An Excerpt from Paula Vogel’s Foreword to THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH
I TOOK MY SECOND TRIP TO THE MACDOWELL COLONY FOR ARTISTS IN 1989. Two hours, and a world away, outside of Boston, nestled in time-locked rural roads, stands Peterborough, New Hampshire. Those of us who are invited to MacDowell remember the hills and deep forests with gratitude, but we remember the small clustered cottages that house writing desks facing the unpeopled woods with love.
My second invitation to write among the painters and composers and the poets and fiction writers meant two months of solitude and solicitude from the colonists and administrators. On the drive to the colony on the back roads of New Hampshire, I envisioned unpacking my boxes in my cottage, spreading out my computer and my books, and sitting down to write the play on domestic violence, (Hot ‘n’ Throbbing) upon which I had spent months of research and preparation.
--Until I actually went to my cottage, that is. The first thing colonists do, when they are alone in their cottage, is read the "tombstones" on the wall: wooden tablets that bear the signatures of all the artists who have spent time pacing the cottage floor. As I traced the names back in time, I saw his signature:
In a fever of excitement, I sat down on my cot and gave myself a pep talk: Vogel, you'd better dig a little deeper this time: you're in his cottage. In a night, I scrapped the plans for the play I'd been working on and started page one of another play, The Baltimore Waltz. Three weeks later, I emerged, blinking in the sunlight, with a first draft.
For an American dramatist, all roads lead back to Thornton Wilder. Time and again, I return to his scripts and grapple with the problems he tackled-so, it seems, effortlessly- in the unwieldy theatrical apparatus. How do we, when we enter the theater, arrest time and make this art, made of actors and audience, the weight of scenery, flesh and face paint, melt into something fragile? How can we make the material mess of it all- rehearsals, tech, and opening night- disappear into spirit?
The remarkable thing is how we forget, again and again. We forget Wilder's vision and voice; in our memory we assign his works to a nostalgic theater of our youth, encountered first in high school, in community theater, in assigned work judged to be inoffensive enough to constitute the canon for young readers. It's as if he were the theatrical equivalent of castor oil and the honey used to coat the medicinal taste: literature that is good for our moral constitution dredged in sentiment. And then we encounter him on stage as he is and will remain through the ages: tough-minded, exacting, facing the darkness in human existence without apology.
The question I want to face, as prefatory remarks to this edition of The Skin of Our Teeth, is why we relegate one of our most remarkable and enduring dramatists to such a place in memory. Because to read him again, whether it be Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, or his short plays--The Long Christmas Dinner, Pullman Car Hiawatha, or The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden--is to be astonished. I am astonished each time I read him, at the force of his work, at the subtle blend of humor and pathos, and his masterful balancing act of abstraction and empathy. I remember anew how much I owe to him, and see in his work the roots or parallels of so many theatrical forebears and influences on my own work: Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson, and John Guare.
At one level, the forgetting of Wilder's impact is almost Oedipal-a rejection of the playwright who has given us our American vocabulary, who forged a synthesis of theatrical traditions from the past, from Europe, from Asia-with an American theater taken over by a viral infection of "realism" (an infection from which we've never recovered). By tearing down the walls of the box set, he concentrated our focus on the essential with an almost ruthless insistence that we pay attention to the story of the drama unfolding, rather than the props and decoration, the fussy business of stage machinery inflicted on an audience by the boulevard theater of Broadway.
There is an irony in forgetting the influence of Thornton Wilder. The man who generously paid tribute to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake wrote: "I should be very happy if, in the future, some author should feel similarly indebted to any work of mine. Literature has always more resembled a torch race than a furious dispute among heirs." He suffered the charge of plagiarism leveled against The Skin of Our Teeth, written in the spirit of tribute to Joyce's work. This spurious charge, brought by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson in the two articles they published in late 1942 and early 1943, may well have cost him the Nobel Prize. Of all his contributions to us, Wilder's belief that every new work is in fact a response to the writers who came before, a dialogue between two writers separated in space and time, and not the narcissistic "rip-off'' of the imitative, may well be his most important generosity. Wilder may have cast himself in the raiment of others, freely taking from a vast theatrical hope chest, but he always stitched together the old cloth with a new vision and a sense of gratitude.