October 2019 Reading: Our Town and Other Plays; Spoon River Anthology; The Waves

Our Town and Other Plays by Thornton Wilder (Penguin Modern Classics edition 2000)

I have only managed to read three books this month, and my excuses are twofold: firstly, half term (enough said), and secondly, the books themselves were among the most dense, difficult works I have read this year, and since my reading habits involve reading in bed until my eyelids drop, I found myself having to go back and re-read almost every page of these works, sometimes several times. This is quite hard work for a skimmer like myself.

It has been a very long time since I read a play. It’s a strange experience reading something that is written to be performed, to be seen, but reading a script does give you the aforementioned advantage of being able to go back, to concentrate on things that might be missed in a performance. Our Town, first published in 1938, is set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corner. Via the town’s inhabitants, we are taken on a journey through the whole cycle of life; the three acts are named ‘Daily Life’, ‘Love and Marriage’, and ‘Death and Eternity’. There is a strong meta-theatrical element, with the Stage Manager offering commentary and scene changes happening in front of the audience. Wilder apparently wrote the play as a reaction against what he saw as the stagnation of American theatre at the time, and it is bold, thought-provoking and at times downright bizarre, though not as strange as the second play in this collection, ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’, which tells a deliberately confusing story of an Eternal Family, headed by George Antrobus, as they navigate their way through the triple perils of the Ice Age, flood and war. The final play, ‘The Matchmaker,’ is a more straightforward farce, with plenty of comic characters and moments. But it was ‘Our Town’ that stayed with me when I finished the book; its profound themes and deep exploration of the human condition also happened to lead neatly onto the second book I managed to read in this rather lean month.

Spoon River Anthology (1915)

From plays to poetry, this slim but densely packed volume represents the voices of over 200 inhabitants of another fictional town. Told in free verse, the people of Spoon River are each given a chance to speak from their graves in Oak Hill cemetary. Each poem is titled with the name of the citizen, all of whom speak with a brutal honesty that seems to come from at last being able to speak their truth. There is a surprising amount of narrative threaded through these fragments; we build up a picture of corruption, abusive marriages, love affairs, violence and shattered dreams, often seeing more than one side of each story. This curious cumulative effect builds up a cynical picture of Midwestern small-town values, a protest against sentimentality that has a powerful effect. I think I need to reread this work a few more times before I can comment on it properly; despite there being some parallels with Wilder’s play, it is unlike anything else I have read.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf (1931)

Speaking of works that are unlike anything else, my final read this month was another mind-bender. I think I assumed that I’d read more of Woolf than I actually have – if I had read this before, I would have remembered it. Described by Woolf as a ‘play-poem’ (thus making it the perfect follow-up to Our Town and Spoon River), The Waves takes stream-of-consciousness writing to the next level. The six main characters, Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny and Louis, narrate the novel in turns, their voices at times merging so that it is hard to keep track of who is speaking. This is, of course, part of the point; as we follow these characters from their school days to middle age, we see how much their identities are dependent on each other. These are characters drawn from the inside, and while there are a few anchoring ‘events’, the narrative is not concerned with conventional plot or story, but with the waves of inner life which, as Bernard says, make us “come up differently, for ever and ever.”

This series of soliloquies is full of absolutely beautiful, shimmering prose, heaping simile upon simile until the richness of the language is almost overwhelming. The powerful, intoxicating effect of this is indeed like being pounded again and again by waves – there is something almost mystical about this book, so that you don’t so much read it as experience it. Again, despite me taking my time and trying to absorb the words as much as possible, I think this is another book that needs re-reading before I can really form an articulate opinion – I am still reeling from its effects.

So, three books, two of which I plan to re-read: not my most productive month. I hope it’s not too shameful to admit that in November I want some cracking yarns and straightforward prose, just to give my tired mind a break. At least the kids are back at school/preschool.