The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden

The Collected Short Plays of Thornton Wilder Volume I

Place premiered: Yale University Theater New Haven, Connecticut, November 25, 1931
Type: Short Play

A father, mother and two of their three surviving children drive from Newark, New Jersey to Camden to visit their married daughter, who has recently lost her baby in childbirth. Their journey is punctuated by talk, laughter, memories (some mundane, some happy, some painful), and appreciation of the Now – ham and eggs, flowers, family, sunsets and the joy of being alive. In this family drama, nothing much happens-and yet everything important happens.

by Eric Specian

Plot Summary

The action of The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden is as mundane as anything in Wilder’s famous play Our Town: a family car trip occurs on a bare stage. Yet the ordinary is only the setting for an investigation of extraordinary existential issues. The Stage Manager, although never directly addressing the audience as do the Stage Manager characters of Our Town and Pullman Car Hiawatha, performs the roles of minor characters, reading directly from the script and “with little attempt at characterization.”1 Ma (Kate) Kirby is tying up all the loose ends before she and her family depart from their home in Newark, New Jersey, to visit her daughter Beulah (age 22) in Camden, New Jersey. Ma asks the Stage Manager (as Mrs. Schwartz) to give the cat milk while the Kirbys are away and divulges the reason for their trip: “My married daughter was downright sick a while ago […] I just want to go down and see the child.”2 Elmer, the father, returns from having the car checked for the trip. Caroline Kirby (age 15) and Arthur Kirby (age 13) follow their parents through their invisible house toward the car. “The STAGE MANAGER has moved forward four chairs and a low platform. This is the automobile. It is in the center of the stage and faces the audience.3 As Elmer pantomimes driving the car, the rest of the Kirbys “break out into a tremendous chorus of goodbyes” to their neighbors.4

As the family drives, they appreciate getting out of the city. “The air’s getting better already. Take deep breaths, children.”5 In Elizabeth, New Jersey, they stop for a funeral procession to pass by. Here, it is revealed that there was a sixth member of the Kirby family, Harold, who “gave his life for his country.”6

The Kirbys pass through New Brunswick, and the children’s attention is drawn to various billboard ads which provoke laughter, questions, and lessons. The discussion shifts to Ma Kirby’s cooking. She has cooked every day for twenty-five years except for the few times they went out. Arthur asks if he can take a newspaper route; after Ma says no because he needs the sleep God intended him to get, he gives a sarcastic reply. Ma tells Elmer to give Arthur a dollar so he can go back to Newark alone because she does not want to be on a journey with anyone who talks in such a manner about God. Elmer says he will talk to him later. The family rides in silence.

Elmer decides to stop to put water in the car. The Stage Manager plays the role of the gas attendant without the script in his hand. Ma strikes up a conversation with him, volunteering where they are from, where they are going, and why. As in an earlier episode, Caroline takes issue with her mother’s candor, saying, “you oughtn’t to tell’m all everything about yourself,”7 but Ma remains generous: “He looked kinda thin to me. I’d like to feed him up a few days.”8

Talking about food makes the rest of the family hungry, so Elmer pulls off the road and sends Arthur to get hot dogs. Ma picks a flower for Beulah despite Caroline telling her it is a weed. She then takes a moment to reflect on the scenery. “My, look at the sky, wouldya! I’m glad I was Born in New Jersey. I’ve always said it was the best state in the Union.”9 Arthur returns holding imaginary hot dogs and apologizes to Ma about his previous wisecrack for which she forgives him. The children start crying, and Ma becomes “joyously alive and happy.”10 They get back into the car and she sits next to Arthur.

They quickly pass through Lawrenceville and Trenton. The family discusses the population of the United States (126 million according to Elmer). Arthur starts singing and the family follows until Ma sees the sign for Camden. She briefs the children on how they should behave because Beulah “just got out of bed after a big sorta operation, and we must all move around kinda quiet.”11 Ma instructs Elmer and Arthur to drop Caroline and her off then return for dinner. The family is impressed by Camden. Ma claims how Beulah’s current street is nicer than the one she and her husband Horace previously lived on, and Caroline is under the impression that her sister is richer than they are, but Ma’s self-worth is not based on money. “[Ma Kirby:] I live in the best street in the world because my husband and children live there.”12 After they all greet Beulah, Pa and Arthur drive to the Y.M.C.A where they will be spending the night, and Caroline runs off to see a surprise for her in the back yard. Ma is finally alone with her adult daughter.

Soon after, the dialogue quickly reveals to the audience the real reason Ma Kirby needed to see her child:
BEULAH (Puts her head on her mother’s shoulder and weeps): It was awful, mama. It was awful. She didn’t even live a few minutes, mama. It was awful.
MA (looking far away): God thought best, dear. God thought best. We don’t understand why. We just go on, honey, doin’ our business.13
Their conversation turns from the death of Beulah’s baby to what they will have for dinner. Beulah is still her mother’s little girl as she does not want Ma to leave her side. Ma tells Beulah to rest and walks down the “stairs” singing the first verse of “The Ninety and Nine” by Elizabeth C. Clephane.14 The play ends with a curtain fall.

Critical Analysis

The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden is just as much a character sketch, as suggested by the working title The Portrait of a Lady, as it is about a journey. “This is a glancing reference to the novel by Henry James and probably also to the poems by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; but because Wilder’s play is so different, it is almost as though he were saying that theirs were not the only kinds of lady.”15 Wilder’s lady endures, as Castronovo notes, in regards to how “better minds” would treat “the problems of human misery,”16 for Ma Kirby upholds unconditional faith in God knowing what is best, and has confidence in the goodwill of humanity as she readily tells strangers about details of her personal life. She is a conventional woman as “[s]he makes a fuss over trifles and treats her children in a strict way”17 when her son cannot find his hat18 or her daughter appears to be wearing make-up.19 Although she can be hard on her children, wishing to send her son Arthur home for making a sarcastic remark about God, her indelible piety, judgment, and morality are justifiable. “Ma has earned her right to dictate behavior to her children; her hard work and devotion cement the family bond.”20 Even when the play shifts toward a morbid tone as they let a funeral procession pass, she draws the family’s attention away from the thought of their son Harold who died in World War I and teaches them that death is nothing to be afraid of. Since “her world has order and purpose, Ma can accept pain even if she cannot understand it, and her family can accept it because she does.”21 Elmer, Caroline, and Arthur see she bears the loss of Harold, and Beulah sees her mother’s strength in accepting her granddaughter didn’t survive after she was born; Ma’s “simple faith sustains her, gives her courage, and keeps her family going.”22

Wilder combines plain speech with a non-realist stage in order to develop characters that would otherwise be perceived as banal. Because of the absence of scenery, “the commonplace in such [clichéd] speech is returned to its pristine truth, as though it were being uttered for the first time, and the simple truth of family living is given new life.”23 Without a set or stage props, the audience must rely on the dialogue to inform them where the play takes place; however, in doing so Wilder has prevented “the audience from identifying those naturalistic vernaculars with their geographical origins”24 as it is up to the audience to imagine the scenery which is dictated by the dialogue, not the stage or pronunciation. For example, Ma Kirby pronounces human like “yew-man.”25 The Stage Manager’s presence also effectively contributes to the portraits with his lack of characterization of minor characters. “[T]he Stage Manager interrupts from time to time and reminds us that they are only actors performing a role. It is this device of placing them at a distance that keeps them from sounding sentimental or uninteresting.”26 His flat delivery of lines highlights the dialogue as a representation of reality. It is a reminder that the characters are portraying something real, and this blending of everyone and everyplace contributes to the portrait of the “Everyfamily.” Wilder’s characters are real but are also “idealized into types: Mother, Father, Daughter, and Son.”27 They are, therefore, unique and familiar simultaneously.

Even though much of the play’s focus is on Ma Kirby, it is, after all, a journey. “Wilder’s people dignify the ordinary because they discover permanent truths about their world…A car trip becomes an occasion for cosmic recognitions… To begin with, Wilder’s journey causes his people to wonder [about the world].’”28 The “cosmic” aspects of the play develop from the geographically diverse parts of New Jersey they drive through; what becomes essential is what happens on the way to Beulah’s house. Each of the distractions causes at least one member of the family to think, be it about death, food, religion, the population, or family. In doing so, Wilder reveals the benefits of taking a trip every now and then. “[T]he Kirby family’s delighted awareness of the geography through which they pass seems to strengthen the ties binding them to each other and their home state.”29 Although the geography is not represented on stage, it is through pantomime and the dialogue that the audience comes to know the journey’s benefits—to fix our mistakes when we offend other family members and to take in the fresh air. So despite discovering the reason behind the journey being grim, Burbank notes, “[t]he journey to Camden is a happy one, paradoxically, because these unimportant events are important, being by implication significant events in a meaningful cosmology process.”30 There would be no macrocosm without the microcosmic events leading up to it. Being aware of the smaller events allows the Kirbys, particularly Ma, to appreciate the macrocosmic picture, and the journey is the medium to do so. Through death, life becomes appreciated; through death, the magnificent complexities behind the world are contemplated; through death, an entire family is brought together.


1Wilder 129.
2Ibid 130.
3Ibid 132.
7Wilder 137.
10Wilder 138.
11Wilder 139.
12Wilder 141.
13Wilder 142.
14McClatchy 844
15(Haberman 103)
16(Castronovo 75)
17(Dan 131)
18(Wilder 129)
19(Ibid 131)
20(Wheatley 122)
21(Wheatley 122)
22(Burbank 69)
23(Haberman 104)
24(Dan 132)
25(Wilder 134)
26(Kuner 105)
27(Konkle 105)
28(Castronovo 74, 75)
29(Lifton 59)
30(Burbank 68)


Burbank, Rex. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne Publisher, Inc, 1961. Print.

Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: Ungar, 1986. Print.

Dan, Hansong. To Realize the Universal: Allegory Narrative in Thornton Wilder’s Plays and Novels. Bern: Peter Lang, 2012. Print.

Haberman, Donald. The Plays of Thornton Wilder: A Critical Study. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1967. Print.

Konkle, Lincoln. Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition. Columbia: University of Missouri, 2006. Print.

Kuner, M.C. Thornton Wilder: The Bright and the Dark. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972. Print.

Lifton, Paul. “Vast Encyclopedia”: The Theatre of Thornton Wilder. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 1995. Print.

Wheatley, Christopher J. Thornton Wilder & Amos Wilder: Writing Religion in Twentieth-century America. Notre Dame: Univeristy of Notre Dame, 2011. Print.

Wilder, Thornton. “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden.” McClatchy, J.D. Thornton Wilder Collected Plays & Writings on Theater. New York: The Library of America, 2007. 129-143. Print.

Wilder, Thornton. Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. New York: Library of America, 2007. Print.

Further Commentary
by Jacobina Martin

First published as part of a collection of one-acts on November 5, 1931 and produced by the Yale Dramatic Association and the Vassar College Philalethis at the Yale University Theatre on November 25, 1931, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden is a prime example of Thornton Wilder’s studies of the American middle class family. In this play, we see a proto-typical American family, the Kirbys, as they undertake a proto- typical American family ritual: the car trip. At curtain’s rise, the family prepares to visit Beulah, their “married daughter,” (a phrase that the mother, Ma Kirby, uses frequently and with obvious pride) who lives in Camden. As they get ready to leave, each member of the family engages in routine last-minute preparations: Caroline, the younger daughter, says good-bye to her friends; Arthur, the son, looks for his lost hat; Elmer, the father, checks the car one last time; and Ma Kirby gives the neighbors instructions on how to look after the house while they are gone. Finally, they set off on their trip.

Although the Kirby family group might seem unexceptional, they are distinguished by the fact that they possess a resident Stage Manager, who, like Wilder’s other Stage Managers, in Pullman Car Hiawatha and Our Town, orchestrates and participates in the play’s events. He organizes their trip, playing the various folk the Kirbys know or meet on their journey, a neighbor at one moment, a gas station attendant at another.

The Stage Manager and lack of scenery help reinforce our feeling that, in viewing this car trip, we are witnessing quintessential family life at its most daily moments. Even the trip itself appears uneventful. The family stops only twice: once to wait for a funeral procession to pass and once to stop at a gas station, making sure that they are headed in the right direction. During the journey, the two younger children chat and joke. The adolescent Arthur tests the limits of propriety, insensitively joking about his mother’s close relationship with God. Ma, “outraged,” asks Arthur to get out of the car but relents when her husband Elmer intervenes diplomatically. Yet in the general cheer of talk, food and song, leavened by such testiness, there are undertones of real distress: the Kirby’s older son Harold has been killed in the war, and their daughter Beulah, whom they are going to visit, has been ill in the hospital.

At last, they arrive at Beulah’s house. After the family members make their plans, Ma and Beulah are left to discuss the reason for the visit: the death, at birth, of Beulah’s infant daughter, “not living even a few minutes.” Ma is Beulah’s solace, her strength and sustenance. Ma, who has herself lost a son, comforts her daughter, who has just lost a child. Ma is, for Beulah, for her family, and for us in the audience, the spirit of life and hope, knowing that family and God provide the bulwark we need to face life’s tragedies. She is a living model of dealing with grief by meeting life’s practical needs: eating, cleaning, and organizing life’s trip. As the play ends, Ma gets the chicken from the oven, makes sure that there are ham and eggs for breakfast, and sings a hymn of comfort. The family has faced this sorrow as it has others. It will survive to meet other grief another day. Today, they are together.

Wilder uses the venerable metaphor of a family trip to represent our journey through life. The Kirby’s trip is a small one, but it is filled with all that is important for American families. The family members are close, bantering, occasionally willful or distressed; they have experienced sadness and loss, but they live in the present. The journey has its short stops, to observe death, to take stock, and to make sure of its direction. But the journey continues to its destination, where a life has been lost, but family life goes on. The journey is happy because it continues. The play is comic in the root sense that life and community are affirmed; a death can not stop the on-going value of life.

Wilder saw Ma Kirby as the play’s center and expressed concern that amateur productions might play her with too much sentimentality. She is, in Wilder’s words, “a testimonial of homage to the average American mother who brings up her children as instinctively as a bird builds its nest and whose strength lies in the fact that whatever stresses arrive from the circumstances of life, she strives to maintain an atmosphere of forward-looking industry and readiness.” He added, “We are in an age when men rally round an experienced and authoritative woman,” most probably alluding to his own family and his own close relationship with his mother. Although father Elmer Kirby voices moderation and diplomacy, it is Ma Kirby who is the voice of family authority, bringing spiritual values into their lives and showing strength in times of adversity.

Wilder commented that Our Town, “is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” The same may be said about Happy Journey, in which Wilder examines the importance of American family life, its joys and sadnesses, beginnings and ends. The Kirbys display an abiding good humor and cheer, but they have also faced enormous losses, first in their son’s death, then in their granddaughter’s. These tragedies are with us in every generation. The journey to Trenton and Camden is the metaphorical journey of all our lives, made up of the accumulation of small events and pleasures which give us the fortitude to face life’s large and painful moments and go forward.

Surely, Wilder discouraged a sentimental interpretation of the last moments of the play to reinforce this point. Ma Kirby sings to keep family spirit alive in the present, acknowledging but not dwelling on past loss. We must move on; the alternative is unacceptable. As Ma Kirby says to her grieving daughter, “God thought best. We don’t understand why. We just go on, honey, doin’ our business.” And in the next breath, “Well, now, what are we giving the men to eat tonight?”

For further discussions of The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, please visit the Bibliography.

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