Sunday, November 04, 2012

Things I wish I'd blogged about #4: Thornton Wilder

 #1, #2 and #3 are here, here, and here.

I thought I was all caught up with all the things I wish I'd blogged about during the blog's dormant phase, but just the other day I was reminded of seeing the David Cromer Our Town at the Broad Stage back in January. Charles Isherwood's review of the new Thornton Wilder biography in the NYTimes was the refresher; it also reminded me of Secret Historian, the amazing Samuel Steward biography that offered insight into Wilder and the history of biographers' reactions to his sexuality.

Which is why a passage like this from Isherwood stood out to me--
Among the refreshing aspects of Penelope Niven’s new biography, “Thornton Wilder: A Life,” is its startling sexlessness, the paucity of the kind of dish that sometimes has seemed to drive the market in literary biography in recent decades.
I haven't read the biography but I want to, although I was concerned after reading the review that it contained some effort to de-emphasize his sexuality. This was a source of irritation for Steward as well, and he corresponded with an earlier biographer, Gilbert Harrison, about the matter. After Harrison requested an interview, Steward asked for assurances that "no posthumous purification is planned." I love that phrase, incidentally.

Steward didn't get what he wanted. Secret Historian notes that Harrison--
insinuated in a letter to Steward that if sexual acts between the two men really had occurred, they had probably occurred as the result of an aggressive homosexual seduction engineered by Steward.


"If one accepts the essentials of Steward's story," Harrison wrote, "the sexual act between them was so hurried and reticent, so barren of embrace, tenderness or passion that it might never have happened." Clearly, the desire that the sexual act "might never have happened" was Harrison's, for Wilder had instigated such sexual acts on twenty-six separate occasions over the course of seven years.
I bring this up because, where Wilder is concerned, sexlessness has been done already. Isherwood continues--
[S]etting aside the dubious testimony of a single man who claims to have gone to bed with Wilder, “Thornton Wilder: A Life” tells of a life lived without the sexual relationships and romantic attachments that we sometimes falsely assume to be the most momentous passages in an artist’s — or anyone’s — life.
Is he referring to Steward here? If so, his claims are hardly dubious. Either way, why doesn't Isherwood mention this "single man," whoever he is, by name? Why is Isherwood so committed to this theme? Yes Wilder was a great writer, but discounting the complexity of his sexuality does an injustice to him and his writing. Steward outed him some 40 years ago; there's no need to shove him back in the closet.

I found a more straightforward review of the biography in the Boston Globe, which suggests that the man Isherwood can't bear to name is Steward after all--
Unlike such other works as “The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder,” this biography does not skirt the question of Wilder’s sexuality, and Niven addresses the subject gingerly and respectfully. A minor literary figure and provocateur named Samuel Steward publicly “outed” the playwright after Wilder’s death, and Niven weighs the evidence, which she deems inconclusive. (Curiously, she does not liberally quote Wilder’s letters to Steward, which are stored in the Yale archives, yet have not been published.)
"Inconclusive." Well then. The "dubious" "provocateur" was also "minor." No wonder so "inconclusive." Thanks critics. That clears things right up.

A blog I just discovered, Band of Thebes, got its dander up about this too, and gets to the point.
Sex need not be the "most momentous passage" to be worthy of inclusion in a lengthy examination of his life.
All this just reminds me of studying gay writers in high school in Arkansas in the 90s. There was the one English teacher who wondered aloud about Truman Capote, "You know, I don't think he ever married." To this day I'm not sure if she was saying that as a pre-emptive strike against any touchy conversations, or if she actually had no idea what she was talking about.

Then there was the slightly more worldly Mrs. Bittle (one of my favorites), who, upon teaching The Glass Menagerie, at least had the confidence to introduce the issue, if only to warn anyone against discussing it further. She said "And yes, Tennessee Williams was gay, but I don't see what that has to do with talking about the play."

And of course, it has EVERYTHING to do with that play.

JW and I got tickled during one of the act breaks of the David Cromer Our Town at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica in January (the reason this is a "things I wish I'd blogged about" post). Simon Stimson, the alcoholic church organist, stood out to both of us, so much so that during the break I turned to JW and said, "Oh god the organist!" Without missing a beat, he replied "GAY!"

Who knows if that was on Wilder's mind or not, but we're apparently not the first to have speculated about it. I even found a really nice blog post from The Mouth of the Beast about Steward and Wilder that digs into this aspect of the play in greater detail.
There’s an aura of tragedy around [organist Simon] Stimson; townsfolk attend his choir rehearsals but speak about him in whispers, and finally the Stage Manager shows us to his grave, telling us that he died early of alcoholism. The character represents the dark side of small town living, the repression, the lack of opportunity, the smallness and the small mindedness. It’s clear that his alcoholism and frequent drunkenness is enough of a dark secret to scandalize the town, but again it’s hard for me not to read more into it.
The gay church organist is, within gay circles, a stock figure. He’s the person that is too bound by environment and family ties to move away, and has found the one place in that environment in which he can be most like himself. Wilder has a tremendous amount of compassion for this character, and I really see it as a reflection of himself, the Thornton Wilder that grew up in a small town, the Thornton Wilder that couldn’t get out.
All this said, I don't know that analyzing every aspect of Wilder's character and literature for evidence of his repressed sexuality is the right move. His brilliance and innovations deserve much more than that. But it's equally problematic (and seems ultimately to come from the kind of shame-based moralism that might've done in poor Simon Stimson) to describe a well-documented same sex relationship as "dubious" and call a biography's sexlessness "refreshing."

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