The Angel that Troubled the Waters
A doctor in need, a newcomer, arrives at the site of a great pool to which come the blind and malformed seeking cures when the Angel stirs the waters. But the Angel denies healing to this healer on the grounds that his very illness is required in order for him to heal others. Instead, a mistaken invalid is made whole. The theme explored here, that to heal one must suffer, recurs throughout Wilder's plays and novels.
PROGRAM NOTE: This is Wilder's last playlet, written in June 1928, a month after he received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The title and setting are drawn from John 5: 12-14. "Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of invalid folk - blind, halt, withered - waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool and troubled the water. Whosoever then first stepped in, after the troubling of the water, was made whole of whatsoever disease he had."
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The pool at Bethesda in Jerusalem, found and excavated in the 1950s, has inspired art and place names around the world. Central Park's Bethesda Fountain and its celebrated Emma Stebbins' sculpture depicting the "Angel of the Waters," were constructed in 1873 to celebrate the arrival of The Croton Reservoir, connecting New York City to its first consistent source of pure, life-giving water.
In his Foreword to The Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays, published in 1928, Wilder explained that almost all the playlets in the book are religious, "but religious in that dilute fashion that is a believer's concession to a contemporary standard of good manners." He wanted to explore religious themes and questions without being preachy, or didactic. "Didacticism is an attempt at the coercion of another's free mind," he wrote, and that was not his intention. In fact, it was often his intention in such playlets as this one to stand the biblical story on its head -to shake up the language, as it were. He also said--about his plays dealing with religious themes and stories--that in "these matters beyond logic, beauty is the only persuasion."