa de las Rosas.

– from The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by
Thornton Wilder
Chapter 3

I’ve been thinking this week about the line between the banal
and the profound, between the simple and the simplistic.

More than a decade before his play Our Town opened on Broadway,
Thornton Wilder won a Pulitzer Prize for a slim novel
called The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927).

Barely over 100 pages long, and set in Peru,
the story sifts through weighty and trivial aspects in
the lives of five seemingly random people.

I love this tiny novel, and I especially love
the middle chapter—the heart of the book, really—
a chapter called Esteban.

Spoiler Warning

…there are so many wonderful, rich characters
in this novel—and I talk about just three of them below.
But if you haven’t read The Bridge of San Luis Rey and
don’t like spoilers, you’ll want to skip to here…

The Bridge of San Luis Rey begins one morning
when convent nuns find two orphaned, abandoned babies.

The nuns take them in and give them names: Esteban and Manuel.

As the twins grow up, Wilder’s prose does such a beautiful,
almost magical, job of explaining the lives of these
two diffident, silent young men,
who have no ability to explain, or even understand themselves,
who feel isolated in the world from everything but each other,
yet who believe that what’s between them is enough, is everything.

I think the story of Esteban and Manuel is so
poignant because these are the very people that almost all of us overlook.

Because they had no family,
because they were twins, and
because they were brought up by women,

they were silent

They had to live
in a world
of continual comment and joking
They suffered the eternal pleasantries
with stolid patience


They invented a secret language for themselves
They resorted to it only when they were alone,
or
in moments of great stress.

All the world was
remote and strange and hostile
except one’s brother.

– from The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by
Thornton Wilder
Chapter 3

(It’s interesting to know that Thornton Wilder himself was
born a twin, but sadly his brother was stillborn.)

Eventually, two events come between Esteban and Manuel.
The first is an actress, called the Perichole,
whom Manuel falls (silently) in love with.

Esteban sat up in their room by a guttering candle
and wondered why Manuel was so changed

and why the whole meaning had gone
out of their life.


Now he discovered that
secret from which one never quite recovers,
that even in the most perfect love
one person loves less profoundly than the other.

– from The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by
Thornton Wilder
Chapter 3

The second event to come between the brothers is when Manuel dies from an infection.

The kind Abbess from the orphanage sees Esteban so
distraught over the loss of his brother,
and she sends for Captain Alvarado—one of the few people she’d ever
seen Esteban and Manuel seem comfortable around.

Alvarado is a ship’s captain, who sometimes talks of the sea
and his many adventures, but otherwise keeps silent and still.

The brothers had always entertained a
great respect for Captain Alvarado.
They had worked for him a short time and
the silence of the three of them had
made
a little kernel of sense in a world of
boasting, self-excuse, and rhetoric.

– from The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by
Thornton Wilder
Chapter 3

Captain Alvarado tries to help, and offers Esteban a job starting immediately
on a ship bound for a long voyage.
When Esteban resists, the captain finds it hard to speak of grief.
(He himself had lost a daughter.)

He was the awkwardest speaker
apart from the lore of the sea, but there are times
when it requires a high courage to speak the banal

“We do what we can.
We push on, Esteban, as best we can.”

– from The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by
Thornton Wilder
Chapter 3

And it is this line, this thought of Captain Alvarado’s
where I hear Thornton Wilder’s voice,
and see what ties Thornton Wilder’s (very different) works together:
There are times when it requires a high courage to speak the banal.

And whether it’s banal, or simple, or simply true,
Thornton Wilder’s message is clear:
The people around us—look at them—they are valuable.
And our time with them is not limitless.

.


“Half Cup More”

It is not only disappointing
but hopelessly slow

disjointed, bittersweet affair of
small town New Hampshire life.

– review of Our Town
after its Princeton, New Jersey opening,

Variety, 1938

Let’s not be blinded by the homey cute surface
‘Our Town’ is a deadly cynical and
acidly accurate play.

– playwright Lanford Wilson
NYTimes, 1987

When I asked friends & family
about Wilder’s most famous play, Our Town,
I got a good range of responses—
including from people who themselves had been in high school productions.

I heard both “strong impact” and “poignant”
but also “kinda boring.”

My daughter (a theater professional) said: “It’s okay. Not my favorite.”
My friend Tom (also a theater professional) said:
“Some choose it as a nice ‘safe’ play, but Our Town is kind of subversive.
It presents as a quaint little portrait but really tackles huge existential questions.”


Of course, a lot depends on the production, and
on how the director and actors handle the lines.

‘Our Town’ is one of the toughest,
saddest plays ever written.
Why is it always produced as hearts and flowers?

– playwright Edward Albee5

I think the issue with Our Town is that Wilder wanted to show us
regular, relatable people living their ordinary, commonplace lives—
And yet the play is rooted in a specific small town, and at a time and place which,
at this point, seems almost mythical.
So it really helps to see a good production.


** 5 Things Not to Miss **
while watching
the play Our Town
by Thornton Wilder


side note:
Let’s say you’re not a fan…
but a beloved niece or your shy grandson
lands a part in their middle school production of Our Town.
Much as you may dread it, you’ve got to go, right?

Well, here’s a handy survival kit.

No curtain.
No scenery.

These are the first words of the stage directions in Our Town: No Curtain. No Scenery.
It won’t look so innovative these days, but it was pretty revolutionary in 1938.
I believe the barebones set still serves the play well.

I tried to restore significance to the small details of life
by removing scenery.
The spectator, through lending his imagination to the action,
restages it inside his own head.

– Thornton Wilder 4


Solid Relationships

* Although his father says he “gave George a piece of my mind”
about chores left undone, look how gently he talks to him! (Act 1).
* After all, Mr & Mrs Gibbs have not run out of things to talk about during their long marriage. (Act 2)
* The advice from a soon-to-be father-in-law is funny, but also heartening. (Act 3)

Mr Gibbs:
I was afraid we wouldn’t have material
for conversation more’n’d last us a few weeks
.
(both laugh)
Well, you and I been conversing for twenty years now
without any noticeable barren spells.


Mrs Gibbs:
I always find something to say.

– from Our Town
by
Thornton Wilder
Act 2


The Choir Director

Simon Stimson seems like a minor character,
but listen to what he says—and to what other people say about him.
He’s the essential counterpoint to the easy optimism of other characters.
And there’s so much mystery about him. He’s famous enough to be written about
in Boston newspapers! But for what? As a performer? A composer?


Act Three

The third (and final) act makes the whole play worth it.

When I went to see “Our Town,”
I was moved and depressed beyond words.
It is more interesting and more original
and I am glad I saw it,
but I did not have a pleasant evening
.

– Eleanor Roosevelt
in her column, My Day
March 2, 1938

I’ve now decided that on one plane,
Our Town is a very pessimistic piece.
But on a higher plane it isn’t.

– Thornton Wilder
in a letter to his sister
March 1938

(after reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s column)


Lastlyback at
the beginning…

Back at the very beginning of the play,
I think it’s very interesting how gradually the Stage Manager eases us in…
First he gives us lots (and lots) of history:
“[William Jennings] Bryan once made a speech from these very steps.
Then he mentions cars. Future cars.
“First automobile’s going to come along in about five years.”
But that kinda slips by us. I mean, he’d been talking about horses hitched in front of stores…
So we were thinking about cars anyway… But then he says:
“Doc Gibbs died in 1930. The new hospital’s named after him.
Here finally, we start noticing something odd: this Stage Manager isn’t just
giving us a tour of the past—he’s giving us a tour of the future as well!
Yet, even so, are we prepared (as he points out the boy
delivering the morning papers) for the Stage Manager’s line about “all that education for nothing”?

That boy Joe Crowell there—Joe was awful bright.
Graduated from high school here, head of his class.
So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech.
Graduated head of his class there, too.
It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time.
Going to be a great engineer, Joe was.
But the war broke out and he died in France—
All that education for nothing
.

– from Our Town
by
Thornton Wilder
Act 1

All in all, I’d say I half-way agree with my daughter
about the play Our Town.
It’s not my favorite—but I think it’s a lot more than just okay.
And if done well, it can be sage, human, and very powerful.
(Bring tissues.)

Now there are some things we all know,
but we don’t take them out and look at them very often


Everybody knows in their bones
that something is eternal,
and that something has to do with human beings.
All the greatest people ever lived have

been telling us that for five thousand years.

And yet you’d be surprised
how people are always losing hold of it.

from Our Town
by
Thornton Wilder
Act 3

.


Take-Away Box

“We’re starting when you’re ready,” said the Captain.

The strange glitter had returned to the boy’s eyes.
He blurted out: “No, I’m not coming. I’m not coming after all.”

“Aie! Esteban! But you have promised me that you would come.”

“It’s impossible…”

“It’s the ocean you want.
Besides on the boat you’ll have something to do every minute.
I’ll see to that. Go and get your things and we’ll start.”


Esteban was trying to make a decision. It had always
been Manuel who had made the decisions and
even Manuel had never been forced to make as
great a one as this…

“Go away,” cried Esteban. “Let me be…”
Esteban fell face downward upon the floor.
“I am alone, alone, alone,” he cried.


The Captain stood above him,
his great plain face ridged and gray with pain;

It was his own old hours he was reliving.
He was the awkwardest speaker…but there are times
when it requires a high courage to speak the banal.

“We do what we can. We push on, Esteban,
as best we can. It isn’t for long, you know.
Time keeps going by. You’ll be surprised
at the way time passes.”


They started for Lima.

When they reached the bridge of San Luis Rey,
the Captain descended to the stream…to supervise
the passage of some merchandise.
But Esteban crossed by the bridge…

– from The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by
Thornton Wilder
Chapter 3

.


Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.
.

You Can Read More…

————————-
notes & footnotes

1.
Donald Margulies
in his forward to Our Town, 2003

Thornton Wilder wrote a play called
The Merchant of Yonkers
(1939),
It was a Broadway flop, and 15 years later
Wilder revised it and renamed it.
The Matchmaker (1955) and it was a big hit on Broadway.
Ruth Gordon won a Tony Award as the main character, Dolly Levi.
(Its director Tyrone Guthrie also won a Tony.)
Then the play was renamed again, became a musical—and a movie…
Hello, Dolly! (1969) with Barbra Streisand & Walter Matthau.

2.
The Thornton Wilder Society

https://www.thorntonwilder.com/biography

3.
Thornton Wilder

in an interview in
New York World-Telegram

December 7, 1937

4.
Thornton Wilder
‘A Preface for Our Town
New York Times
February 13, 1938


5.
The Genius of Grover’s Corners
by Jeremy McCarter
New York Times
April 1, 2007
https://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/books/review/McCarter.t.html

6.
The “Biographical Background”
written by Harry Shefter, and included
in my 1963 Washington Square Press edition
of The Bridge of San Luis Rey
includes these facts about Thornton Wilder:

* spoke French, German, Spanish, and Italian
* attended a German school in Hong Kong as a child
* received his bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1920
* studied archeology in Italy
* received a Master’s degree in French literature from Princeton in 1926
* taught English literature at the University of Chicago
* was sent by the US State Department in 1941 as a cultural ambassador
to South America, where he gave lectures in Spanish
in Colombia, Ecuador… and Peru.

sky-t-tray.us
© Kelly J Hardesty 2022

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