One reason I have no faith in the avant-garde as a phenomenon—I have faith in artists, some of whom are considered avant-garde, but that’s different—is that it has a history. Latterly, it’s even been proud to have one: You find people speaking of “the tradition of the avant-garde”—a contradiction in terms. An avant-garde can’t have a tradition; it has to go where the army as a whole hasn’t gone yet; the tradition of the avant-garde is its absorption into the mainstream, to become part of the everyday melee.
That some works or modes of art never get absorbed in this way doesn’t make them avant-garde forefathers; it simply means they were moving in a direction the public wouldn’t or couldn’t follow, leaving them not forefathers but outsiders. This is no condemnation, especially for a time like ours that has enshrined “outsider art” as a concept. It simply means that their advance scouting didn’t lead anywhere useful, though their risk-taking courage is embodied in the results they left us, like memorials on an overgrown path. Compare, say, Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata—an imperishable work that will never become common theatrical currency —to an avant-garde work as universally accepted as . . . Our Town.
Calling Thornton Wilder’s most familiar play avant-garde may seem odd; it’s hard to imagine a writer who, at least in America, is more centrally located in the average person’s sensibility. Wilder’s subject is normality; his three famous Broadway successes are tributes to the common sense and stability of marriage and family. Ibsen and Chekhov subverted the happy home right along with the well-made play it cherished; Shaw and Brecht dismantled it and displayed its elements as specimens of society’s economic structure. By the time Wilder began to write plays, the middle-class home that had been the dominant social unit of Western life for over two centuries was in shreds, aesthetically speaking.
Wilder seized this as his opportunity to reshape the theater. He made it his mission to return to square one, rebuilding the family unit as the substance of a new, open-form drama that could test society’s familial assumptions instead of taking them for granted—a notion as radical in its own way as Brecht’s. Wilder, you might say, anticipated contemporary corporate ethics by making transparency of artifice his aesthetic principle. Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth show how effectively he made the mainstream accept his terms. If nobody blinks at a thousand things done on Broadway today that the pre-Wilder theater would have called avant-garde, Wilder’s success is one of the principal causes, so much so that worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned.
As proof that he isn’t, Keen Company has usefully revived two of the early (circa 1931) one-acts that served Wilder as test runs for his bigger achievements. Easily demonstrating that these tiny pieces are pretty big achievements themselves, their production is an object lesson to anyone who thinks the point of avant-gardism is to be rarefied and obscurantist. These two plays are as avant-garde as all get-out, yet there is almost nothing in them that an ordinary audience cannot absorb immediately and directly—even today, when many of their cultural references have faded. And the short plays blow the whistle on the false assumption that has dogged Wilder for decades—that their ease of absorption comes from the ideas being conventional, or his treatment of them sentimental. Those who have been misled by community-theater sanctimony into thinking that Emily Webb’s preference for death over revisiting life is some kind of genteel platitude have only to watch her prototype here, Harriet, facing death on the train in Pullman Car Hiawatha to realize that Wilder’s philosophic positions are both deeply thought out and passionately felt.
Death, though cunningly downplayed for maximum effect, is in fact the central subject of both plays. In Pullman Car Hiawatha it happens as part of an elaborate fabric of life that extends from leaky hot-water bottles and dropped suspenders up to, literally, the music of the spheres. In The Happy Journey, the death involved has already happened, but only at the end do we understand that it has hung over the entire brief play, giving the trivialities that go by on the trip a gigantic intensity of value. Consolation, like communication, is limited; few people have the gift for it. The best we can get truthfully is, “Well, I hope you like me. There’s nothing like being liked by your family.” Written by a closeted gay man, the line must have an extra resonance this week for thousands of men and women who have wondered how much their families like them. The fabric of life, seen in cross-section in Pullman Car Hiawatha, is full and rich, but only love renders it anything other than meaningless noise.
And all this is accomplished with a few chairs and a few willing people. The illusionist stage is renounced; the coyness of naturalistic exposition is renounced; pat moralizing and facile wisecracking are renounced; even the illusions built by dramatic structure are, if not renounced, at least creatively disrupted. Wilder’s forms are modernist; his means are those of a traveling troupe in a village square. The directors, Carl Forsman (Happy Journey) and Henry Wishcamper (Hiawatha), handle the material sensitively. In the latter work, Susan Pellegrino, Shane McRae, and Maria Dizzia make particularly strong impressions; in both, Jonathan Hogan makes an immaculately diffident Stage Manager.