The setting of Love and How to Cure It is an empty theater in London near the end of the 19th century. A young female dancer asks two older stage veterans for advice on how to deal with a romantic admirer whom she thinks means to do her harm if he can’t have her. The three of them improvise a play within this play to avert any tragic outcome and, hopefully, to cure him of his love. More than a comedy within a melodramatic framework, this early one-act play shows Wilder learning to be the dramatist who would one day produce The Matchmaker, which was adapted into the famous musical, Hello, Dolly!
by Eric Specian
Published in January 1931 in The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act, Love and How to Cure It opens to a “Bare, dark, dusty and cold” stage of the Tivoli Palace of Music, Soho, London, on which three characters, Linda, Mrs. Rowena Stoker, and Joey Weston, wait for a rehearsal of an unidentified play to begin.1 Linda, a sixteen year old, practices dance steps. Rowena, an older “soubrette”2—an actress who plays a coquettish role in plays and operas—and who is Linda’s aunt, sits at a table with Joey, a comedian and widower, who reads from a “pink theatrical and sporting weekly.”3 Once nine O’clock arrives, Rowena concludes rehearsal was cancelled and they should go home. Linda declares she is hungry, so the three agree to have kippers and tea together. Joey is sent out to purchase ingredients for the meal.
While alone, Linda reveals to her aunt why she was not ready to leave. She believes Arthur Warburton, a student at Cambridge whom she met at a soiree held by her dance instructor, Madame Angellelli, is stalking her and will shoot her because she will not return his affection. After one date and one kiss, Linda was turned off by Arthur’s hotheadedness4 and breathing too hard.5 He declared he can’t live without her if she won’t marry him6 and attributes Linda’s remoteness instead to being interested in Mario,7 an Italian from the soirees. Desperately, Linda asks, “isn’t there anyway discovered to make a man get over loving you. Can it be cured?”8
When Joey returns, he indicates Arthur is outside the theater. Wishing to discover Arthur’s true intentions, Rowena develops a plan for Linda to invite Arthur to eat with them so Joey can search his coat for a gun. If he finds one, Joey will unload it, put it back, and sing, “A holiday girl on a holiday bus”9 as a signal. The coat will then be returned. Rowena figures “If this boy is going to shoot Linda, he’s going to shoot her tonight, so we can have a good heart-to-heart talk about it […] Let him have his murder and get it out of his system.”10 Arthur accepts the invitation, and Rowena sends him out for beer and other drinks. While he is out, Linda once again asks if there is a cure for love. Rowena posits: “I say there’s only one way to cure that kind of love when it’s feverish and all upset. Only love can cure love.”11 Arthur returns with a generous amount of extra food. He is reluctant to give up his coat, but Rowena coaxes him into giving it to Joey who takes it and goes to finish cooking. Rowena converses with Arthur about the university life, but Arthur asks Linda about Madame Angellelli’s soirees. Rowena then directs the discussion onto Joey’s deceased wife of two years,12 Henrietta du Vaux, and about how much she was loved by others and more so by Joey. Joey returns with the kipper and tea, singing, “A holiday girl on a holiday bus.”
At the cue of the signal, Rowena sends Joey and Arthur to get the coat. When they come back Joey begins to tell Arthur about his wife: “And when she was ill, she knew that her coughing hurt me […] But no!—she’d act like I was the sick person that had to be taken care of.”13 Joey then confronts Arthur when he changes the topic to what love can do to a person. “I read in the papers about people who shoot the person they love […] What is it but that they want to be noticed, noticed even if they must shoot to get noticed? It’s themselves—it’s themselves they love.”14 Startled, Arthur agrees. Once Rowena and Joey leave, he puts the gun on the table and concedes his intentions. “I want to be noticed. I wish you liked me, Linda, I mean I wish you liked me more […] I won’t trouble you anymore […] And I planned, Linda, to prove that I couldn’t live without you…and if you were going to be cold and…didn’t like me, Linda, I was going to shoot myself right here.”15 Joey was correct about people who are in love, but it is also the kindness of Linda, Rowena, and Joey during supper that Arthur admits contributed to his change of heart. Arthur leaves weeping, but hopeful: “I’m young still.”16 Rowena returns, asking what happened. Linda lies, saying she told Arthur, “Thank you for nothing.”17 Before the curtain falls, Linda declares, “Mario would never act like that. Mario…Mario doesn’t even seem to notice you when you’re there…”18 She is in love, hoping and needing to be noticed. She needs the cure.
Love and How to Cure It is often grouped with Such Things Only Happen in Books and Queens of France as “homogeneous and ‘conventional'” one-act plays.19 It diverges from Wilder’s better-known and more often performed one-acts—The Long Christmas Dinner, Pullman Car Hiawatha, and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden—for Love and How to Cure It (LHTCI) is more theatrically realistic. “It suggests that Wilder had suddenly obtained an altogether new insight into dramatic method. Gone is the admiration for the unfamiliar and the tendency toward flowery dialogue.”20 Unlike, for example, the minimalist stage design, the characters mostly talking about the mundane, and the accelerated timeline in Pullman Car Hiawatha, LHTCI remains stationary in the Tivoli Palace of Music, Soho, London. There are more concrete props, and the action performed occurs in real time. Despite its lack of praise, critics concede that it is either “unswervingly realistic,”21 or that it “possess[es] at least the trappings of realism.”22
In addition to the commentary on realism, critics also draw connections to outside influences for Love and How to Cure It. It is described as being “strongly reminiscent of Henri Becque’s play Les corbeaux“23 and “an attempt to condense Swann’s Way.”24 Goldstone suggests it is somewhat of an autobiographical work due to the “admixture of Proustian irony and New England dismissal of a passionate attachment as an attention-seeking device [which] is suggestive of Wilder’s life style.”25 Love and How to Cure It has also been noted to have a connection to Wilder’s earlier novels. Linda’s approach to love is comparable to “James Blair of The Cabala, [for which] love is—and perhaps always will be, because of her nature—beyond her [Linda’s] experience.”26 Burbank also discusses Linda in this light, but also notes that she “represents the same reprehensible coldness to love that characterized Dona Clara in The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”27 These behaviors become apparent through Wilder’s approach to the theme of love based on Linda’s and Arthur’s understanding of it. From one kiss, Arthur decides he wants to marry Linda, yet she is dispassionate. However, Arthur’s and Linda’s actions aren’t incompatible. Mario is utilized to reveal to the audience how Linda is emotionally parallel to Arthur. Mario treats Linda as if she doesn’t exist; this allows the audience to wonder if Linda behaves around Mario like Arthur does around her, which points to both James Blair in The Cabala in Linda’s naiveté and Dona Clara in The Bridge with her disdain for Arthur.
Nonetheless, love is not impossible for Linda and Arthur. The main problem they face rests in being too young. “[Linda] is not incapable of love, but the idea of love is beyond her, and she cannot grasp its subtleties.”28 Something that Joey and her aunt have over her is their experience. Joey, in particular, has dealt with deep compassion from his relationship with his wife, a characteristic that goes hand in hand with love and something Linda is not yet capable of expressing. Wilder uses irony to expand on Linda’s and Arthur’s dilemma. “The idea of love, usually unrequited love, is a recurrent note in The Trumpet Shall Sound, Love and How to Cure It, The Woman of Andros, The Cabala, The Bridge. When love descends from the heights of disinterestedness, when spirit becomes body, all is changed.”29 Linda tries dodging Arthur. When she is confronted by him, she is bitter, yet she should know how he feels because she is in the same position. In this regard, Wilder picks up on “the Proustian theme of the earlier novels: that we despise those who desperately offer us their love and yearn after those who withhold it.”30 Linda and Arthur desire who they can’t have; however, Wilder is not expressing that to love is hopeless. The ways Joey and Rowena attend to Arthur and Linda represent how people are willing to be loving even if they don’t receive anything in return. In fact, it is the sympathy Arthur receives from the other three over dinner that changes his mind from killing himself. Wilder creates a “character so romantic that he is easily beguiled by others or by his own quaint disposition”31; ironically, the very quality that causes Arthur’s initial state of despair is what leads to saving him. The audience is presented with the idea that what may be our downfall can be the very thing to raise us up, though it may take some time and maturing. In the end, however, we are left with the biggest irony of the play: it is only love that can cure love.
1Thornton Wilder, Collected Plays & Writings on Theater, Ed. J. D. McClatchy, New York: Library of America, 2007 (109).
19(Lifton, “Theatrical Ragoût from a Master Chef” 287).
21(Lifton, “Vast Encyclopedia”: The Theater of Thornton Wilder 56).
23(Lifton, “Vast Encyclopedia”: The Theater of Thornton Wilder 56).
29(Harrison, The Enthusiast 172).
Burbank, Rex. Thornton Wilder. 2nd. Boston: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961.
Goldstein, Malcolm. The Art of Thornton Wilder. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
Goldstone, Richard H. Thornton Wilder: An intimate Portrait. New York: E.p. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1975.
Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
Kuner, M.C. Thornton Wilder: The Bright and the Dark. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972.
Lifton, Paul. “Vast Encyclopedia”: The Theater of Thornton Wilder. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Lifton, Paul. “Theatrical Ragoût from a Master Chef.” Thornton Wilder: New Essays. Ed. Martin Blank, Dalma Hunyadi Brunauer, and David Garret Izzo. West Cornwall: Locust Hill Press, 1999. 283-295.
Wheatley, Christopher J. “Thornton Wilder and Theatrical Realism.” Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition. Ed. William W. Demastes. Tuscaloosa: The Universtiy of Alabama Press, 1996. 139-155.
Wilder, Thornton. “Love and How to Cure It.” Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays & Writings on Theater. Ed. J. D. McClatchy. New York: Library of America, 2007. 109-120.
For further discussions of Love and How to Cure It, please visit the Bibliography.
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