November 1956 found Thornton Wilder in thrall to an impulse to write short plays, something he had not done much of in nearly 20 years, before he had established himself in the American theatrical canon by writing the full-length dramas "Our Town" and "The Skin of Our Teeth."
Yet there he was, up before dawn on Nov. 17 in the Hamden, Conn., home he had built years before with the royalties from an enormously successful novel, his imagination stirred by the notion of writing something short, a one-act play called "The Wreck of the Five-Twenty-Five."
It was the third of four one-acts he began in the span of two weeks that November. He was 59 years old and largely occupied with being interviewed, traveling and receiving honors from one or another foreign government or university.
He could not know that his career as a published playwright was essentially over. Nor could he know that these many years later, as four of his one-acts now get a rare professional staging in Baltimore, his playwriting career would suggest a circle from one phase of one-acts to another. The one-act plays, as Wilder's literary executor said the other night in Baltimore, might be considered a "glue" in his literary career.
The four plays appearing at Center Stage through Feb. 18 make a kind of Wilder one-act sampler. The plays, running between about 10 and 40 minutes each, represent the early and the late phases of his one-act play- writing: the very short stuff he probably never figured would find a stage, the one-act plays he wrote with the apparent intention of seeing them produced, and the short plays he created after he had earned a stratospheric literary reputation for more "serious" work.
Notwithstanding the famously shrinking American attention span, an evening of one-act plays in a professional theater is rare. They tend to be relegated to theater festivals, special events and the college or high school stage. Or as Center Stage associate dramaturg James Magruder succinctly put it, "One-acts get no respect in this culture."
The common wisdom in commercial theater is that one-acts are less, and less is not more.
"It's a less satisfying evening emotionally for the audience," says Margo Lion, a Broadway and off-Broadway producer whose credits include "Angels in America" and "Seven Guitars." "From a storytelling point of view, in terms of engaging the audience, it's a less compelling form."
Much the same view prevailed in Wilder's day - yet the one-act suited him. By the time he was 31, he had written a few dozen. They were realistic and allegorical. They were mundane and exotic, set variously in Renaissance Paris, in Mozart's apartment in Vienna, in the frame of a painting, in the "Holy Land" and in Egypt.
The shortest ones published in 1928, none of which was longer than five pages, were probably meant as "finger exercises," says his literary executor and nephew A. Tappan Wilder. The longer one-acts published in 1931, however, can safely be considered finished pieces in their own right.
"I had discovered a literary form that satisfied my passion for compression," Wilder wrote in an introduction to the volume published in 1928. "... no idea was too grandiose - as the reader will see - for me to try and invest it in this strange discipline."
Strange indeed. In a few pages of dialogue, you're in and you're out. In between, something has to happen. Some character has to make a journey. No time for preambles, subplots or the confluence of several big ideas. The one-act play is kin to the sort of narrative joke that finds the rabbi, the priest and the minister stranded in a life raft.
"You have to be very clear on what the event of the play is and try not to do much more to it than that," says Tim Vasen, who directed the Wilder one-acts. "I think one-acts in general, they can't really hold much extra stuff."
Four in one night
Vasen says he thought of the entire evening as a kind of play, a series of disparate worlds linked by segues. In rapid succession, the audience moves from the celestial heights of the house of "the Lord," to the depths of suburban quiet desperation, to the American dining room on Christmas Day, to a 1930 Chicago-bound train. The evening runs 95 minutes without an intermission.
Three of the four plays were published in 1928 and 1931 and represent the kind of theatrical experiments that would become better known later in "Our Town," for which Wilder won the second of his three Pulitzer Prizes in 1938.
Impatient with what he considered verbosity and lack of imagination in the realistic theatrical tradition that prevailed in his youth, Wilder found an antidote in the one-act play. Here was a way he could attack what David Castronovo has called "the vital organs of a well-constructed play - plot, motivated characters, resolutions." The best of the short works, Castronovo wrote, "are likely to become classics of American stage innovation."
In "The Long Christmas Dinner," 90 years, a world war and several family generations pass in 35 minutes. In "Pullman Car Hiawatha," action is stopped and started at the will of a stage manager; chairs become railroad car berths; the dead speak, as does a field in Ohio, several hours of the day and the town of Grovers Corners, Ohio, in the person of a rustic with a pitchfork.
A contemporary audience may find this something less than subversive. For all the innovation, there's still a sense of narrative: beginnings, middles and endings.
"Even within his playfulness about structure he's still providing a theatrical experience that is very satisfying in all of those old-fashioned, well-made play levels," says Vasen. "It's not just an empty exercise in playing with conventions."
There's also the Wilder worldview, which for all the assault on Victorian theatrical convention is still more a product of that era than the current one. There is irony, but it's usually gentle. Life is terribly fragile and fleeting, but ultimately worthwhile and full of wonder. God is in Heaven and folks are essentially good.
'Sullen we were'
The perspective is a tad darker in the play Wilder started at 5 a.m. that morning of Nov. 17, 1956, according to his journal entry. "The Wreck of the Five-Twenty-Five" - one of the four appearing at Center Stage - conveys overtones that might be expected from the typewriter of Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, as protagonist Herbert Hawkins finds himself detached and dispirited and saying the strangest things. Even at the Rotary, an acquaintance recalls, Hawkins once remarked on how crazy people look when you see them through a window and you can't hear what they're saying: "He says that's the way things look to him. War and politics ... and everything in life."
This is Wilder, however, not Sartre. As Wilder notes in his journal in November 1958, Hawkins' despair is "in Dante's sense, an unwillingness to accept the gifts of life: 'Sullen we were in the bright air.' "
"Wreck," after all, was meant to illustrate a Christian idea, the sin of sloth. It was part of a grand plan Wilder had to write two cycles of one-acts, one based on the Seven Deadly Sins, the other on the Seven Ages of Man. He had been struggling since 1948 with a full-length play called "The Emporium," which he never completed, and apparently turned to the one-act as a way to refire his imagination. It had certainly worked well enough in his youth, when he was known to dash off a completed one-act play in a sitting.
The mere intent for such a project was, by that stage of Wilder's career, enough to make news. These modest one-acts, not yet complete, were heralded by Arthur Gelb of the New York Times on Nov. 6, 1961, as Wilder's "artistic summing up."
The two cycles would never be complete, but they would provide a second bookend at the mature end of a life in theater, a grand life begun modestly enough in a flurry of one-act plays.
Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays, and 1 p.m. Feb. 14. Through Feb. 18
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