The Long Christmas Dinner–nine decades long–showcases the lives of several generations of the Bayard family, and some of their Christmas dinners. Wilder breaks the boundaries of time as we measure it, and invites us to partake of “one long, happy Christmas dinner”-past, present and future. As generations appear, have children, wither and depart, only the audience appreciates what changes and what remains the same.
by Eric Specian
The Long Christmas Dinner was published in January 1931 along with five other plays collected in The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act. It was first performed on November 25, 1931, at the Yale University Theater in New Haven, Connecticut with three other one-acts from that book: Love, and How To Cure It; Such Things Only Happen in Books; and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden. In the opening stage directions, Wilder states, “Ninety years are to be traversed in this play which represents in accelerated motion ninety Christmas dinners in the Bayard household.”1 The passing years are represented with repetition of certain speeches about the Christmas sermon, the turkey, wine, the weather (“Every least twig is wrapped around with ice”2), illness, and the son needed for the family firm. The mundane dialogue is seasoned with interjections that are “small but significant ironic changes in the family’s fortunes.”3 As the play progresses, the actors act out their gradual aging. “Most of them carry wigs of white hair which they adjust upon their heads at the indicated moment, simply without comment. The ladies may have shawls concealed beneath the table that they gradually draw up about their shoulders as they grow older.”4 When it is time for them to die, they rise from the table and walk off right, which is “hung with black velvet” (the portal signifying death) while at left are “garlands of fruits and flowers”5 (the portal signifying birth). Family names are just as repetitious as the table talk. The following generations are named after their grandparents. The first Lucia and Roderick name their two children, a boy and a girl, after Mother Bayard (Genevieve), and Lucia’s father and grandfather Charles (whom Lucia would rather call Samuel). With this next generation, small shifts in values appear as Young Genevieve swears, “I shall never marry, Mother.”6 Charles leads Leonora on stage as his wife. Their first child does not live long as the nurse pushes the perambulator straight to the dark portal. Perhaps the play’s most poignant theme is revealed at this point: Lucia states, “Only time, only the passing of time can help in these things.”7 Lucia then suggests they invite Cousin Ermengarde to stay at the house. Soon after, Leonora and Charles have twins, Lucia (after her grandmother) and Samuel. “Time also seems to run according to debits and credits, as implied by the juxtaposition of two deaths, Lucia and Cousin Brandon, with the birth of twins.”8 Then their third child Roderick is born. There are a few moments when ailing characters near the dark portal but are brought back.
Where time was once cherished for its pace, the younger generations find it moves too slowly. In turn, characters begin to move out of the town and out of the country. “Great God, you gotta get drunk in this town to forget how dull it is. Time passes so slowly here that it stands still.”9 Samuel dies in war; Lucia hastily exits through the death portal. Alcoholism is suggested as the contributing factor to either Roderick’s or Cousin Brandon’s death: “[Roderick] (rising and starting toward the death portal) Statistics, ladies and gentlemen, show that we steady, moderate…”10 Genevieve exits via the door to “die abroad,”11 and Charles exits through the death portal. Leonora leaves the house to Cousin Ermengarde, now extremely old and alone on stage. She walks toward the death portal while reading a letter that Lucia’s grandchildren have been born. The play ends with this good news: “Dear little Roderick and little Lucia.”12
The Long Christmas Dinner has been described as “one of the shortest, and sweetest, theatrical meals in the repertory” for being such a simple and “pure idea.”13 Wilder’s treatment of time and how it is represented on stage are prevalent themes in critics’ discussions of the play. References to time are so recurrent that Kuner describes it as Wilder’s “obsession.”14 Castronovo notes, “The central conceit of the play…is perfectly fitted to Wilder’s conception of human ambitions set against the terrifying backdrop of time.”15 These themes started early in Wilder’s works and are carried throughout his career as a playwright and novelist. “Just as there are hints of the lapse of time, so are hints of the action itself. The method whereby gestures suggest actions—which was so familiar a part of his later play Our Town—is already present here.”16 These “hints of the lapse of time” and the actions that represent them are what mark the progressions made through the lives and society that surround the Bayard family. Dan describes the treatment of time in this one-act as “an ascending helix—like DNA, the basic component of our life—simultaneously moving back to the previous point and a new place.”17 Although progress is being made, the slight backward shifts generate the play’s “gradual progress.” While the town and the family’s wealth has evolved, the younger Roderick falls back as he is an alcoholic like his grandfather (Roderick) was. Wheatley describes this third generation as a reset button: “the family has started over again from scratch, and an empty house surrounded by factories is all that remains of their attempt to build a lasting presence.”18 Ironically, it is Genevieve who most embodies time and progress moving forward and backwards simultaneously. “Genevieve, the family historian, the character most aware of the passage of time, finds the past a burden rather than a source of comfort. She will attempt to escape time just as the rest of her family escapes place, and no one will remember the hopeful beginning of the house.”19 Her “escape” represents an evolution on old traditions; however, it furthermore marks the beginning of new traditions (repetitions) in a new house, which is specified by Lucia’s letter to Cousin Ermengarde. Lifton suggests that societal changes also act as a catalyst for the characters’ desires to leave: “the irresistible interplay of large social and economic forces that can irrevocably alter the environment and require that individuals adapt themselves, leave, or die.”20 The growth of the factories has caused an increase of pollution from which soot “comes through the very walls”21 of the house, an unfortunate effect of the family business’s development. Wilder’s use of repetitions, while perhaps monotonous, guides the reader philosophically: is it a play about progress and optimism, or is it about decay and entropy? Dan offers an explanation of the repetitions acting as “refrains.”22 As with music, the refrains stress the sameness from generation to generation, but also emphasize the variables from which progress and success derives. Paul Hindemith, composer, observed this musical quality of the play, for which he asked Wilder to write the libretto for the opera version of The Long Christmas Dinner he would compose. It would be performed March 13, 1963, in the Julliard Concert Hall at the Julliard School of Music, New York.
13Drake, Sylvie. “’Long Christmas Dinner’ Sweetens Holidays: STAGE REVIEW : Wilder’s ‘Long Christmas Dinner’ Sweetens the Holidays” Los Angeles Times 26 February 1988.
Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: Ungar Publishing Company, 1986. Print.
Dan, Hansong. To Realize the Universal: Allegory Narrative in Thornton Wilfer’s Plays and Novels. Bern: Peter Lang, 2012. Print.
Konkle, Lincoln. Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 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 Thronton Wilder. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 1995. Print.
Papajewski, Helmut. Thornton Wilder. Trans. John Conway. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1968. 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 Long Christmas Dinner.” McClatchy, J.D. Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays & Writings on Theater. New York: The Library of America, 2007. 61-79. Print.
by Jacobina Martin
The Long Christmas Dinner was first published as part of a collection of Thornton Wilder one-act plays on November 5, 1931 by Coward-McCann in New York. Initially produced, along with four other one-acts, at the Yale University theatre by the Yale Dramatic Association and the Vassar College Philatheis, it went on to licensed productions at Antioch College and New York. An operatic version with a libretto by Wilder and music composed by Paul Hindemith was first produced in Mannheim, Germany on December 12th, 1961 and was heard in America in March of 1963 at the Juilliard School of Music.
The Long Christmas Dinner dramatizes the lives of eleven members and four generations of the Bayard family over a ninety-year span of family Christmas dinners in the Bayard house. The first Christmas dinner is given Roderick and Lucia Bayard, who have recently purchased the house and who invite Roderick’s mother to celebrate the holiday with them. As the holiday tradition continues, Cousin Brandon, a heavy drinker, joins the group, Mother Bayard dies, Roderick prospers, and Roderick and Lucia have a son Charles and a daughter, Genevieve, named for Mother Bayard. Over a series of briefly dramatized dinners, the children enter their lives and grow up. Times change a bit. Roderick becomes sick, eventually dying from a drinking problem. Genevieve goes abroad to study music. Charles marries Leonora; the two of them have three children: the twins, Lucia and Samuel, as well as another son, Roderick. Samuel is killed in WWI, Lucia and Roderick leave town to seek their fortunes, and an elderly cousin, Ermengarde joins the Christmas table. The last dinner finds Ermengarde alone. She is reading a letter from Leonora, herself now an aging matriarch, preparing to go to the first Christmas dinner at the new home of her married children, who now expecting their first child. Thus, one family cycle is completed, and another one begins. At a different house.
The Long Christmas Dinner is astonishing in its stagecraft, the same simple, focused, and spare use of stage, scenery, and costume which Wilder developed brilliantly in other plays, such as Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. His use of the stage, the telescoping of time, the minimal use of props became Wilder’s theatrical trademark, influencing every playwright who followed him. Entrances and exits, set and props indicate the passage of time. The entrance, stage left, signifies a birth; the exit, stage right, a death. The entrance is decorated with garlands of flowers and fruits, signifying fertility; nurses and members of the Bayard family enter the stage through this door, usually with a baby in arms or pushing a carriage. The exit is hung with the black curtains of death; characters who exit through these curtains never return. A few characters are able, for a brief time, to cheat death. Roderick and Cousin Ermengarde, for example, head toward the door of death only to return moments later, indicating a temporary recovery. A third door, which leads to a hall, is neutral territory; exits and entrances to and from the hall indicate the passage of time. Although the audience can envision an elaborate Christmas spread on the holiday table, the stage directions dictate that the actors eat “imaginary food with imaginary knives and forks.”
The Long Christmas Dinner, like all of Wilder’s plays deals with multiple themes. Most importantly, the play is about family. Wilder shows his characters as they experience the universal family ritual of a holiday dinner. The dialogue throughout the generations is timeless and familiar, the good news, the bad news, the discussion of family issues, all the dailiness of all lives. As with his later play, Our Town, Wilder uses the small details of family life to represent its essence. Repetition, telescoped time, the use of similar names over the generations all show family life at its core.
Time is a second key theme. Time goes on, but slowly. Little changes. Three generations of Bayard mothers, all of whom lose a child, comment that, “Only the passing of time can help these things.” The family’s rebellious sons complain about the slowness and dullness of small town life. Their observations are in sharp contrast to the short length of the play: events pass in stage time. Family life encompasses generations of families; a brief play can sharpen our perception of this truth by the speed of its pacing. The minimalist set design and meager props also remind the audience that it is witnessing theater, but that theater can represent life at its most universal.
The Long Christmas Dinner speaks to all generations. It is a simple, profound reminder of what is important. Holiday dinners bring families together in one place for shared food and conversation. Although family members come and go over time, the family remains constant. Our own tradition and the artifice of the theater keep these truths alive.
For further discussions of The Long Christmas Dinner, please visit the Bibliography.
[ Back to Works ]