I have breakfast at the Odessa diner with my buddy Norman Marshall every couple of months and always leave laughing and enlightened. Norman used to run the No Smoking Playhouse back in the 80s, he's the guy that turned the former police horse stable into a theater, most people know it as the place Primary Stages used to work out of. Anyway, Norman is no ancestor, but he's an elder and he has more stories and wisdom and bad jokes than any one I know. We were arguing about something last week and he just said,
"Read the preface to Thornton Wilder's Three Plays."
And then he wouldn't talk about it anymore, changed the subject, insulted my clothing, something, I don't remember.
So I go home and get that same copy of Wilder's plays we all have, the Bantam Library collection of Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker and I read the preface, which I don't remember every doing before. If you have it, turn off your computer and go read the thing, if not, allow me to scribe, and note how things never change:
"Toward the end of the twenties I began to lose pleasure in going to the theatre. I ceased to believe in the stories I saw presented there. When I did go it was to admire some secondary aspect of the play, the work of a great actor or director or designer. Yet at the same time the conviction was growing in me that the theatre was the greatest of all arts. I felt that something had gone wrong with it in my time and that it was fulfilling only a small part of its potentialities...This dissatisfaction worried me. I was not ready to condemn myself as blase and overfastidious, for I knew that I was still capable of belief. I believed every word of Ulysses and of Proust and of The Magic Mountain, as I did hundreds of plays when I read them. It was on the stage that imaginative narration became false. Finally my dissatisfaction passed into resentment. I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive; it did not wish to draw upon its deeper potentialities. I found the word for it: it aimed to be soothing. The tragic had no heat; the comic had no bite; the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility. I began to search for the point where the theater had run off the track, where it had chosen- and been permitted- to become a minor art and an inconsequential diversion."
I skipped a big part and it goes on for another four pages, but can you feel the heat? And you can just replace "twenties" with sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties and it could be any one of us talking.
Thornton (I call him Thornton because we're pals) blames the whole thing on the box set as it turns out, which is a little like blaming a hood ornament for the depletion of the ozone layer if you ask me, but there you go.
Our ancestors speak to us every day, they're available every moment, we just have to pick up those books. So stay in school, stay off drugs, and if you see something for gods sake say something.