When I read the great playwright Thornton Wilder’s preface to 3 Plays, a collection of his works which includes his classic, Our Town, I knew I wanted to share some of it:
“The response we make when we ‘believe’ a work of the imagination is that of saying, ‘This is the way things are. I have always known it without being fully aware that I knew it. Now in the presence of this play or novel or poem (or picture or piece of music) I know that I know it.’ It is this form of knowledge which Plato called ‘recollection.’ We have all murdered, in thought, and been murdered. We have all seen the ridiculous in estimable persons and in ourselves. We have all known terror as well as enchantment.
“Imaginative literature has nothing to say to those who do not recognize – who cannot be reminded – of such conditions. Of all the arts the theatre is best endowed to awaken this recollection within us –- to believe is to say ‘yes’ ; but in the theatres of my time I did not feel myself prompted to any such grateful and self-forgetting acquiescence.
“This dissatisfaction worried me. I was not ready to condemn myself as blind and overfastidious, for I knew that I was still capable of belief. I believed every word of Ulysses and of Proust and of The Magic Mountain, as I did of hundreds of plays when I read them. It was on the stage that imaginative narration became false. Finally, my dissatisfaction passed into resentment. I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive; it did not wish to draw upon its deeper potentialities. I found the word for it: it aimed to be soothing. The tragic had no heat; the comic had no bite; the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility.”
Wow, what a crystal-clear take on the state of playwrighting in his time! Thornton knew a thing or two about writing: He was one of the most celebrated authors of his time and a triple threat – he won three Pulitzers for both his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and two of his plays.
His words attract me on two fronts:
First there’s his precise description of what happens when we “believe” a work of imagination – how we are reminded of things we’ve always known but somehow forgotten. When a piece of art rings true it striks a chord in us because the writer is capturing our own experience, our own sense of self and how the world works.
Second, there’s his belief that the theatre had become shallow and soothing in his time – it had surrendered the ability to be truthful and to remind people of the truths it embodied. What was Thornton’s response to all this? He created the amazing “Our Town” – a play that decades later is still produced all over the country – a classic.
Can we, as writers, give our audiences the kind of experience that Thornton himself reached for: Can we remind them of truths that matter? Something to ponder as we all write on.
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