Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

31 May 2014

Our Town

The show I am co-directing this summer is an outdoor production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town that will be performed in two separate location in Lynchburg's Old City Cemetery. This commercial will be running in local Central Virginia markets:

Much of my own thinking about the show has been informed by the letters of Thornton Wilder, Gertrude Stein, and Alice Toklas. Reading about the history of their friendship has changed much about how I've thought about the relationships in Our Town. I've also been reading Thoreau's Walden; or, Life in the Woods and, of course, Seneca. It is hard, now that I've read almost all of Proust's À la Recherche to avoid relating things to Proust or through Proust. So much of this has informed my ideas about the show. It seems sort of obvious that I also spend a lot of time thinking about Wilder's other work, particularly his short plays The Wreck on the Five-twenty-five, The Long Christmas Dinner, And the Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead, and The Angel that Troubled the Waters.

I wanted to share some of my thoughts about the show here, since it is so much in my thoughts.

At one point, the stage manager refers to the fact that the only thing we still have from ancient Babylon are wheat contracts and contracts for the sale of slaves. Every time I hear it, this mention of wheat contracts makes me think of a poem by Jack Gilbert called “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”:

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
Get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind's labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.

And stars. Stars come up so much in Our Town. At the cemetery, certainly, the stage manager and many of the dead speak about the stars, but all through the play the stars are singled out for mention by Wilder. I told the cast during a meeting that because the stars are our ancestors perhaps we are all just little pieces of star, and that maybe this gets mentioned so often as a way for Wilder to link us all to a larger history that exists before humanity itself. In the Consolation to Helvia 8.6, Seneca offers us the following thought in relation to his exile from Rome to the island of Corsica:  

So long as I may observe so many stars gleaming through the night – some fixed, others not voyaging forth over a great distance but circling around their own given area, some suddenly bursting forth, others dazzling our eyes with spreading fire as if they were falling, or flying by with a long trail of brilliant light; so long as I may commune with these and, so far as a human can, mingle with things divine, and so long as I may keep my mind always striving to contemplate the kindred objects on high – what difference does it make to me what ground I tread.

I love this thought, And here is an additional one, from a poem by Mary Oliver called "Stars":

Here in my head, language
keeps making its tiny noises.

How can I hope to be friends
with the hard white stars

whose flaring and hissing are not speech
but pure radiance?

How can I hope to be friends
with the yawning spaces between them

where nothing, ever, is spoken?
Tonight, at the edge of the field,

I stood very still, and looked up,
and tried to be empty of words.

What joy was it, that almost found me?
What amiable peace?

Then it was over, the wind
roused up in the oak trees behind me

and I fell back, easily.
Earth has a hundred thousand pure contraltos—

even the distant night bird
as it talks threat, as it talks love

over the cold, black fields.
Once, deep in the woods,

I found the white skull of a bear
and it was utterly silent—

and once a river otter, in a steel trap,
and it too was utterly silent.

What can we do
but keep on breathing in and out,

modest and willing, and in our places?
Listen, listen, I'm forever saying,

Listen to the river, to the hawk, to the hoof,
to the mockingbird, to the jack-in-the-pulpit

then I come up with a few words, like a gift.
Even as now.

Even as the darkness has remained the pure, deep darkness.
Even as the stars have twirled a little, while I stood here,

looking up,
one hot sentence after another.

And lastly, in the play itself Wilder refers to Edgar Lee Masters' poem "Lucinda Matlock" from the Spoon River Anthology. His poem is also worth reading because it seems to me to encompass the whole play:

I went to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed—
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.