In this one-act, a lordly novelist, his wife, their doctor, their maid, her brother, and a visiting stranger are caught up in various deceptions, illusions and mysteries-including a murder mystery in a haunted house. Novelist John’s two pleasures in life are losing at solitaire and lecturing his wife about how there are no plots in life. Of course, his wife is cheating on him with the family doctor, who reveals not only their infidelity but a whole network of jailbreaks, murders, mutilations and buried treasure, all of which has taken place in John’s house.
by Eric Specian
“You see it’s like fiction. You have to adjust the cards to make a plot. In life most people live along without plots. A plot breaks through about once in every twenty one times.” 1 Published in January 1931 and then produced in November later that year at Yale University, Wilder’s Such Things Only Happen in Books opens in a quaint living room where John, an author, sits playing solitaire and his wife Gabrielle sews. Through dramatic irony, Wilder reveals how John is oblivious to the world around him, the world he claims to be so conscious of. John is struggling to develop a plot for his novel, yet he opposes using the story associated with his and his wife’s New Hampshire house—rumored to be the site of a murder—or a cliché cuckold plot mirroring Tennyson’s Enoch Arden for inspiration because he considers their stories fraudulent.2 “If I had no conscience I could choose any one of these plots that are in everybody’s novels and in nobody’s lives.”3 Despite John’s condescending perception on writing and the world, these melodramatic plots are less frauds and closer to reality, happening right behind his back. Gabrielle is, in fact, having the affair “all women of thirty-five have”4 with Dr. Bumpas, the man who takes care of John and Gabrielle’s housemaid Katie. Katie’s life is also far from mundane as she has been severely, and suspiciously,5 burned by boiling water. Beyond the burns of her skin, she actually suffers more from the weight of her conscience.6 She confides in Bumpas that it was her brother, an escaped convict she had been hiding in the house and feeding, that accidentally dropped the kettle of water she was using to clean his clothes. Katie’s brother has fled to Canada to escape a twelve-year sentence for “[f]orgeries and embezzlements and things.”7
The house’s story further contradicts John’s repudiation of the outlandish side of reality. Dr. Bumpas, who believes “Life’s full of plots,”8 reveals the thirty-year-old history of what is formally known as the Hamburton place. “There was an old father, rich, hateful, miserly, beard and everything. And he buried a lot of money under the floor or between the bricks […] There was a son and daughter he kept in rags […] And one night they meant to frighten him […] into releasing some money […] anyway he died in this very room.”9 The town’s people believe it and seem to hope the children got away with some money, even if they killed their father on purpose; for John, it is another hackneyed New England tale about killers returning to the scene of the crime.10 However, the fiction is not far from the truth as the brother and sister have indeed, at some point, returned in disguise. Mr. Graham, a reporter from out west, is interested in the house, but also in a Miss Buckingham who once stayed an evening with John and Gabrielle and has since gone to Australia or South America. When Bumpas departs to take care of patients who are “dying like flies”11 and John and Gabrielle go upstairs to assist Katie, Mr. Graham peaks below the carpet before exiting to the street.12
The play ends with the banal life John describes as reality. He and Gabrielle are back in the living room. Although John catches a break in his game of solitaire, he is doubtful he will leave the “standstill.”13 Gabrielle, peeking at his game, comments on his failure to “see all the moves” 14 to which John replies that he sees “all the moves that are to be seen.”15 They have returned to their vapid lives.
Such Things Only Happen in Books is seldom performed on stage compared to three of the other plays originally published in The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays In One Act (specifically, The Long Christmas Dinner, Pullman Car Hiawatha, and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden). Goldstone claims it “is the weakest play of the lot, and Wilder himself expunged it from a subsequent edition of the collected plays. It clearly lacks his stamp.”16 Goldstone attributes the absence of Wilder’s “stamp” in Such Things to its mirroring short plays by Susan Glaspell. In addition, the characters in Such Things have been described by Kuner as “not memorable.”17 Harrison thinks that the wit in Wilder’s “ironic” commentary on the character John doesn’t suffice as the play is overall “uninteresting.”18 However, despite Such Things being “bland,” Goldstein admits it is still a “high-sounding comedy.”19 Jason Zinoman’s review of a 2009 Keen Company production of the play attests to the humor, claiming, “it shows that Wilder, unlike the people behind this production, knew how to have a laugh.”20 Even if it is Wilder’s own version of a Glaspell play—the murder plot somewhat parallels Glaspell’s Trifles— “Wilder achieves a credible growth…[the characters] are at least believable….Best of all, the dialogue is quite different from Wilder’s earlier efforts; it sounds like the language of ordinary, everyday people. And it is speakable—actable.”21 Burbank also highlights the notion of Wilder’s growth as a writer in Such Things; it marks the moment when “[Wilder’s] works would henceforth have to deal more directly with life as he observed it.”22 The problem John faces in the play with struggling to find a plot for his novel is the same issue Wilder faces when writing realist plays. Kuner notes Wilder is doing this to “[poke] gentle fun at himself.”23
Aside from being among the less performed works of Wilder, the staging of the play contributes to one of the more stark differences from The Long Christmas Dinner, Pullman Car Hiawatha, and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, as Such Things incorporates a realistic set. The set reflects John’s “narrowness” because he is focused on what can come from what he can see rather than what could happen.24 Wheatley notes Wilder believed realistic scenery distracts the audience from the “commonalities” of a play.25 To John, his home is merely a house, not the scene of a murder, because it doesn’t seem probable that those events could have occurred within the walls around him. In his refusal to imagine the possibilities, he cannot believe or perceive the murder, the affair, or the escaped convict. Wheatley explains that Wilder’s struggle with theatrical realism derives from issues of representing the truth. “[T]heatrical realism fails for Wilder because it has lost the possible in the probable.”26 In other words, what happens on stage must not be entirely focused on whether an event will happen based on its premises because it distracts the audience from commonalities in the story that reveal truth about life and the human condition. Wheatley notes “[a] look under the surface aspects would reveal the repetition upon which the old stories are based and which maintains their dramatic validity.”27 Kuner also discusses Wilder’s experimentation with theatrical realism and the issues that arise with “commonalities” in Such Things through the concept that “people dismiss details because they do not appreciate their rich contribution to life.”28 Despite the idea of telling the same story over and over again as being ordinary, we see the truth in it because it is relatable and becomes validated. Goldstone claims, “[t]he idea reflects a slight variation on one of Wilder’s favorite notions: that the novelist has to invent stories because the plots and counterplots of real life are too incredible and complex for fiction, that the fictionist and playwright have to simplify and distill actual experience.”29 The stage becomes a way to digest life as it filters out the complexities of the story. Even though we may experience the same event, it is a personal experience with variations. When the variations are removed by the author, the clichés come out; however, the clichés are what we need in order to understand the initial experience.
Wilder’s battle with constructing a realist play is also examined through John’s philosophies and egoism. Goldstein states, “[a]lthough such things happen in [John’s] own household, he calmly goes through life without becoming aware of them, his own sense of superiority making it impossible for him to respond intelligently to daily events.”30 John’s belief that he will not get anywhere in the game of solitaire because of his past outcomes emphasizes John’s “superiority” complex blinding him. “The odds of winning future games of solitaire remain exactly the same no matter what the previous occurrences.”31 The focus on odds mirrors John’s outlook on life as he searches for a plot to write his book. He is looking for a probable plot and refuses to use what his wife, doctor, and house suggest because he believes that they are not plausible. “[H]is insistence on the probable keeps him from seeing the possible.”32 Whereas John believes “A plot breaks through about once in every twenty-one times,” there are at least three occurring simultaneously under his roof.33 In turn, “Wilder requests compassion [for John], because [he] is blind to the truth that life just as it is, is rich enough.”34 The truth is stranger than fiction.
20(Zinoman “Domesticity, Strait-Laced With Dry Wit”)
25(qtd in. Wheatley 143)
Burbank, Rex. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961. Print.
Goldstein, Malcolm. The Art of Thornton Wilder. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. Print.
Goldstone, Richard H. Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait. New York: E.P Dutton Co., Inc., 1975. Print.
Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983. Print
Kuner. M.C. Thornton Wilder: The Light and the Dark. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 1972. Print.
Wheatley, Christopher J. “Thornton Wilder, the Real, and Theatrical Realism.” Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition. Ed. William W. Demastes. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1996. 139-155. Print.
Wilder, Thornton. Such Things Only Happen in Books. Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays & Writings on Theater. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. New York: The Library of America, 2007. 121-128. Print.
Zinoman, Jason. “Domesticity, Strait-Laced With Dry Wit.” New York Times 159.54848 (2009): 3. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 June 2016.
For further discussions of Such Things Only Happen in Books, please visit the Bibliography.
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