Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Wisdom of Thornton Wilder

When I was in 7th grade, I think it was, my whole family — Mom and Dad, Bobby, Kathy, and Emily — trooped out to the Friends’ Central School Senior Play to see me say my one line as Wally Webb in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. “Aw, Mom, by 10 o’clock I have to know all about Canada,” quoth me as Wally. Then I trooped off the stage to school with a senior playing George Gibbs as he tried to ingratiate himself to me as a route to my sister Emily Webb’s heart. It was a spare production, as Our Town productions generally are, since the part of God is taken by the Stage Director who speaks directly to the audience, so it’s a play within a play, and since the Stage Director has to move sets easily with the audience watching, they are minimalist.

I was only 13 or 14, I guess, but I got that part about God, even if not using that word. When my sister Emily Webb asks the Stage Director if she can go back in time and see her family and herself as it was years ago, before she died, he can do that for her, even though he advises against it. He could have said “You Can’t Go Home Again,” but that Thomas Wolfe book was actually published two years after the 1938 first production of Our Town, so he didn’t. But going home again must have been in the air then, or maybe it always is.

Wilder’s Grover’s Corner was pretty far away from Philadelphia’s Main Line where our performance took place, but it didn’t seem that far away to me. Traveling to the Main Line was already a stretch from West Philadelphia, where we lived not far from the Penn campus on 47th street, around the corner from our friends the Levin’s, the Egnal’s and the Kagan’s, all Jews like us, first and second generation after the great Eastern Europe Jewish migration of the 1890’s, all professional families, and all determined that their children would have full educations and full opportunities in life. That was what our ancestors had gifted us with, and the sense of mission hung heavy in the air even though usually just implicit.

We were assimilated, as my mother explained to us. We loved Philadelphia, we loved baseball and basketball and football, the A’s and the Phillies and the Warriors and the Eagles; but we also knew we weren’t from here originally; we knew our history as filtered, in our case, directly from our parents, since my mother didn’t like her parents very much, and my father didn’t like his mother very much and his father had died when my Dad was 17. We heard about ancestors from time to time, and my mother had two wonderful childless aunts whom we were close to, and years later we would see the pictures of the larger family that came over, with beards and European clothes, with some Jewish first names, but nothing religious, since my family didn’t believe in religion. We knew my father’s maternal family were bankers wiped out in the depression, and my father’s father was a doctor and Philadelphia champion pool player, harried no doubt my his wife, who was that sort of person. My mother’s family was in retail, and my aunts looked back at the 20’s with wistfulness, the way we look back at the 60’s and 70’s. So we had a sense of where we were from.

Ambitious but frugal, insecure but confident in abilities, and willing to defer gratification – in short, we fulfilled the Tiger Mom formula for “success.” We got to Friends’ Central when my Henry C. Lea Elementary School 4th grade teacher, Miss Ousey (“Lousy Ousey”), committed the cardinal sin of having a low bar by telling my parents enthusiastically that I “was definitely college material.” “'College material', really?” As ambition trumped frugality (and a Commie past), they found that the liberal Quakers of Friends’ Central welcomed Jews, so off we went just over City Line Avenue, into suburbia-land, just barely outside of Wilt Chamberlain-Overbrook High School land. (Nowadays Friends’ Central isn’t the only welcoming school — Episcopal Academy advertises in the Jewish Exponent. Progress!)

When I got to 7th grade the Friends' Central curriculum included a course in public speaking – one of the good ideas that has probably been dropped as education spirals downward. The teacher, Mr. Richard “Dick” Burgess, was a tall, thin man with close-cropped hair and a bow tie, who held himself quite erect, and who had a way of speaking that had him constantly overcoming a tendency to swallow his words – thus qualifying him to be the public speaking and drama teacher. He smiled easily even as he seemed to fight a tendency to swallow his smile. His sunny disposition always won, and he exuded enthusiasm and warmth even through his introversion. In short, he was endearing, the best sort of private school teacher.

His public speaking course presented scenarios where someone would commonly be called upon to speak publicly. My opportunity came as MC for a class variety show. When I displayed flair, enthusiasm, and wit, Mr. Burgess had a find! Full of suppressed enthusiasm, he dropped down on a knee – he was indeed very tall – and asked me hopefully and expectantly if I would like to be in the senior class play, Our Town, playing Wally Webb. Seeing his enthusiasm I really didn’t have to think at all, I just said yes. He told me about the weekend rehearsals, and I said yes. Who could say anything else to Mr. Burgess? Maybe I was a little scared, but I knew my family would back me, and I always said yes to dares.

My mother was thrilled and loved Mr. Burgess, and for weeks she drove me out for day-long Saturday rehearsals. I hung around with the stagehands, ate my bag lunch, generally gaped at everything, and was kind of adopted by the cast. I still remember how I could hardly believe how they adopted me and instructed me, especially since my own 7th grade class had a distinct anti-Semitic tinge. One burly guy was a stagehand, and showed me how to carry heavy items by standing tall and straight. As an eldest son, being adopted and nurtured by someone older but of my generation was very new.

When the time came for actual performance, my whole family trooped out with enthusiasm and expectation for opening night and my one line. I remember my mother telling a friend, thrilled but embarrassed by her enthusiasm, “We all went out for Buddy’s one line!”

But my one line was only something to be nervous about and get over with. What I remember more was when I was quiet. The Stage Manager, a senior named Bruce Beckwith, held his clipboard as he addressed the audience directly, and I sat on the stage on a folding chair with others in the “cemetery” next to my sister Emily Webb. My appendix had ruptured on a Boy Scout hike, I think.

I remember Emily, who had recently died, asking the Stage Manager, can’t you ever go back? The Stage Manager says, yes you can, you can go back, but I don’t recommend it. Emily says, but I want to go back! I want to see Mama! Don’t do it, says Bruce the Stage Manager, I recommend that you don’t do it. But if you want to, you can. Emily says, yes, I want to do it.

So she does. The Stage Manager takes her back to a typical day in the past, the least significant day possible, with Mama getting breakfast ready for the family, saying the typical things that she said, get ready, come on now Emily, it’s time for school. And the dead Emily calls out, Oh, Mother, you’re so young! Look mother, here I am, can you see me, let me tell you what happened!

But Mama can’t hear her, and Emily is overcome by emotion, and cries, and after a while goes back to being dead, and tells the Stage Manager he was right, it’s best not to go back. I sat there on stage and watched. I saw how they felt, but it was hard to understand. I was in seventh grade, after all. But I remembered.

Now I’m far older than Mama was when Emily went back. Not only am I older, the world is older, too. When the Berkeley-born Wilder wrote that wonderful play in 1938, technology was just getting started. Recapturing the past had progressed some, but it was still pretty impersonal. Recapturing had started with the most incidental reminders of all, fossils, then actual manmade paintings on cave walls, then memorized sagas, and mummies, and temples and statues meant to last and show to all, then words in copied books and printed books, then onto photographs, recordings, and movies. So Wilder did have at his disposal many technologies that recaptured the past, and they must have been wondrous to him, because he was obviously so conscious of time, not only in Our Town, but in Back to Methuselah — what could be more about time than that?

My father, too, had a sense of time and events. He used an eight millimeter home movie camera to record our family, and so did my Mom, my grandparents and great-aunts walking down steps and smiling one after the other, my father throwing me up in the air and catching me, my mother walking to the beach in Beach Haven and smoking, Play Day at the Henry C. Lea School where I got lost in the kindergartener’s dance, and even one of me playing basketball on a dirt court at camp, missing an easy shot off the left backboard, not quite high enough.

Eight mm was pretty personal, but now, some 60 years on from the Friends’ Central Our Town performance, we have the most personal of all the time-cheating reminders of all, we have videos, with full voice, with a long enough time frame that people don’t have to hurry, you can just be yourself for a few hours and be totally recorded. Videos of everyday life as it really is.

Photography was my hobby as a kid, and imitating my father, I guess, I filmed videos early. When I visited Philadelphia I would even rent a video camera, leaving the clunky early models I had at home. In 1986, 1987, and 1988 I took my parents, who were then about 70 and very vigorous, and we drove around Philadelphia together to where they had lived, and where we had lived. As we drove around in the car I interviewed them as they added comments to each other and contradicted each other and did what they usually did, and I also sat them down in their home in Society Hill in central city Philadelphia and interviewed them about their lives. My father had an allegiance to truth and significance, and he started talking about how he had a case, a family member of a friend, who needed a spinal disk operation which my father performed, but his resident had bad acne and probably contaminated the field, and the patient got infected, and my mother said “Don’t talk about it, Henry!” but he did, and he said, “It took him so long to die.” Being a neurosurgeon is still very hard, but it was harder then, I think. I have it on tape.

So, I have lots of tapes of our lives. The day we told the four older kids that Ann was pregnant with an embryo who would become Peter. The kids washing the dishes as their chore, that extended for a very, very long time at the sink. Lots of things. The old eight mm movies of my parents transferred to DVD format. And the interviews with my parents.

So I sent all the DVD’s out to all the kids, and I sent the videos of my parents' interviews out to Bobby, Kathy and Emily. I haven’t heard much from them. Bobby said it was hard to watch, that he started to cry and so he stopped, I think he said. Kathy said, God, what was the big deal with Mom and Dad talking about how to get to where they wanted to go in the car, what was that all about? But she hadn't gotten around to watching them much. Emily said she already had a copy of the 1987 interview and kind of brushed it off. Actually, I don't think I even got thank you's from the girls. But I take that not as a lack of gratitude, but resistance. This is hard stuff.

Me? I think it’s hard to watch. I watched all three of them, but I had to get ready and set the time aside, and be at at my desk doing something else while they were playing on the TV at my left side, so I could tune out or tune in, although in truth I tended not to do much else while I was watching, I just had other stuff available. I get so sad for the world that no longer is. Love, sadness, and feeling the depredations of Time’s Arrow. Nothing stops time, We exist in the memories of others and then not even that. We love and lose, no evading that. You really, really can’t go home again. If you’re strong, you can go back now, and I did. But it’s also defensible to listen to the Stage Manager.

Budd Shenkin


  1. Budd - Hi, I just had a family 8mm film digitized and was transported back to Play Day at Henry C. Lea School circa 1957. I searched for Play Day and came across your blog. My family lived on the 4900 block of Pine Street until 1959, when we moved to Bala-Cynwyd (it had an official hyphen back then). I taped interviews with my parents in 1991; our son at 4 years old was the nominal interviewer. The tapes are hard to watch for all the reasons you articulate. My wife and I are in a play-reading group and we read Our Town last month and I made the same connection to those restored family memories. Anyway, thanks for your blog. I also looked at some of your more recent entries and Tweets and agree with you on pretty much everything, which is scary. Same background I guess. Larry Miller

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