Time in Wilderian works
According to Hall the experience of time “varies in detail from class to class, by occupation, and sex and age within our own culture”. (Hall, 1984: 133) Thus its perception is highly subjective. While some people may experience time as running very fast at the same time others can feel it drag. Time escapes definitions though the passage of time can be felt in human personal experience and observed in the environment. Strange as it as, people are aware of time at the same time not being able to say what it really is. St. Augustine is no exception when he once said: “What then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.” Time is of philosophical interest and is also the subject of mathematical and scientific investigation. Each group sees time different; that is why it cannot be given any simple and illuminating definition. Edward T. Hall in his The Dance of Life took a cultural approach. For Hall: “Time is treated as a language, as a primary organizer for all activities, a synthesizer and integrator, a way of handling priorities and categorizing experience, (…) and a special message system revealing how people really feel about each other and whether or not they can get along.” (Hall, 1984, 3) In fact nothing occurs except in some kind of frame time as people feel, think, and act in the time flow.
Wilder is most famous for his experiments with time. In most of his plays time is not presented linearly. It can have a spiral structure with many ‘loops’; it can, as well, take many different dimensions at the same moment. Composing plays with universal dimension, Wilder does not use object but he asks the spectators to imagine things. He, also, resigns from decorations in favor of bare stage or does not give his actors real props. This all aims at gaining the universal dimension of the play, as objects are material and closed for broader meaning. To have a cosmological dimension, he uses imaginary as the most universal and atemporal ‘tool’ to create required illusion. Thus, in the plays, everything is highly symbolic and underwritten with the rule: “All, Everywhere, Always”. Stage as a symbol of life and characters as representatives of humanity cannot have real objects.
In this work, it proved impossible to concentrate only on two characters as it do not reveal all the mechanisms of perceiving time in the presented plays. To have the full image of the problem, it was essential to have at least a pair of each. These are: Emily Webb and George Gibbs (Our Town) and the Antrobus family (The Skin of Our Teeth). They are distinctive enough to prove a good example of multi-dimensional experience of time and all mechanisms that are working in it.
The Skin of Our Teeth has a complex structure that is difficult to describe in a conventional way. That is why it will be summarized as it appears in the text and all necessary explanations will be provided throughout the work. The family consists of four members: Mr. & Mrs. Antrobus, two children, Gladys and Henry and Sabina – a maid. The first act opens with the Antrobus family’s daily duties. These are just prosaic and trivial things. They have a meal together (with a dinosaur on their lawn); they meet a group of guests (for example: Homer, Moses and Muses) and they drink coffee (afraid of the incoming glacier). The next act takes place in Atlantic City where the family celebrates their 5th wedding anniversary. Sabina wants to seduce Mr. Antrobus and is stopped by the cataclysm – great flood. The last act is set after a global war. The family is restored again apart from Henry who proves to undergo a great negative change.
Our Town is structurally less complicated. The story describes lives of two resembling each other families – the Gibbs and the Webbs. They are common people who are, also, preoccupied with such prosaic daily duties like bringing-up children, cooking three meals a day, doing homework, singing in church-choir or gossiping. The play is divided into three acts, too. The first act deals with childhood and adolescence of the two families’ children. Act two presents wedding between George Gibbs and Emily Webb and the moment of their falling in love. The last one describes the funeral of Emily who died during her second childbirth and her after-life.
The three acts of The Skin of Our Teeth are arranged to encompass three, major units of time. “Act I embraces geologic time; Act II, biblical time; and Act III, the time of recorded history”. (Burbank, 1961: 104) It is essential to notice that within a given act all three time-units are included and only apparently mixed up creating as if embracing-all ‘presence’. The assignment, however, is based on the leading role of them. Similarly, it can be said that “The first act pits Man against Nature; the second, Man against moral order; and the third, Man against himself”. (Burbank, 1961: 104)
The complexity of the experiencing time by the characters is based on the fact that the time-levels penetrate one another. The whole stream of time consists of infinite number of smaller streams, which all embraces the Universal time, i.e. the time of all matter in the Universe or the cosmological time. In The Skin of Our Teeth only some of these streams are mentioned or rather presented. Others are either hidden or consequently revealed during the action. The same is with characters. In every moment of the play all of them live in and experience infinite number of time-streams. All the time, they fully participate in every little time-stream but the action requires them to reveal only the desired ones in a proper time and place. The situation can be compared to a mathematical sphere. Sphere like time is an absolute and a finished figure. No matter which point of the sphere is considered, it is always in the same distance to every other point and in the same relation with every one. The same can be said about time in that play. The characters are simultaneously on every time-platform and simultaneously they experience every moment that happens on every platform. The two following situations can serve as an example. Henry is first mentioned in the play by Sabina who, on the presented in this moment platform, sees in him biblical Cain.
“When he has a stone in his hand, has a perfect aim; he can hit anything from a bird to an older brother”.
And in this very moment, Mrs. Antrobus asks her about milking the mammoth, which sets the action in prehistoric but not biblical time. Despite that, the two women have no problems in communication and mutual understanding. The conversation continues even though the two time-streams are completely different. The situation describes two levels which are mixed up but the combination of three time-levels is also possible. It is presented when the telegraph boy comes. He come with a message from Mr. Antrobus to burn every book except Shakespeare’s to keep the children warm against the cold glazier that is coming and he sings “Happy w’dding ann’vers’ry, dear Eva”. (SOT, 1957: 78) And again, it does not distort the message which suggests that the number of presented time-levels is not restricted. Functioning on all time-levels, the characters are able to perceive the three messages at once although they belong to three different time-streams.
The presentation of only three is done out of literary purposes and clarity of plot preserving the outgoing message. Each of the protagonists is composed of, as if, three (in this example) beings in one body (in fact: infinite number). When Mrs. Antrobus says: “Henry, put down that stone” (SOT, 1957: 79) she in fact addresses not Henry but Cain. Because Henry is Cain, Henry is the son of Mr. Antrobus who invented a wheel and Henry is the son of Mr. Antrobus who works at a modern university. The ability to be ‘one in many persons’ and experience the same number of time-levers is the key to understand the play and not get lost in the Wilder’s complexity of time. It is important to notice that Henry (and every other character) realizes his multi-personage. He confirms it saying:
“today at school two teachers forgot and called me by my old name. (…) you’d better write another letter to the principal, so that he’ll tell them I’ve changed my name. Right out in the class they called me: Cain!”
This is interesting as Henry seems to feel emotions (in this example negative) for his other ‘person’ which cast new light on the relations within the imaginary sphere.
The infinite number of the time-levels creates the time as fluent; without the beginning or end. This expands the action to all history of Universe this way. Moreover, the characters do not experience the time flow. They do not get old. Only their ideas change. But it can be argued whether being against the flow of time means experiencing time as such.
A place can be, also, perceived multi-dimensionally by the characters as far as time is concerned. The house of the Antrobus family is a building where Shakespeare’s books are stored, where Homer plays the guitar, where Moses recite a poem and finally where all of them are fed with sandwiches and sing “Jingle Bells”. This puts metaphorical meaning not only on people but also on things and buildings. They take different forms but the idea of ‘home’ for instance is everlasting and never-ending, because everything in the play has its universal dimension.
Having won a beauty contest in Act II, Sabina tries to seduce Mr. Antrobus. In this way, she reveals her new dimension. Together with being only a maid so far, she appears as Lilith i.e. “female demon of Jewish folklore. (…) the mother of Adam’s demonic offspring following his separation from Eve or as his first wife, who left him because of their incompatibility”. (Britannica, 1992: CD-ROM)
Sabina witnesses the election of Mr. Antrobus for a president which at the same time is Antrobus’ wedding anniversary which at the same time is the 5th thousand wedding anniversary of the whole human race, which is followed by a quotation from Shakespeare and the famous speech delivered by Mrs. Antrobus “I have been viviparous, hairy and diaphragmatic (…) it has at last been decided that the tomato is edible”. (SOT, 1957: 96) Again, it is an example of experiencing four time periods penetrating one another at the same time. Mrs. Antrobus also gains a new dimension (primitive life forms) which consequently expands her multi-personage to prehistoric times when the earth was dwelled by micro-organisms. This is interesting as far as the characters do not exist only as human beings but also as first primitive livings.
The experiencing of presented time is extended to its maximum. Being aware of living simultaneously on all time-levels, Mrs. Antrobus has (and still does) witnessed all recorded history. Her mind is full with all events in the history of the Universe – past, present and future. As Burbank rightly points out, it seems to be as if “time-present and time-past are put into the eternal present” for her. (Burbank, 1961: 106) The situation where awareness of the future could determine protagonists’ actions is impossible, as despite close link of all time-levels and their mutual penetrating, each of the processes happens separately while being a part of the whole. That is why protagonists experiencing all time-streams at once are unable to have an influence on their own future.
The act ends with the biblical great flood and the end of the old world. Mr. Antrobus appears as biblical Noah (still together with being the Eternal Male – Adam) who saves his family and a pair of each kind of animals on his ark.
As far as plot is concerned, the last paragraph does not introduce many new things. The characters rebuild their home after the war and nature destroyed it. The leading character in this part is Henry who, being exposed to tyrannical systems, appears as embodiment of allegorical evil. “I’m going to be free even if I have to kill half of the world for it” (SOT, 1957: 131)
However as far as experiencing time is concerned the last lines of The Skin of Our Teeth are of primary importance. This is where the proof for infinity and cycles of time is best presented. The play ends exactly with the same words as it started. This stresses the recurrence not only of the history or the world but mainly of all human experiences and cycles of the life on the earth. This signifies that time has neither beginning nor end. Life or time is not a straight line. It may be, however, questioned whether circles or spirals make the already mentioned sphere. A circle suggests history repeat all the events without any change, but a spiral stresses people’s ability to learn something and be more experienced in the future. Antrobus confirms it saying: “We have learnt, we are learning.” (SOT, 1957: 88) Wilder’s vision, however, is rather pessimistic. He seems not to believe in human’s mental development.
But there is some hope in it. Human race will always manage to escape a catastrophe by the skin of its teeth even though the Nature will always threaten us with endless fear of annihilation. Knowing that Wilder rejects the theory of progress, Sabina’s words: “The end of this play isn’t written yet” (SOT, 1957: 137) indicate only that again “history will follow a similar cycle”. (Burbank, 1961: 108) The pessimistic vision does not mean Man is only a helpless prey in the endless cycles of disasters. In fact, he cannot do much about them but he can eliminate disasters which are directly, or indirectly, caused by Him.
Summing up the experiencing time in the play, it is clearly seen that all characters experience time multi-dimensionally and they live on all time-platforms simultaneously. They are aware of that and they posses subjective emotions towards some of their ‘incarnations’. Time in the play can be compared not to straight line but a sphere (circle) with no beginning and no end. They do not get old throughout the ages which signifies the resistance against the time flow.
Our Town is not as much multi-dimensional as far as perception of time goes. Grebanier says Wilder deliberately confuses time and allows various scenes “to go backward and forward over the years”. (Grebanier, 1964: 31) Having removed them, the presented time in the play could be perceived as linear. But multitude of ‘time-loops’ and ‘time-jumps’ proves it differently.
While analyzing experiencing time by characters in Our Town, it is best to rely on Hall’s theories and anthropological research. In the book Dance of Life, Hall claims every second of human’s life is subordinated to specific rhythms; “biological clocks stay in sync with the normal rhythms and cycles of the external environment. What happens inside is congruent with the outside world, so that while there are two kinds of time mechanisms (…) they behave as one”. (Hall, 1984, 18) Throughout thousands of ages, people learned to synchronize their biological clocks not only to the rising and setting of the sun or ripening of fruits but also to routines and daily occurrences.
Each of the three days (and consequently each of the three acts), presented in the play, begins in exactly the same way – by a trivial conversation about the weather. Even the day of the wedding between Emily and George is no exception.
Dr. Gibbs: (…) goin’ to rain, Howie?
In this moment, it is felt to be one of the ways of experiencing time by young protagonists. Reoccurrences of morning conversations about the weather make them aware of the time flow.
Change of seasons is another of measuring systems and ways of experiencing time. This seems to be the oldest one known on the Earth.
“Three years have gone by. Yes, the sun’s come up over thousands of times. Summers and winters have cracked the mountains a little bit and the rain brought down some of the dirt. Some babies that weren’t even born have begun talking regular sentences already”.
The three acts embrace the entire life of an Everyman, virtually from the cradle to the grave and beyond it. This life (time) is measured and experienced not by a clock but by a natural rhythm of daily and cosmological occurrences. Act I opens with childhood of Emily and George. The newspaper and milk delivery, cooking three meals a day, good morning’s and good-bye’s, washing, cleaning and singing in the choir constitutes a common day. The young protagonists experience time through the rhythm of such prosaic and trivial events. A postman, for instance, is given another meaning: his paper in the mailbox signifies the night is over and the next day has just started. The characters’ time, in Act I, is presented linearly. The undisturbed sequence of events together with no retrospections within the part proves it. Yet, what is interesting is the duality or double-dimensionality of time. There is time of action in Grover Corners where characters live and universal (general) time of mankind. Universal dimension of protagonists (idea of Everyman) must take place in universal dimension of time. Wilder expanded the universal time millions of years back to the prehistory.
“Grover’s Corners lies on the old Pleistocene granite of the Appalachian range. I may say it’s some of the oldest land in he world”.
As he, himself, told it was deliberate as he wanted to “set the village against the largest dimension of time”. (Wilder, 1957: XI)
The duality of time justifies lots of transitions and ‘jumps’ in time within the play. The fragmentation of presented plot does not affect the general significance of the play. It is realized on the universal dimension and only exemplified by means of Emily and George’s life history. The proof can be again Wilders’ words that the play “is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village (…) It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life”. (Goldstein, 1965, 106) The presentation of only three, most important parts of the protagonists’ life does not distort this message. Emily and George live their lives continuously anyway. All the ‘time-jumps’ together with the transmissions between particular acts (recounted verbally by the Stage Manager later on) are one of forms of presenting the drama on the stage which is out of interest for this work. But it is worth to realize it serves the theatrical purposes.
The third act of Our Town brings many changes in experiencing time. Emily dies and she rejoins the dead relatives and acquaintances. From now on, the plot unfolds dually. There are two worlds (of the living and the dead) which are linked through the person of Emily. Consequently there are three times: time of the living, never-ending time after life and the generalized eternal. It can be questioned, though, if the middle one can be called ‘time’, as the dead are able to revisit any chosen fragment of history of mankind. This excludes the participation to any kinds of time. Coming back to Emily, she is allowed to cross the border separating life from death and revisits her home on the day of her twelfth birthday. This was one of most boring moments in her life as choosing the most interesting day would be too painful. She only ‘witnesses’ the time of her past but she does not re-live the day or does not experience the earthly time which is proved by her invisibility: “Oh, Mama just look at me one minute as though you really saw me” (OT, 1988, 353) Living means having body and being exposed to processes of time which she is out of. After death, Emily, like all the dead from the local cemetery, still has her conscious and has the inaccessible for a human knowledge of judging everything from the perspective of eternity.
“Do any human beings realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?’ (…) I didn’t realize. (…) Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you”.
The play ends with a new day dawning at Grover’s Corners as if nothing serious has happened. And in fact, having in mind eternity, it is not important. What is important, however, is the every moment of our human existence – all the petty peculiarities of everyday life. People’s tragedies, as big as they are, do not disrupt the eternal order of things. “There are the stars – doing their old, old crisscross” (OT, 1988: 356)
Summing up the experiencing time in the play, it is clearly seen that the characters are three dimensional – individual, general and eternal. The story of Emily and George is only a supporting example of the overall message of Our Town. That is why they are not aware of their roles and the general (universal) dimension of what they do. Firstly they experience time childis