Friday, October 16, 2009

A Passion for Letter-Writing: Two very different playwrights nurture a sense of theatricality in their voluminous correspondences.(Book review).

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THEIR LIVES ARE NEATLY PARALLEL. THORNTON Wilder was born in 1897, two years before Noel Coward, and died in 1975, two years after his English counterpart. Both writers spent much of their professional lives in the theatre. Their circles were, unsurprisingly, intertwined: Both were extremely close to the critic Alexander Woollcott and to Lady Sibyl Colefax, the English society matron and collector of literary-names-to-drop, as well as (needless to say) the Lunts. They were also incredibly prolific letter-writers, as two recently published collections vividly demonstrate.

Coward and Wilder shared so many things personally that it comes as a surprise that there is only one letter between them preserved in these collections. It is from Wilder, in London in 1942, to Coward, expressing his admiration for Blithe Spirit. The letter appears as well in the Coward volume, which annotates his own correspondence with letters he received from others.

One would love to know how well Wilder and Coward knew each other. It seems logical that they would correspond--and yet there is only that one letter. Obviously, they had other ways to communicate. In a 1942 missive Coward writes, "As the abused but perspicacious Thornton says: when we are in love with someone it is not so much that we idealise their good qualities but rationalize their defects ...," suggesting intimate conversations about matters of the heart.

However much these men had in common, their lives from an early point urged them toward radically divergent identities. Coward began acting professionally when he was barely into adolescence. His immersion in the theatre was total, and his letters exude theatricality, whatever his subject. Part of that theatricality, is a high-spiritedness that permeates virtually every line. There is a telling moment when he writes his younger brother Erik informing him that he will have to buy a less expensive car than he wishes. (Noel, of course, is paying for it.) At the end he declares, "I loathe writing letters," which is patently untrue, since he clearly devotes a huge amount of time every day to doing so--hence the abundance of riches in this volume.

Wilder, on the other hand, although he always loved the theatre, is the kind of creative spirit who might have ended up in academia. (He did teach in a private boys' school, and one of his closest friends was Robert Maynard Hutchins, the farsighted president of the University of Chicago.) There is something poignant in Wilder's very first letter, written when he was 12, in which he mentions going to hear the Bach B Minor Mass, suggesting a seriousness, even a solemnity, unusual in someone so young. Much later, in a letter to a friend, Wilder writes, " ... isn't there a lot of New England in me; all that ignoble passion to be didactic that I have to tight with. All that bewilderment as to where Moral Attitude begins and where it shades off into mere Puritan Bossiness. My father is still pure Maine 1880 and I carry all that load of notions to examine and discard or assimilate."

At 16 Wilder writes home from the boys' school he attends that he is going to play Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. One can only imagine how much this must have vexed his generally understanding and sympathetic father, who intervened with the school authorities to prevent this bit of cross-dressing.

Wilder balances his theatrical experiences with genuine literary concerns. I was fascinated by the harsh criticism he conveys to friends about Jed Harris, who directed the original production of Our Town. Before stress and deafness forced him to retire prematurely, Harris had attained a reputation of omniscience. No one would get that from Wilder's letters bemoaning Harris's efforts to trivialize what Wilder intended not as a chronicle of small town life but as a play about the cosmos.

A great treasure--a sad one--in the Wilder volume is a straightforward letter he wrote but did not send to the Saturday Review of Literature, which had published a snide attack by Joseph Campbell and another academic, Henry Morton Robinson, claiming that The Skin of Our Teeth was plagiarized from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. Saturday Review invited Wilder to reply. As it happens, Wilder had devoted more time and effort than anyone except a Joyce scholar should to the latter's deliberately obfuscatory work--but, as his letter explains, the allegations Campbell and Robinson make are not warranted by any fair reading of the book and the play. (Anyone who has deciphered Finnegan's Wake, as far as I am concerned, is entitled to do whatever he wants with it.)

Wilder had a dignity and sense of decorum that probably account for his decision not to send the letter to Saturday Review. (Thank heavens he did not throw it away.) He did not want to exchange blows in the public arena. Nevertheless, the phony "expose" by Campbell and Robinson. I have always thought, did humiliate him deeply. He never finished another full-length play--neither a version of the Alcestiade on which he had been working since Skin of Our Teeth opened, nor an Arabian Nights play that he had begun much earlier.

Wilder turned back to writing novels, which had brought him his initial acclaim. (His first Pulitzer was for The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1927.) Only at the invitation of Ted Mann and Circle in the Square in the late '50s did he write a few one-acts. The loss for our theatre was substantial.

Barry Day, who edited the Coward volume, has included much of his verse written for special occasions, a huge bonus. Day has also included extensive correspondence written to Coward, including several long letters from Marlene Dietrich, going into great detail about her torturous

love affair with Yul Brynner.

Delicious as they are, such gossipy confidences are not entirely essential to telling Coward's story, except that, in the case of Dietrich, they prompt an unusually severe reply. "DO NOT, repeat DO NOT be so bloody vulnerable," he writes her. "To Hell with God damned 'L'Amour.' It always causes far more trouble than it's worth. Don't court it. Keep it waiting offstage until you're good and ready for it and even then treat it with the suspicious disdain that it deserves. ... A very brilliant writer once said (Could it have been me?) 'Life is for the living.' Well, that is all it is for, and living DOES NOT consist of staring in at other people's windows and waiting for crumbs to be thrown to you."

One comes away from both volumes with a strong sense of how much grander the stage these writers occupied seems than does our own. Both men came in contact with some of the most illustrious figures of the 20th century. Coward dealt with both Roosevelt and Churchill. Wilder was invited for a chat with Sigmund Freud (which he describes with great wryness). and was chummy with fellow novelists Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He writes to the latter that he sees their generation "as a league and as a protest to the whole cardboard generation that precedes us," in which he includes both Edith Wharton and Sinclair Lewis. And Wilder's circle was not exclusively highbrow--it also included Texas Guinan.

Both of these wonderfully entertaining volumes suggest a world in which the theatre is a topic of far more than parochial interest, and in which the concerns of playwrights reach infinitely beyond those of mere show business.

Howard Kissel is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

Named Works: The Letters of Noel Coward (Novel) Book reviews; The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder (Novel) Book reviews

Source Citation:Kissel, Howard. "A Passion for Letter-Writing: Two very different playwrights nurture a sense of theatricality in their voluminous correspondences.(Book review)." American Theatre 26.7 (Sept 2009): 62(2). General OneFile. Gale. Alachua County Library District. 16 Oct. 2009

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