The final Close Reading lecture of the semester was held this past Thursday on what would have been Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Thornton Wilder’s 111th birthday.
“As the executive director of the Thornton Wilder Society, I’ve been authorized to receive any presents,” Lincoln Konkle, professor of English, said.
Sponsored by the School of Culture and Society and the department of English, Konkle led the audience in a critical analysis of a passage from Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play “Our Town.”
Influenced by the Great Depression and World War I, Wilder was a reactionary writer who used the power of the written word to send a message.
“Wilder’s writing was a response to a time of crisis,” Konkle said. “But he felt that despite this, life would continue. His themes were meant to be timeless and universal.”
Konkle read a speech from Act 3 of “Our Town” where the stage manager, a character who functions as a narrator, breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience.
Taking place in the cemetery of Grover’s Corners, N.H., just before a funeral procession, the stage manager’s monologue calls into question the notions of eternity, memory and life after death.
“You know as well as I do that the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long,” the stage manager says. “Gradually, gradually, they lose hold of the earth.”
“The play’s action is very common,” Konkle said. “Wilder wrote the life cycle in three acts starting with daily life, then love and marriage, and finally, death.”
In a Q-and-A session following the reading, there were several questions raised regarding Wilder’s commentary on life and existence.
“Some read this play and see it as horribly depressing, but I see it as ultimately affirmative,” Konkle said. “Humans are making progress very slowly. One step back, two steps forward.”
Konkle alluded to another speech in “Our Town,” when a character has an epiphany that daily life does not offer something meaningful and that most people just go through their routines.
“This is affirmative,” Konkle said. “There are these moments of understanding. Unfortunately, the character is dead so this epiphany cannot help the character, but it can help the audience.”
This Close Reading was a prelude to the International Thornton Wilder Conference, which will be held at the College from Oct. 2-4, 2008. In the meantime, Konkle was able to shed some light on Wilder’s methods.
“I really liked the interpretation (of Wilder’s writing) that there is more than what life first appears to us,” Adam Engel, sophomore English and philosophy major, said. “I think that makes a point about the Close Reading series. Life is like a play and you need to take the time to derive meaning from it.”