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June 4, 2019

The Women of Wilder


Thornton Wilder, one of the most important playwrights of the 20th century, is perhaps best known for his intimate portrayals of domesticity and musings on the human condition. Wilder’s worlds are detailed and alive, but it is his treatment of the home and its subsequent masters—the women—that makes his work so striking. Since Wilder’s work predates the Women’s Liberation Movement, it is staggering how three-dimensional, specific, and powerful characters like Ma Kirby (The Happy Journey), Emily (Our Town), Sabina (The Skin of Our Teeth), and Dolly Levi (The Matchmaker) are. In today’s discourse, there is such a push against the trope of the “strong female character” (which basically equates to she can punch) in lieu of a true feminist portrayal of women in which they are wholly people. In a world where women were reduced to being Madonnas or temptresses; goddesses or witches; pure or fallen, Wilder’s women are rather modern.
Wilder’s women are perhaps best known for being the truth-tellers. While Our Town, The Matchmaker, and The Skin of Our Teeth are drastically different plays, their leading women are the ones who articulate the themes. Dolly Levi’s searing insight into marriage sits at the heart of Wilder’s romantic farce, The Matchmaker. In 19th century Yonkers, Horace Vandergelder (a wealthy merchant) hires widow Dolly Levi as a matchmaker to find a wife for him. In her search, she romantically sets up several couples, but in the end finds the perfect match for Vandergelder in herself. Her reasons for marrying again are less than sweeping and romantic, but they are no less valid:

“… I’m marrying Horace Vandergelder for his money… Money! – it’s like the sun we walk under; it can kill or cure. —Mr. Vandergelder’s money!… But there comes a moment in everybody’s life when he must decide whether he’ll live among human beings or not—a fool among fools or a fool alone. As for me, I’ve decided to live among them… The difference between a little money and no money at all is enormous—and can shatter the world. And the difference between a little money and an enormous amount of money is very slight—and that, also, can shatter the world. Money, I’ve always felt, money—pardon my expression—is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about encouraging young things to grow.”

Dolly shows us that marriage is an arrangement for happiness, whether that be through romantic satisfaction or the ability to live life to its fullest. Ultimately, Dolly tells us to spread the wealth and live life while you can. Similarly, Emily Webb of Wilder’s slice-of-life masterpiece Our Town delivers the titular speech about cherishing life while you live it:

“It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another… Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute? 

While Emily is a young woman taken from the world too soon, she too recognizes the beauty of the little things. She lived what most would call an unremarkable life, but it is the central theme of Our Town to illustrate just how remarkable simply being alive is. Notably, Emily dies giving birth, and her revelation comes on the heels of bringing new life into the world. Both she and Dolly have their particular insights into the world because of their positions as women.

In Wilder’s starkest example of women being the champions of life, Sabina and Mrs. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth literally save the world. The Skin of Our Teeth opens as a glacier threatens to wipe out all humanity. It was written right after the attack on Pearl Harbor but before the Americans entered WWII. With an entire generation still reeling from the great losses of WWI, it isn’t hard to imagine that it felt like the world was, in fact, ending. But Skin isn’t about despair, it is about human endurance, and it is the women who save them. Sabina and Mrs. Antrobus in many ways should fulfill the common female archetypes mentioned before: Mrs. Antrobus the dutiful wife and Sabina the eternal temptress. Yet it is these two supposed rivals who team up at the end of Act I and convince the remaining humans—and the audience—to donate their chairs to a great fire, effectively combating the lethal cold.

But why? Mr. Antrobus spends his days with philosophers and inventors; why is it the maid and the stay-at-home-mother who are the ones determined to save humanity? It seems, again, precisely because they are women. Mrs. Antrobus would do anything, as stated by Sabina, to keep the children alive. They are hosting the greatest men in the world in their living room, and it is they who are in charge. Perhaps it is as Mr. Vandergelder said: “If women could harness their natures to something bigger than a house and a baby-carriage—tck tck!—they’d change the world.”

Of course, this power that Wilder gives his female characters is not the thing that makes them so lasting; it is their ability to be simply themselves. One of Wilder’s most licensed plays during his time was a short piece called The Happy Journey. Originally titled Portrait of a Woman, the play follows Ma Kirby and her family as they drive to visit her sick daughter after a complicated pregnancy. The piece is quiet, funny, and an intimate portrait of a trip. But what we see is Ma Kirby in her fullest. She has no grand statements of wisdom like Emily, she does not save the world like Mrs. Antrobus, she does not seize opportunity like Dolly Levi, but she is three-dimensional and hell-bent on caring for her family. According to his nephew Tappan Wilder, Thornton Wilder said of penning Ma Kirby, “I felt like God was sitting on my shoulder when I wrote her.” Ultimately, he had an appreciation for the work of women and the way they bear witness to the world.

That is perhaps best summed up by Mrs. Antrobus herself:

“I have a message to throw into the ocean… It’s a bottle. And in the bottle’s a letter. And in the letter is written all the things that a woman knows. It’s never been told to any man and it’s never been told to any woman, and if it finds its destination, a new time will come. We’re not what books and play say we are. We’re not what advertisements say we are. We’re not in the movies and we’re not on the radio. We’re not what you’re all told and what you think we are: We’re ourselves. And if any man can find one of us, he’ll learn why the whole universe was set in motion. And if any man harm any one of us, his soul—the only soul he’s got—had better be at the bottom of that ocean— and that’s the only way to put it.” 

For more from Thornton Wilder, click here.

(photo: Wilder with his sisters and mother. Courtesy of the Wilder Estate.)