Jesus spent three hours on the cross on Good Friday, a day when we all awakened to front-page tributes to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Nobel laureate passed away on April 17, Maundy Thursday, the day, according to tradition, that Jesus enjoyed the Last Supper.
But what struck me more about Marquez's passing was that it occurred on the birthday of Thornton Wilder, who too wore a thorny crown of many laurels.
Like Marquez, Wilder, who would have turned 117 yesterday, was at one time considered the favorite for the Nobel Prize. Some thought he did not win it because of allegations that he plagiarized concepts of time and space from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake when Wilder wrote The Skin of Our Teeth.
The allegations were absurd since no one can copyright the idea of multiple time periods and settings. Wilder's execution of this idea was written in his own language, with his own original characters and in an entirely different medium from that of Joyce.
Moreover, Wilder never denied that he was a fan of Wake and in fact lectured extensively on Joyce's book.
Needless to say, Wilder was exonerated on the charges by Edmund Wilson, among others, who pointed out that "Wilder is a genuine poet with a form and imagination of his own who may find his themes where he pleases without incurring the charge of imitation."
While Thornton Wilder did not win the Nobel Prize for literature, he did win the Pulitzer for The Skin of Our Teeth, as he did for Our Town and for his novel, The Bridge at San Luis Rey.
If I am not mistaken, Wilder is the only writer to win Pulitzers in both theater and fiction. Yet fools often attempt to reduce Wilder to being a writer of plays for the high school set.
Wilder's plays, in particular Our Town, are indeed often staged by high schools, but that is primarily due to the fact that so many of the roles are written for children and teens.
While much will be said in the coming days and weeks about Marquez's legacy as the foremost novelist of Magical Realism, Wilder remains one of the most innovative and greatest American writers of the past century who infused a magical alchemy into the everyday lives of his characters in his greatest works.
For years now, playwrights have broken the fourth wall by having characters speak directly to the audience, but Wilder was way ahead of his time and yet in some respects indebted to the Greeks when he created the Stage Manager, an authorial presence, who, along with other characters in Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, engages the audience directly.
Many remember Our Town for its bare set, its plain-spoken, folksy language, and its seemingly simplistic attitudes about life, yet when the deceased Emily Gibbs (nee Webb) asks the Stage Manager if anyone appreciates the quotidian aspects of life, the Stage Manager offers one of the most devastating insights we are ever likely to hear: "Poets, maybe," he says.
That is one of the great themes of Wilder's work, the lack of awareness, or what some now call mindfulness, about the daily joys and trials of the human condition.
Wilder would tell us to get off those electronic devices of ours and take a little time to recognize the beauty of all the little moments of our lives on this planet.
As for The Skin of Our Teeth, which features the Antrobus family battling the Ice Age and other threats, including those from a possibly psychopathic son, the play may never be more relevant than today when we face climate change, terrorism and daily acts of sadomasochism such as stabbings and murderous rampages in schools.
Avant-garde when it was produced on Broadway in 1942, at the time of World War II and the Holocaust, The Skin of Our Teeth may be apocalyptic yet it demonstrates that humanity can survive global freezing, if not global warming, war and numerous other daily calamities that imperil the existence of our species.
As we rejoice in the savior's resurrection this weekend and praise the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, let us take a little time to remember another great man, Thornton Wilder, whose plays will never be period pieces nor concerned with the "adulteries of dentists," subject matter he scorned.
Wilder's plays may never seem as real to some critics as the works of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, yet paradoxically the timelessness of Wilder's plays with their everymen characters (Antrobus, after all, derives from the Greek word, "anthropos," which means "all mankind") will haunt us forever, a magical departure from and embrace of the mundane.
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