Zen and the Art of Playwrighting


Our calm, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in “scenery”.

                        Thornton Wilder


Sometime during the 6th Century B.C., the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, sat before a gathering of disciples near the Himalayan Mountains in India, preaching the wisdom he had gleaned while meditating under the now famous Bodhi tree. In the Buddha’s hand was a flower, which he continually twisted. Everyone who watched him do this thought it quite peculiar. Everyone, that is, except a man named Kashyapa, who immediately beamed with pleasure. The Buddha saw this and knew that his disciple understood, “that which goes beyond the word” or “flower thought”. It was an insight that would not only launch one of the most enduring spiritual disciplines in history, but would also seed a number of Asian theatrical forms which, in turn, would, unexpectedly enough, influence America’s perennial homespun playwright, Thornton Wilder.


            Our Town is a deceptive play. After viewing it, one is liable to come away thinking of Wilder as a local color poet who, like Dr. Gibbs and his wife of Grover’s Corners, never got farther than Gettysburg for a vacation. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Wilder traveled far and wide during his life, and found theatrical influences on many continents. During the 1930s, he lived in France and saw first hand many of the experimental plays then being produced by the likes of Bertolt Brecht, André Obey and Luigi Pirandello. There is no doubt that these dramatists influenced him. They all, in one way or another, rebelled against the hyper realism that was rampant in the commercial theatres of their day. Dramatists and set designers of the 1930s took great pains to recreate the ordinary world outside the theatre right down to the crystal in the chandeliers. They felt that the more they strove toward verisimilitude, the more believable their production would be. Others, including Wilder, rejected this notion. They sought to free the theatre from the suffocating confines of realism and establish a drama that did not try to hide its theatrical nature. Much of this would indeed manifest itself on Our Town’s bare stage. Yet, this bold movement was not born out of a vacuum. Many of these dramatists, including Wilder, freely acknowledged a tremendous debt to the centuries old Asian theatre forms of the China, Japan and India.  


            Although each of these traditions flourished in different parts of the world, they all share a common spiritual purpose that helped to shape their performance style. The Noh theatre of Japan, the Ming of China and the Sanskrit of India all present their plays on bare stages using minimal props and precisely choreographed gestures to tell their stories. A simple fan, for instance, can be transformed into a sword, mountain, or even a cascading stream. It is a very demanding style of performance; so much, in fact, that Noh actors begin training at the age of 7 and do not reach artistic maturity until their mid 30s. Wilder saw the potential in this ancient art, always asserting—and demonstrating in his own plays— that the bare stage and miming of props is superior to realism because it engages the audience’s imagination and frees the ideas in the play from the prison of the realistic set. 


            However, Wilder did not just appropriate the use of mime and gesture while writing Our Town; he also emulated the non-linear plots used in Asian theatre. Sanskrit plays, for instance, are often composed of casual scenes that do not necessarily follow the cause and effect pattern of Western Drama. As in Our Town, they leap great distances in time, and do not follow the action of a single protagonist. The only link unifying the drama is an omnipresent narrator. In the Noh, this character is called “the Man of the Place”, referring the local in which the play is set. Like the Stage Manager in Our Town, he shares legends upon which the play is based, and assumes different roles throughout the story. 


            The underlying purpose of these performance styles—Our Town included—is a deeply religious one. Zeami Motokio, whose 14th century treatise on the Noh, Kwadensho or “The Book of the Flower”, believed this style of theatre would help audiences transcend the word and the object, as Kashyapa had done while watching the Buddha’s twisting flower, and perceive “Yugen” or grace in the world. Yet, perhaps Wilder put it more plainly. “It is an attempt to find value above all price for the smallest events in our lives.”


Dan Tarker, Literary Associate