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Long Christmas Dinner by Thornton Wilder

Long Christmas Dinner

by Thornton Wilder

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12 Books of Christmas

#5 Time

Christmas stories proliferate. Christmas songs keep growing in number. Even Christmas movies – even ones you might list as all-time favorites without embarrassment – may be in the double digits by now (Scrooge, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street. The Christmas Gift, Winter Wonderland, Holiday Inn, and from tv, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and maybe The Nightmare Before Christmas and National Lampoon Christmas Vacation.

But what, please tell me, is the best Christmas play? Now that’s a tough question, isn’t it?

I can think of only one – a short one-act play, first published in 1931; but it is good enough to make up for all the rest that are missing. It is Thornton Wilder’s Long Christmas Dinner. It was first published in a little book of one-act plays, well before Wilder achieved a dramatist’s fame with Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, and shortly after his masterful novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey had brought him to the attention of the reading public. I also have a little paperback edition (Avon, 1980), introduced by the theater historian, critic, and anthologist John Gassner.

“Time is telescoped in The Long Christmas Dinner,” he says, “so that ninety years of family life flow through the play without interruption in a sequence of merging scenes.”

The conversation at Christmas dinner goes on and on. “Have a little more white meat.” “Such a good sermon.” “. . . is suffering from his rheumatism.” “I never told her how wonderful she was.” Babies in perambulators are wheeled in through the flowery door at the extreme left; actors age before us and depart quietly through a black velvet portal to their right. In some twenty minutes we experience the lives of three generations of the Bayard family. The dialogue and the action are perfectly simple, perfectly natural, cheerful but sometimes sad.

“Sh, mother. . . . You mustn’t be depressed.”
“But sad things aren’t the same as depressing things. I must be getting old; I like them.”
“Uncle Brando, . . . . some cranberry sauce.”

As Gassner says in his introduction, “. . . the author’s imaginative management of time is simple and persuasive. We feel as though we be floating in the flux of life and time itself, in a broad and never-ending stream which is both ‘real’ and ‘unreal.’ We move ahead and are nevertheless becalmed by the sameness of the things that ultimately matter most to us, the quotidian realities that underlie the course of nations and even the ardors and endurances of men and women celebrated in history, saga, and high tragedy. And the marvel is that this effect of simplicity was achieved by the author with some of the most sophisticated strategies of dramaturgy within the competence of modern theatrical art.”

“Is she actually in pain dear?”
“Oh, she says it’ll be the same in a hundred years!”
“Yes, she’s a brave little stoic.”
“Come now, a little white meat, Mother? – Mary, pass my cousin’s plate.”

I first saw this play performed – and you must see it performed to truly appreciate it – by an amateur group at a Unitarian Universalist Church. It was as effective as if it had been done by professional actors on Broadway.

Wilder’s writing works that way.

“A play is what takes place,” Wilder explained. “A novel is what one person tells us took place. A play visibly represents pure existing.”

Plays are pretensions, he insisted, but the reality represented on the stage is “a series of signs which the spectator interpret[s] and remember[s] in his own mind.” That’s the way it was in the Greek theater; that’s the way it still is today.

There are five different – very different – plays in this little book. Long Christmas Dinner is the first one: The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden is the last. Both illustrate Wilder’s remaking of American drama. Read them; see them; perform them. ( )
  bfrank | Dec 28, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0897325303, Paperback)

Trekking the Appalachian Trail is no longer the solitary experience it once was. Backpackers and hikers looking for less crowded outdoor experience should grab Long Trails of the Southeast to discover the many opportunities available in the Deep South. This guide covers 600 miles of trails in 6 states, including the 104-mile Pinhoti Trail, the 90-mile Benton Mackaye Trail, and 171 miles of the Florida Trail. Each trail is divided into segments, with at-a-glance information offering details on length, trail condition, high-points, difficulty, tips, and trailhead directions. Vivid trail reports tell readers just what they will see along the way. Finally, the Trail Notes provide mile-by-mile descriptions of the entire trail, including road crossings, water sources, shelters, provisioning possibilities, and more. Whether hiking a trail in one outing or knocking it off in sections, hiking enthusiasts will be glad to have Long Trails of the Southeast a part of their library.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:48 -0400)

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