Friday

Jan. 22, 2010

By Dark

by W. S. Merwin

When it is time I follow the black dog
into the darkness that is the mind of day

I can see nothing but the black dog
the dog I know going ahead of me

not looking back oh it is the black dog
I trust now in my turn after the years

when I had all the trust of the black dog
through an age of brightness and through shadow

on into the blindness of the black dog
where the rooms of the dark were already known

and had no fear in them for the black dog
leading me carefully up the blind stairs.

"By Dark" by W. S. Merwin, from The Shadow of Sirius. © Copper Canyon Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1938 that Thornton Wilder's play Our Town was premiered at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. Our Town is about the fictional town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. In the first act, Emily Webb and George Gibbs are children together; in the second act, they marry; in the third, Emily has died in childbirth, and is looking back from beyond the grave with other dead citizens of Grover's Corners, and she decides to revisit the happiest day of her life, her 12th birthday.

Wilder (books by this author) had trouble writing the third act, but when he finally found inspiration, it came fast. He was in Zurich, entertaining a friend (and probably lover) named Samuel Steward. Steward wrote later: "He insisted we stay up until dawn to hear the bells of Zurich as Max Beerbohm has described them. That was in my drinking days and I kept going into every café we passed. My feet were getting so wet and so was I, and I kept hollering for an umbrella. When daylight came I went home to dry out and fell into bed and slept all day, but Thornton went to his hotel and wrote the last act of Our Town, which begins with the graveyard scene with the umbrellas. He confessed later that he had 'struck a match on me,' and that the graveyard umbrella scene came from my complaining about my walk in the wet."

Our Town was revolutionary for its time because Wilder decided not to use any scenery and almost no props. He thought that they got in the way of seeing the play as truly universal, and he wanted his play to be more like the great Greek tragedies. So he got rid of the excess visuals and he added the group of the dead people of Grover's Corners, who commented much like a Greek chorus.

From Princeton, the play moved to Boston, where it was a flop. The Boston critics gave it poor reviews, it played to half-empty houses, and some audience members walked out, including the wife of the governor of Massachusetts. But two New York theater critics, Brooks Atkinson and Alexander Wolcott, convinced the director and producer to give it another try and bring the show to New York. It did much better there, although some people found it inspiring and others depressing. But Our Town won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and it is now estimated that on average, Our Town is performed at least once every night somewhere in the world.

It's the birthday of novelist Aryn Kyle, (books by this author) born in Peoria, Illinois, in 1978. When she was five years old, she moved to Grand Junction, a desert town in Colorado. She liked horses, took riding lessons, and competed in some horse shows. She went off to college, then to get her M.F.A. at the University of Montana. And while she was in grad school, she wrote a short story called "Foaling Season" about a girl named Alice who lives on a horse ranch in a town called Desert Valley, Colorado, which Kyle based on Grand Junction. It was published in The Atlantic Monthly,and it went on to win the National Magazine Award for Fiction. She turned it into a novel called The God of Animals (2007), with "Foaling Season" as the first chapter. The God of Animals became an award-winning best-seller.

The God of Animals begins:

"Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy. My father said there was a time when he would have been able to stop her, and I wasn't sure if he meant a time in our lives when she would have listened to him, or a time in history when the Desert Valley Sheriff's Posse would have been allowed to chase after her with torches and drag her back to our house by her yellow hair."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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