The Voice of the People

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe


As I was leafing through my copy of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, I came across two letters. I knew what they were, of course. I had heard the story behind them more than once, and read them, but it was still a thrill to find them tucked inside the book.

One letter was a copy of a letter my mother had written Mr. Wilder when she was sixteen:

(A note on it indicated it was copied from a scratch version in 1949 and had been sent sometime in May 1947)

Each year the Senior Public Speaking Class of [our school] presents a [festival] made up of scenes from well-known plays. This year our title was from Wilde to Wilder. We gave the first and third acts from The Skin of Our Teeth. I had the part of Mrs. Antrobus in the third act, which we did in assembly this morning. It was an experience. We had been rehearsing for months so that we could get as much out of it as possible in order to get across everything to our audience. Our director was a young man who had been in the Navy during the war and had carried your play with him throughout all the action he had seen. Because it meant so much to him and because its message hit us between the eyes, we tried very hard to create the right atmosphere. Each rehearsal found us deeper into the meaning of the third act. This morning’s performance was all that we hoped it would be. The play is so powerful that students from the seventh grade up were profoundly interested.

It meant a great deal to me to be able to work on Mrs. Antrobus. My interpretation was naturally lacking because I don’t think a sixteen year old girl could really understand her, but I learned an awful lot. Those students who had other parts had the same experience and it did something for us nothing else could. I wanted to tell you what your play meant to group of high school students and to thank you.

Also tucked in the book was Mr. Wilder’s handwritten response:

(dated June 27, 1947)

Forgive my delay in replying to your kind letter. I am delighted that you and your fellow students found the experience rewarding. On thinking it over I realize that that is a third act that can very easily be played separately. You can imagine with what interest I read letters from Germans who are seeing it in Berlin; who themselves are coming out of cellars; and who write me that they listen urgently to those “three things” that give Mr. Antrobus the courage to go on.

All best wishes to you in your work and again thank you for your letter.

Sincerely yours,
Thornton Wilder

sz9-3

Letter from Thornton Wilder

I had first read these letters years ago, when my mother first introduced to me to The Skin of Our Teeth, back when I was a teen. But several things struck me as I read this exchange again both as an adult and as a writer.

The first thing that struck me was how technology has made authors much more accessible. When I was a child, encouraged by my mother’s story of Wilder’s answer, I would occasionally send a letter to a favorite author, care of the publishing house. I had to take it on faith the mail made it there, as I was never graced with an answer as my mother was.

But today most of my favorite authors keep tabs on their email lists, posting occasionally, answering fan queries. Others have blogs, responding to fan comments as they can. They use Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and direct messages from them tend to be available 24/7. They may still only pick a few people to answer directly, but they answer in public for everyone to see. And there is something less personal about a public reply, meant for more eyes than just yours. There’s something a written letter gives you: the feeling that it is tangible, that it is your reply and yours alone, something you can show to your children, or leave for them to find as they leaf through an old book. I don’t think my children, who are digital age children through and through, would ever consider writing an author an actual letter, unless it was part of an assignment for a class. They would seek out the digital outlet first. Their children might come across an ancient blog comment, with a reply from the author. Maybe. However, they will never come across an unexpected letter signed by the author while leafing through an old book. There’s something a little sad about that.

The second thing that struck me was how both my mother’s letter and Mr. Wilder’s response referred to experience, and how different people bring their own experiences to a work. Act Three of The Skin of Our Teeth opens after a seven-year long war. Mrs. Antrobus and her daughter have been hiding in a bunker all that time. (The world has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. This is the first act in which we see the aftermath of the latest destruction of the world—both Act I and Act II end with destruction imminent.) The Navy man who directed my mother in Act III brought his experience to the play in a way that my mother, as a sixteen-year-old, could not. The Germans mentioned by Mr. Wilder also brought a uniquely heightened experience with them as they watched the play.

The author has one experience in mind when creating the work, but people’s reactions to and interpretations of it will vary widely. The work is not truly completed until it has been interpreted by someone else. And while authors and artists have control over the final work, they have no control over how it is interpreted. But that’s a good thing. It is the story that allows for this variation of meaning among readers, that speaks to people in different ways, that speaks to something inside that makes you uniquely you—it is that story that becomes “an experience.” It is the reader or the viewer who completes the work, and brings to it a deeper and richer experience that only they can understand.

And perhaps my mother’s connection to the play was one of the reasons I’ve always preferred it to Wilder’s better-known Our Town.

Antrobus:

Now I remember what three things always went together when I was able to see things most clearly: three things.
Three things:
The voice of the people in their confusion and need.
And the thought of you and the children and this house…
And… Maggie! I didn’t dare ask you: my books! They haven’t been lost, have they?

pencil

E-mail: bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email